“Zeitoun” is named for the family at the center of the storm in 2005, the Hurricane Katrina, that struckNew Orleans and surrounding regions with deadly force and in its wake left 1,836 people dead and nearly $81 B worth of property damage. The book begins slow with the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a middle-aged Syrian-American, married to Kathy whose roots were Southern Baptist but had adopted Islam, and their four children. Zeitouns operated a successful painting and contracting firm, living a simple life following simple rules like “pay the laborer his wages, before his sweat dries” and just as the ship needs a captain to navigate the challenging sea waters, so also one needs guidance from the almighty to navigate through the challenges of life.
The book begins with a slow account of gradually rising anxiety level, among the people in New Orleans, concerning the storm warnings. A few people like Abdulrahman, prepare to hunker down and wait out the storm and guard their properties, and many others prepare to leave the city. Kathy leaves the city with her children and ends up staying with a childhood friend in Phoenix. She begged her husband to leave but he refuses saying he needs to guard the fort and his business inventory and offices. Katrina hits the city with full force on Monday, August 29th, 2005, the day after mandatory evacuation order. It was a Category 5 storm. Zeitoun paddles aroundNew Orleans in his canoe for a week, an angel of mercy, he feeds the dogs, helps rescue people, distributes food, and sleeps in his tent on the roof, at nights. His wife keeps begging him to leave the city, with reports of disease outbreaks and armed looters flooding the media. Zeitoun feels it was his calling to rise up to the occasion and help the stranded animals and people.
But within a week, he sensed less of a need to remain in the city and is thinking that the time might have come for him to leave. He is in his home, with 3 other men, when six armed officers show up at his house. He thinks they are there to help him, and he is thinking of pointing them to people and dogs in need of assistance, when the story takes a sharp turn. Zeitoun and the 3 men are taken away at gunpoint. After days when Zeitoun goes missing, his brother in Spain and his wife try to track him down and then she begins to assume that he is dead. His entire family of several siblings and their children maintain continuous communication among themselves. Meanwhile Zeitoun and the men are picked up for looting and then Zeitoun and his friend, the two Syrian Americans are presumed to be terrorists. They are subjected to obscene and humiliating exams, locked in a cage, and then a prison, without being charged with anything and without being allowed one phone call to the outside world, including to his wife. Zeitoun was imprisoned for 23 days, without a trial and without being formally charged. And yet, Zeitoun was fortunate in having his ordeal cut short due to aggressive efforts by his wife in the US and by his brother from Spain. Others were held for several months.
Eggers began the process of writing this book in 2005, when, after Hurricane Katrina, a team of volunteers spread out all across the affected areas to collect testimonies to illuminate human rights crisis. They interviewed residents about their lives before, during, and after the storm. The Zeitouns’ ordeal stuck a chord with Eggers and he conducted a three year process of interviews including talking with extended Zeitoun clan in Syria, Spain, as well as the arresting officers, Lima and Gonzales.
In addition to Zeitoun, scores of other citizens were arrested for petty theft of food and other items, including an 80 year old woman arrested for stealing food that she was taking out of her own car. Many were not charged. Some were charged and bail was set that far exceeded any previous bail set for petty theft. The prisoners received no medical attention, were routinely pepper sprayed for minor and made up offenses, and were held in crowded outdoor prison. And yet this impromptu constructed prison of cages in the greyhound parking lot, was elaborate, complex, vast, with a grid of chain-link fencing, and without walls, and was well equipped with guards and MRE meals for all the guards and prisoners. There was efficiency in action, even while the citizens of New Orleans and surrounding regions were waiting for days for transportation, food, and medical care. Based on the accounts from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, the media had widely reported that the body count at the Superdome would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war; that little babies were getting raped; and people were killed at gun point. Majority of these reports turned out to be false. There were no mass murders (total no. that died at the Superdome was around 10 and none of them were murders), no rapes or beatings. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that what transpired at the behest of the key military and law enforcement people, could ever happen in this great nation, the United States of America. We can only compare the response by the Japanese Government, officials, and people to tsunami, the natural disaster of far greater magnitude, to strike Japan. In this book, two big Bush era policy disasters, the War on Terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina collide with each other, as multiple dimensions of one family’s extreme ordeal is woven together with the lack of efficiency, humanity, and compassion on the part of many in the law enforcement, whose very job was to protect and help the people struck by this enormous natural disaster.