Friday, March 31, 2006

Janet's Video Diary 26 March 2006

Here is a video my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter made of our soon-to-be-demolished house in New Orleans near the London Avenue Canal. It features moldy walls, waterlogged furniture, amateur photography and all the color and chaos brought by Katrina.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Less than 8 inches of water

That much water would just cover your ankles. That much water would barely be enough to float a flatboat.

And that's how much water the MRGO contributes to hurricane storm surge.

I know it's incredibly popular to say that St. Bernard and the Lower Ninth Ward flooded because of the evil Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. I know that the press, politicians and people from all over blame the MRGO for the catastrophic flooding that occurred there, but the science of the situation says otherwise.

Everything I write now is detailed in a paper titled, "Note on the Influence of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet on Hurricane Induced Storm Surge in New Orleans and Vicinity." You can read if for yourself here.

Both before and after Katrina, engineers and scientists investigated the impacts of the MRGO on hurricane protection. Using the latest computer modeling and laser surveying techniques, they ran a variety of hurricanes through a digital rendering of southeast Louisiana. They ran the existing conditions, and then they ran the model with the MRGO completely filled to marsh elevation. They also ran it with a gate closure at the southern end of the MRGO. They ran hurricane models that mimicked Betsy, Katrina and other historical and synthetic storms.

And here is the result: the difference in storm surge with the MRGO was, at most, less than 8 inches. In most places, the difference was less than 4 inches.

Hardly a smoking gun, is it?

The primary author of the paper I refer to is Dr. Joannes Westerink of Notre Dame, a worldwide authority in hydraulic modeling. It is part of the government's official IPET investigation of what went wrong in hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

I expect critics of the Corps and the IPET investigation will want to dismiss this report as a whitewash of the effects of the MRGO. But they should know that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, often at odds with the Corps of Engineers, conducted their own model runs and came up with almost identical results.

How can this be? How can The Times-Picayune and public perception be so far off from the reality?

Well, part of the problem is simply a lack of understanding of hurricanes and hydraulics among the public. And it certainly doesn't help when newspapers and politicians jump on the bandwagon to ride public opinion for profit and populism. We all need to learn more before we form opinions on important matters.

Part of the blame falls on the Corps of Engineers, too. The Corps has not done a good job of educating their customers, the American public, about what they do and why they do it. The paper I cite is an example of this lack of communication and engagement with the public. Why haven't these findings been more prominently announced?

I think the average person can grasp why the MRGO contributes less than 8 inches to large storm surges. The simple explanation is that for events like Katrina, the storm surge is so high that water is flowing outside of the channel. When there's 18 feet of water moving toward St. Bernard and New Orleans, it just doesn't matter that there's a shipping channel down at elevation 1 or 2. The water is spread out miles wide in front of an advancing hurricane, so even the 1,000 feet wide MRGO gets lost in the massive storm surge.

Now, I'm not defending the MRGO or saying it should remain. There may well be other problems related to this channel that should be addressed.

What I am saying is that the magnitude of flooding, death and destruction was brought by Hurricane Katrina without the help of or need of assistance from the MRGO.

I think we should be talking about what to do with the MRGO. But let's stick to the facts and listen to the science.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Hurricanes: the enemy

A letter to The Times-Picayune makes a good argument about how we should be framing the discussion of hurricane protection for south Louisiana.

Esbii Ogholoh, writing from Kenner, Louisiana, reminds us that our representatives in Washington took an oath to defend us from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

"Here we have an enemy -- the hurricane -- that threatens to harm the United States of America each year. Yet we are debating whether we deserve to be protected or defended," he writes.

Amen, Brother Ogholoh!

If Al-Qaeda had attacked New Orleans, killed 1,300 and destroyed more than 200,000 homes and businesses, would Washington bureaucrats be talking about cost-to-benefit ratios? Would they be saying that it's the victims' own fault for living in a "dangerous" place?

Perhaps we need to rename the storms. Maybe if we start calling it "Osama Katrina" they will quit the quibbling and get down to business. Maybe if we were attacked by "Rita bin Laden" the President and Congress would understand and fulfill their duty to protect us.

Hurricanes are a clear and present danger to Americans, as real and deadly as any terrorist. We need our leaders to recognize this.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What remains

More bodies.

Seven found this month. Three in the last two days. So badly decomposed, the coroner's office could not even guess their gender. I know, it's disgusting.

I visited Arlington National Cemetery some years ago, and saw the famous Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers. I marveled at the attention given to these nameless defenders. The museum next to their crypts is filled with the medals and decorations from around the world posthumously awarded. So much care, love and respect--I felt proud of my country for making such a fuss over the common soldiers.

And here in New Orleans, going on seven months, with hundreds still missing and unaccounted for, the remains of victims of Hurricane Katrina lie in houses that still have not been searched, or under rubble that still has not been cleared.

The news of yet more bodies being uncovered is sad. But then I heard that they were discovered by volunteer college students, and that made me angry.

What does one say about a nation that will abandon the rotting remains of its citizens who fell as victims of catastrophe? What does one say about a nation that will leave it to the local fire department and volunteers to search for and collect bodies in the wake of such widespread disaster?

I suppose I should not expect so much. This is the same nation that continues to wring its hands over the probable costs to build a significant hurricane protection system, even after more than 1,300 of its good citizens were killed by Nature's unchecked fury.

And I suppose I should be grateful for the students who volunteered to spend spring break here, who are in fact helping where it is needed most. I am. Thank you.

But I worry that the vast majority of Americans are through with this whole episode. They've declared, "Mission Accomplished," and moved on to the next "Crisis du Jour."

Meanwhile, countless unmarked graves await discovery in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I know, it's disgusting, but that's just how things are in America today.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Katrina cats

Through all the trials and travails of these past six months, they’ve held up remarkably well. You’d think that such extreme events would have left them shaken, frightened, even traumatized. But, no, Smudge and Cally are doing just fine.

Our cats are some of the most traveled pets you would probably ever meet.

They live with us in New Orleans near the Mississippi River. Before Katrina, they lived on the other side of town near Lake Pontchartrain. And in between, they’ve been to Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia.

Prior to the hurricane, we had four cats under our roof. And a hedgehog.

Yes, I did say four. Yes, I did say hedgehog.

Our cats always were “in and out” cats, spending an equal number of hours prowling the neighborhood and sleeping on the beds and sofas of our comfortable house in the Vista Park area of town.

They did nothing to earn their keep—no hunting of vermin, no guard or attack duties, no alerting us in the middle of the night if there was a fire or a prowler in our house. Nothing, unless of course you count the pleasure of having one hop on your lap for a few minutes of trading purrs for petting, or unless you give them credit for curling up next to you in bed to share their warmth.

On Saturday, August 27 of last year, we realized with dread that we would have to leave town. There was never a question of what to do with the cats and the hedgehog. We had cages for them all and they would all go with us.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, we loaded up a car and headed west. My brother lives near San Antonio, and he said we would all be welcome for a few days.

The two older cats, Cupcake and Midnight, did not like the journey. They meowed and moaned on and off during the many hours on the highway. The two younger cats, also sisters, did not care for the car trip either, but they were not so vocal about it.

A few days later, when the enormity of the situation had settled upon us, we knew we could not stay in Texas. We decided that we would be better off staying with family in Virginia, where they had a larger house and children to complement our child.

And I knew that we could not keep all the animals. Not if we were going to be on the road. Not if we were going to be living by the goodness of family. Not if we were going to be in temporary housing for many months to come.

We were fortunate to find a generous family in Dallas willing to take two of the cats and the hedgehog. Although they agreed to take them permanently, they encouraged us to come back for our pets when we were able to.

From Dallas on, we had only the two cats, Smudge and Cally. Again, they slept most of the time, curled up in the back of the pet carrier. From Texas to Arkansas, a night in Tennessee, and finally to northern Virginia.

After a couple weeks in the basement playroom, we began to let them venture outside. I’m sure it was both scary and exciting for them, their little feline hearts pumping many times faster than a human’s, looking and tasting and smelling an almost totally different environment. They always came home when we whistled, and while in Virginia, they came home very quickly.

When I returned to New Orleans in late September, my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter remained in Virginia with the cats. Honestly, I missed them all.

About a month later, they all joined me here, in an apartment in the sliver by the river. Again, the two sisters had to learn about a new home and a new neighborhood. We thought perhaps Smudge was lost at one point, but she returned with a happy meow.

Through it all, they’re holding up remarkably well. I suppose you could say it’s a survival skill, that adaptability is the most essential survival skill of any species. Across thousands of miles, boxed up and transferred like cargo from one port to the next, Smudge and Cally have been through much more than the vast majority of domestic cats.

Our cats have been through a lot, and so have we. I still get people asking me, “How do you do it?” They say things like, “If I was going through what you’re going through, I’d totally lose it.” They really think I’m brave, or stout-hearted, or somehow above the average human because I haven’t had a breakdown in the aftermath of Katrina.

But in all seriousness, what choice do we have?

Life is simply getting up each day, not knowing what will happen, but setting out to face it anyway--and going to bed each night, not knowing what will happen in the morning, but making unlikely plans anyway.

Our house—gone. Our possessions—gone. Our routines—gone. Our friends and neighbors—gone. All of it washed away in a flood of nature’s fury.

You’d think that such extreme events would have left us shaken, frightened, even traumatized. But, no, we’re doing just fine. We have each other, we have a place to stay for now and dreams for the future.

And we have Smudge and Cally to keep us warm at night.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Demolition Man

“I'm a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom
I kill conversation as I walk into the room
I'm a three line whip, I'm the sort of thing they ban
I'm a walking disaster, I'm a demolition man”
--The Police

Our house is dead. It has been for some time. It just hasn’t fallen over yet.

New Orleans always was famous for its cemeteries. The above-ground mausoleums attracted both the curious and the faithful. Movies like “Easy Rider” featured them as a place to revel in the celebration of life that is inherent in the way we honor the dead.

New Orleans after Katrina is a city of thousands of more above-ground tombs. Vaults of life, love and happiness--now empty and silent. The smell of decay fills the air in neighborhoods like mine. The fungus flourishes.

And so we met with a contractor this weekend who will finish the job the hurricane left incomplete. We hired a demolition man to smash what remains of our house and cart it away. We asked him to pull up the slab, the sidewalks and the driveway. We told him to take the damaged fence and the dead trees, too. This he agreed to do for a fair fee.

It’s the quintessential act of insult added to injury: you have to pay someone to remove the wreckage of your home. Just another cost courtesy of Katrina.

We drove around the neighborhood to see if anyone else had done it yet. We found a pile of splintered wood and broken walls on the next street over. Down our street, a clean plane of sand fill covered a lot that used to have a house. The demolition business is good right now, and is surely picking up.

We have a tradition of Jazz funerals in New Orleans. Somber music accompanies the procession to the cemetery, but happy music ensues on the return.

For now, it’s still the somber music I hear when I visit my decimated home. I’m hoping that will change in the weeks to come.

Friday, March 10, 2006


That's what the military calls it. Short for Situation Report, a summary of local conditions.

No more than two blocks from my house, the Lake Terrace Gardens Apartments was home to scores of citizens, many students and employees at the nearby University of New Orleans. Katrina chased them all away, of course, scattered them like autumn leaves on the wind. The apartments and my house lie just a short walk from the major hole in the London Avenue Canal, a part of the city that sat in about 10 feet of water for more than two weeks last year.

A friend copied me on a recent email the apartment management sent out to their displaced residents. While its purpose is to assure customers that they do in fact intend to reopen as soon as possible, for the rest of us it's a SITREP of progress in our fair city.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize several themes, like the lack of electricity and traffic signals in our neighborhood. But the letter also hits on the financial morass some have been tossed into, where bankers and insurance agents and government programmers wield almost total power over their fate.

I'm posting it here in its entirety:

"Dear Residents,

"It has been awhile since we have communicated with many of you and it is now six months after Hurricane Katrina hit us. With most of you have scattered all over the country and some overseas, we wanted to give you news of how the recovery is coming in New Orleans. While many parts of the City are starting to show signs of rebuilding, there are many areas where the destruction is very much evident. In some areas people are starting to move back into their homes, while in other areas the renovation of their homes has not even begun.

"We will begin by stating that it is our intent to rebuild Lake Terrace Gardens Apartments. Unfortunately, the hurdles that we face in accomplishing this task are enormous. We are having major issues with our mortgage company and Fannie Mae. While the details are not important, the bottom line is that we have literally been shut down since before Christmas. We do not know when we will be able to resume reconstruction. Regarding deposits, we are unable to refund any deposits until we settle with the mortgage company and get refinancing in place.

"Yes, we did have Mardi Gras this year and it was truly a breath of fresh air for all of us. Unfortunately, what the news media showed of the City does not truly reflect its current condition. The French Quarter has returned to normal, but many homes in the City are still without basic services (electricity, gas, and telephone). Driving around the City you can see abandon automobiles and piles of debris on the street from gutted homes. Many traffic lights are not working and many streetlights are not lit.

"Even though the population of the New Orleans is approximately half of what it was before Katrina, traffic on the interstate is terrible due to the large number of people that are working in New Orleans and who reside outside of the City. Since housing is very scarce, many people must commute quite a distance to get to work.

"Even though we have heard from all of our employees, they have not returned to the City because their homes are uninhabitable. Carolyn Harper has done an excellent job of representing Lake Terrace Gardens, but an opportunity became available for her to accept another managerial position in the City. We are sad to say that she accepted the position and is no longer the manager. Under the circumstances, we believe that this was the right decision for her to make. We wish her the best and will miss her.

"Six months after the storm, we felt that we would be far along in our recovery and our return to commerce. This is not the case. We are still without electricity or telephone service. The damage to our infrastructure was much more significant that we could have imagined. It seems that the entire property will have to have all new electrical service provided to it. The cost to accomplish this task is enormous and there are many logistical problems that we need to overcome. Until we can restore power, it is impossible to start any meaningful restoration of the property.

"Our mortgage company is withholding all of our funds. The lack of funding has completely crippled us in our efforts to resolve our financial obligations, much less start our rebuilding. While we have applied for financial assistance from the federal government, as of this date we still have not received any. We are also working with local financial institutions to assist us with the financing for the work that we need to do to bring Lake Terrace Gardens back into commerce.

"As I have said and will say again, we intend to rebuild! The City of New Orleans desperately needs housing and we will do our best to accomplish this task. Since the property will require major work, there is an opportunity for us to modernize our apartment community and make it a better place to live than it was prior to Hurricane Katrina.

"We have received many emails asking questions and seeking specific information about what is going on in New Orleans in general and Lake Terrace Gardens in particular. We, like you, are asking the same questions. While we may not give you the response that you hoped for, it is very difficult to get answers to these questions as we are living in a very different environment than we were 6 months ago. There is so much uncertainty as to how New Orleans will look in the future and what kind of city it will be. We do believe that sooner than later the issues with our mortgage company will be resolved and we can continue the rebuilding process. Until that time we ask for your patience.

"This has been a very difficult time for all of us. While our spirits may be down, our resolve to return is stronger than ever. Say a prayer for our city NEW ORLEANS.

"Sincerely yours,

"Thomas Favrot, Jr.

"Lake Terrace Apartments, LLC"

The questions that come from the letter are the same that we all have. How can we rebuild the city without people? How can people live here until they have homes? How can we build homes if there's no money available? Who will invest money in a city that might not be rebuilt?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Boss is coming

It was all over the news yesterday: President Bush came to New Orleans.

This was his 10th visit since Hurricane Katrina made a mess of things. He walked around the shattered houses and piles of trash and said things like, "You've got a pile of stuff here."

As exciting as that can be (I'm being sarcastic here), what everyone has really been talking about was the impending visit of the Boss.

That's right, the Boss is coming to New Orleans. The real Boss.

Bruce Springsteen is playing Jazz Fest this year.

And he'll be there along with Fats Domino, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Dave Bartholomew, Deacon John, Rebirth Brass Band, and way too many others to list here.

So this is my shameless plug: You need to go to Jazz Fest this year. You need to book a plane, a train, a bus or a car and get your funky butt down to the Fair Grounds for one or both weekends. Jazz Fest runs from Friday to Sunday, April 28, 29 and 30th, and then again on May 5, 6 and 7.

It's win/win right down the line: you need to groove, and New Orleans needs the green.

In case you didn't know, Jazz Fest is presented annually by The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the music, art and culture of New Orleans. So it's a party with a cause, and the cause is to party.

While touring the devastated areas of New Orleans with her husband, Laura Bush was heard to say, "Goodness me, this place is FUNKY!"

Yeah, come back at the end of April, cowgirl.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

We need both Cats

It makes perfect sense to me. If we really expect the government to build Category 5 levees, we have to build Category 5 houses.

And yet…

By “Category 5,” I of course refer to the famous Saffir-Simpson Scale for hurricane intensity. The scale was developed by two scientists to help the weather folks and the general public talk about hurricanes. The scale conveniently allows us to understand that some hurricanes are more dangerous than others.

The scale tops out with Category 5, defined as a storm with sustained wind of 155 miles per hour or greater. It’s that or greater part that should catch your eye. As if 155 isn’t scary enough, that’s just the minimum wind speed for a Cat 5.

Let there be no mistake about those storms: they’re as bad as bad gets.

Now it might sound funny to say this now, but New Orleans has been very fortunate. We’ve never (in recorded meteorological history) been hit by a Category 5 hurricane. Katrina, briefly a Cat 5 out in the Gulf, quickly lost steam as she slashed across Louisiana on her way to Mississippi.

Katrina’s storm surge is now officially the biggest ever, both for Louisiana and Biloxi. Wind? Not so much, it turns out. As well we know, the flooding water did all the damage.

So here’s what we’re doing now: we’re rebuilding our homes and we’re begging (in some circles, demanding) for our government in Washington to build Category 5 levees to protect us. We say we’re worried that the dreaded Cat 5 hurricane is destined to come this way, and we want to be safe.

And if Congress and the President have an ounce of decency, they will rise to the mandate that the deaths of 1,300 Americans will not be tolerated. If they have any respect for life and humanity, they will build the levees necessary to protect the million-plus citizens who live in coastal Louisiana from the real danger of storm surges.

But what about wind?

Levees will not shield us from the wind.

Here’s the amazing part: while we talk about Cat 5 levees, we’re rebuilding Cat 2 or less houses. Does that make any sense?

As it stands right now, many houses in New Orleans would not survive a sustained wind of 155 miles per hour or greater. When Katrina made a glancing pass to the east of the city, winds hardly reached 100 miles per hour.

And yet, have you seen all the blue roofs?

So if we are serious about protecting our lives and property from Category 5 hurricanes, what should we be doing with our houses?

If that dreaded Category 5 hurricane does show up one day soon, even if we have the biggest, strongest, smartest, and perfectly impermeable levees on the face of the earth, will it matter? If 200,000 or more homes are left uninhabitable by shredding winds, how will that be any different than the catastrophe brought by Katrina?

I say, if we really expect the government to build Category 5 levees, we have to build Category 5 houses.

Doing one without the other makes no sense at all to me.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mondo Kayo on Mardi Gras!

Following are some photos from my Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Colorful Mondo Kayo

A family event

Tim, his Darling Wife and Darling Daughter.

Can't argue with that!


I admit it: I cried.

I cried at the end of the movie “Goodbye Girl” when the actor played by Richard Dreyfuss asks Marsha Mason to get his guitar re-strung while he was away. I cried while reading “Shoeless Joe,” later made into the movie “Field of Dreams,” as the writer/protagonist Ray Kinsella describes his love of both his father and baseball.

And I cried on Canal Street on Mardi Gras day.

Early in the morning, my Darling Wife, daughter and I all put on costumes at the house. We painted our faces and wrapped grass skirts around our waists in preparation for Mondo Kayo, the marching club we've been a part of for several years.

Grass skirts are the official costume of Mondo Kayo, which a local writer described as “bare midriffs, colorful halter tops, eye-catching headdresses, an island mystique, strange socks, samba music, the sound of castanets and percussion instruments, a fish necklace, some gyrating, pulsating, sexy dancing, and -- Ay, Chihuahua!”

Mondo Kayo’s tradition is to wake up New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day. Many people camp out along the St. Charles Avenue parade route in order to claim a prime location for Tuesday’s festivities. Others arrive near dawn to get a spot even though they’ve been up late or in some cases all night long enjoying Lundi Gras.

We marched out at 7:30 a.m., blasting (and as a long-time rock’n’roller, I can witness to this fact) blasting infectious Caribbean dance music that barrels down the avenue and bounces from building to building. There were smiles, and yawns, and cheers.

And when he passed Gallier Hall, the former city hall of New Orleans, where the Mayor and Council and all the muckety-mucks who claim to “serve” the citizens have reserved box seats, we stopped to toast the leaders of the northern-most banana republic. "May your banana trees never freeze," we proclaimed.

We headed down St. Charles toward world-famous Canal Street, the route lined with happy, festive people, some in costume, some in brightly colored attire. And even though it was us in the street and they behind the barricades, we were all there to participate in this public party.

As we crossed Poydras, the enormity of the moment swept up on me. Look at all these people, I thought. Look at the pure pleasure of their existence. Mother Nature and government had done practically everything possible to sap their spirit. Citizens who had once had good homes and good jobs had watched them wash away in the fury of flood and wind. Loved ones, more than 1,300 people, were left dead in the wake of Katrina. The aid and comfort of government that followed was slow and, in some cases, ineffectual.

But today, on the streets of New Orleans, joy.

Joy to be alive, and living in all places, here.

As we approached Canal Street, I thought about how special this was, how lucky I was to be here. I knew that just about everywhere else in America, even most of the world, today was just another Tuesday. It was just another day at work or school. It was just another day to toil and strive and survive.

But here, here in the city of New Orleans, survival is not enough. Sustenance is not the goal, but merely the means to the goal.

Here in New Orleans, Survivors celebrated and rejoiced in their survival. We are alive, the city said on Mardi Gras, and being alive is wonderful and joyous.

It hit me full force once we arrived on Canal Street. This city that had been through so much in the past six months simply refused to lie down. This city, still struggling with a lack of basic utilities and a shortage of schools, was not going to let a mere hurricane steal its soul.

All around me were the shouting, clapping, happy throngs of Americans who refused to surrender. The music of Mondo Kayo infiltrated the crowd and set feet to dancing to the blissful beats. All around, the sounds of joy.

I felt the tears flow into my eyes, and I wondered if anyone would see me dancing, smiling and crying at the same time. I wondered, too, if the tears that fell would leave streaks in my face paint, making me look like a pathetic clown.

I could not stop. I kept dancing and I kept crying for about two blocks. And as much as I cried for the death and destruction that had fallen upon this beautiful city and its loving people, I also cried for joy.

And if someone would later notice the tear lines down my face, I decided I would not hide or explain it away. I decided I would admit that I did in fact cry on Mardi Gras day.

It felt good.