Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A portfolio of responses

As we prepare to cross that imaginary line from 2009 into 2010, here's a question worth reflection: What are YOU doing to reduce your vulnerability to flooding?

Long before New Orleans filled with water, back when the name "Katrina" was not associated with the ugly images of human despair and physical destruction, our cousins across the pond were worried about flooding.

No, not the Dutch. This time I'm talking about the Brits.

And they weren't just worrying--they have been continuously reassessing the threats and developing appropriate responses. I talked briefly about this in my presentation during the Rising Tide conference in 2007.

The British, you may or may not know, have been fighting coastal and river flooding for hundreds of years. Their signature project is the Thames Barrier, a set of gates which protects London from storm surges pushing up the river into the city of 7.5 million. The target level of protection is 0.1% (1-in-1,000 chance per year).

The Thames Barrier ranks as the second largest flood protection barrier in the world. London becomes more vulnerable to inundation each year because of sea level rise and the on-going tectonic tilting of the ancient island. The current project is expected to protect the city only until about the year 2030.

Studies are already underway to decide what to do to protect the city beyond 2030. An April 2004 report from the UK's Foresight study group lays out the problem and initiates the dialogue for finding the solution. Here are some of the thoughts from the "Future Flooding" report published more than a year before Hurricane Katrina:

"Flood defences protect not only people and private properties, but also vital amenities and public assets, including hospitals, the emergency services, schools, municipal buildings and the transport infrastructure. Disruption of these by flooding can have major knock-on effects for business and society."

We saw this in the spot shortages of gasoline and the spike in prices in the weeks after Katrina. We are still feeling this now as the New Orleans area labors with a limited support system of hospitals and schools.

"The human cost of flooding cannot be measured by statistics alone… There will be mental-health consequences. Besides the considerable stress of extensive damage, the threat of repeat flooding, coupled with the possible withdrawal of insurance cover can make properties unsaleable, and cause long-term depression in the victims."

How many of us can say, "Been there, done that"? The effects of flooding linger for years after the water has gone down.

"The socially disadvantaged will be hardest hit. The poor are less able to afford flooding insurance and less able to pay for expensive repairs. People who are ill or who have disabilities will be more vulnerable to the immediate hazard of a flood and to health risks due to polluted floodwaters."

In fact statistics show that the elderly join the poor in their vulnerability. The death rate of elderly was many times that of younger people trapped in the flood.

"Many of the drivers that could have the most impact are also the most uncertain. Some of this uncertainty relates to scientific understanding – for example, uncertainties in how to model the climate. However, other sources of uncertainty are inescapable – such as the extent to which the international community will succeed in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It is therefore important to develop policies that can cope with a wide range of possible futures, and which can respond flexibly to an evolving world."

Flexibility? Good luck. Neither the people nor government at any level seem to be ready to be flexible. Worse, the focus remains on the effects of hurricanes and their devastation. When are we going to address the causes and ways to prevent devastation?

"It will be important to manage the layout and functioning of our cities so they can adapt to future changes in rainfall patterns. Approaches such as the creation of new green corridors and the maintenance of existing undeveloped spaces (including brownfield) would provide ‘safety valves’ for the storage and passage of floodwaters when the drainage networks become overloaded. They could also bring substantial sustainability benefits relating to the aesthetic and amenity value of water in towns. However, such schemes might require the abandonment of parts of existing urban areas, with councils and other agencies buying up properties to create new open areas."

Anybody remember the Bring New Orleans Back plan? The City Council declared it DEAD ON ARRIVAL. The BNOB plan had the nerve to recommend selective rebuilding and rehabitation of the city, a perfectly logical, practical and effective way to deal with the situation. Which is why it was murdered on the steps of City Hall by a mob of politicians with daggers.

But the most compelling part of the report for me is the constant theme that there is no single solution. There is no one course of action that will mitigate all risks. In fact, there is no combination of actions that can mitigate all risks. And to make the task more difficult, some of the factors are clouded in uncertainty, so actions need to be scalable and there need to be contingency actions ready to implement if the need arises.

The authors of this report call for "a portfolio of responses."

What this means is simply that no single medicine will provide the cure. Just as a doctor might prescribe medicine, exercise and a change of diet for common ailments, we will need a multi-faceted program to keep our coastal areas healthy.

Levees, walls and gates are the obvious measures we can employ. They can provide a great deal of protection for smaller storms.

But it can't stop there.

We need to be thinking about multiple lines of levee defences with areas of storage in between. We need to be thinking about moving critical infrastructure out of harm's way. We need to be thinking about elevating homes and businesses that remain in harm's way. And we need to be planning a total evacuation when the "big one" comes calling.

We need a portfolio of responses.

As we enter the new year, this is certainly worth some thought. The levees and floodwalls are being redesigned and rebuilt to reduce our vulnerability to flooding. What is the State of Louisiana doing? What is the City of New Orleans doing?

What are YOU doing to reduce your vulnerability to flooding?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The reason for the season

The sun rose this morning, right on schedule and exactly as predicted, at 6:52 a.m. Central Standard Time. It will set at 5:05 p.m., giving New Orleans a net 10 hours and 13 minutes of daylight on the day of the Winter Solstice.

If this discussion seems technical and nerdy, take that as a sign of progress. Most modern people just don't worry about the length of days so much anymore. Unless you're engaged in agrarian work or your livelihood is otherwise directly impacted by the amount of daylight, the cycle of days is just a novelty, an esoteric event of little note.

Once upon a time, the length of days was of vital importance. Shorter days and colder weather were feared because they often brought hunger and death. Superstitions arose to explain why the sun, the source of warmth and life, would seem to lose its power each year. And rituals were devised to encourage the sun's return to full strength.

Thanks to science and the work of astronomers and mathematicians over the centuries and including today, we know there is nothing magical or mystical about Winter Solstice. We know that it is just a particular moment in the ongoing journey of our Earth around Sol, our sun. We know that formulas comprehensible by any math major demonstrably predict with convincing accuracy and precision that the laws of physics apply perfectly to the motion of the planets and the pattern of seasons.

Winter Solstice used to be a time to wallow in fear and uncertainty. People wondered if the "god" of the sun would abandon us. Later we created rituals based on superstition to replace that fear with hope for rebirth. Angels and miracles assured us that the "Son" would conquer the darkness and save us.

Today, we can all but ignore the passing of the Winter Solstice, and for that we can thank science.

It's no coincidence that so many important days of the calendar all occur on or about the Winter Solstice. New Year's, Christmas and Hanukkah were all planned to coincide with this shortest day of the year. So were many other religious rituals and observances long forgotten.

But I like to remember that they all come back to this: Winter Solstice. Although it may seem blasphemous to some, it is the real "reason for the season."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Runs with Wolves

Everyone who knows our family knows this: I run with cats, Darling Wife runs with chickens and Precious Daughter runs with wolves.

I've always been a cat person. We've had at least one cat for the past 20 years, and we've had as many as five at any one time. In 2005 we evacuated with four cats, two of which still live with us today.

Last weekend Darling Wife and I found ourselves at the mall in the middle of an SPCA Pet Adoption event. I was ready to adopt a cat right away, but it took all of five minutes for Darling Wife to commit to a sweet little grey and white tabby. We brought her home and introduced her to our two other cats, Smudge and Callie, and after a few days of perfunctory hissing and growling I predict they will be getting along just fine by New Year's Day.

Cats are not Darling Wife's first choice for pet. A city girl from birth, she has always pined for a romantic life on a farm. For many years I had her convinced that city ordinances prohibited keeping chickens. She finally looked it up herself a few years ago and discovered that keeping backyard chickens is legal within city limits. (Curse you, Internet and your easy access to information!)

And so it was three years ago we were living in a FEMA Travel Trailer on our vacant property in Gentilly and I spent several weekends building a deluxe chicken coop that Darling Wife would dub, "Poulet Chalet." When we moved to the higher ground of Esplanade Ridge, we paid movers to lift the coop up and over the fence of our new yard. Chickens, we have since learned, are not uncommon in this part of town.

Yes, we get eggs from our fowl, but eggs are not a favorite food of Precious Daughter. Being more or less obsessed with Japanese Anime nowadays, she prefers eating a big bowl of Ramen noodles with chopsticks. Precious Daughter has always been an avid reader, devouring classic books such as "Lord of the Flies" for school and "Tegami Bachi" and "Naruto" manga books for fun.

Like most teenage girls, Precious Daughter has also read the "Twilight" series of books, an angst-filled teen romance involving a depressing human girl, a brooding vampire, and a fun-loving werewolf. Fans of the series love to debate whether protagonist Bella should marry Edward the vampire or Jacob the werewolf--as if either represents any sort of happy option in the normal sense of things. Precious Daughter's loyalties are firmly in the camp of "Team Jacob," and she has a T-shirt that proudly indicates so.

It says, "I run with wolves."

I took her to see "New Moon," the latest movie installment of the series, the other night. Surprisingly, I found it a fairly entertaining movie. But perhaps most fun was experiencing it with Precious Daughter, who was openly delighted every time Jacob delivered a great line, transformed into a wolf or simply took off his shirt.

I'll leave it to the psychoanalysts of the Internet to interpret what it says about us that we love our cats, chickens and wolves, respectively, almost as much as we love each other. My only worry is that Darling Wife has hinted recently about getting a goat.

Monday, November 16, 2009

When trod upon he explodeth with a great noise

As part of her assignments in Louisiana history class this year, Precious Daughter has been reading the ruminations of Mr. Lafcadio Hearn.

Not all of his observations find a favorable audience with 13-year-olds, but one recently seems to have piqued her interest. She came home from school the other day eager to share the following passage with me.

I admit to at first being entertained by its repulsive imagery. But upon further reflection, I think I can respectably enjoy it for its good humor and style. Most of all, though, I find it leaves me with a satisfying (if oddly inspired) feeling of connection with the inhabitants of New Orleans 120 years ago.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wednesday, October 13, 1880

THE FESTIVE

He maketh ghostly noises in the dead waste and middle of the night.

He hath a passion for the green and crimson of beautifully bound books, and after he has passed over them they look as if they had been sprinkled with a shower of vitriol.

He loveth to commit suicide by drowning himself in bowls of cream or stifling himself in other eatables or drinkables.

When trod upon he explodeth with a great noise.

In this semi-tropical climate he sometimes attaineth to the dimensions of a No. 12 shoe.

He haunteth printing offices, and fatteneth upon the contents of the editor’s paste-pot, and upon the bindings of newspaper files.

He haunteth kitchens and occasionally getteth himself baked and boiled.

Five hundred thousand means have been invented for his destruction; but none availeth.

If a house be burnt down to the ground he will momentarily disappear; but when the house is rebuilt, he cometh back again.

His virtues are these: He amuseth young kittens, who practice mouse-hunting with him. Also is the deadly enemy of the cimer lectaries. He is used for medicinal purposes.

But none care to recognize his good qualities, because of the mischievous and disgusting propensities, and all creatures wage unrelenting war against him, and nevertheless he continueth to propagate his species and to drown himself in cream.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

An invitation to blog

Blogging 101 flyer -- click to enlarge
Only technically superior computer users and the most gifted writers can blog, right?

Au contraire, mes amis. Blogging is, by definition, a personal journal. You can blog for an audience of one or two, or you can blog for an audience of millions. You can keep your blog private and viewable only by yourself or family and friends, or you can open it to the blogosphere and see what happens.

If you're a blog reader and haven't yet taken the plunge into blogging yourself, here's your chance to get some sage advice to get started. The good people of Rising Tide Conference are sponsoring a free workshop, "Blogging 101: An introduction to blogging class for the utter novice." They'll give you some good advice on how to start, what to do and what to avoid, and they'll help you get plugged in to the community of NOLA Bloggers (if that's what you want).

What kind of blogger lurks in you? Wikipedia has a concise description of the various types and purposes of blogs. Even if you're on the fence, come out to the Blogging 101 workshop and find out if you're ready to stop reading and start blogging.

Event: Blogging 101: An introduction to blogging class for the utter novice.
When: Thursday, November 12, 6:30 to 8:30 pm
Where: Bridge Lounge, 1201 Magazine Street in New Olreans.
Cost: Absolutely Free
RSVP: Call 504-250-1643 or email editor@thechicory.com

See you there!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two tired

At 9 o'clock my Darling Wife will say, "I can hear my pillow calling."

And she means it. Try as I have over the 22 years we've been married (and even for the several years we dated), it is a rare event for her to be awake past 10 PM and about as rare as a blue moon that she'll be up after 11.

Yes, she grew up in New Orleans, a city famous in part because our bars never close. Somehow the gene that makes us able to stay up all night is not a part of her DNA.

In contrast, I used to routinely see 2 AM and sometimes saw the sunrise without having gone to sleep. I used to get a "second wind" at 10 or 11 that kept me going until the music ended or I had no more money for beer.

I'm afraid I'm not much better than my Darling Wife nowadays. I blame age and the pressures of work. I can still function on 5 hours of sleep but I find I need at least 7 to have a good day.

And so we hit the hay earlier and earlier each year. We're just too tired--or perhaps we're two tired--to stay up late.

But I'm not complaining. We have a comfortable bed and two cats who are also eager to curl up and sleep.

On cool evenings like tonight, we have a window open so I can hear the slumbering noises of New Orleans as I fall to sleep. I also hear the motorcycles and the loud car radios of those who have not yet succumbed to the onslaught of age yet.

Peace be upon them and everyone in the city tonight.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Never again" must not fade to a whisper

In February of 2008, Senator and presidential candidate Barrack Obama visited New Orleans during his whistle-stop campaign of "Hope."

I joined my fellow NOLA Bloggers in welcoming the lanky lawman from the Land of Lincoln. But in true blogger fashion, we all nit-picked about one thing or another that was or was not said. (Mine had to do with terminology.)

As he visits New Orleans today for the first time as POTUS, here is what I would like to hear from him today: vision.

It’s a pretty straightforward proposition as I see it. As a candidate for and now incumbent president, I did not/do not expect Mr. Obama to have all the answers. I do not expect him to have all the cures.

I expect him to have vision. I expect the Chief Executive to have a concept of what he thinks this land of liberty must look like, and to communicate that idea to citizens, and to inspire us to willingly join in making that dream into reality.

When he visited here 20 months ago, Mr. Obama’s vision for New Orleans was potent: “never again,” he said.

Think about how much is said with those two small words.

“Never again.”

Not, “Next time the city is decimated.” Not, “Things are better, but it’s still very dangerous.” Not, “Let’s hope our luck holds out.”

“Never again” is a vision for action. It is a vision for prosperity and purpose. It is the vision we need in New Orleans, in coastal Louisiana, and in a nation with so many basic needs that are ignored for convenience.

No, Mr. Obama will not grab a shovel and start digging the clay to fortify our levees. He will not pull the levers on the pile-driving rig to push sheet pile into the ground. He won’t even pull out his Diner’s Club card and pay for the astounding amount of work that needs to be done to protect our great city.

What I would hope to hear from the president today when he visits New Orleans is a clear statement of his vision.

Another president, speaking about another daunting goal, articulated his vision by acknowledging the difficulty in achieving the goals he had set out for the nation. He told Americans quite plainly that we would strive for lofty goals, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

In his own words, Mr. Obama said, “The words ‘never again’ - spoken so often in those weeks after Katrina - must not fade to a whisper.”

Since ascending to the office, the president has not to my knowledge repeated those words or anything else that establishes his vision for New Orleans.

That’s what we need from Mr. Obama today.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mellytawn Festival

I think I was in high school before I discovered how ridiculously mangled my pronunciation of mirliton was.

It was in the middle of a conversation about who-can-possibly-recall that I said it, which completely derailed my geeky friend, Anthony.

"What did you just say?"

"We ate mellytawns from my grandmother's back yard," I repeated.

His crumpled face was probably a reflection of the data logjam in his brain and I waited while he closed his eyes and struggled to untangle my words into something he could recognize. I would have not at all been surprised had he blurted, "That does not compute!" in a robotic monotone.

Of course, at first I did not know what I had said that has seized him so. It actually took a few moments for him to parse my statement down to the single word at issue and for him to communicate this back to me.

Finally, he brightened with resolution. "Oh, you mean mirliton!"

Again I repeated it the way I had always pronounced it, the way I had always heard it, the only way I knew to refer to the water-laden, spiny green vegetable that my grandmother served baked and filled with stuffing.

Again my friend corrected me, telling me how it was spelled and urging me to look it up in a dictionary.

Well, I did look it up, and sure enough I discovered that my friend and my dictionary were both wrong!

I thought of this silly moment in my life again when I heard that it's almost time for this year's Mirliton Festival. It's coming on Saturday, November 7 at Markey Park in Bywater. Bands, art and of course, lots of local food including some featuring that funny little mellytawn that as far as I can tell only shows up on tables in New Orleans.

All are invited, but if you see my old friend Anthony, be careful what you say.



Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Planning for the worst

The Dutch are the recognized experts in “living with water.” As a nation, the people of the Netherlands have struggled to hold back the sea for hundreds of years. Much like the people of New Orleans, they’ve suffered and prospered thanks to their proximity and intimacy with the sea.

And after multiple setbacks, New Orleans and the Netherlands both insist that humans can and should and shall continue to live and work in the low-lying coastal areas of their choosing.

But here is where we diverge: the Dutch take a holistic approach to “living with water.” Yes, they have gates and walls and levees to keep the water out of their homes, farms and cities.

But they don’t stop there.

The people of the Netherlands understand the need to plan for the worst: sea level rise, more powerful storms in the future, and protection system failures.

You get a hint of this in this recent article on the advice Dutch experts are giving to coastal California communities.

“People realize we can't just raise levees forever. If something goes wrong, you have an entire city that will be flooded in an instant. Water is a fact — we need to do something about it,” said David Van Raalten, project manager for the pilot project between the Netherlands and California and a principal in ARCADIS, an international engineering and consultancy firm.

The article notes that the Dutch have been elevating houses and setting aside land for floodplains. They’ve adopted a multi-tiered strategy that effectively multiplies their safety from flooding.

It is sad to note that New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, not even the Federal government have adopted such strategies. Quite the opposite in fact.

In New Orleans, residents defiantly demanded the “right to rebuild” in even the most flood-prone areas of the city. Local zoning and permitting rules made it all too easy to obtain a building permit to repair severely damaged houses. And the Road Home Program actually penalized homeowners who elected to move to higher ground—especially if they left the state of Louisiana.

We say we admire the Dutch. We say we want to follow their example.

But it’s obvious we don’t really mean it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

RT4: Sinking to New Heights

As further proof that we in New Orleans are “Sinking to New Heights,” a group of NOLA Bloggers and others who love New Orleans gathered for the our fourth annual conference on the future of our fair city week. Rising Tide IV was, by all accounts and metrics, a huge success.

For the second year, we gathered at the Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd on Saturday, August 22. It was a clear and warm day, just right for incubating good thoughts and hatching plans for the new New Orleans. Several speakers and panel discussions ensued to the great delight of all in attendance.

I did not bring by laptop because I knew I would have a hard time sitting in one place all day. I knew I would be moving around talking to friends and fellow bloggers I hadn’t seen in a while, meeting new Internet intermediaries, and of course, helping out here and there as needed since I was on the organizing committee.

So I tried something I’ve never done before: I covered the whole day of activities using Twitter. If you use the hashtag #rt4 you can see all the tweets from me and others who were madly trying to capture the action in reports of 140 characters or less. It was a challenge, but at least I didn’t have to sit in one place all day.

Favorite moments, many captured in tweets throughout the day:

* Author Susan Tucker on the Culture Panel reads an obituary that made reference to the deceased person’s favorite foods and love of cooking. In New Orleans, it really is all about the food.

* Also during the Culture Panel discussion, Ed Buckner observing, “We as a society need to embrace each other just as we embrace the music.” The crowd applauds the radical wisdom of that statement.

* Adrastos, moderator of the Politics Panel, introducing a question about Senator David Vitter by referring to him as, “a human cockroach, which makes him the Keith Richards of Louisiana politics.” (Some would later complain that the panels and indeed the whole conference were loaded with liberals. Thus insulting comments about David Vitter and other Republicans were all too common and obviously popular with the crowd. Okay, conservative bloggers, join us next year and show us what we’re missing.)

* Clancy DuBos from The Gambit newspaper and WWL-TV, comfortably using everyday curse words in his descriptions of how bad things are in NOLA and the political problems we face. Even their own Twitter reporter, @The_Gambit, had to comment on that one: “I think the Rising Tide crowd is amused to hear Clancy cuss like he can't do on @WWLTV.” To me it was a rare show of respect for bloggers from a venerated journalist—talking with us as would neighbors across the fence.

* Leigh, Sharon and Lisa, working tirelessly, selflessly and happily all day at the front table. I helped direct traffic for a bit at the front door, and I just loved overhearing Sharon call friends and strangers alike, “Honey” and “Baby.” We don’t pay them for this and let me tell you, it’s a good thing because we couldn’t afford it.

* Loki, the official emcee of the day, started us off with a Prayer to caffeine. I didn’t write it all down, but it was something along the lines of, “Caffeine is my shepherd, I shall not doze. It maketh me to wake in green pastures. It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses. It restoreth my buzz.” Loki lit the place up from the moment he took the stage. I would not be surprised to learn that he had been up all the night before drinking espresso and eating chocolate covered coffee beans.

* I wish I could say it was my idea to ask him to head up the program this year, but all I can say is I was one of the unanimous and enthusiastic organizers who said, “Hell yes!” when it was suggested. We’ve already asked him back next year.

* I spent a few minutes chatting with Ethan Brown about his new book, “Shake the Devil Off,” which has been getting great press recently in The Gambit and the local daily. After explaining the subject of his book is the true story of a tortured soul who kills his girlfriend and himself probably because of PTSD from service in Iraq and riding out Hurricane Katrina, I tell Ethan it sounds like a great story. But, I add, I don’t think I will be reading it because it sounds really, really depressing. Ethan is so nice--he doesn’t try to talk me into it. He agrees that it’s a very depressing tale.

* Loki, again showering us with his in-your-face energy, led the audience in shouting out the true meaning of FYYFF following the presentation of the Ashley Morris Award, named after the man who made FYYFF so important to the NOLA Bloggers.

* Finally got to see Patches, the most famous ramshackle rust bucket of a truck on the NOLA Blogosphere, being made less rusty and ramshackley (is that a word? I guess it is now) each week under the love and sweat of Clay, proprietor of NolaDishu. Clay showed me Patches with the pride of a father, explaining all the oddities that made his old red truck so dear to him. Still a lot of work remaining, but I’m thinking Clay is up to the task.

* Our keynote speaker Harry Shearer gave a heartfelt, motivational presentation. One of my favorite quotes was, “If you fight water, water always wins. We need to learn to live with water.” Would have loved if someone from City Hall or any of the spineless politicians who are letting New Orleans be rebuilt in exactly the same ill-planned manner could have heard that.

* Lunch! We got catering from CafĂ© Reconcile which is right across the street from Zeitgeist. I had white beans and rice, greens, spicy corn bread and sweet tea. My yat came out strong after eatin dat—yeah you rite.

* Dr. Elmore Rigamer, speaking as part of the Health Care Panel, wonders, “Is New Orleans insane because of Nagin, or is Nagin insane because of New Orleans?” Nobody seemed to have an answer to that one.

* Chris Wiseman represents for the legions of loyal and outlandish Saints fans on the Sports Panel. He shows off a couple of homemade outfits worn to the Dome on game day. Wiseman notes that the decorated costumes worn by fans of other teams commemorate trophies and titles and winning streaks, but his outfit memorializes losses in the Saints family. That includes Ashley Morris, Buddy D, and Sam Mills. The point is clear: Saints fandom transcends success in the game and draws its power instead from the strength of the fan community.

* Skooks, local blogger and Sports Panel moderator, cannily observes, “The four seasons in New Orleans are Carnival, Festival, Hurricane, and Football.” Did he forget one? Here’s hoping one day there will be a Rising Tide season!

All in all a great day. Plans are already begun for Rising Tide V. See you there next year!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remember




"The total number of fatalities known, as of this writing, to be either directly or indirectly related to Katrina is 1833, based on reports to date from state and local officials in five states: 1577 fatalities in Louisiana, 238 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida, 2 in Georgia, and 2 in Alabama."


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tongue-and-groove

It was just another white pick-up truck, clattering as we all do down the streets of New Orleans. Sticking out the bed was an assortment of tongue-and-groove lumber, in pretty good shape by all appearances, although certainly not new. No, not store bought. Old.

We cherish the old things in New Orleans. I am sure that just about everywhere else in America, the weekend handymen make a beeline to the local big-box "home improvement" store to fill their cars, their trunks and truck beds with the finest, fresh-cut lumber for their latest projects.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

America was just recently enthralled with the "Cash for Clunkers" program, an economic stimulus scheme with the added benefit of disposing of a lot of old cars from our highways and driveways. Because old is bad. Old is inefficient. Old is unreliable.

But I venture nobody ever pined for a poster of a 2009 Ford Taurus to decorate their dorm room. No band ever considered posing with a 2008 Chevrolet Impala for the cover of their new CD. New, it turns out, has its limitations.

And in a city on the verge of 300 years old, I think we understand that. Where others see blight to be removed, we see our squandered heritage and fight to preserve it. Where others revel in the "hip" and "now," we're happy to say "Where y'at?" for a few more decades. Where others dine on Nouveau Cuisine, we're happy to eat stuffed mirlitons like grandma used to make.

So I smiled when I saw that truck filled with reused lumber. I don't know what project they were working on, but I would not be surprised if it was going to be a dining room floor or a paneled wall for a house that was already 100 years old.

That's part of the charm of New Orleans. No, not store-bought. Old.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hello, Ana

It's begun. They told us "hurricane season" started June 1, but we all know the real time of worry is August and September.

So here we are looking at maps again. Waiting and worrying.



Hello, Ana.

Go away!!!!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Routine business

My Darling Wife had to go to City Hall the other day to conduct some routine business.

Which is almost laughable to anyone who has been to City Hall and knows the truth: the only thing “routine” about business there is that it’s frustrating and painful.

It turns out that when we moved to our new house in 2008 the assessor lost our homestead exemption application. The result being that we’ve overpaid property taxes for two years now and we’re due a refund.

Fearlessly, my Darling Wife first visited the assessor’s office on the third floor and was able to convince them of the error. It took a few months but a corrected assessment was provided. For a refund, she was advised to call upon the finance department on the first floor.

A few clicks of a computer and the finance department confirmed it: yes, the city had collected more than the adjusted tax bill and a refund was in order. All we had to do was produce the cancelled check.

The cancelled check? My Darling Wife asked, why do you need that? Didn’t you just confirm that the taxes were overpaid?

Yes, the finance department said, we confirm the taxes were overpaid. We are prepared to order a refund. But we need to know who gets the refund.

My Darling Wife was confused. As the property owner and the person who overpaid the taxes, wouldn’t you just give the refund to me?

We will issue a refund to the person who overpaid the taxes, the finance department said.

And that’s me, she replied.

How do we know that? the finance department asked. We need proof.

My Darling Wife wondered aloud, who else but us would be paying our property taxes?

We need the cancelled check, or a notarized affidavit.

So a few days later and with the help of a lawyer friend (thanks, Dangerblond!), my Darling Wife returned to the finance department with legal documents that prove to the satisfaction of the City of New Orleans that we and only we paid property taxes on the house that we and only we have owned for the past two years and that we and only we are entitled to a refund of some of the taxes that we and only we paid.

It was her third trip to City Hall to conduct this same routine business.

And as I often complain, if educated people with good communication skills have this much trouble interfacing with government, what must it be like for less educated, less articulate citizens?

In fact, while in line to complete our paperwork, my Darling Wife met a man who had come to City Hall to pay delinquent taxes. He explained that if he did not pay his taxes soon, the city would quickly be moving to take his house. His tax bill was about $300, and he had brought cash to pay it and end the threat of foreclosure.

But once he stepped up to the window, the finance department informed him that a late penalty had been added to this bill. Apparently surprised at the news, the man pulled out every dollar he had on his person.

And he came up $4 short.

Sorry, said the finance department. Next!

Flustered, the man turned to leave.

My Darling Wife said the man looked like he had struggled mightily to scrape together the tax money. She fully understood his frustration at having to go home with unfinished business and the prospect of coming back to do it all again another day.

So she gave him $4, and he paid his property taxes in full.

We live in a city of haves and have-nots.

And I remain forever grateful for what I have: a wife who willingly takes on City Hall in all its soulless bureaucracy, and who remembers that it is the smallest acts of kindness that preserve our humanity and make urban living possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"You're a damned public monopoly...make it right"

"Entergy throws our heritage into the dumpster." That's what Ashley Morris said about the thoughtless destruction of street name tiles set in the concrete of many New Orleans street corners.

"You're a damned public monopoly, guaranteed to make a profit," Ashley wrote. "Make it right. It's all important."

Once they were caught, of course Entergy promised to make it right in a letter published in The Times-Picayune.

Other NOLA Bloggers followed up on the story, including here and here.

That was more than a year ago.

So now we have a progress report from Oyster. Before you click on that link to get an update, do you want to guess what has happened since April 25, 2008, the day Entergy publicly promised in no uncertain terms that "tiles will be replaced"?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Discovery Bay

When I was about 9 years old, my dad came home from work and was greeted by his three children eager to show him their new shoes. It must have been spring or summer, because we had all just been outfitted with new “sneakers.”

“Wow, I bet you can run fast in those,” he said.

We immediately went out back to show him, racing back and forth our suburban lawn.

Dad always loved playing around with us. For every situation he had a joke, a comment, an observation that was intended to be funny or evoke a reaction.

We lived a worry-free childhood, thanks to Dad’s hard work and jovial demeanor. Even when he worked two jobs—for a while he was driving a taxicab at night after his office job, and sometimes he took seasonal work driving Mosquito Control trucks in the early evening hours—we had no idea how tight a budget the family was on.

One day, we packed up the car to spend the weekend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But we did not go straight to the beach. We first had to stop at a community development called “Discovery Bay.” Dad spent several hours talking to the salesmen there while Mom did her best to keep us three kids from making a scene. We drove around the fledgling development looking at prospective lots until finally, happily, Dad concluded his business and we headed for the beach.

“Are we going to move?” we all asked.

“No, no, no,” Dad informed us. “We just had to go see what they were selling so that we could get a free night at the hotel.” I think they gave him money for gas, too.

It was a fun weekend, and while there were other times when we went to the beach or spent a night at a hotel paid for in the conventional way, I remember our trip to Discovery Bay in particular. I only vaguely understood it at the time but it became clear to me as the years went by: my Dad is a resourceful, clever man, always on the lookout for a deal and always eager to have a good time.

He is no different today.

When my own Precious Daughter spends time with her grandparents, she always comes home with stories of the crazy things her Grandpa said or did. Often I already know. I already know that he will walk up to any pay phone and pretend to find money, and then laugh as you check other pay phones but find nothing. I already know that he will play jokes on Grandma and then claim it wasn’t him, blaming one of the children instead. I already know that if you show him your new shoes, he will say, “Wow, I bet you can run fast in those.”

I never knew either of my grandfathers, so it is truly a treat to experience my own dad as a grandfather via my girl. It doesn’t matter if the jokes or old, or silly, or sometimes not all that funny. It only matters that every time he tells a joke or pulls a prank, he does it out of love.

And he sure does love us a lot.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

RTIV: Save the date

It's almost time for the next Rising Tide conference. This will be the fourth year of the gathering of NOLA Bloggers and those who care about the recovery and growth of New Orleans.

This year's conference will take place on Saturday, August 22, returning to the same venue as last year--Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center at 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. in New Orleans. The full program is still under construction and will be announced shortly.

So for now, save the date and get set for Rising Tide IV.

Monday, June 01, 2009

How can this even be a question?

Mark Singletary over at CityBusiness wants to ask you a few questions.

Go ahead, try it out. See if you can answer four simple questions about Louisiana, WWII, and the rock band Coldplay.

At least, these should be simple questions. People who live here, work here, stake their lives and fortunes in Louisiana and its most famous city, New Orleans, should know some basic history, shouldn’t they?

Well, not to spoil it for you if you haven’t already clicked through to see for yourself, but Mark found that precious few of the people he polled could answer basic questions about Louisiana and WWII history.

But--and this is the amazing yet unsurprising result of the survey--80 percent of respondents knew trivial, even intimate details about Coldplay.

Now, granted, this was a very small and very unscientific survey, but I think we all know from our collected anecdotal experience that the conclusion is likely valid: most of us don’t know much of anything about history.

What is it they say about people who don’t remember history? Yes, that’s right, and the results are almost universally unpleasant.

We’re entering another hurricane season today. Another cycle of tropical cyclones buzzing the coastal areas and like kamikazes coming in for the kill. Already I’ve heard some discussion of what to do if a storm heads our way.

What to do? How can this even be a question? Do we not remember 2005? Have we forgotten already?

Evacuate! Get out of harm’s way. Pack up your family, your friends and your pets and get the hell out of Dodge.

Most of the time it won’t matter. Hurricanes change course, loose strength or just turn out to be not as nasty as they first seemed to be. Most of the time.

But do you really want to be here when things go badly? Do you really want to be in your house when the roof comes apart? Or the water overtops the levee? Or the power goes out just as the roof comes apart and the water overtops the levee?

The informed answer is NO.

Spend a few days visiting an out-of-state friend or relative, or find a hotel North of Shreveport where you can relax safely.

You might even find time to read a good book. I’d recommend "Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose or "A Short History of New Orleans" by Mel Leavitt—because you never know when someone might suddenly want to quiz you.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Imagine

I was walking with my Precious Daughter to Bayou Boogaloo yesterday when we came upon this sign on Ursulines and North Rendon.


It was a beautiful day for music by the bayou. This year's Boogaloo expanded to the south with a second stage. The result was twice the music and more room for the throngs to spread out to enjoy it.

I immediately liked Billy Iuso & the Restless Natives--and not just because they covered a Talking Heads song. They put out a powerful blues-rock-funk groove through a light-hearted set of infectious joy. At one point, the band celebrated moving into a new house in the 9th Ward Musician's Village by belting out a rocked out version of "Moving On Up," the popular theme of "The Jeffersons" television show.

We also checked out the Charmaine Neville Band, and even Precious Daughter confessed to liking her version of "Papa was a Rolling Stone." Charmaine sang the refrain true to the original style of The Temptations' recording, while her son filled in the verses with new and scorching rap.

The catch of the day, however, was Groovesect, a band I confess I had not even heard of until Saturday. Groovesect charmed the eclectic crowd with intricate rhythms and skillful musicianship. The songs were tight and entertaining, and succeeded in spreading groove to all. I will be watching the local listing to catch Groovesect again.

Bayou Boogaloo has earned a reputation for being the mini-Jazz Fest for the locals. This year's event, bigger than ever, did not disappoint. As we walked home at dusk, I wondered what it would be like if everyone in America could have a day of boogaloo.

Imagine, indeed!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I saw Bonerama at Jazz Fest and I wrote this Haiku

Music washes down
Over a sea of faces
Mixing sweat and tears

Sometimes New Orleans is a complicated place.

How can you explain to someone outside of New Orleans why we laugh at tourists who cannot pronounce "beignets" and then revel in the way we knowingly and obstinately mispronounce "Calliope" Street?

Is it the desire to keep close hold on membership to our special club? Or simply our way of keeping close the history of this almost 300-year-old city? Is it an overt gesture of bohemian style which we think sets us grandly apart from the rest of the US? Or is it a stubborn embrace of the bad habits handed down by our uneducated fathers and mothers?

Yes, it's complicated.

But sometimes New Orleans is simple, forthright, and blindingly obvious.

Like Jazz Fest.

You go, you hear music, and you have a beer--with about a hundred thousand other people.

You sweat, you smile, and you commune with humanity.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Change the odds

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences generated sensational headlines recently. Unfortunately those attention-grabbing headlines and the ill-informed commenters that responded all seem to have missed the major point.

The report, The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: Assessing Pre-Katrina Vulnerability and Improving Mitigation and Preparedness, was most widely quoted as declaring that New Orleans can never be made safe. The most popular quote appears to be this one: “Levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans -- no matter how large or sturdy -- cannot provide absolute protection against overtopping or failure in extreme events.”

Many seemed to have stopped reading right there and joined one of two opposing camps: those who say it’s hopeless and we should quit wasting time and money trying to do the impossible in New Orleans, and, those who say scientists, engineers and politicians who would surrender the city to nature are either idiots or cowards.

They're both wrong.

A more careful reading of the report, available online, reveals that the true intent of the engineer and scientist authors is to fully alert the public to the stark reality of residual risks. That is to say, no matter what science concocts or what government provides, it is neither possible nor realistic to expect all danger to be removed.

Is this surrender to the whims of nature? No. It is a plainly stated view of reality. The world is dangerous. We can do many things to reduce danger, but there’s always a risk. There’s always a risk.

Is this a cry of hopelessness? Again, no. Scientists and engineers accept the challenge head-on. Humans are naturally proud, stubborn and intelligent enough to figure things out. Some may crumble and compare the struggle for survival to the punishment of Sisyphus, but most of us are stout-hearted and bold with resolve.

And here’s what the NAS report recommends: don’t rely entirely on levees and floodwalls. Build smart. Choose wisely. Be proactive.

A levee is no guarantee. New Orleanians have had water in their homes many times when there was not a hurricane in sight. One example is May 3, 1978, a date many of us remember. Torrential rain filled the streets and flooded cars and houses in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes.

A floodwall is no guarantee. Even if the new floodwalls are rock solid and bulletproof, there is always the possibility of a storm surge taller than the wall. The current goal is to build a system to stop a 1% per year chance exceedence flood. But as I've blogged before and as the NAS report points out, that so-called 100-year level of protection is really pretty small when you think about it.

The odds might be 1 in 100 if you live here for 1 year, but each successive year the odds get worse and worse. If you live a full 72 years in New Orleans, there’s a 52% chance you will experience that big flood that will overtop the floodwalls.

The major point the NAS wanted to make is that levees and floodwalls are just part of the answer. The rest is up to us.

So what can we do?

First, understand that the levees and floodwalls form the perimeter defense. Once water overtops or falls as rain inside the system, water is going to pool in the lowest parts of the city. Even when the pumps are going full bore—and we have the best pumping system in the world—we know we can still be flooded. If at all possible, we should build on naturally high ground.

After Katrina, I lived for a while in the “Sliver by the River.” That part of the city remained dry not because of better floodwalls or pumps—it was purely natural elevation that spared the homes and businesses there.

Secondly, we have to elevate our homes. Slab-on-grade houses are modern, less expensive and dangerous. I speak from experience here. My Gentilly home was just too darn low. Houses like that are just tempting fate. Every foot above the ground adds safety from flooding.

Thirdly, we have to build above the inadequate and dangerous 100-year level of protection. Not just levees and floodwalls—I’m talking about houses here. When the city issues a building permit, they will give the 100-year elevation required to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program. That’s the MINIMUM elevation for construction. Why stop there? Add a foot. Add two or three.

Remember that the 1% per year exceedence flood will occur sooner or later. There’s a 26% chance it will happen in 30 years, and a 39% chance in 50 years. Those are not good odds.

We can change the odds by building higher.

Finally, buy insurance. All of the things I discuss above can and will reduce your exposure to the risk of flooding, but nothing is going to totally eliminate the danger. If all else fails, your final safety net is flood insurance to lessen the financial blow.

Just as seatbelts, airbags, and all the safety systems of a modern highway will not guarantee survival in the event of a car accident, the NAS wants everyone to understand that levees and floodwalls, no matter how high or sturdy, cannot guarantee safety from flooding. There is always some residual risk. And just as safe driving habits will bring us safely home, smart building and planning will go a long way to keeping our homes safe.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Waiting for evidence

An engineer dies in a car accident and finds himself in Heaven where he is greeted by the full host of angels and a heavenly chorus. “This is fabulous,” the engineer says to Saint Peter. “Do you greet all new arrivals this way?” “Oh, no!” St. Peter says. “This is all to welcome you--the longest living human since the days of Adam.” Confused, the engineer tells the venerable gatekeeper that he was only 35 years old at the time of his death. St. Peter looks through a huge stack of papers and several books resembling accounting ledgers. “Well, according to all of these hours on your time sheets,” St. Peter says, “We figured you were at least 169!”

Unlike lawyer and doctor jokes, engineer jokes are few and far between. This one is an often-told joke that both honors engineers for our long hours of work and skewers us for the sometimes incredible amount of work for which we bill our clients.

I recalled this silly tale today as I read the news account of the ongoing trial against the government regarding the influence of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet on Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. According to the Associated Press, witness for plaintiffs Bob Bea said he had spent “about 10,000 hours studying the levee failures during Katrina.”

Ten thousand hours? Really?

Katrina struck on Monday, August 29, 2005, and the subject testimony was given Friday, April 24, 2009. That’s a span of 1,334 days. And 10,000 hours divided by 1, 334 days gives us an average of almost 7.5 hours per day. That’s every day—seven days as week, 52 weeks a year. If the plaintiff’s witness had dedicated his full and undivided attention to the subject—40 hours a week with no holidays—the total hours would add up to less than 7,700 hours. And even that’s a stretch.

Not quite as ridiculous as the engineer in the joke, but still a tally that raises an eyebrow.

This same witness against the government compared levee building in Louisiana to the task of Sisyphus, the hopeless soul from Greek mythology. In this, California professor Bea joined a chorus of critics who have said rebuilding New Orleans would be a waste of money and effort. They say New Orleans is doomed and that nature will wash away our city no matter what we do.

It's unfortunate that an engineer, a person supposedly dedicated to using science and technology for the public good, takes such a defeatist view of our city. New Orleans has been here almost 300 years and it seems fickle and cowardly to declare the battle lost now when the resources to protect and preserve the city are more abundant than ever before.

But I suppose his testimony is no worse than the testimony of litigant Norman Robinson. According to news reports, Mr. Robinson took the stand earlier in the trial to detail the pain and suffering he experienced following Katrina. Depression, alcoholism, anger and thoughts of suicide all took their toll on the television newsman.

It certainly must have been gripping testimony. I’m just not sure what any of it has to do with the alleged malfeasance and errors of engineering. Mr. Robinson is neither a scientist nor an engineer and it would appear all he had to offer was his sad story and dramatic telling of it. If plaintiffs are relying so heavily on emotional appeal, it betrays their lack of confidence in proving their case based on science and factual evidence.

Of course, all we have is news accounts, which we know leave most of what is going on in the courtroom untold. It just seems to me that if there was some compelling science, some “smoking gun” evidence, we’d be reading about that rather than the emotional state of plaintiffs and the incredible number of hours their witness spent working on the case.

Perhaps they do have scientific and factual evidence which they will reveal before the trial ends.

Or, perhaps the next witness will tell us the story of the lawyer and the engineer who meet on a fishing trip in the Caribbean. The lawyer tells the engineer, “I'm here because my house burned down. The insurance company paid off well enough for me to take this vacation.”

“That's quite a coincidence,” says the engineer. “I’m also using insurance money for this trip. Except in my case, my house was flooded.”

“Amazing,” says the lawyer. A few moments later, the lawyer says, “So tell me, how do you start a flood?”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A crack in my own voice

We were shopping a few days ago and ended up at Cane's for lunch--a favorite of our Precious Daughter's. In the next booth a group of adults were talking about everyday things.

"Oh she has a nice place on the North shore," one lady said.

"But her sister is still in Houston?" another said.

"Yeah, still in Houston. They're not coming back."

A man chirped in with, "Well there you go--we know people in New Orleans, Mandeville and Houston, so no matter where the next hurricane hits we have a place to go."

Everyone laughed in agreement.

Another day, at the office, someone is remembering businesses that "Ain't dere no more." She mentions Wembley ties.

One of my colleagues says, "I have several of their ties. I bet you do, too."

"Not any more," I say. "I lost all that in Katrina."

We exchange empathetic smiles.

A story in the local newspaper about an over-zealous anti-graffiti crusader prompts much online discussion. Someone points out that if anyone feels a compelling need to paint buildings, why not paint over the search-and-rescue X marks that still mar the fronts of many houses in Gentilly and Lakeview.

Like those X's, and the high-water line stain that still lingers on far too many buildings, the residue of 2005 sticks to New Orleans, it clings to us like an ugly, unwanted tattoo.

Of course it remains a part of us. Hurricane Katrina is indelibly a part of the collective experience of New Orleans, so much so that we can chat lightly about future storms and resulting evacuations. So much so, that we a lot of what we do on a day-to-day basis comes from or still alludes to that sad event.

Going on four years, of course we have learned to live with it. We cope. We adapt. We move forward.

And yet.

Just this week, a new hire, an engineer from out of state joins us. I am telling him about 2005. I am telling him about the huge storm, the parts of the system that were overwhelmed, the parts that were tested beyond their design but stood, and the parts that failed miserably and fell over even before experiencing their full design loads. I am telling him how the US Coast Guard proved how "always ready" they are. I am telling him how surreal it was to come back to the city that never sleeps and find it dark and quiet after sunset. I am telling him what it was like when I returned to my Vista Park home, the street still covered in mud and the lawns all brown and dead. I am telling him about finding my driveway coated with a half-inch, cracked clay blanket, and how I found a crab, a small, dead crab right there in my driveway...

And I have to stop. I have to stop because I can feel tears. I can feel tears in my eyes and a crack beginning to develop in my own voice that tells me something I did not know. I did not know I am still sad about this. I am still sad that the life we once knew is gone. Dead and gone and buried in the dirt and silt of a flooded house, and a mud-caked neighborhood.

I change the subject and keep talking so that I think perhaps he won't notice. Perhaps he did not see that near-eruption of pitiful emotion.

Later I wonder, what was that all about? Am I still in mourning for the life I lost? Am I still grieving for the deceased and the shocking inability of engineering to protect our city from the forces of nature?

Or is it the news reports from Fargo and other places in North Dakota, pictures of houses engulfed in brown water, stories of people wrenched from their homes and businesses by cruel and indifferent nature that have reopened this wound? I have heard that sometimes people who have lost a limb say they can still feel pain from extremities that long ago ceased to be. They heal, yes, but the healing is never complete.

I am one of the luckiest people I know. Although much was lost, no one in my immediate family died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And even after losing so much stuff, my family is secure and comfortable in a new home with new furnishings. We can't legitimately claim to be in need of anything.

And yet.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mea culpa

I'm sorry.

I made a huge mistake, a terrible miscalculation of character, an embarrassingly poor choice a little more than a year ago.

Regular readers of this blog may recall my support for Malcolm Suber in his bid for New Orleans City Council at Large. Having met him and heard of his work, I thought highly of him--highly enough to donate money to his campaign and work for his election.

Well, we haven’t heard much of Mr. Suber for more than a year. Until now.

I was horrified to read this account of Mr. Suber’s recent comments in The Times-Picayune. According to James Gill, Mr. Suber attacked Council member Stacy Head for being white.

And that is unacceptable, according to Malcolm Suber, who is leading a campaign to recall her. This is "a majority black district, and we think it should have black representation," he said.

These are not the words of a person of character and vision. The words attributed to Mr. Suber here are indicative of the worst kind of demagogue, the kind of politician who cruelly manipulates the public for pure personal gain.

I thought about posting an apology when I first read the story yesterday, but I was prompted this evening by Oyster to follow through. Was he thinking of me when he wrote about the escape from accountability of losing candidates and their supporters? I do not know and it does not matter. He's right and I was wrong.

I apologize for my error and ask all of you to forgive my poor judgment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Its rightful place for New Orleans

Tucked into the rich folds of his inaugural speech, it was almost too easy to miss what in the long run may be the most significant and far-reaching change in policy made by President Barack Obama.

To be sure, his acknowledgement of “when the levees break” was encouraging to those of us who have already suffered such woes. It reveals the import of such events in the new president’s mind--in great contrast to his predecessor who made no mention of such issues in successive State of the Union addresses.

But what could have far greater impact on us in the recovering city of New Orleans, and all of America for that matter, is the president’s plan to rededicate our efforts to the most successful investigatory tool ever devised.

In the heart of his inaugural address, the president outlined his vision for America including his goals of reviving a struggling economy, building infrastructure, bolstering public education and harnessing alternative energy.

And that’s where he also said: “We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”

I am not the only person to seize upon those words and all the promise that promise incurs. Cynthia Tucker writes in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Obama’s embrace of science is cause for hope.” She recalls how not so long ago the US was the leader in scientific study and accomplishment which certainly accounts in great part for the high standard of living and abundance of wealth we enjoy compared to most of the world.

But Tucker joins me in sadly observing the current wave of anti-science. With George W. Bush as “the chief cheerleader for a rejection of reason,” Tucker notes that Americans have become “a nation of superstitious ignoramuses.”

And who could disagree? On a regular basis we are reminded that the United States lags in basic education compared with other modern nations. Religious belief remains strong and popular support for Creationism and “Intelligent Design” persists in spite of a total lack of evidence and universal scientific rejection. These are just some more commonly known examples; the list is as long as the string of letters representing human DNA.

You may wonder how reaffirming America’s support for and confidence in science could possibly be more important than significant hurricane protection. It’s nice to have science, but as far as New Orleanians are concerned, nothing trumps good levees, right?

Wrong. The two are inextricably connected. We cannot expect to have a robust hurricane protection system unless we pursue it with good science. We cannot expect to be safe without serious and studious observation and application of lessons learned.

But there are indications that superstitious citizens will not yield. Despite several studies and repeated explanations, the average citizen still clings to the false impression that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet caused devastating flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina, pundits and politicians alike nicknamed the shipping channel “the hurricane super highway.” With no science to support the claim and ample evidence against it, the popular notion survives undaunted. Even the junior senator from Louisiana, a person one would hope we could look to for leadership and vision, suffers from belief in this irrational myth.

In another highly visible example, National Geographic posted the Internet story “A City's Faulty Armor” in April 2007. The story features the criticism of engineering professor Bob Bea, who boldly declares the new floodwall constructed to protect the Lower Ninth Ward will not stand against future storms.

Dr. Bea offers no scientific basis for his condemnation of the new wall. There is no mention of soil testing, laboratory analysis, model tests or calculations of any kind.

The only evidence offered by Dr. Bea, according to National Geographic, was a taste test.

Yes--a taste test. Bob Bea, who also happens to be an expert witness in litigation against the government, saw puddle water in the road near the wall and speculated it could be seepage coming from the Industrial Canal on the other side of the wall. To test his hypothesis, he tasted the gutter water and declared it “tasted salty.”

If there is any doubt in the foolishness of Dr. Bea’s methods and conclusions, we only need to remember Hurricane Gustav’s assault on September 1, 2008. Water filled the Industrial Canal almost to the top of the walls and waves splashed over for several hours. Despite dire predictions, the walls did not budge. Gustav killed 43 people in Louisiana but could not breach a single floodwall in New Orleans.

It is an embarrassment to the engineering profession that any engineer practicing in the 21st century would actually form an opinion on the stability of a concrete floodwall based on a taste test of gutter water. And it is testimony to how far this nation’s esteem for science has fallen when a national magazine dedicated to scientific study can publish such blatant quackery as serious inquiry.

Now that President Obama has staked out a position in support of science, I have great hope that the United States will change its path. I have great hope that science, and engineering as well, will find its rightful place in the rebuilding of America and especially in the fortification of New Orleans against future storms.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Democracy demands it

A lot has been said about The Current Occupant, soon to be former-president, George W. Bush. Many have said he was ineffectual if not destructive. While everyone has someone who loves them--even disgraced and convicted Edwin Edwards has fans--it is clear the majority of America is more than happy to see him go.

Count me in the majority.

And even though our president pledged in a major speech in front of Jackson Square in New Orleans that, "We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," I am glad that Mr. Bush is personally reneging on that promise. Based on past performance, I don't really want him to stay any longer.

We get a new president this week, a new face and a new voice to represent the people and the government of the United States of America.

As with all newly-elected politicians, there were promises of change inspiring great hope in the people. We know that no one is perfect and that no one person can do it all alone, but I will try to remain optimistic in the months ahead. And cautious, too, because effective democracy demands the constant attention of citizens.

The job is just beginning--for Barack Obama and for us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not on the agenda

Another meeting today with another design team. Technical issues. Schedules. Cost estimates. Coordination with local agencies. Testing. The meetings are incessant, coming like a rolling rhythm on a snare drum leading up to some great finale, a cymbal crash that will signal we've accomplished our goal, a goal that we know rushes toward us but always seems so far off, until...

About 20 minutes after the start of the meeting, John appeared at the door. Shyly, but wearing an impish grin, he slid along the wall and came up behind his mother. She was talking at the time, explaining the finer details of a particular design decision. John, who may have been 7 years old, wrapped his arms around her neck, but she did not miss a beat. She continued to outline her vision of the work at hand.

A good civil engineer knows that you have to get your point across, you have to explain yourself clearly and succinctly, because you may only get one chance. Gone are the days when engineers could toil quietly away for days on a calculation without interruption. In the fast-paced environment of a multi-billion dollar program, we meet and debate the merits of alternative plans, we quiz each other on the pros and cons of each other's designs, and we challenge each other to do it better, stronger, faster and cheaper.

John, however, was not on the agenda. His attendance at today's meeting was completely unplanned. Earlier, John had been involved in some sort of playground mishap. His school--perhaps being judiciously cautious, or perhaps in yet another demonstration of the pervasive fear of litigation that grips America today--had called his mother to recommend taking him to the emergency room. Just to be sure.

Luckily for him, nothing was broken or out of joint. Unluckily for him, his mom is a key engineer on an important project and she had to return to work--with him in tow.

As the discussion moved from one topic to the next, I couldn't help but keep an eye on John. He wandered in and out of the room a few times, at one point finding a bag a chips to munch. After a while he sat next to someone on the other side of the room. It looked like they were playing some sort of drawing game, each taking a turn and then showing it to the other.

The meeting continued, of course. We all understood the importance of our jobs, just as that mom engineer understood the importance of her dual jobs this afternoon. Under different circumstances, she almost certainly would not have returned to work after bringing her son to the emergency room. But as we all know, Hurricane Katrina changed the circumstances. We spend long days designing the best structures we can to keep this city viable for the next 50 years, and an uneventful visit to see the doctor is no excuse to delay that mission.

Nobody said it, and likely no one needed to, but John had every right to be at that meeting today. After all, we were discussing plans to build the life-safety system essential to the future of New Orleans.

Who better to represent the future of the city than John?

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Year's 2009: Not yet time

We spent the last hours of 2008 in Algiers Point at a friend’s house on the west bank of New Orleans. It was a breezy, crisp night and I think my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter did not wear enough layers. But neither did I.

A few minutes before midnight, we walked to the river levee. Hundreds of people were gathered along the crown of the levee. Some brought chairs and ice chests with drinks. Some were shooting fireworks and making a small show on the bank of the Mississippi River.

We were surrounded by the sound of crackling fireworks popping rapidly like bubble wrap that is twisted like a dishrag. Intermittent whistles followed the fiery trail of rockets into the sky which ended with a pop and few sparks.

And then, near the French Quarter across that mighty river, the real fireworks show started. Tubes thumped like mortars as the professional pyrotechnics began to light up the sky. Large, colorful blooms burst suddenly over our city, the sparkling reflected in the windows of the tallest downtown buildings. Low booms followed each new fire blossom, always just a couple of seconds late it seemed.

At midnight, we cheered and kissed. It was a happy crowd, a moment of joy for what is certainly a tired citizenry.

On the way to the levee I joked with some that we should see if we could blow it up with our fireworks. “I’ve heard about people blowing up levees,” I said. “I want to see if you can really do that.”

“Oh no,” one lady told me, “These are good levees. They ain’t going nowhere.”

Truthfully, she had no idea. She only knew that in 80 years, longer than most could remember in their lifetimes, the Mississippi River had not flooded the city. Those levees worked, uniformly and consistently. That was all she needed to know.

Who designed them, who built them, what were they made of, how high they were, who maintains them, who inspects them, who pays for all of the above—she neither knew nor cared to know.

And that’s typical.

We don’t worry about things like levees until they don’t work.

Reading recent letters and editorials in The Times-Picayune, that reality is thrown in my face over and over. People generally don’t have a clue about levees, but they have very strong opinions nonetheless. They know this city and its surrounding communities got flooded badly in 2005. They know the levees didn’t work then, and lacking any understanding of how or why, they remain wary.

I thought perhaps our experience with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike would have helped. I thought—having seen how the new and reinforced floodwalls stood strong, how the outfall canal gates and pumps worked flawlessly, how the levees facing Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain had performed brilliantly—that the average person would know that improvements are being made to our levees. And that these improvements work.

But I guess it’s not yet time.

I smoked my customary New Year’s Eve cigar and watched the fireworks show over the city. We huddled together to stay warm and block some of the wind. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin these past few years, but I still feel the chill from time to time.