Book Review: Category 5 The Story Of Camille by Ernest Zebrowski & Judith A. Howard

‘That’s funny,’ I thought as I began to open the University of Michigan press package. I knew what it was, my copy of Alice Rothchild’s Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, but there was something off, the package was too big. A curious frown on my face I dug out the expected paper back, set it down, and looked inside to find a second book with a letter.

It was from Mary, the lady with whom I keep in touch regarding book reviews. She had sent me a second book, suggesting that given the events of Katrina a few years earlier, I might find this particular volume interesting.

Category 5 stood out in large, blaring letters like a warning sign, bold and refusing to be ignored and still only a slight hint at what the reader could expect to find hidden between the book’s covers.

I read an awful lot of academic books it seems, and one thing they all have in common is a certain measure of sterility, a kind of scholastic detachment as though attempting to approach the subject at hand from the most objective viewpoint possible. Further, there is a kind of laser like focus on many of these works that all but ignores everything outside a very small and refined area of study.

It is in its aberrations from the norm that makes Category 5 such an astonishingly good read. It is organic in its make up, rich, and detailed and amorphous, at one point taking on the guise of a natural disaster thriller, the very next moment it becomes a scientific primer on meteorological phenomenon.

In its simplest form, Category 5 is a history of the occurance of Camille, the deadly Hurricane that ravaged the Gulf Coast in 1969, and inspired the creation and implementation of the Saffir-Simpson scale still in use today.

But Category 5 is anything but simple. As a history its narrative delves deep into the cultures of the region at the time, at once taking a sociological look at the systems in place, but also having the feel of a travelogue. At times, particularly as we are led down a path of exploration of the eccentricities of the local leaders involved, the book reminded me of the elegant storytelling of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, with a characteristic Southern drawl you could almost hear through the prose.

Still, expressing even further dimension, as events occur seemingly in real time, the authors pause, explaining the underlying theories of the events in intuitive and effective detail, often taking complex scientific concepts and boiling them down to easily comprehended ideas.

Most pleasing, however, is the fact that the book seems to actually forget its academic nature, often times turning into a pulse pounding, edge of your seat page turner as you are not merely given a list of the events as they happened, but instead teleported through time and space directly there, stranded in a sewage tank or atop a collapsing apartment complex:

The building wobbled crazily as Ben pulled several others outside, including a woman whose name he never knew. Near one corner of the disintegrating Richelieu, he caught a glimpse of a creepy sight-a pale orange glow in the shape of a huge vretical cylinder. Simultaneously, he heard a fusillade of loud cracking sounds from below. Candles and plates of food skidded off the counters and onto flooded apartment floor. He beckoned to Mr. Matthews. The old man shook his head and backed away into the shadows of the far corner of the room, his palms outstretched as if to fend off some grave threat. That was the last image Ben had of him.

The next thing Ben was aware of, he was bobbing in the water, gasping for breath, barefoot, his glasses gone. The three-story apartment building had completely disappeared.

The prose is so engrossing you will find yourself dodging in your comfy armchair as entire houses roll by, caught up in the destructive winds. You will feel the frustrations of survivors as they struggle to put their devestated communities together, communication failing them, the federal government’s assistance slow and unwitting.

And ultimately, you will come to understand the full extent of the lessons unlearned as it is impossible to sever the wisdom and harsh realities provided here from the Katrina catastrophe.

This one definitely goes in the “must read” category.

One Response to “Book Review: Category 5 The Story Of Camille by Ernest Zebrowski & Judith A. Howard”

  1. Kyle,

    Since we updated the site you will need to send updated url’s to those publishers that have posted links to these reviews.


  1. Interview With Judith Howard » Comments From Left Field - [...] this month I had the utmost pleasure to read and review for you guys the book Category 5, by…

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