Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Exposed weaknesses

At the Rising Tide 2 conference, writer and panelist Joshua Clark commented that Hurricane Katrina exposed many weaknesses in our lives. I wrote it down back when I first heard it last August, and I've been thinking about it here and there since.

The idea stuck with me.

As an engineer, I recognize how minor flaws can become major problems under certain conditions. A hairline crack in concrete can let in moisture. That moisture can cause rust in reinforcing steel, which in turn exerts pressures that will further crack the encasing concrete.

Weaknesses can go undetected for weeks, months, years, and then... a bridge falls, or a tower crane buckles, or a floodwall bends and bows to failure.

Engineers also understand that loads transfer from one part of a structure to another. If one connection of a truss fails, it might not result in an immediate collapse. The load will be transferred to another connection, much the same way a current of electricity will seek the shortest path to ground, or water the swiftest path to the ocean. This load transfer is automatic and instantaneous.

If the new connection can't hold the load, it too will fail and send the load to the next connection. Sometimes this transfer/failure/transfer cycle happens quickly--resulting in a successive collapse. Sometimes, it goes undetected for a while.

I've been thinking about the load of Hurricane Katrina on us, our lives, our community, and our support system. When something fails to hold up, do the others race in to help? And if the load and stress of this disaster and the rebuilding process pile on, will we stay strong, or will we suffer sudden or rapid successive collapse in our lives?

You could say we've already seen this happen at the District Attorney's office. Inefficiencies, blunders and scandals accumulated and brought down Eddie Jordan's office and career. It started out small, but grew over many months until the ability of the public to stomach the news had been completely diminished. It was a textbook illustration of the expression, "The straw that broke the camel's back."

I also think we see this happening with housing. With so many displaced from their homes, demand for rentals and rental rates are up dramatically. Amazingly the federal government and the city decided this was the time to tear down most public housing projects. The stress of housing has transferred from one market to the next, so that we can truly say there is a housing crisis in New Orleans.

Families feel the strain, too. The recent death of NOLA blogger Ashley Morris shows us how the burdens of life are distributed. The stress and strain was quickly transferred--shared--throughout the Morris family's circle of friends. Several NOLA blogger stepped in mightily to help them bear the load.

And the Morris family survives.

So I think I'd like to add a thought to Joshua Clark's observation. Katrina exposed weaknesses, yes, but she also revealed our strengths.

And not just as a matter of contrast. Just because one floodwall fell over and the one next to it did not is no reason to think that remaining floodwall is somehow representative of an ideal design; it just means it was at least a tiny bit better than the one that fell.

No, I'm thinking that New Orleans is a city of many strengths--strengths that were there all along, but we overlooked them or forgot them in the day-to-day journey of life.

Sense of community, love of neighborhood and civic pride are some examples. Would we say that these have sprung full-grown from our wounded city? Or isn't it more likely we had these things all along? I think it took several feet of flood water to push these powerful sentiments to the surface. And to this day if anybody says a cross word to us about being "stupid to live below sea level" you can bet they'll get both barrels of love right back.

Like travelers on a yellow brick road, we've been through hell and high water just to find out that what we were searching for we had all along.

I know we'll never forget that awful August three years ago, when unforgiving nature exposed and exploited all our weaknesses.

But I also hope we'll remember our discovered strengths, and that it's because of those strengths that we're still here.


Marco said...


Sophmom said...

Gave me chills. Great post.