Friday, August 21, 2009

Hurricane Katrina and Sloppy Errors in the New York Times Book Review

I guess with the increase in corrections in the New York Times, spotting errors isn't hard, but getting the date and details wrong on Hurricane Katrina is pretty egregious. Yes, its just in the Sunday NYT Book Review of Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, but saying that
"Katrina hits on Sunday, Aug. 28 2005" and that "[i]t's a Category 5 storm..."
as reviewer Timothy Egan does, is like talking about the 9/10 Terrorist Attacks.

Yeah, OK, on Sunday those still in town were definitely feeling the effects of Katrina, but it didn't make landfall until Monday morning; though that's the correct meteorological meaning of "hit", we can let that one slide. But though Katrina had been a Cat5 storm, it was down to a Cat3 by the time it made landfall in Louisiana; Egan just plain got that wrong in his review. (The Saffir-Simpson scale categories are based solely on wind speed; though Katrina's winds had decreased when it came ashore, it still packed a record storm surge and was one of the largest hurricanes ever. Maybe Egan and his editors just .... know, no excuse for this sloppiness, but OK - it was a powerful, big damn storm, Cat5 or not.)

Perhaps these are only things that locals would care about, but in what sounds like perhaps the best book about Katrina so far (haven't read it myself yet), and even perhaps the best book that Eggers has written out of his entire oeuvre, I think these oversights only serve to sour us in New Orleans on this otherwise great review. We're perfectly willing to forgive his sloppiness in specifying what neighborhood the Zeitoun family lived in (a lot of us can't keep some of those straight), but for us, 8/29 is just as evocative of the date our tragedy took place as 9/11 is for the entire country.

But what is unforgivable is the dilettantesque mistake that the reviewer makes in attributing New Orlean's deluge to just the shear force of nature. In describing the second day after the storm, Egan says:
"Day 2, the world changes. Zeitoun wakes to a sea of water, after the levees have been overtopped. He’s neck-deep in a city of a thousand acts of desperation."
If the New York Times and the rest of the country has forgotten that the catastrophic flooding wasn't due to Katrina overtopping the levees, but to the failure and breeching of the levees due to their improper design and construction, then we've learned nothing and made no progress in how we allocate resources and plan for risks such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters. (On the other hand, Eggers, apparently, gets it right - the local reviews and discussions of the book I've seen would definitely mention it if he had botched that critical point.)

So this Sunday I'm look for a big, fat, kiss-ass apology to New Orleans in the New York Times Book Review.

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