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Horne Writes About Katrina

By Casey N. Cep, Crimson Staff Writer

They say with crisis comes opportunity. For Jed Horne ’70, crisis came swirling in dangerous winds and swelling in drowning waves on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005.

Horne was not actually in New Orleans the moment Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast. He had been in Mexico as the storm approached and hurried to return, reaching southern Louisiana just hours after the storm had past.

As city editor for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Horne led the paper’s coverage of Katrina, helping the paper win two Pulitzer Prizes—one for public service and one for breaking news.

Now, almost a year later, he has published a book titled “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City” that tracks the disaster’s human triumphs—and its institutional failures.

Arriving on the scene last August, what he found was a scene of near-total devastation. As the levees around New Orleans failed, The Times-Picayune’s newsroom quickly flooded.

“The water was not receding, but rising,” Horne says. “[We] piled everyone into the circulation trucks and just barely got out.”

Horne rallied his news team in Baton Rouge, where they started printing on borrowed printing presses since their own were trapped in floodwaters. Covering the hurricane, he says, was “fascinating, challenging, [and] sometimes horrifying.”

Within a week of Hurricane Katrina, Random House contacted him about writing a book on what he calls “the non-military story of the postwar era.”

His book, Horne says, describes how “the story [of Katrina] rivals the significance of the whole drama of civil rights,” though he is quick to point out “it happened in a few months rather than in a few decades.”

The writing regimen was at times both “tough” and “brutal,” as Random House urged him to finish the book in time for the one-year anniversary of Katrina.

Horne says he spent most of January “holed up in Mississippi in a little cabin” writing, even as his deadline was moved up when other books on Katrina started to appear in bookstores.

And there were many other books, including Douglas Brinkley’s “The Great Deluge,” Michael E. Dyson’s “Come Hell or High Water,” and Ivor van Heerden’s “The Storm,” among others. But Horne’s book has received its fair share of praise, and has been called “the best of the Katrina books thus far” by National Public Radio.

“Breach of Faith” is compiled from interviews with over 130 individuals. Its 400 pages, Horne says, “are less interested in heroics than in coming to understand the everyman’s experience of the storm.”

Horne says that within a few weeks of Hurricane Katrina, he had decided that it was “a man-made disaster.” He even considered titling his book “Unnatural Disaster.”

“Katrina was really the first full test of Homeland Security and it failed stunningly and astonishingly,” he says.

And while he calls the performance of the federal government “absolutely, outrageously flawed,” Horne says he still believes in the future of New Orleans.

With tax credits and federal aid now pouring into the city, Horne says, “New Orleans could be on the cusp of another boom.”

Horne, who was a member of The Advocate at Harvard, says his time at Harvard prepared him for the challenges of Katrina because the civil unrest of the late sixties prepared him for “reporting on anarchy, chaos, disintegration, and failures of leadership” in New Orleans.

Horne started as a journalist while at Harvard. During his senior year he freelanced for The Boston Phoenix, and subsequently moved on to Time, Inc. And after writing for People, LIFE, Quest, and The Village Voice, he made the transition from magazines to newspapers with a job at The Kingston Daily Freeman in Ulster County, New York.

He got his start at the Times-Picayune in 1998 when he and his wife, Jane D. Wholey, moved to New Orleans’ French Quarter and he took a job as a night editor for the paper.

Horne has published one other book, “Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans,” which chronicles the trials and eventual exoneration of Curtis Kyles, who was wrongly convicted of the 1984 murder of Delores Dye.

—Staff writer Casey N. Cep can be reached at cep@fas.harvard.edu.

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