Monday, September 25, 2006

Pictures of New Orleans

This Monday and Tuesday, I’m participating in an engineering forum on rebuilding New Orleans. Engineers and scientists from across America have come to the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. Football fans will know that today is also the day the Saints return to the Superdome. I don’t know who picked this date for this forum, but I guess they didn’t have access to a Monday Night Football schedule.

Anyway, we’ve been treated to some excellent presentations. Wayne Clough, the president of Georgia Institute of Technology spoke about the need for engineers to rise to the challenges. He talked about meeting a taxicab driver here who gave him the common wisdom of someone with minimal education and no training. The cab driver told Dr. Clough that his house in the Lower Ninth ward had survived Hurricane Katrina because, “It was built a long time ago when they didn’t build stupid.” By this, he meant his house was elevated high off the ground.

The keynote speaker at lunch today was our Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. Always a dynamic speaker, our second-in-command did not talk about how much money we need to fix things up. He did not complain about how terrible the federal, state and local planning and response to this disaster was. He did not predict how high the levees need to be to protect our citizens from ever having to live through such a catastrophe ever again.

What he talked about is a vision of the future. “I don’t want to rebuild New Orleans the way it was,” he said. “We should not be aiming low,” he said.

I listened and I once again realized what a missed opportunity it was that we did not elect Mitch Landrieu Mayor. In the aftermath of Katrina, we would have really benefited from someone with vision, with insight, with the ability to articulate the dream of a significantly improved city. Instead, we elected to keep what we had, and we are going to pay the price for that inertia for many years to come.

And I’m sad to say, a lot of New Orleans is going to continue to be built stupid.

Several presentations included lots of disaster photos. To remind us of how bad it was, to prepare us for the discussion of the disaster, we were treated to images of flooded neighborhoods, mud-stained houses, mold-covered furniture, toppled cars and houses, floodwalls laid flat, scour holes and sand dunes…

Yeah, I really need to be reminded of that.

I was surprised how much it hurt to see these photographs again. I mean, it’s been more than a year. I’ve had a long time to ponder what happened here. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the ramifications of this flood on my home, my possessions, my family, my entire life.

But today I felt some of the same pain I felt in October when I saw the remains of my home in Vista Park for the first time. I felt the sadness for the lives lost and the lives ruined.

I guess I’m not finished grieving yet.

I know most of the engineers and scientists who saw those same slideshows did not have the same reaction as I did. How could they? To an engineer from Georgia Tech, this is a really cool exercise in risk modeling and disaster mitigation. To a geologist from Texas, this is like a laboratory to observe an interesting experiment and postulate theories to explain observations.

But to me, it’s home. Every time I see photos of the London Avenue Canal North Breach, I see the house of my friend Gus. I see the hole that delivered the water that flowed into my house a few streets over. I see my city drowning, the rooftops and trees treading water and struggling to not go under.

But I know nobody else in the room views these pictures the way I do. I can’t fault them. I can’t expect them to have superhuman empathy. I can only hold a polite smile, and answer for the trillionth time when asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay.”


Anonymous said...

The fact that you see the pictures differently makes you the most important person in the room.

mominem said...

You know why bring people to New Orleans and show them pictures in a hotel.

The first part of every conference like this should be a driving tour.

People don't believe it until they see it. They discount the pictures as the worst examples, really there are no worst examples.

judyb said...

I guess I'm not finished grieving yet

I think it'll be a long time (longer than we expected) before visions of Katrina's devastation don't feel like a knife in our hearts.

Sophmom said...

Beautiful post, Tim.