On a typical day, 388 billion gallons of water flow down the Mississippi River past New Orleans . It flows at an average rate of 600,000 cubic feet per second, but even those living here hardly know it.
Lake Pontchartrain holds roughly another 2 trillion gallons of water, just outside your back door if you live in Lake Vista .
If we didn’t know this before Hurricane Katrina, we most assuredly know it now: We live with water.
In the FEMA cracker-box I call home, there’s a hot water tank under the kitchen sink. I am told this tank holds 4 gallons of water. That’s 4, F-O-U-R gallons. When I take my morning shower, I set the water to a comfortable setting, and then I adjust it every few minutes. A little less cold water, a little more hot water, a little less cold water, a little less cold water…until the cold water is turned off and I’m hurrying to finish before those last few drops of lukewarm water fall away to be replaced by cold water.
A short walk from my lot is the infamous London Avenue Canal . This canal was constructed to convey rain runoff pumped from our streets to Lake Pontchartrain . On August 29, 2005, the canal embankments split in at least two places. Water from Lake Pontchartrain flowed up the canal and into our streets. When I was able to return to my house weeks later, I found a dead crab in my driveway.
There’s a storm drain in the street right in front of my property. I keep it clean. For years I’ve swept and raked any leaves, trash or twigs that got caught in its grill. I still do this today. When it rains in New Orleans, these storm drains are sort of our “first responders.” I want them to work properly and unimpaired. Will it help keep my neighborhood from flooding? I tell myself it does.
When floodwaters covered a great deal of New Orleans , there was a general warning not to drink water from the faucet. The entire drinking water system was suspect, even in the unflooded parts of town. I went back to work the day after Hurricane Rita came ashore, when much of the city was still a pond. We were drinking canned water at my office--silver aluminum cans of purified water. Every time I opened one, that cracking sound evoked a Pavlov’s response in my mouth as my taste buds got ready for the bitter-cool taste of beer. And every time, all they got was purified water.
It’s an amazing feat that the Sewerage & Water Board was able to get the system up and running again so quickly after the storm. By mid October, water was safe to drink everywhere except New Orleans East and in the Lower Ninth Ward. Still, the city reported that there were so many breaks in the water system that fully half the water pumped from the purification plant each day was wasted.
A few weeks ago, I fed the cats in our FEMA travel trailer as I do each morning. I put out a full bowl of fresh water for them. After my two cats ate and drank, I let them outside. A while later, I saw one of them, Smudge, lapping contentedly at a puddle of brown water in the street. I was shocked, angry and then worried in quick succession. But then I reminded myself, “She’s a cat. Cats drink dirty water all the time.” Perhaps at least in this way, cats have a superior survival skill to us humans.
The human body itself is mostly just water. Wikipedia says about 72% of body mass in males and 68% in females is water. We live with water, we live surrounded by water, we ARE water.
Sometimes too little, sometimes too much. It makes life pleasant and it makes life difficult. It makes life possible.