The Reading Life With James A. Cobb, Jr. And Ramon Antonio Vargas

Aug 27, 2013

This week on The Reading Life: Lawyer James A. Cobb, Jr., author of Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy. We’ll also hear from Ramon Antonio Vargas, author of Fight, Grin and Squarely Play the Game: The 1945 Loyola New Orleans Basketball Championship and Legacy. And Susan has a few thoughts on the Katrina books this season.

Books featured:

  • Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy, by James A. Cobb, Jr. Pelican Publishing.
  • Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. Crown Publishers.
  • Second Line Rescue: Improvised Responses to Katrina and Rita, edited by Barry Jean Ancelet, Marcia Gaudet, and Carl Lindahl. University Press of Mississippi.

It’s that time of year again — time for remembering and looking forward, measuring how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. Hurricane season always brings its memories of Katrina, and books come along with those memories. This year, the books are rich and varied.

Two will strike raw nerves and are sure to be talked about. If reading can be a harrowing experience — and I think it can — prepare to be horrified. Today’s guest, Jim Cobb Jr., recounts one of the big stories of eight years ago in Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy, in which 35 elderly residents died in a St. Bernard nursing home in the flood. Owners Sal and Rita Mangano were eventually acquitted after charges were brought against them, and Cobb tells his version of those events, along with his own story of evacuation, loss and return. No matter how you feel about the outcome of that case, Cobb’s book deftly illuminates the way the legal system was shattered and the way the media machine rolled on like a juggernaut in those days.

Sheri Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the crisis at Memorial Medical Center after Katrina, and now she’s composed a riveting full-length, moment-by moment account of those times in Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, due out in early September. In painstaking detail, she shows us how one of our large medical institutions struggled to maintain order and provide care after the storm, and how rescue efforts failed again and again. Along the way, she also gives us a guided tour of medical bureaucracy, the brutal realities of a hospital without power, surrounded by water, as well as the harsh truths of triage. It is a commonplace to praise nonfiction for reading “like a novel,” but the horrors of Fink’s book will ring all too true for those of us who know the chaos that ensues when basic services are stripped away.

One book does have a truly joyful and uplifiting side — you can tell by the title. That’s Second Line Rescue: Improvised Responses to Katrina and Rita, edited by Barry Jean Ancelet, Marcia Gaudet, and Carl Lindahl. I loved this book. I was moved and shaken by it, as readers are by all the best stories. As folklorists, Ancelet, Gaudet and Lindahl knew that what would remain long after Katrina and Rita were stories. They set about collecting them with all their skill as folklorists, with Lindahl focusing on New Orleans West — that’s Houston, of course.

The writers share stories of improvised responses like that of the Cajun Navy — and the photos of all those boats heading toward New Orleans is enough to lift the heart of anyone. They concentrate as well on individuals.

In an interview with Glenn Miguez, who rescued stranded residents in Delcambre after Hurricane Rita, Barry Ancelet asks him “Did anybody you had picked up contact you?

And Miguez replies. “Yeah. Everybody. They were saying ‘You’re a hero.’ I’m not a hero. I was just doing what I had to do. You know what I mean? Not a hero. They said, ‘You didn’t have to do that.’ I know I didn’t have to, but somebody had to do it. It was there to do. And I’d do it again. I hope I don’t have to, but I’d do it again.”

One of the fascinating stories is the way the Atchafalaya Welcome Center was devoted to relief efforts, providing food and shelter and rudimentary medical care. Perhaps no one describes the emotional complexities of that time better than Lt. Nick Breaux of the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Department. He said, "I’ve never cried so many type tears in my life.”

Folklore serves to remind us of our common humanity, and several themes emerge in the stories collected in Second Line Rescue: the power of individual action to make a difference, the courage of folks under incredible stress, the generosity of individuals, the shared power of food and faith, the need to give to others, and the way the expression of gratitude lingers long after the fact. This book is a real testament to the power of our stories, to move us beyond ourselves, into the future. The authors tell us, “But those who think they know Katrina and Rita are sadly mistaken. We’ve only just met,” they write, reminding us of the lingering problems and all that is left to learn.

The words of community activist Glenda Jones Stevenson Harris, who died in 2010, may say it best: “I know that my responsibility is to go back and build New Orleans back again, Because for all its problems of high crime, for all of its problems of poverty, for all of its problems of political corruption, for all of its problems of a failing school system, it was still the city that people cared about. It was still a city that people who loved, loved hard.”

And we still do, Miss Harris. We still do.