Interview With Judith Howard

Earlier this month I had the utmost pleasure to read and review for you guys the book Category 5, by Judith Howard and Ernest Zebrowski. Little did I know that such an undertaking would put me in direct contact with one of the coauthors.

Judith Howard, as it turns out, is a perfectly charming lady, easy to get along with, and has thus far put up with my eccentricities (if you’re wondering, yes I sent a near perfect stranger an email whose total contents were “VRRROOOOOOOOM!” Anyone willing to talk to me after that is forever in my good graces). Despite having to deal with me, something my own wife finds difficult, Judith kindly acquiesced to conducting an email interview which I reproduce in full below the fold. (Note; deepest apologies for the technical problems, this post has been bumped to the top as a result)

(note: Just in case you miss it, “Zeb” refers to Ernest Zebrowski)

Q: So, let’s start off with just a little background about yourself, your field of expertise, and whatever else you would like my readers to know personally about you.

JH: I’m a native of north Louisiana and moved back here after completing graduate degrees in social work and then practicing in North Carolina, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C. I now live on my ancestral farm with three delightful rescue dogs.

When I came home, I started a psychotherapy practice and began writing a weekly political column for a local paper. Since I live in a crimson part of the Deep South, my views have raised a few hackles here. To his credit, the publisher has refused to cave in to requests (demands?) from several local readers to cancel my column. We can’t have an alternative view expressed around these parts, you see. As we like to say in the South, “It just isn’t done.”

Q This is your first book; what inspired you to write it?

JH I grew up hearing about hurricanes and I’m old enough to remember Camille. From time to time, I, like many people, thought about writing a book, but I can honestly say I never saw me writing one about a hurricane.

Then in 1999, I met Zeb (my coauthor) on a flight from L.A. to LA. He was working in Baton Rouge at the time and in the course of our conversation, he told me about one his previous books titled Perils of a Restless Planet. I needed to be in Baton Rouge for meetings from time to time so we would meet for coffee or dinner. We became friends. Zeb gave me a copy of Perils, which I liked because of his ability to make science accessible to someone like me who didn’t really have an interest in such topics.

He was working on another book when I met him titled Last Days of St. Pierre about the volcano that killed 30,000 people on Martinque. As you can see, his interest is in natural disasters. When Zeb finished that project, he asked me in early 2002 if I would be interested in collaborating with him on a book about Hurricane Camille because he was concerned that southerners might not be open to talking about their experiences to someone with a yankee accent like his.

My first reaction was that I knew next to nothing about hurricanes, but then I realized that to fully understand this story, the socio-political-cultural aspects would have to be examined. Those were areas where I thought I could make a contribution. Plus, I had done training in disaster mental health so I recognized that the psychological aftermath was something we needed to cover. I enthusiastically signed on.

Q Why Camille in particular?

JH: The impetus for Zeb was Camille’s record intensity; it is the most violent storm to hit the U.S. mainland in the history of meteorological record-keeping. It still holds that distinction. The now-familiar Saffir-Simpson scale was a result of Camille. This was the first hurricane to be tracked by satellite from birth to death. And while I found those things interesting, there were other parts of the story that I wanted to explore.

Camille made landfall close to my neck of the woods (essentially the same parts of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi that Katrina did), which gave me a deeply-embedded cultural connection with the now-aging survivors I would interview. I was fascinated by the regional political history that both aggravated and mitigated the Camille disaster. I was also interested n the fact that two days after devastating the Gulf Coast, Camille went on to kill another 150 in central Virginia.

Q What kind of process did you go through in writing this book?

JH: We drove through the affected areas to familiarize ourselves with the landscapes, and we took pictures to jog our memories when we began to write. Each of us conducted library research, sometimes together when we were in each region, and sometimes separately when we were back in our respective homes. I interviewed survivors and transcribed their stories from my tapes. Zeb talked to scientists and engineers. As we wrote, we often discovered gaps in our research, which either required more library work or follow-up interviews with other people.

There were times when we shared drafts by email and there were other times when we got together to write and revise. Many weekends Zeb drove to my farm where we had turned my dining room into a disaster zone (no pun intended). Our laptops were on opposite ends of the dining table, and there were reports, articles, and notes all over the buffet, on another table I set up in there, in boxes, and all over the floor.

In hindsight, it’s amazing that we ever found anything we were looking for, and accusations flew back and forth about who had misplaced which document.

Q What parts of the research and the writing caught you by surprise, and as a first time author how would you describe the experience?

JH: Having written a dissertation for a Ph.D., I thought I knew what to expect in terms of the volume of material that would have to be managed for a book, and that it would have to be organized in some coherent fashion. Writing a dissertation, however, follows a specified organizational format. So I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it would feel to organize the many different parts of the narrative.

I lost count of the number of times we rearranged material, but nothing seemed to work until we finally came up with the way it is today. Even when we’d finished writing all the chapters, we rearranged things still again, and deleted 100 pages of the manuscript to meet the publisher’s length requirement. I hadn’t expected to have to do that.

But on a more substantive level, I was surprised by the incredibly cooperative spirit of so many survivors, even when I made repeated follow-up phone calls to clarify various details. I got the feeling they were grateful that someone, after more than three decades, was affirming the horrific experiniece they had had. They wanted this story out there.

An interesting surprise for me was learning that the notorious hurricane party in Pass Christian, Mississippi was an urban legend. Walter Cronkite had reported it, andsince he was the “most trusted man in America” we naturally believed it. It turns out those early reports from the field were inaccurate. Yes, there were many people killed in that apartment complex, but not because they were partying. There was more than a sole survivor, as the woman had called herself.

Probably the most surprising thing to me personally, as a first-time author, was how vulnerable and exposed I felt when the manuscript finally went to press. I kept wondering if we’d made a mistake somewhere, or if we had made our points in the way that we had intended. It turns out that indeed there was one significant mistake, and I was grateful that an early reader kindly called to tell me about it. We were able to correct it when the paperback edition came out a couple of months ago.

How would I describe the experience? Frustrating and exhilarating.

Frustrating not only because of the time invested in organizational efforts, but also because Zeb and I have two very different writing processes. He’s slow and meticulous in writing his first draft, trying to get the words just right in the beginning, and he’s very good at it. I, on the other hand, just slap all my ideas and material on the page and then began to write. I’m prepared to re-write dozens of times. This made Zeb crazy.

He would take a break, coffee cup in hand, walk behind my chair to read what I was writing, and say with astonishment, “That’s crap.” I’d scream that I know it’s crap and that he had to give me time to think, edit, and revise. Later, I’d look up from what I was doing and ask if he thought he might finish what he was working on any time this century because I needed something from it before I could proceed with what I was doing. He’d get annoyed and tell me not to rush him.

Each of us edited the other’s work. Then we’d argue over whose way it was going to be, sometimes fussing over one word as opposed to another. I recognize that I can be maddeningly detailed-oriented and tedious. One time after a long day of writing, at 2:30 a.m. I told Zeb I was going to change a lower case letter to a capital letter. This normally laid-back person erupted and was transformed into a raving lunatic. I innocently asked, “All this over one letter?” But in fairness, at the time he was still using a Mac and I was using a PC, so changing the document in order for us to have exactly the same text on our respective computers involved more work for him, something he had no enthusiasm for at that hour.

After the project was done, we agreed that the other had been the best coauthor we could have hoped for. I’ve only seen Zeb once in the past year or so when we attended the same conference in New Orleans, but we stay in touch by email. Fortunately, we finished the project with our friendship intact, but there were times when that didn’t seem the most likely outcome.

Okay, so that explains the frustrating part.

The exhilarating part was the intellectual stimulation. I learned more about hurricanes than I ever imagined even existed. The whole project energized me. I traveled to two parts of Louisiana that I’d never had reason to set foot in before (Cameron Parish and Plaquemines Parish), and I found those cultures and geography fascinating. Nelson County, Virginia is another place I’d had no reason to visit prior to this, but it’s a scenic little place that I went back to last summer.

Q Can we expect to see more books from you in the future?

JH: I hope so. I’m working on something now that’s a totally different kind of project from Camille. I’m also thinking about what I’d like to do next. Zeb had an idea for another collaboration, but it didn’t interest me and I had an idea that didn’t interest him. I think we could survive writing another book together — maybe. After working on the Camille story, which I found thoroughly absorbing, I realize I need to be enthusiastic about a subject in order to make that kind of commitment again.

Q One of the things that really impressed me was the dimension and color you added to Category 5, often times leaving me with the impression that I was reading a good novel. Tell us about how that came about, when did you decide to write the book that way and why.

JH Thank you. From the beginning, writing the material with the flavor of a novel was always our goal. We had both been educators so we wanted to inform the reader, but we didn’t want the material to sound academic.

Q Also, I’m really curious about who you would say, between you and your coauthor, played the bigger part in directing the tone of the narrative.

JH: That’s hard to say. Zeb has commented many times that neither of us could have written this book alone. We each picked up on details of the story that the other missed. The final product is really a mesh of our perspectives and voices, although I credit Zeb with being the more creative writer.

Q The last third of the book focuses on the afermath of Camille. How do you envison a flawless aftermath given the resources available then, and perhaps now? What’s the ideal response in your eyes on all levels, local, state, and federal?

JH: There can be no flawless response. Unpleasant surprises are always part of the mix after a disaster, but surely we can do better than leaving people in sweltering heat for days without food and water.

Camille-era public officials testified in Senate hearings in 1970 — and some of them told me — that local officials are in the best position to determine what is needed in their own communities, and that state and federal agencies are better positioned to be providers of essential resources.

After catastrophic disasters like Camille and Katrina, there will be no drinking water, no functional sewage systems, no gasoline, no phone service, and no electricity. Local governments must depend on higher levels of government to provide such resources in the immediate aftermath.

The ideal response? One in which federal agencies view themselves in a service role to local governments during and after a disaster. One in which the director of FEMA is experienced in emergency management rather than a political lackey. One in which the FEMA director is in direct communication with the president rather than having to plow through layers of bureacracy. One in which communication systems actually work so that public officials can talk to each other as well as to officials outside the affected region (a problem on 9/11 as well). And one in which there is a local, state, and federal emergency response plan beforehand.

Q As you mentioned in the book, Katrina occurred just as you went to press, so you touched on it but not in great detail. I’m going to give you a chance to weigh in. How would you compare the preparation and aftermath of Camille and Katrina? Further, what would you see as specific failures in the entire Katrina disaster, and what was done right?

JH: Whew! Serious question, and a complete answer would take a whole new book. But thanks for the opportunity to make a few observations.

Race remains an “elephant in the living room” issue in American society. Many blacks we interviewed about Camille called it “a white folks’ hurricane,” because they themselves got little attention afterwards. As I watched all the black faces after Katrina, I kept thinking how different the response might have been had they been white faces on roofs around Kennebunkport.

Much of the attention after Katrina has been on blacks in New Orleans so that whites may be wondering if this was “a black folks’ hurricane.” Tens of thousands of whites also lost homes not just in New Orleans, but also in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Of course Katrina completely overshadowed Hurricane Rita that came just a few weeks later and destroyed southwest Louisiana and parts of Texas. Those people have really been overlooked.

The widespread destruction of Katrina was not just due to a category 3 hurricane, but to political shortsightedness and shennanigans long before Katrina. For example, political considerations are a part of the calculus when the Corp of Engineers makes decisions about levees and floodwalls.

There is so much more I could say here, but I’ll share just one more thing from a personal perspective. In the few days prior to Katrina’s landfall, I was pacing around in my den, glued to the television. I kept screaming at Mayor Nagin, “Get them out. Get all those people out!” I know it sounds ridiculous, but I couldn’t stop pacing.

I kept thinking about all the old pictures of Camille’s destruction that I had examined, and I had an awful feeling that those same areas were about to face the same devastated landscapes again. I also thought about the psychological trauma Camille survivors had lived with all these years and feared for those in Katrina’s path who didn’t evacuate.

The full story of Katrina is yet to unfold and will eventually be written by someone. The political aspect of this story will be huge if anyone is ever successful in uncovering it and putting it all together.

As far as what was done right — many people took the initiative to leave before an evacuation was called. When the flooding began, locals (called the Cajun Navy) from all across south Louisiana took their boats in to rescue people. The Coast Guard was there almost immediately. I’m sure there were other things that I don’t know about because I wasn’t there and because positive things don’t always get reported.

Q Finally, if you had to pick just one, what would be, do you think, the single most important message of Category 5? If the reader could only take one thing away, what would you prefer it be?

JH: To take Mother Nature seriously; she’s let us know that she is capable of throwing violent temper tantrums, so let’s not get complacent. What is the shelf life of a historical lesson?

A huge thanks to Judith Howard for the interview, and to both she and her coauthor for such a stunningly brilliant read.

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