Friday, June 09, 2006

Conviction and courage

ENR Magazine dropped a bomb on us this week. In an opinion piece titled, “The Reshaping of New Orleans Is a National Problem,” the editors of ENR (that’s Engineering News-Record for my friends in Bunkie) advocated throwing in the towel on our fair city.

New Orleans, they say, will never be safe. Cut the dead and dying branches, they say.

“The American people are generous in helping other Americans recover from disasters,” they say, but that charity has limits. No use throwing good money after bad, they calmly advise.

I’ve read a lot of negative, defeatist editorials, letters-to-the-editor and blogs since Hurricane Katrina stomped across Louisiana in her size-69, steel-toed boots. But this one hurts.

This one comes from a magazine for and about engineering and construction. This one comes from people who would directly benefit (handsomely, I might add) from any civil works program to upgrade and improve our hurricane protection system.

And their response to the challenge is, “It can’t be done.”

Wrong. Not only can it be done, it must be done.

The Corps of Engineers recently accepted significant blame for this disaster, admitting to the first mission failure in its 200-plus-year history.

But the Corps is not quitting. They are not sounding retreat like the editors of ENR are, writing from their comfortable offices in New York City. The Corps is rebuilding existing authorized levees, and planning improvements to be built as soon as Congress and the President release the money.

The Army knows that when you lose a battle, it doesn’t mean you lose the war.

Yet the naysayers continue to whine.

Won't it be difficult? Hell, yeah. Just ask anybody down here. But surrender to the “whims of nature,” as the President told America from Jackson Square, would be worse. That is unacceptable.

Won't it be expensive? Like nothing this country has ever done. The amount of dirt that will need to be moved to build a superior barrier around the New Orleans area alone will exceed the total amount of excavation required to build the Panama Canal.

Is it necessary, or even wise? Considering the shortcomings of the hurricane protection system that exacerbated this catastrophe, it is both necessary and just. And consider the shame and demoralizing effect abandoning New Orleans would have on the nation—remember how much it sucked when we pulled out of Vietnam and declared “peace with honor?” It took America a generation to get over the shame of that one.

But it can’t be done, can it? Don’t get stuck on stupid. Americans always have and always will accomplish whatever the hell they set out to do. Engineers in government, private industry and academia are already working out the solutions.

Conviction and courage will bring this city back. It is quite clear to me that’s what the writers at ENR lack, and what New Orleans has in abundance.


T. said...

I never understood why so many people think that a decent levee system is such a faint possibility. We sent a man to the moon, didn't we? I don't see why we can't build a decent levee system when America sets its mind to it.

Mr. Clio said...

I start freakin' out when engineers sound defeatist. I'm glad you're around as an engineer coming from the other side.

Anonymous said...

The editorial didn't have the word "levee" in it. Quite amazing. "Corruption" appeared a few times. Wonder when we get an editorial about Iraq from them.

Ray said...

Peace with honor in New Orleans. Jeezus.

I'm moving to Amsterdam where the engineers aren't such pussies.

Gina in N'Awlins said...

You know what people forget? That New Orleans is HOME to so many, and isn't THAT enough? I have to remind people all the time. It's MY HOME! That's what angered me so much during the national mayoral debate - the frigging cab-driver in Detroit question. My answer? Put it in plain terms for him: Should DETROIT ever be rebuilt if it, God forbid, is ever destroyed?

(Thanks for checking out my blog, BTW ;~)

bayoustjohndavid said...

What was that editorial doing in an engineering magazine? The argument was almost entirely political. The argument seems to be less about whether the city can be made safe than rather it should. It starts off by saying that the city was already dying and had high crime rates and corrupt leaders pre-K. In others words, if N.O had been booming and not had a reputation for honest leadership it would be worh saving. It hardly seemed to me, of course I am a layman, that they were discussing it as an engineering issue at all. Frankly, it would have made me angrier if it hadn't been so blatant. The tone was so over the top that I was suspicious about who the editors were, but a quick look at the online edition didn't reveal anything.

Actually, I see that Mark C. made my point in a much more pithy manner.

Laurie said...

Great post and great comments.

Anonymous said...

Is this a reputable magazine?

Check out the letter on this page:

Anonymous said...


Mr. Clio said...

Thanks for the link. I emailed the brilliant editor:


I am not an engineer, and I could have written this editorial. Does this concern you?

My point is that the essay requires no knowledge of engineering whatsoever. It is a political document.

Most disturbing of all is your diagnosis of the causes of New Orleans’s situation. All of your symptoms are attempts to lay blame on the local population. I can assure you that the poor decisions about levee design, oil and gas development, and “overdevelopment” were made by national institutions and individuals. Also, the daily choices of Americans (e.g. to build a national “culture” that serves mostly as a support system for cars and the consumption of fossil fuels) are playing an enormous role in the destruction of my home city.

I can assure you that we New Orleanians have taken radical steps to change things here—reform of levee boards, local government, and the educational system are the most obvious examples. I have seen zero attempts at radical reform within the federal government or international corporations that have contributed so mightily to this tragedy. We’re doing our part. Why won’t you demand similar work from people who really can do something about the things that matter?

In the end, if you spend more time doing engineering instead of social and political commentary, we would probably all be better off. While you drone on, places like Sacramento and St. Louis remain vulnerable.

Chris Wiseman
New Orleans

Vicky said...

I'm so sick of this argument and it makes me nauseated that an engineering magazine would use this wimpy argument. They're rebuilding the World Trade Center, aren't they?! I'm sure that's not easy...

Give it up, folks! You can't deter us New Orleanians that easily!!!

Anonymous said...

The Great Storm of 1900, as it is called,leveled Galveston. Back 106 years ago, Galveston rivaled New Orleans as a strong port city on the gulf, a center of commerce, trade and wealth. It was decimated by that hurricane.

Yet, WAY back in 1900, the people of Galveston rebuilt their city. They raised it several feet, including all of the homes and buildings that survived the hurricane. Literally, they raised houses up on stilts and shoveled mounds of dirt underneath just to save them from future flooding.

If Galveston could be rebuilt and saved back in 1900, surely we can rebuild the great Crescent City of New Orleans in 2006. Anyone who says it cannot be done is foolish, short-sighted and pessimistic.

Roux said...

My Dad is an engineer and I've never heard him say "it can't be done". There is a always an engineering solution.

The problem is, will the politicians and lawyers get in the way.