Monday, January 30, 2006

Quite a distance

Okay, someone has to say it. Someone has to loudly point out that the king has no clothes. Or, perhaps the better metaphor in this case is that someone has to be the turd in the punchbowl.

I guess that’s me.

I’m talking about all this talk about coastal restoration. I’m talking about how a bunch of politicians and environmentalists are linking coastal restoration to hurricane protection.

I’m telling you, it just ain’t true.

The story they’re spinning sure sounds nice. That we in South Louisiana are feeling the pain of nature’s wrath because we have not been good stewards of the land. That South Louisiana didn’t suffer as much a hundred years ago when hurricanes came to visit because there were miles of marsh and wetlands to protect them from high water. That all of this is our own doing, and we better hurry up and fix it before the next hurricane turns toward New Orleans.

It sounds plausible, but like those get-rich-quick-in-real-estate schemes hawked in endless infomercials, the claims just don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that we should not be concerned about coastal erosion. I’m not saying that loss of wetlands is not a problem. I’m not saying we don’t have to be better caretakers of the environment all around us, an environment that supports and sustains us, an environment to which we are inextricably connected.

I am saying that building wetlands and performing coastal restoration has very little to do with hurricane protection.

There’s no dispute that hurricanes “lose steam” when they cross over land. Quite literally, it is the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico that feeds tropical cyclones and can turn a tropical depression into a “Category 5” hurricane in a matter of hours.

Once over land, hurricanes no longer have warm water to power them, and additionally have to contend with dramatically increased friction at the surface. Think of the difference between spinning wind over open water as opposed to a landscape dotted with trees and buildings.

And it should be obvious that rising land will lessen the effects of a hurricane’s storm surge, that slug of highly elevated water that gets pushed ahead of a hurricane. Many cities don’t have to worry about the storm surge because they are elevated higher than any storm surge could reach.

Wetlands, by definition are low-lying areas that spend an appreciable amount of time each year under water and wet. Along the coast of Louisiana, these areas are typically about 1.5 feet above sea level.

The popular notion is that having a lot of wetlands between cities like New Orleans and hurricanes will protect us from the worst of the storm surge. There is some agreement that for small storms, tropical depressions and Category 1 hurricanes, coastal wetlands are an effective barrier.

And why not? Water being pushed inland at a height of 5 feet over land with an elevation of 1.5 feet will feel that land dragging on it. Waves trying to form and break will have little depth to work with and will subsequently not form very high at all. So wetlands are helpful when small storms come calling.

But what about the big ones? What happens when a Category 5 Hurricane, or a monster surge of 24 feet like the one produced by Katrina comes crashing at those wetlands? Well it turns out that wetlands can’t do much. They get covered, buried under that huge storm surge, so that the benefit of friction has only temporary and nominal effect. And the waves get the full height of water in which to form, too, so the waves come crashing as they do in the open sea.

The net result is that wetlands hardly contribute anything to protecting us from major storms.

But don’t take my word for it. The Corps of Engineers has been working on the wetlands problem for many years. They and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources have teamed up on a number of projects. Many years of study have resulted in reports like the Coast 2050 and the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Project.

While these reports have done a yeoman’s job of documenting the ecological and economic importance of wetland protection and restoration, the connection to storm surge protection is tenuous at best. Here is what the Coast 2050 report has to say about it:

It is commonly acknowledged that barrier islands and coastal wetlands reduce the magnitude of hurricane storm surges and related flooding; however, there are scant data as to the degree of reduction...

Hurricane Andrew gave direct evidence that the physiography of marshes where a storm makes landfall affects the degree to which the storm surge is dampened. The surge amplitude in the Terrebonne marsh system decreased from 9.3 ft above sea level in Cocodrie to 3.3 ft (Swenson 1994) in the Houma Navigation Canal approximately 23 miles due north. This equates to a reduction in surge amplitude of approximately 3.1 inches per linear mile of marsh and open water between Houma and Cocodrie. Similarly, the magnitude of the storm’s surge was reduced from 4.9 ft at Oyster Bayou to 0.5 ft at Kent Bayou located 19 miles due north. This equates to a reduction in surge amplitude of approximately 2.8 inches per linear mile of fairly solid marsh between these sites.

Source: Coast 2050 Executive Summary

Now notice the data was collected during Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm when it made landfall, a bona fide "big one."

The data is scarce, but to perfectly Pollyannaish about it, let’s say it's totally true we can get 3.1 inches of storm surge reduction per linear mile of marsh between where we live and where the hurricane comes ashore.

And let’s also say we want to knock down a storm surge from a monster of 20 feet in height to a tame 10 feet in height. That’s 10 feet of reduction at 3.1 inches per mile. The simple math tells us that we would need 39 miles of wetlands out there to make this happen.

That’s quite a distance.

To protect New Orleans East and St. Bernard from the next “big one,” we would not only have to fill the much-despised MRGO--we would have to fill Lake Borgne! And that's IF it really works, which we don't even know if it will.

I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news. I know it really sounds nice that we can be environmentally-minded and save our cities at the same time, but it’s just not true.

Coastal restoration is an admirable, worthy goal. It just has little to do with hurricane protection.

Do you understand now why I keep writing about how much we need those levees? They're our only hope.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Secret Ingredient

We've been hearing a lot about "The Dutch Solution," which I've blogged about before.

A friend recently sent me a link to a speech given here in New Orleans by the Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States. Late last year, the Ambassador briefly explained the history of his country's struggle with the sea and the immense engineering task they undertook to win that struggle. There's a lot of good information in there.

But what's not in the speech is the engineering. No innovative design techniques, no revolutionary construction methods, no space-age materials or high-tech systems.

That's because the engineering is not the hard part. The means and methods to design, build, operate and maintain a comprehensive, reliable flood protection system are well-known and established.

What the Dutch did that sets their system apart from what we have in the United States has nothing to do with engineering--it's the political process.

Here are some excerpts from the Ambassador's speech that are instructive:

The 1953 flooding of the Netherlands was, excuse my cynicism, the Perfect Storm. It was a watershed event for my country, perhaps as Katrina will be for the U.S. 'Never again' became our motto. We had a national debate about what we should do, and how to do it. We made a political decision to assign specific water management authorities to specific levels of government. We established administrative processes to monitor the implementation of those authorities. This clear assignment of who does what, when and how is a unique strength of our water policy.

Has anyone in Washington, other than the Louisiana delegation, said, "Never again"?

The end result was ... the most-densely populated and economically-important parts of the country can withstand a storm with a probability of occurrence of 1 in 10,000 years. Other areas are protected at a 1 in 4000 years occurrence or a 1 in 1250 years occurrence. Our lowest level of protection far exceeds Category 5 Hurricane level protection.

For years we've been using 1 in 100 years for design. Even FEMA uses the 100 year flood event to set Base Flood Elevations. Can we take a clue from the Dutch on this one?

To get this protection, we had to shorten our coastline by about 400 miles, or almost 2/3rds. This meant closing off estuaries and changing the water flow in some places. We strengthened our dike engineering standards, and our maintenance routines. We streamlined the authority of our local water boards. In sum, we made physical, technical and administrative changes.

Water is the enemy and must be controlled, but water is also vital for our environment. We must be prepared to make bold changes to achieve a balance of safety for people and all other living things in south Louisiana.

On an annual basis, water protection costs the Dutch Government $500 million per year.

The Netherlands is about 14,400 square miles in size, less than a third the size of Louisiana. For the last few years the entire civil works program of the Corps of Engineers has been funded at about $4.5 billion spread out over 50 states. The Dutch take flood protection seriously; we clearly do not.

Your officials are discussing how to rebuild the Gulf Coast, what level of protection to provide. We have learned that underinvestment in infrastructure may be penny-wise, but also pound foolish. If people or businesses don't feel secure, they won't return. They won't build anew. They won't take entrepreneurial risks. That would be devastating to everyone here tonight and those you represent. It would also prevent the US from maximizing the return on investment already found in this amazing area.

The bottom line: you can't con, bribe, cajole, strong-arm, trick or force people to live and businesses to locate here. Quit fooling around and build significant hurricane protection.

Source: H.E. Boudewijn van Eenennaam, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States, Remarks made at the Wyndham New Orleans Hotel, November 27, 2005.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The most important thing

In the aftermath of disaster, you find yourself needing a lot of stuff.

Things that you used to have that were ruined in the flood. Services that you used to take for granted before they were lost. Papers that you realize in hindsight you should have taken with you. Photographs and mementos that cannot be replaced and are missed more each day.

But here is what I have learned, and it's totally true.

The most important thing you find yourself needing in the aftermath of disaster is a sewer cleanout.


Once your house is flooded, your furniture ruined, almost all your worldly possessions are covered in mold and mildew--what you find yourself wanting more than anything in the world is for FEMA to let you have one of those drab travel trailers.

Ugly, boxy, sterile and white. Many people would give their eyeteeth for one--they're that eager to get one set up on the front lawn of their flooded homes.

I know a lady who went to the FEMA field office at midnight to get in line to sign up for one of those four-cornered beauties. And she was the sixth person in line! She waited there all night as one would camp out to get front-row seats to a Rolling Stones show, except she was trying to get a rolling box.

When FEMA finally called her many days later with good news, they told her what she needed to have her "dream home" installed at her site: electricity, water and sewer service. When these were ready, FEMA would deliver.

No problem, she thought. Her home was only moderately flood-damaged and all the utilities were present and accounted for.


It turns out that in order to make the connection from the travel trailer to the sewer line, the FEMA folks like to tie into your existing sewer cleanout. A quick and efficient connection--if you know where it is. And that's where things started to go down the drain.

My friend had no idea where to find the sewer cleanout.

A travel trailer literally just plugs in to an outlet for electricity, and water comes through a garden hose from the house.

But you've got to dig up that sewer cleanout. You've got to know where it is. You've got to be able to find it and uncover it and run a pipe from the dump-side of the trailer to the inlet side of the sewer.

She dug all around her yard with no success. FEMA soon informed her that if she could not locate the sewer cleanout, they would have to give the trailer, her trailer, to someone else.

My friend never even knew there was such a thing as a sewer cleanout, buried and hidden somewhere under her front lawn. But suddenly, it was the most important thing in the world.

Finally, someone suggested she go to the parish utilities office. They keep records of such things. She said they were very helpful, showed her a map and told her where to dig.


My friend now has her cube-ish home, comfortably situated and fully connected in the front of her real home. She, her husband and two children share the queen-sized bed and two bunk beds, a 30" shower and toilet, and a kitchenette-dining-living room combo.

My friend says for the rest of her natural days, no matter where she lives, she will know where the sewer cleanout is.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Driving to the basket

As I drove toward the lakefront, I saw progress. Not victory, not the promise of victory, but progress nonetheless.

It'll have to do for now.

I was on my way to see a basketball game last week at the University of New Orleans. Once upon a time, I lived an easy five minutes from campus. The rushing flood waters of Hurricane Katrina pushed me and the family across town. We now stay in a comfortable apartment in the "sliver by the river."

But it's not home. Occasionally, if I call my Darling Wife from work and say, "I'm heading home," she will ask, "You mean the house, or the apartment?" Home for us is still an ambiguous state of living.

The Privateers were likewise deprived of their home last year. They used to play at Lakefront Arena, the modern multi-purpose facility at the University of New Orleans. It's been the home of Privateers Basketball since the early eighties.

Katrina ripped off large sections of Lakefront Arena's metal siding, exposing the interior to a watery deluge. It will be several more months before the Privateers can go back home.

So for now, for this season, they are playing games at their old gym at the UNO campus. The ground rises considerably near the lake, so only a few buildings at the university were flooded, and those that were are being quickly repaired. That's where I was headed.

I drove up Carrollton Avenue, starting at the Mississippi River--the high ground of the "sliver by the river." The sky was dark, but the street lights and traffic lights were cheerfully bright. Houses along the avenue we mostly lit, too.

Crossing Claiborne Avenue as I continued north, houses, schools and businesses were mostly darkened. Sitting in the middle of the darkness, a Rally's Burgers was open with no one in line, and a single gas station across the street looked fairly busy.

At the corner of Tulane and Carrollton, the friendly neon bowling pin of Rock'n'Bowl cast its bright red light across the empty neighborhood. The street lights were all on, too, which is an improvement from the last time I went by here after nightfall.

Down Carrollton past Canal Street, the ornamental lights that were installed just a few years ago with the installation of the street car tracks were all lit up in a brilliant display. This, too, was a show of progress. But the only thing they illuminated was the uninterrupted rows of lifeless buildings on both sides all the way to City Park. Restaurants, bars, a car dealership, grocery stores, and what used to be some of the prettiest little houses, were all still and silent.

I drove around the traffic circle at Gen. Beauregard's statue, and merged onto Wisner Boulevard for the rest of the trip to Lake Pontchartrain. Again, the street lights glowed in a bright line all the way down, but darkness ruled on either side.

I decided to drive pass by my house, just to see. Why not? It was on the way, and I had plenty of time before the game.

A short detour and I was driving down my street. A single word: darkness. It was like driving through a national forest on a moonless night. No street lights, no porch lights, no lit windows, not even headlights from other cars. I put on my high beams so that I could at least see some of what lay beyond the street curbs.

A boxy white FEMA trailer was propped up on blocks in one neighbor's yard, but it too was dark. With every house and every car and every lawn covered in a brown layer of mud, the brightness of the white interloper was startling. There is no electrical service on my street yet, no sewer service either, so I'm not sure how anyone could live here even in a trailer.

Further down, I stopped in front of my house. Couldn't see it in the darkness, so I turned the wheel and backed around to point my headlights at it.

Silent, dirty, and sad.

And doomed. My Darling Wife and I have already decided not to repair our house. No, it will have to come down so that we can build up. It's not your fault, I said to the house. You were good to us.

I continued on my way to the University of New Orleans campus. The street lights again lit the way once I found Robert E. Lee and Leon C. Simon Boulevards. And the old gym was clean and shiny. A faint smell of fresh paint and varnish from the wood floor was still in the air.

I got a beer and nachos, and watch my alma mater play an exciting game of basketball. It was almost like old times. Almost "normal."

Sadly, the Privateers did not win that night. We clapped and cheered and booed at the refs, but in the end, UNO came up short.

As I drove "home," back to the other side of the city, Coach Towe was on the radio. He congratulated the opponents for an excellent game and talked about the progress of his team in the shadow of the catastrophe that has ravaged our community. Not victory, not the promise of victory, but progress nonetheless.

It'll have to do for now.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

I saw it on a tee shirt

Some people love to laugh at us here in New Orleans. They think we're quintessentially dumb, drunk, lazy and corrupt.

Well, I'm here to tell you, it's nothing we haven't already said about ourselves.

Seriously. A big part of the fun of living here is being able to make fun of ourselves.

An example: a few years ago, the Young Leadership Council launched a campaign to improve our self-image. They took out advertising to remind everyone that New Orleans is a great place to live and work. The cornerstone of the campaign was the slogan printed on countless bumper stickers, "New Orleans: Proud to Call it Home."

Quickly the slogan was translated and adapted to different languages and cultural idioms, such as "La Nouvelle Orléans: C'est Chez Moi" and "New Orleans: Oy! Such a Home."

But then there was the witty variant, "New Orleans: Proud to Crawl Home." Yes, that sticker proved that many of our citizens cherished the party-all-night side of life here just as much as all the reasons to love New Orleans touted by the YLC. (Now that I think about it, I don't actually recall any of the reasons they gave!) I'm not sure what the final score was, but the "crawl" sticker certainly gave the original a run for the money.

The latest entry in tribute to the civic-minded campaign is this: "New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home." I have one on my car.

The t-shirt business also reflects our willingness, our need perhaps, to mock ourselves. Sure, there are plenty of "Make Levees, Not War" shirts out there, but there's also "I looted New Orleans and all I got was this t-shirt, a plasma TV and a Cadillac."

And a friend sent me some photos of some of the latest shirts being sold down in the Quarter.

Business is good, I hear, but who is buying these things? Tourists?

Nope, it's the locals. You might think we're dumb, drunk, lazy and corrupt, but at least we know how to maintain our sense of humor in a crisis.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A voice of reason

Our local paper, The Times-Picayune, really hit the nail on the head with this one. In a an editorial called "Permitting everything," the paper calls attention to the folly of allowing almost everyone, no matter how flooded or low-lying the neighborhood, to just rebuild right back at the same elevation.

I complained about the short-sightedness of this a few days ago, too, and warned that we're dooming our own future.

I keep hearing about the new New Orleans. Still hoping to see it one day.

Therapeutic email

What would we do without Yahoo! Groups?

After Katrina drowned our tree-lined street and washed all our neighbors away, the people of New Orleans were scattered. Phones failed and conventional mail service ceased to exist. But thanks to email, we've been able to stay in touch.

I've been able to keep up with neighbors in other cities and other states. The Diaspora of just my small circle of friends extends from California and Colorado to Arkansas and North Carolina.

This interconnection allows us to not just keep up with the lives of friends and neighbors, but it also helps us share information about rebuilding, insurance and the ins-and-outs of dealing with FEMA.

And perhaps most important but least appreciated, it provides therapy. Everybody has a story to tell, and the simple act of telling one's story provides basic mental therapy in this time of stress and loss.

Just read this story from Alice recently shared with neighborhood Yahoo! Group:

I've been a basket case since the day after Katrina.

On August 29th, I drove down from Maryland. I stayed in Chattanooga to let Katrina pass, then I continued on to Picayune, dodging fallen trees on I-59, and somehow managed to make it through to pick up my Momma. Picayune was the last exit open; I-59 towards Louisiana was barricaded shut.

I got her out of there, and spent the night in Macon, GA, waiting for my brother in law to take her to Florida. We went to a drug store there in Macon, and outside was a little stray kitten, obviously starving. I decided I was going to take the kitten with me.

I was inside the store, buying supplies for the cat, when a clerk came up to me and asked if I was planning on taking the kitten - - because her momma was on her way to pick up the kitten. She asked, "Did I really want it?"

I was starting to reply, "No, not if your momma is going to take it," when I started crying. I'm talking, SOBBING. I couldn't stop. The woman just looked at me like I was mental, and I explained I had just come from the hurricane zone and I think I was just losing it. She understood, and touched my arm, and just let me cry.

At that point, I knew my city was flooded -- we had watched Nagin's press conference the night before on my sister's battery television -- and I seriously thought I might be losing my mind. Maybe it was the thought that the kitten was "one life I could save." I dunno.

I've been acting really loopy at work too, making strange decisions, and making no decisions -- being indecisive.

But I think you put your finger on it. I know my loved ones are alive, and I'm grateful for that, but we have lost much of what my Momma and Daddy worked for in New Orleans.

You can almost feel the relief Alice gets in being able to share her story with everyone on the listserv. And deep down, I think we all share her desire to go on, to continue no matter what comes.

Even after rescuing her mother, Alice feels the need to do more, to reach out even to a helpless cat. She reminds us again that charity and compassion are the highest of virtues, and despite what the talking heads on the TV say, there is no shortage of these virtues in America.

And for me, that's enough therapy for a week or more.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ripping the scab

Follow New Orleanian and blogger Mark Folse has posted the best analysis of Mayor Nagin's speech and the backlash it unleashed. In an insightful and emotional post called "Talking with the King," he writes:

The unintended outcome of the speech, both in its religious rhetoric and in its signature "chocolate" moment, was to rip the scab off of the huge gash that separates New Orleans into separate, warring camps: by race, by section, by church, by income. It's not all Nagin's fault. It's all of our fault, that we measure each other by skin color or the car we drive, or where we park that car on Sunday morning or at night.

I think he's 100% correct. The outcry from all quarters is indeed telling. What hizzoner said was incredibly mild compared to the anger and apparently festering hatred that erupted in response.

In a particularly powerful paragraph, Mark reminds us how indifferent Nature is to skin color, especially when she is manifest in the form of a hurricane like Katrina.

Chocolate City

Okay, okay, the airwaves and the blogosphere are burning up with commentary about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's recent comments.

Yes, it was a poor choice of words.

Yes, he apologized.

So like we humans always do when something unbelievable happens, first we deny it, then we get angry, then we accept it, then we satirize it and make joke after joke until you just can't stand it anymore! Like for instance, this one a friend emailed to me today:

Well I guess we deserved that one. We've been trying to sell the naming rights to the Superdome for years, and Hizzoner stepped right into that pile all on his own, if you know what I mean.

But the Mayor is a good man. He's not perfect. He misspoke and he took responsibility for the mistake he made. That's good enough for me. It's not like they caught him smoking crack cocaine or taking kickbacks like some other American mayors I could name.

Besides, I love chocolate--don't you?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hard Decisions for New Orleans

That's the name of an editorial published the other day in The New York Times. The writer agrees with the sentiments of my recent post about the need to make better choices as we rebuild New Orleans.

Do we need better, higher, superior levees? Yes indeed. Do we need to elevate our homes to lessen the chances of repeat flooding? Yes indeed.

Does it make sense to restore a flood-ravaged house its exact pre-Katrina condition? Here's what The New York Times says:

"Even with a commitment from Washington to build optimal protection against the fiercest Category 5 storms - which hasn't happened yet - the work would take years to complete. Residents should not be encouraged to gamble with their insurance checks for political or emotional reasons."

To paraphrase General Honore, let's not get stuck on stupid. Partly out of ignorance and partly out of arrogance, we built the majority of our city below sea level, below the 100-year-flood elevation, below any reasonable measure of safety.

Now we're rushing to make the same mistakes again. Even as we curse the inadequate hurricane protection system, even as we hear the president dodge questions about federal commitment to significantly improving our levees, we just go on.

I love this city so much, it hurts to see all the destruction and suffering all around us. And it hurts to think that in 6 months, or in 2 years, or in 5 years, we'll have to go through it all over again.

Uh oh update

A few days ago, I posted about the uncomfortable situation I was in as I was trying to blog about my Darling Wife without using her actual name.

I asked for help from the blogging community, and I am happy to say I received a number of good suggestions. I also received a few zingers, but that's neither here nor three.

After culling through the many submittals, clearly the best suggestion and the ultimate winner (as if this were a contest) is "Darling Wife." In posts where multiple references are required, I was also told this can be abbreviated "DW". Doesn't that seem reasonable?

And so it will be henceforth that she will be known in this blog as my Darling Wife. I am confident she will be pleased with this choice. After all, this suggestion came from none other than DW herself!

Monday, January 16, 2006

A tradition of flooding

I've written before about how eagerly many people in New Orleans are repairing their flooded homes. A good thing you might say.

But most are just building back the same way it was before. Forgive me for saying this, neighbors and friends, but I think that's crazy.

I can't blame homeowners, who typically don't understand the science and engineering that goes into a hurricane protection system, the development of building codes or the establishment of a base flood elevation. They're just eager to get back home, and looking to protect their real estate investment.

No, the blame falls on city and federal government. The feds via FEMA run the federal flood insurance program. They establish rules, collect premiums and declare the minimum elevations for construction in flood-prone areas.

And the city issues building permits, which includes certification that structures comply with the rules and minimum elevation requirements handed down by FEMA.

So here's what's happening. The rules say that as long as your house is above the base flood elevation, you can rebuild just the same, no questions asked. I guess that's fair, but I sure wish the city and FEMA would at least encourage homeowners to raise their houses. I mean, as long as you're renovating it, and you've been bit by flooding once, why not elevate? If your house is the biggest investment of your life, and for most people it is, why not invest in protecting it?

The rules for houses below the base flood elevation are a little different. As long as your house is not damaged 50% or more by flooding, no problem, you can rebuild just the same, no questions asked. And no matter that you're below the required elevation, you can still get flood insurance. Such structures are "grandfathered." Again, I think we should at least be vigorously encouraging people to elevate their homes.

But why aren't we requiring people to raise their homes? Because anything less than half destroyed is not serious enough? If you worked in a factory and you lost an arm or a leg in the machinery, would you want the factory boss to say, "No problem, just go back to work. Unless you lose TWO OR MORE limbs there's no cause for concern"?

Just because Hurricane Katrina only put enough water in your house to destroy 45% of its value means nothing regarding future storms. A hurricane could come as early as this summer and cause even more flooding.

The final scenario involves homes below the base flood elevation that were damaged an amount equal or more than 50% of their value. The city will not issue a building permit to such homes, and even if you could get one, it is likely you could not get flood insurance. The good news is that these homeowners could get additional money above the basic coverage of their flood insurance policy to take measures to protect their homes from future flooding. Finally, a rule that makes sense to me, a rare event in my experience with the city and FEMA.

But here's the kicker that started off today's blog: There are a lot of homeowners who simply do not want to elevate their homes. Those that were given an initial assessment of 50% or more damage by city inspectors are now getting their damage assessments lowered. That's right, they've been going to city hall to appeal the damage assessment in droves, and I guess I should not be surprised, city hall is granting almost all appeals.

What this means is that most of flood-damaged New Orleans that is being rebuilt, is being put back just the same as before.

Now, I'm a huge proponent of better, higher, 1 in 10,000 year levees as anyone who visits here regularly knows.

But c'mon guys. We can't put all our eggs in one basket. We can't just blindly trust the levees to work all the time in all situations. We can't demand the federal government to pay for 100% of the hurricane protection and refuse to spend any of our own money to raise our houses by two or three or eight feet.

This, to me, is cheap and short-sighted. It's lunacy on a massive scale.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what Dr. Marc Levitan, a civil engineering professor at LSU and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers told The Times-Picayune:

"If you build to base flood elevation, there's an alarmingly large chance that you'll be flooded at some point... You're just asking for problems. I strongly urge communities to seriously consider adopting local flood plain ordinances that take the FEMA maps as a minimum and add to that."

Dr. Levitan agrees with me that FEMA's 100-year flood standard is way too risky and urges building ABOVE the base flood elevation. And yet, as I noted earlier, there are many, many homeowners eagerly rebuilding their homes below the base elevation.

They're "grandfathered," which is a nice sounding term that serves to preserve tradition.

In this case, a tradition of flooded homes and businesses.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Signaling little progress

Today's edition of The Times-Picayune reports on the lingering problem of inoperable traffic signals in New Orleans. They note,

"More than four months after Hurricane Katrina, fewer than half the 450 traffic lights in New Orleans are working, creating herky-jerky commutes across a stop-sign-dotted city and a daily reminder of the long wait for even basic services."

The story calls attention to the danger at such intersections, just as I wrote back in early December.

Some of these signals are in heavily damaged areas where their loss is little noticed. But others are in the bustling parts of the emerging post-K city, where their absence is sorely missed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The fix we're in; the fix we need

What a delight is was today to read Michelle's post about the dilemma almost all New Orleanians are facing following Katrina. It's good to know someone out there understands!

On her faeriebell's blog site, she states the problem clearly. How can we rebuild our city without significantly improving the hurricane protection system?

Congress and the president have pledged to rebuild the levees back the way they were before the storm. It seems stupid to have to say this, but perhaps it's not as obvious to them as it is to me: What we had is not good enough!

She clearly defines the issue when she reminds us:

"The government's first priority should be protecting its citizens, whether it be from foreign terrorists or from natural disasters."

A great big "Yeah you rite!" from me. Although it's nice to get a little financial assistance from FEMA (thanks, buddies), and it's certainly helpful to commit money to community block grants and business development programs, what's the point without better hurricane protection?

Can you do us all a favor? If you have a blog, if you know someone who has a blog, if you ever post comments on blogs, could you please follow Michelle's lead and write something about how New Orleans needs significantly improved hurricane protection?

Fix the levees, and the people will return. Fix the levees, and the businesses will return. Fix the levees, and New Orleans will live again. Thanks!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Dutch Solution

Since Hurricane Katrina pushed a monster storm surge into Louisiana and Mississippi, we've been hearing a lot about the superior flood protection in the Netherlands.

This week, our Senator Mary Landrieu took 50 elected representatives and decision makers over there to see how it's done. They're getting the grand tour of that nation's state-of-the-art flood protections, looking for the magic formula they can take back to the US.

But the so-called "Dutch Solution" is really quite simple.

The Dutch are neither smarter nor more innovative than us. They have the same science and engineering we have here in the US. They use the same kinds of computers and design software as we do. Their flood protection consists of levees and gates, and ours does, too. Wouldn't you know it, water weighs 62.43 pounds per cubic foot in both Holland and America!

There's only two things different.

First, they set a high standard for protection. While we Americans plan to defend our coast from a 100-year event, the Netherlands builds to repel a 10,000-year storm surge. If you think about it, 1 in 100 is simply not good odds.

Second, they fund their projects to the teeth. The Times-Picayune reports that the Netherlands spends about $1.2 billion annually on maintenance of their system. The US provides about $150 million on the Gulf Coast. Clearly, the Dutch put their money where their mouth is. Are you paying attention, Congress and Mr. President?

So let's cut the dog and pony show.

Over 1,300 Americans are dead because of half-hearted measures. Are we going to prevent another catastrophic event by pledging to build and maintain significant hurricane protection for the Gulf Coast? And are we going to pledge the money and resources to make it happen?

The answer isn't in the Netherlands, it's in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A journey through time

On Sunday, I departed the sliver by the river, the New Orleans oasis that remains after Hurricane Katrina. I drove up Carrollton Avenue, a once scenic and bustling corridor that runs from the river to City Park and Bayou St. John. It's now largely a row of badly damaged homes and businesses with gradually increasing floodwater lines as you travel toward the park. I traveled into the dead zone, my neighborhood in Vista Park, just a few streets over from the London Avenue Canal breach.

It's like a journey through time, or going from urban America to a muddy village in South America. I took some pictures of the place I used to call home. I thought I should share.

This is the front of the house. I used to have a lush, green lawn and a garden bursting with plants and flowers.

And this used to be the kitchen, with white cabinets and white countertops. And, yes, red walls. That's my refrigerator in the back there. Lucky for you this photo isn't scratch and sniff.

Our living room. We had two sofas in there. The other floated into another room. Part of the wall fell off, don't ask me why. A picture of a cat painted by my daughter is the only picture still hanging.

And this is what used to be the master bedroom. Somehow my dresser floated on top of my bed. My Darling Wife thinks the fans look like wilted flowers. Mold, mildew, fungus, free to a good home.

My Darling Daughter's bunk beds. She wanted leopard sheets to compliment her collection of stuffed tigers. Her books are all over the floor.

We evacuated in my wife's car. Here's what happened to mine. Before Katrina, I was thinking I could get about a grand for it. I think I will have to come down in price now. The dark lines on the house show how where the water stayed for a while. I think the flood peaked within a foot of the ceiling.

Everything in the shed is ruined, too. My tool box and everything in it now wear a fine coat of rust. Couldn't even sell these at a garage sale.

Damaged photographs. These are pictures of my father and my girl when she was a newborn. These are not digital photos printed at home. They were professionally developed and printed the old fashioned way. At least I think they were. And yet, the colors run. All of our photos share this fate.

All these things seem so distant now. We used to live here, eat here, sleep here, entertain here. We used to have neighbors and block parties. All of these things now gone or destroyed almost beyond recognition. The water diligently got into everything, spoiled everything it touched.

This is like a journey through time. To a prior life that has since passed on. A house that is now a graveyard. Rooms, once filled with people and furnishings, now occupied by moldy memories and shattered chairs. No one can rest in peace here.


One thousand three hundred twenty-six dead in five states.

One thousand seventy-eight from Louisiana.

One hundred twenty-nine still unidentified.

One hundred thirty-five days after Hurricane Katrina, still finding more bodies.

One more this week.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Been tagged: 5 Weird Things About Me

Okay, I've been tagged by Faeriebell to share 5 Weird Things About Me. Don't worry, this won't hurt one bit. Who is Number One?

1. I'm a 44-year-old-male who cries pretty much every time I watch an episode of "Highway to Heaven." You know that sappy Michael Landon TV show about the "angel" who roams the country helping people remember to forgive, be nice, and follow the rules of the "boss." I think it's that sad theme song played on the lone trumpet that gets me. And the kicker is, I'm not at all religious. I'm an Atheist.

2. My proudest accomplishment from my high school years is that I was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Organization. I know a wealth of trivia about Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Prisoner. I can recite the entire script of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and I have large parts of the other movies memorized, too.

3. I'm powerfully allergic to dogs, but not cats. I have lived with cats every day for the past 17 years, and they never cause me trouble. But if I visit the home of a dog owner, even if they put the dog outside while I'm there, within a couple hours I start wheezing, coughing and sneezing.

4. In college, I competed in the National Concrete Canoe Competition. This is for real. Civil engineering students from around the country annually build and race canoes made of Portland cement concrete. I was part of the team from the University of New Orleans. We placed 3rd overall at Nationals my senior year.

5. I rotate the silverware. When I put away the clean forks and knives, I always put them on the bottom so that silverware that has been in the drawer the longest will get used next. Yes, it's important.

So now you know. I'm supposed to "tag" five other bloggers with this obligation to post 5 weird things, but I can't do that. I don't like chain letters and chain emails. So put that down as number 6 if you want, but I'm not doing it. "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!"

Wasted again

Back in November, I blogged about the enormous amount of trash and debris that continues to be hauled out of New Orleans. But it's not just here. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma punk'd pretty much the whole US Gulf Coast last year, creating a steady stream of demolition and construction debris that will not abate for many months.

Government Executive magazine recently caught up with the situation and gives a lengthy and thorough analysis of the problem in a story called, "Agencies tackle massive Gulf Coast waste removal challenge." As an engineer, I found the article interesting, although I suppose this is not going to be the typical response.

I was amused to note they follow my lead and use a football stadium analogy to help the reader visualize the enormous volume of debris involved.

Monday, January 09, 2006

No news is good news, right?

Surfing the net, I stumbled on a "news" story from The Anchorman blog titled "New Orleans no longer needs help; Thanks anyway."

You might find it funny.

Or, you might think it's chillingly prophetic, as I did.

Tired of nails

I found another nail in my tire today. Really.

And I pulled it out with my bare hands. Really.

Since Hurricane Katrina smacked us around like a Mafia goon collecting on a bad debt, there's lots of debris on New Orleans' streets. I blogged about this last month, when I found a nail in my deflated tire.

At the time, I blamed that nail on the roofers who had been working in the neighborhood where I now live. There's not much hurricane debris laying around the sliver by the river anymore, but there's still some construction trash here and there.

However, I know where this nail came from. I am sure that it came from the neighborhood where I used to live, Vista Park. My old neighborhood, where my muddy, mold-covered house silently waits for its final fate.

The streets there are still covered in dirt carried by floodwaters. There is still a lot of flood-damaged furniture, wall board, fixtures and other belongings discarded on the curbs.

I knew when I was driving down my street yesterday that I was putting my tires in peril. I thought, "I'm going to end up with another nail in my tires driving around here." Really.

Today I noticed the small nail hanging out of the treads of my left rear tire. It wasn't embedded very far, or at least it seemed to be mostly exposed and bent to one side. I thought about it for less than 10 seconds before I decided.

"I'm going to pull it out."

I gripped it carefully with my bare fingers and began to twist and pull. I'd like to say it came loose with a satisfying "pop" like a champagne cork. But it made no sound. Especially important in this case, there was not even the slightest "hiss."

I held the reviled nail for a few moments, admiring my strength, imagining if Superman or Hulk could have done it any better. And then I properly disposed of the evil nail in a nearby trash can.

And that was the most interesting thing that happened to me today. Really.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Uh oh

Now I've done it. I've gone and gotten myself into trouble.

I've been blogging for a few weeks now, and being very discreet about "naming names." My daughter, for instance, is known in this blog only as "daughter." And my wife, my lovely wife of... wait, let me do the math... carry the two... um... 18 years, the woman I took in holy matrimony, she is known only as "the wife."

But she's not happy about this.

She sent me this email earlier today:

Tim, I love you and liked reading your blogs, but would appreciate some title other than "the wife." It sounds very 1950s male chauvinist.

So, what's a bloggin' guy to do? Do I call her "fabulous one with whom I share my life?" That seems a bit wordy. Should I refer to her as "the light of my life?" I think that's been copyrighted. I could call her "hootchie baby," but I'd prefer not to land on the sidewalk on my ass. "Wife" is just so succinct, I swear I didn't know it wasn't PC anymore.

I'm putting this question out to the blogosphere: what should I do?

Play the game

Well, once again Ashley Morris delivers an outstanding blog. He's got the sure-fire plan to get the president and congress to pony up to build significant hurricane protection for New Orleans. And its beauty lies entirely in its simplicity.

It just might work!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

He's Baaaaaaaaaak!

That's the subject of an email I received last night from a friend of mine.

His name is J. Michael, and he only just returned to Faubourg Marigny this week. For those of you who don't know much about New Orleans, that's the neighborhood immediately downriver from the French Quarter.

J. Michael had fled town when Hurricane Katrina hit to the icy environs of New York (the state). He's a community activist type, the kind of person who spends equal amounts of time writing and calling on lawmakers to encourage things to happen, and then volunteers his labor in the neighborhood to make things happen for real.

His emails from New York were both sentimental and humorously sad, but this one I got today sums it up pretty good. He writes:

I have now returned to my apartment in New Orleans. To assist the Corps with building Cat 5 levees, I brought the five cats, although they don't show any signs of being willing to work.

My neighborhood is OK, but the city is hurting. "We're all in it together," has given way to the old, "Every man for himself," as the NIMBYism over FEMA trailer siting shows. Developers are champing at the bit to build condos for the rich to use a couple times a year, but almost nobody is interested in affordable housing.

Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' has abolished the minimum wage, but there are still way too few workers, mostly because of the lack of housing. Relief workers are literally living in tents in City Park, but New Orleneans aren't allowed.

The Red Cross ERV still shows up on my corner once a day with free food. My local market and drugstore are still closed, so you need a car to get supplies.

I could make a very good living in the salvage business just cruising the streets. Americans don't repair, they throw away and buy new. This is what keeps Chinese workers employed.

Still, there is good food, great music, including new hurricane songs, and all the good feelings that make me love this city.

Welcome home, J. Michael. We need you and many more like you!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Staying on top of things

“Blue on blue, heartache on heartache”
--Bobby Vinton

A lot of folks in and around New Orleans are just happy to have a roof over their heads. In many cases, that roof is blue.

As part of a program funded by FEMA and managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, homeowners with damaged roofs in the disaster area can get a temporary patch of blue tarp “free for nothing.”

And a lot of people have taken the government up on the offer. According to a recent news release from FEMA, they’ve provided 77,510 blue roofs to date just in Louisiana.

Now think about this: Hurricane Katrina wasn’t all that bad a wind event in New Orleans. Sure, she was wound up to Category 5 just days before arriving here. But by landfall, the National Weather Service says Katrina had throttled back to a Category 3 storm. Better yet, the eye slipped to the East of New Orleans, so we missed the worst of her winds.

And yet, look at all those blue roofs. Look at all the homes and businesses that either got wet or came pretty close to getting wet. When water comes in through a bad roof and wets your sheetrock walls, it’s no different than if they got wet from rising flood water: you gotta tear it all out and put in new.

What would happen if New Orleans ever saw the business side of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane? Forget levees—even if we had significant levee protection, I’m thinking we’d have just as many heavily damaged and uninhabitable houses as we do now.

Keep in mind those 77,510 homes were the ones the owners felt were salvageable. No doubt there were many other houses with heavily damaged roofs that never got a tarp because the house is totaled anyway.

Keep in mind also that every shingle that gets pulled loose by hurricane force wind becomes a weapon. Can you imagine the damage that results when the hurricane hurls a few dozen shingles at neighboring houses at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour?

For now, the vast majority of homeowners are fixing their wind-damaged roofs with new roofs of exactly the same kind. No one should be surprised when the same thing happens again when the next Category 3 storm visits us. And let’s hope we don’t see a stronger hurricane for a long, long time.

Perhaps we need to rethink how we do roofs in this part of the world. Perhaps we need to put roofs on our houses that are held in place by some other method than just glue and gravity.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


A cool evening in New Orleans. The wife fixed another wonderful meal, we ate and laughed and I enjoyed an Abita Beer.

And now I must fill out the FEMA paperwork.

But I’m not complaining.

I mean, you can’t expect the government to just fork over money without some checks and balances, right? Just because your house got sloshed and your stuff is now one big mold farm exhibit, you don’t really think that automatically means you need aid, do ya?

So you have to gather receipts and keep track of expenditures. You start a file of insurance correspondence and NGO donations.

I’m not complaining, really.

Several weeks ago I spoke to someone at FEMA about getting rental assistance. Sure I have insurance, and lots of it. But there’s no “Loss of Use” coverage on the federal flood policy. That kind of coverage is only available as part of homeowner’s insurance.

And when your house floods, that coverage remains untouchable in plain view, like fine jewelry behind a thick glass display window.

The FEMA lady was very nice and explained the application process step by step, including the Housing Assistance Rejection letter they would be sending me.

Come again?

Yes, she kindly told me, everyone will get a letter that says their request for Housing Assistance is denied. This same letter will explain how to appeal this decision, which she encouraged me to do because I’m probably eligible.

I’m sure it makes sense to some bureaucratic wonk somewhere. But really, I’m not complaining.

The other day we got the rejection letter in the mail. “Good news!” I said to the wife. I had to explain to her that getting turned down was progress in the FEMA scheme of things. It’s much like a teenage girl making out. Sometimes, “No” can mean “Yes.”

All I had to do now was write a letter, attach all supporting documentation, send it in and wait for another letter.

But really, I’m not complaining.

“Dear FEMA,

“Thank you for rejecting my request for Housing Assistance! We were thrilled to get your letter. We really appreciate your interest in the plight of our family.

“Let’s recap: Our house is toast. We’ve already spent the $2,358 for housing assistance you sent to us in September. In fact, since Hurricane Katrina, we’ve spent more than $6,750 just on rent and emergency expenses. We’re sure we will continue have uninsured, storm-related housing expenses for the foreseeable future. Any help here would be appreciated.

“Be a pal, FEMA, and let us know what you can do for us, if anything. And don’t be such a stranger!


But seriously, I’m not complaining.

They were kind enough to send me a quick claim form, too. I was asked to provide some basic personal information and to declare, under penalty of perjury, “I have a continuing need for Housing.”

I guess there must be some folks who don’t have a continuing need for housing. Those folks might be homeless and might want to remain so. But that’s not me. And I guess FEMA wants to weed out the homeless. I don’t know why.

Look, I’m not complaining. Really, I’m not.

I’m glad FEMA is rigorously screening all applicants, even those of us from parts of the city where every single house got 7 feet of water. I’m happy to know that FEMA has created a counterintuitive process to test the will of those seeking aid. I’m pleased they’re sorting out the homeless, and I’m really glad they want me to prove that I don’t have insurance coverage that’s not even offered and that I’m really living in a different place now that my home is uninhabitable.

Seriously. I’m NOT complaining.


Beauty and birth amid destruction

I know I've been blogging mostly about the destruction here. It's hard to not dwell on it since Hurricane Katrina's handiwork is all around. But life here in the sliver by the river is not too terrible.

There is fun and food, which I've tried to post about on occasion. And there is beauty, too, such as this recent sunset over the river.

I've been calling where I live in New Orleans "the sliver by the river" since that's what it really is. Just a strip a few blocks wide that follows the high ground near the Mississippi River. I didn't make up that name and I don't know who did so I can't even give proper credit to the person.

I did recently find out who wrote the The Twelve Days of Post-Katrina Christmas, which I posted here a few weeks ago. It was Trina Beck, who blogs at Trina Loves New Orleans. I've added her blog to the sidebar along with some other fun and informative bloggers from New Orleans that deserve checking out.

What we all have in common is this: our love of this city, and our determination to carry on. The destruction, the heartbreak, the anger and frustration is all there. But soaring above that is the will to live, love and laugh.

Just read a few posts from Ashley Morris, and you'll see what I mean. Here's a guy who has welded his anger with his humor, and incredibly just watched his third child come into the world amid the uncertainty and ruin of New Orleans.

And they named the baby Rey d'Orleans Morris.

Lennon and McCartney were right. Life goes on, bra!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Broken trees

We went over to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to visit my wife's father today. He lives in Mandeville, which is a bedroom community spread out under the tall pine trees. It's easy to get to if you don't mind the 26-mile drive and the $3 toll.

Folks who live on that side of the lake do not have hurricane protection levees. Most don't need them because the ground is generally higher. Only the people who live within a mile or two of the lake are low enough to be in danger of flooding when hurricanes come this way.

What they do worry about is trees. When Hurricane Katrina roared through here a few months ago, she snapped pine trees by the thousands. A lot of people move to Mandeville for the beautiful and abundant trees. And ironically, the trees are a constant worry once they're there.

One of these large trees fell right on my father-in-law's house during the hurricane. It has since been hauled away and he's had carpenters build an almost entirely new roof. But there are still plenty of fallen and cut-up trees all around.

I took this picture of a pine tree in his backyard that cracked right near the base. I would guess this tree was about 6 to 8 feet around where it broke, so you get the idea how much damage this hurricane did.
And yet, this hurricane really wasn't that bad. It was not "The Big One" we've often heard about. Katrina actually weakened right before coming ashore to a Category 3 storm, so sustained winds were just above 110 miles per hour. And the worst winds were to the east of the eye, so New Orleans and Mandeville did not get beaten with the strongest winds.

But look what happened.

Immediately after pictures of flooding in New Orleans appeared on television, I heard people saying that it's crazy to live below sea level. We should know better.

What then, would they say about the residents of Mandeville? They live surrounded by towering pine trees. Are they crazy to live in forest-like subdivisions? Should they take defensive action immediately and cut back all trees that might fall on their houses in the next hurricane?

I say no. This is simply another example of how we live in nature. This is not a battle between humans and nature; this is the natural struggle of humans in nature. We humans are part of the natural world, and we should remain connected to nature and the environment. This is no contest with winners and losers, but more of a partnership with mutually beneficial balances of good and ill.

Unfortunately, hurricanes are part of the natural world, too, so we have to learn to live with them as well. Cut down all the trees? Abandon New Orleans and low-lying areas? That's what I would call crazy.

My father-in-law has almost finished making repairs to his home in the wooded town of Mandeville. And all around, nature is also repairing and rebuilding where trees broke and fell.