We were all talking about the high water on the Mississippi River a few weeks ago. Since then, the river stage at New Orleans rose to 17.0, Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened, millions of gallons of water were shunted into Lake Pontchartrain, the river stage finally began to fall, and Bonnet Carre Spillway was closed.
In sum, an exciting and rare event.
But that's not why we paid so much attention. A few weeks ago, nobody was expressing awe at the rarity of the event.
We were worried.
We worried that the Mississippi River levees might not hold, or that the spillway diversion might not be enough, or that if the river ever got loose... Well, let's just say Hurricane Katrina and every other catastrophe in the nearly 300-year history of this city would have been knocked one notch down the list of worst disasters.
But I think all this worrying is good. When we worry, we pay attention. When we worry, we acknowledge the importance of maintaining a strong system of protections, and we encourage thinking about consequences and contingencies.
There's the old expression, "When we fail to plan, we plan to fail."
But even more relevant is this expression from the time of the American Revolution: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
"Vigilance" as in keeping watch over the state and federal agencies who design, build and maintain the levees, walls and gates. "Vigilance" as in keeping apace with changing technology and scientific understanding of the threats. "Vigilance" as in maintaining the urgency and critical life-safety purpose of the protections.
"Eternal" as in always and forever. When the last load of clay is dumped and spread and compacted on that final levee, the job will still not be done. Maintenance must be ongoing and uninterrupted. Designs must be checked periodically to assure effectiveness under changing coastal conditions. The work must go on.
We all have our parts in this effort. Government will establish standards and enforce rules, and citizens must support and in fact encourage the prosecution of work.
And we who live behind these walls and levees know that if we stop paying attention, all kinds of bad things will happen.
Not "can happen" but "will happen."
If we are not vigilant, money for the required work will get diverted elsewhere. If we are not vigilant, the goal of effective, resilient flood protection will become the goal of bringing in a marginal project on schedule and under budget. If we are not vigilant, the carefully calculated decisions of safety-oriented engineers will be replaced with the whims of policy wonks and accountants, political appointees and the NIMBY neighborhood associations.
Am I preaching to the choir here?
Let's hope so. Let's hope that just shy of three years since that horrible event we're still laser focused on what really counts to this water-tested community. Let's hope we can keep that focus for 30 years or 60 years or 90 years and more, because that's what it will take.
We're eternally vulnerable, so we've got to be eternally vigilant.