Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I saw a man pursuing the horizon

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never -- "

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

~~Stephen Crane [1895]

It's been a crazy couple of weeks here at our cubie quarters. My Darling Wife, our Precious Daughter and I have been taking turns being ill and have missed a combined 8 days of work and school.

It's a different experience being home during a weekday in this flood-ravaged part of New Orleans. It turns out there is a lot of activity here during the work day that I had not known about. Although I spent most of my time in bed, I would say no less than four large trucks per hour rumble up and down our residential street.

I know this because each truck announced its passing with shudder and a shake of our little FEMA travel trailer. I wondered, is this what it's like to live in a fault zone in California?

But although they shook and bounced me while I was trying to rest, I did not mind. All that activity was, to my mind, good news. Every truck means that another heavily damaged house is getting demolished or another new house was getting a load of supplies.

A lot of people in this neighborhood have been wringing their hands over the fate of the nearby church and school property. They worry that preservationists might succeed in declaring the church "architecturally significant." That would likely chase away the folks who want to demolish all the buildings there and construct on an open site. And they have declared with all the melodrama they can muster, "The fate of our neighborhood depends on the full redevelopment of that property!"

Well, I tend to disagree. Not that the new property owner wouldn't be good for the neighborhood--it certainly will be good. Any new construction in this part of town (unless of course it's a urea processing plant) is going to be good for the neighborhood. But I think if the deal falls through that this part of the city will do just fine anyway.

I could feel the march of progress and the bustle of reconstruction moving briskly along as I lay in bed those sick days.

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. I regret to report that several of my neighbors continue to rebuild their homes right back where they were. In the same location. At the same elevation.

And I can say with some certainty, these houses will flood again.

I say this without contempt, and without wishing ill upon any of my neighbors. I say it because it quite simply is true.

It could happen this spring, when a heavy rainstorm parks itself over the city and the already damaged drainage system is unable to keep up. This past summer, we had a rainfall of only moderate intensity that filled the street next to our trailer with about 10 inches of standing water.

It might happen this fall, when a tropical cyclone moves across the city and the power fails at the pump stations as it did during Hurricane Katrina, leaving the rainfall to accumulate in the lowest parts of the city.

Or, it may happen sometime in the next few years, when a hurricane brings a storm surge that exceeds the 100-year level of protection that the levees and floodwalls are designed to hold back. Any number of scenarios could see water topping the levees at the lake and ponding right here.

Elevating is no guarantee, but certainly, every foot higher puts a house farther and farther from harm. Without elevating, these houses will flood again.

I have warned a number of people about this, but the responses are either flat denial or some sort of rationalization. "It won't matter because I'll be dead before it floods again." Or, "It won't matter because I still have flood insurance."

When I suggest they could improve their lot by elevating their homes, I am brushed off with, "It's too expensive," or, "Raised houses are ugly," or, "What good will it do to have a house that survives if all the other houses are flooded and people move away?"

That last excuse is a prophesy that gains momentum each day. The more houses that are rebuilt right back in the same place and in the same way, the more it emboldens others to do the same with their homes. I would guess at this point that homeowners building raised homes are outnumbered 5 to 1 by those who refuse to elevate.

What do you say to them? How can they be convinced?

"Your house will flood again," I say.

"You lie!" they cry, and run on.


GentillyGirl said...

Take it from an old Creole girl: any fool that that doesn't raise their house post-Flood is a stone cold idiot.

We are the only folks raising our home Sugar Hill, but when the levees fail again, each and everyone of those fools will be on our porch, and I will feed, bathe and house them, even though they were idiots, but we will have been right about our rebuilding.http://

Editor B said...

I don't know. Our house is a raised basement style, two stories, built on a slab. I believe the cost of elevating would have been equal to the cost of the whole house (about $100K). It truly doesn't make sense, to me, to elevate. Not to mention, if we flood to that extent again, I think the city is finished. Plus I still have insurance. Rationalizing? Maybe. I don't know anymore.

Anonymous said...

I am a former New Orleanian (born and raised, and only moved up the river to Red Stick for work a few years ago). I am in town once or twice almost every week. It grieves to talk with flood victims about this. You are right: many parts of town will flood again, and absolutely nothing said by anyone in authority should cause anyone to believe that they won't. Case in point: The TP reports that S&WB pumping to the canals is now limited given the fragile state of the floodwalls. So until the canals are upgraded (and can we ever be sure they will protect us, knowing what we do now about their design and function?) a rain storm of even moderate size will produce flooding like the flooding you mention.

One's personal situation may limit the options for dealing with this. You may have a solid job, and not want to take the chance on finding something elsewhere. You may owe so much on your house that even after repairs, you can't sell it for what you owe. Or perhaps you don't have the money to pay for raising the house. But for goodness' sake: please don't give in to despair and freeze, expecting things to get better (or at least, not to become worse). Standing still should not be the default option for anyone who flooded, though in NOLA it often is. The futures of everyone who lives in the greater NOLA area, and their children, are being shaped primarily by individual -- and not exclusively governmental -- responses to the storm. That goes for the smug Uptowners and delirious West Bankers who did not suffer house flooding and displacement in 2005, and think they are bulletproof.

It's not about team spirit or allegiance to some nostalgic view of New Orleans as it was in 1940, 70, 80 or later. This is about survival of you and your family foremost. The country's heart broke after Katrina, and many people opened their pocketbooks - but is that likely to happen again?

Sophmom said...

Tim, first of all, I'm sorry it's taken me so long to read this fine post. Secondly, I'm so sorry that you (and yours) have been sick and hope you're all better now.

It's too bad folks don't want to raise their houses 'cause they think it's not attractive. They might want to look at the beautiful raised manses that line the streets of Charleston, SC. I do understand that for some it is prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the remedy will take time. After the next flood, when those whose houses are raised escape catastrophic damage, a few more will see the light, and then after the *next* flood, even more. I, for one, believe the city will live that long, will survive the next flood and the next and that it will do so precisely because of New Orleanians, like you, who will make it happen.

Peace, darlin'.

Tim said...

When I wrote this blog, I toyed with the idea that the person who pursues the horizon in the poem might very well be me. Am I the one rationalizing? Am I the crazed person who will not admit what is obvious to others? I'm glad that no one has pointed out to me that Crane's poem could be thus interpreted here.