Monday, December 24, 2007

Something we have in abundance

Christmas lights are out again. Thanksgiving leftovers had only just been put in the fridge when the lights and lawn ornaments returned.

The lights are especially significant in this flood-damaged part of New Orleans. I’ve blogged before about the symbolism of lights this time of year. I’ve written about how dark the streets are when so many houses are mere husks.

I walked over to my neighbor K.C.’s trailer next to the London Avenue Canal a few nights ago and I could not help but admire the scattered hearty souls who decorated for this holiday season. The word that leapt to mind was faith.

Christmas lights on a single house in the shadow of the repaired London Avenue Canal floodwall in New Orleans.

That’s not a word you’ll often hear coming from me. Having rejected religious creeds some time ago, you won’t hear me talking about faith in the supernatural.

But faith here is of a different breed. Faith here is not in the unobservable or the unproven. Faith here is in the power of community and humanity. These pioneers, having sunk I am sure a considerable sum of money and personal effort, returned to this damaged neighborhood.

They gutted and rebuilt in some cases or demolished and constructed entirely from scratch in others. They staked their time and money to some fairly barren streetscapes, where stray cats just might outnumber the residents and where only the moon illuminates the darkened windows and agape doors.

A darkened neighborhood in New Orleans lit by a single house with Christmas lights.

Where are their neighbors now? What will the city, the state, the nation do to assure that these first-to-return homeowners will not be the last? What promises were made to encourage their courageousness?

The answer, of course, is none of that matters. Because these pioneers are not here for such facile reasons.

They are here simply on faith.

They believe that the city will recover. They believe this neighborhood will thrive. They know, as fervently as anyone can know, their neighbors or someone just as good will repopulate these houses and breathe life into the Vista Park neighborhood again.

They have faith in all of these things. So much so, they have decorated for Christmas in anticipation of the homecoming.

And who can mock such loyalty and love? As a newspaper editor once wrote to a child named Virginia, who can doubt that such faith in the goodness of mankind will not be rewarded in full? Who would dare discourage faith in the virtue of one’s home, one’s city, one’s nation?

And yet, there are those who do just so. New Orleans lacks many things since Hurricane Katrina spilled misery into our city, and there sometimes seems to be an endless parade of crude newspaper editors and mean-spirited bloggers all too eager to point these shortcomings out.

Yes, we struggle on. We want for so many things in New Orleans, but not the frivolous fare hawked this time of year—not flat-screen TVs, diamond jewelry and xbox gadgetry. We are still trying to get back the basic things that make a community viable, livable and prosperous. We struggle for schools, for hospitals, for basic, decent housing for the poor and elderly.

But here is something we have in abundance: faith.

And it seems to me that as long as we have faith—in ourselves, our abilities, our shared purpose and community—the rest will not be out of our reach for too long.

Monday, December 10, 2007


And here is yet another complaint about the so-called 100-year flood protection--with a short detour first.

A recent article in Government Executive magazine profiles the efforts of a Princeton University economist to bring some hard, cold facts into the faith-based realm of public policy.

The article, "A Feel For Numbers," asks the question, "What if we fought terrorism using hard data instead of gut feelings and partisan politics?" The thesis is straightforward enough. If we possess the statistical know-how to realistically evaluate and assess risks, why aren't we doing so?

And further, why do we continue to formulate public policy on mere anecdotal evidence or human intuition? How can we justify committing billions upon billions of dollars of public money on programs or perceived problems while ignoring real and demonstrable threats?

Just for fun, the print edition shares some interesting factoids:

* The chance of dying in a car crash: 1 in 6,700.

* The chance of dying from a lightning strike: 1 in 3 million.

* The chance of dying in a terrorist attack: 1 in 5.3 million.

You don't have to be a Nobel Mathematician to see the unattractive picture those numbers paint. What's the greater threat to you? Poor roads and aging infrastructure? Or religious fanatics commandeering a commercial airliner? And yet, I bet you can guess where our national leaders place their priorities--and our money.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we need to infuse no less than $1.6 trillion over the next five years to improve our infrastructure to a good condition. Yes, that's trillion, with a "t." Current funding mechanisms are projected to miss that mark by about 33%.

Meanwhile, the price tag for our expedition in Iraq is likely to reach $611 billion in FY08--with no end in sight.

And if that leaves you feeling exposed and abused, one more factoid to sleep on:

* The chance your home will flood at least once in 30 years if you build at exactly the base flood elevation: 1 in 26.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Understand flood probability, don't mock it

And again, The Times-Picayune takes a whack at understanding and explaining this little bit of mathematics that has the power to doom us all. Wednesday’s paper includes a snarky story titled “Corps study presents 3 options for canals.”

I say “snarky” because of sentences such as this:

“The corps has committed to providing the region with protection from flooding created by a 100-year hurricane, which is obtusely defined as a storm with a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year.”

Regular readers of this blog—indeed, anyone who is around me for more than ten minutes—will know of my passion on the topic of level of protection.

I think it is vital that we discuss how much protection we have and how much we are getting from the government, in real terms. I abhor the use of misleading language and euphemisms, and I maintain that higher levels of protection are warranted when lives are at stake.

I said as much in the pages of this same newspaper.

The Times-Picayune, on the other hand, seems to be more cavalier on the subject. They adore the “100-year” colloquialism and in this edition slur the accurate description of the exceedence probability.

They say such talk is “obtuse.”

Just to be precise, I looked up the definition of “obtuse.” According to Merriam-Webster online, it is defined as, “lacking sharpness or quickness of sensibility or intellect” and “not clear or precise in thought or expression.” An online thesaurus provides these synonyms: dull-witted, simple-minded, imperceptive, thickheaded, stupid and slow. The antonym of obtuse is given as “intelligent.”

Now this seems to me to be completely upside-down. Calling the “1-percent-per-year event” a “100-year hurricane” is clearly less precise. I’m sure we’ve all met people who have incorrectly concluded that the so-called “100-year hurricane” can only happen once per century. This is the real danger of “dumbing down” important information.

And I think it is obvious to even the casual observer that what should be called “obtuse” is the newspaper’s simple-minded use of language that is neither clear nor precise.

But here is what is even more troubling: the apparent attitude of The Times-Picayune that its readers are too stupid and slow to understand what a 1 percent chance per year means.

Yes, of course it is easier conversationally to say “100-year storm” than it is to say “the storm surge with a 1 percent chance of exceedence in a given year.” I do it myself. And what The Times-Picayune has done for many months is use the convenient colloquialism throughout its reporting while providing the accurate description at least once in each article.

But in this instance, the newspaper has seen fit to deride the valid, scientific explanation. They indicate their disapproval, perhaps even mockery, of the intelligent discussion of a grave issue.

Thus they are not merely being non-technical. They are not simply making a common mistake in terminology. No, they are definitely taking sides. They are taking the editorial position that people who seek to communicate with clarity and precision are in fact ineffective and lacking sensibility and intellect.

This at a time when the conversation should be elevated and the population educated about the reality of living in the Crescent City. Now is the time to expand our knowledge and understanding of flood probabilities, not mock it. Shame on The Times-Picayune!

To use the example of the Netherlands, all schoolchildren learn the history of their nation’s struggles with the sea. They are taught about the failures and successes, they are made aware of what the risks are and what is at risk. Is this broad educational program an integral part of their success in building and maintaining a world-class flood protection system? I would say it is.

I will continue to blog and give public presentations on this topic, and I would welcome the cooperation of all who share this belief that an informed citizenry is an empowered and engaged citizenry.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Frozen Wetlands

More than once during the past 11 years, my Darling Wife and I have looked at our Precious Daughter and said, "She's just so wonderful at this moment. I wish she would stop growing and remain like this forever."

A fleeting, silly thought, but a very human one that I guess we all have at one time or another.

But it cannot be so.

Poets and philosophers have explained it over and over: Time marches on. The only constant is change. Nothing gold remains. The times--they are a-changin'.

The nature of nature is change. Things grow, they die and something new grows in its place. Mountains rise and fall. Even the continents are moving, and tides, once thought to be constant, rise and fall over long periods we humans can only barely grasp.

And yet we crave consistency. I've talked to dozens of nature lovers who want nothing more than to "save" the wetlands as they are right now. Or, they want to restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands to the way they were 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

Static, unchanging, frozen wetlands.

Just one problem: ain't gonna happen.

Because even nature itself--if for some reason we meddlesome humans completely abandoned the area--even nature would not build those wetlands and keep them safe in her loving bosom for any appreciable length of time.

We know that as often as every few hundred years, nature's way has been to build the Mississippi River delta up by sedimentation and repetitive flooding, only to abandon what had been created by letting the river jump to another location altogether. In the brief history of south Louisiana (brief on the geologic time scale), the Mississippi River has dallied from one route to the next: from the Maringouin Delta to the Teche Delta, then from the St. Bernard Delta to the LaFourche Delta, and on to the Plaquemines Delta until arriving in its current location adjacent to New Orleans.

Nature is never static.

So anybody who wants to preserve the "natural" environment in exactly its present state is probably being a little naive. Anybody who wants to rebuild the "natural" environment to recreate what it looked like in the past is probably being a little idealistic.

There's just no such thing in nature.

There are some who will tell you that natural forces should be unleashed to build and rebuild natural land formations. They'll chastise anyone who thinks we mere humans can control the environment and engineer it to our personal likings.

And then they'll show you an old map and tell you this is what it must look like. They'll talk about regulating flows and controlling salinity and nutrient loads. They'll show you where the islands will be and where the lakes and ponds belong, because, you know, that's what nature intended so that's what we must forcibly reconstruct.

If you meet someone like this, tell them to set their alarm clock to "Now" so they can wake up. What they are describing is not nature--it's engineering. (And it's human engineering at that!) What they want is to engineer the environment to mimic what nature has done in the past or what they think nature would do in the future.

What they want is static, unchanging, frozen wetlands.

There is no doubt that humans have an impact on the environment. Through invasive population patterns and the ruthless efficiency of our industrialization and consumerism, we have left a huge footprint on the planet.

And there is no doubt that we have the capability to change that. If we want to, we can curb or reproduction, we can decrease our consumption and we can pay attention to the planet that gave birth to us.

I remember there was a speaker at a conference here back in November of 2005--probably the first in the string of rebuilding seminars that followed Hurricane Katrina--had something significant to say about this even then. I remember he said that rebuilding New Orleans was not a struggle of man against nature, because man has his place in the natural order. Viewed correctly, he said it is the struggle of man to live within nature.

I think that's a more realistic view. We are not going to conquer or triumph over nature, but we are not going to surrender to the whims of nature, either. We must find a way to live within nature, to acknowledge what we can and can't do, to pick our battles with the elements wisely, to make informed choices and to remain vigilant of future threats.

We have to learn not to merely live alongside nature; we have to learn to live within nature. I know this is not as easy to do as it is to say. We still have so much to learn--I certainly know I have a lot to learn.

Back at home, I know that my Precious Daughter is growing up, and that the sweet girl she is will not last long. She will continue to change and mature into womanhood no matter how hard we wish she would stop growing. I know I must learn and adapt because as wonderful as the past has been, the future can be even better.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Level of protection

This is not a new topic. We’ve been talking about this in New Orleans for two years, so you’d think folks would understand it by now.

Okay, so maybe it’s not possible for everyone to get this.

But The Times-Picayune? Why don’t they have this figured out yet?

It’s not that bad if you stick to the simple facts. The so-called 100-year flood is really the 1 percent flood. It’s the elevation of floodwater that has a 1 percent chance of being exceeded in a given year.

Simple but essential. Because that’s the elevation that FEMA will use to establish the Base Flood Elevation. That’s the elevation you must be at or above to be eligible for Road Home and SBA funding for new construction. That’s the elevation you must meet or exceed to be eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program preferred rates.

And as you may have heard, that’s the elevation that is the basis of the ongoing work to build and improve the levees that surround much of the New Orleans area.

So we see how important this is. That’s why it pains me every time I read The Times-Picayune struggling to grasp this basic but powerful concept.

The most recent infraction arrived in front of our FEMA Travel Trailer on Saturday morning. The subject story was just a recap of the WRDA bill and what it means to those of us who live in “that part of the world.”

About five paragraphs down, the paper reminds:

"A 100-year storm is a storm that has a 1 percent chance…"

So far so good.

"…of occurring, or being exceeded,…"

Yes! Important to remind folks of that point.

"…in any given year..."

Outstanding! It’s like watching an Olympic ice skater spinning gracefully through the air.

"…during a century."

CRASH!!!! But the skater hits the ice with a thud and a groan.

During a century?? Where did that come from?

Sorry guys, but basic statistics rely upon predictability that comes from long-term randomly dispersed events. No one can tell you when the next big hurricane is going to hit, but we can certainly know the probability over given periods of time.

If I may get all mathematical on ya'll, the probablility of seeing the 1 percent event in any given 100-year span (or century) is about 63%. Anybody who has my PowerPoint presentation from Rising Tide 2 can check the graph and come up with this answer. Just don't ask The Times-Picayune.

Oh well, perhaps they’ll figure it out in the next two years. Or more.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Every morning I remember.

I remember the house that used to stand on our lot, with blonde brick and large picture windows decorated with our Precious Daughter's art work. I remember the houses that used to stand to the left and to the right, three houses in a long line of suburban homes that filled Vista Park, our three properties now vacant and covered in wild greenery that has taken over the void.

I remember the houses that used to stand across the street on land now leveled and vacant. The Marine family who I still think of as neighbors even though they bought a house 850 miles from here and will not return to New Orleans. The retired dentist and his wife who have both since passed away and who I count as victims of the flood.

As I walk to my car, a glinting catches my eye and I focus on tiny shards of mirror mixed with sand and road grit in the street gutter. Although our house and the houses around it were crushed and carted away many months ago, tiny souvenirs still occasionally present themselves. A cap from a bottle of nail polish. A flattened fork. And today, these glittering pebbles of a shattered mirror.

So much was destroyed here, and in the past two years, a flood of effort to clean it up has followed. Houses throughout the neighborhood have been or are being repaired, rebuilt, or replaced with new homes. But the residue of Hurricane Katrina lingers. How long will it be before it is completely washed away? The stop sign at the corner, still tilting at an improper angle, bears the stain of the waterline that drowned this neighborhood two years ago, broke and scattered the people who made their homes here.

The smashed pieces are a constant reminder--as if I need their help. I won't forget what this place used to be and what happened to the houses, the gardens, and of course, the people shattered by what happened here.

Every morning I remember.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Show us a sign

Driving by Pontchartrain Baptist Church today, I saw this sign:

Sign outside Pontchartrain Baptist Chruch near the 17th Street Canal Breach in New Orleans.

The church is located yards from the 17th Street Canal breach site in New Orleans. Although repaired and reopened for business, the building may be demolished to make way for the permanent pump station to be built in the next few years.

A lady leaving church told me they pray for everyone--saints and sinners alike.

She did not indicate into which category they would put the Corps of Engineers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Oh Snap!

Around the Vista Park neighborhood of New Orleans, several houses are under repair or construction. Although I am disappointed that many people are simply repairing slab-on-grad houses without elevating, I have been encouraged to see construction of new homes at safer heights.

The majority of these new structures are modular homes. Typically these houses are placed on walls or piers about 3 feet above adjacent grade--the minimum height according to the advisory base flood elevation for our neighborhood. An improvement, yes, but I sure wouldn't recommend building so low. As long as you're building a new house, I say go as high as you can.

A handful of houses here have done just that, raising their living space 8 or more feet off the ground. Of course, doing so costs more and requires a much more detailed design.

One such house, just around the corner from our FEMA Travel Trailer, was ready to be lifted into place this weekend. The contractor had started from scratch, driving new timber piles and placing a brand new slab for the garage level. They had then formed up about two dozen square concrete columns arranged all along the perimeter and a row right down the middle.

Saturday morning I saw the two halves of the new modular house being trucked in and the large crane towering above the trees and wires ready to lift those pieces into place. We were headed out for the day and I was just a little disappointed that I would not be able to see the house come together.

Late Saturday afternoon we returned to see the crane folded up and ready to leave, but the modular house was still wrapped in plastic on the flatbed trailers. I went over to take a look and met the contractor, a lanky man with a north Louisiana country accent. He scowled when I asked what happened.

"No rebar," he said. "Barely two inches of it."

At first I did not understand what he meant, but then I looked again at the slab and columns and saw that the entire center row of concrete columns had fallen over!

Toppled columns like dominoes at raised house construction site in New Orleans.

The contractor told me that the first unit was being lowered into position when the columns gave way. They snapped off at the base, breaking cleanly where the cold joint of the column met the slab, each one pulling out the scant two inches of rebar that somebody foolishly thought would be enough to anchor these 9 to 10 feet tall columns.

Shoddy column connection at raised house in New Orleans.

Luckily no one was hurt as they collapsed like thousand-pound dominoes. Lucky still that this defect was exposed sooner rather than later. Had this house been completed on such poorly anchored columns the first stiff wind would probably pushed the house over to one side or the other, where it could have crushed a neighbor's house.

Poor connection detial in construction of raised home in New Orleans.

I've seen a lot of houses near here that have been elevated post-K, mostly pier houses that were lifted and then lowered onto columns constructed in place right under the elevated houses. I don't recall seeing shear walls or even cross bracing on any of them, so these houses rely on the strength of the connection at the base of the column to withstand rotation forces. Let's hope they hired somebody who knew what he or she was doing.

Columns fail to stand in New Orleans.

Of course the contractor in this case blamed his subcontractor for the ridiculously shoddy work, but he has every reason to be red-faced, too. He should have made sure that appropriate anchors were placed in the slab, and he should have inspected the columns to make sure the steel was tied together to provide a continuous load path from the anchor straps at the top of each column all the way into the foundation. To his credit, he told me he is going to fix it as quickly as possible at no charge to the owner, and sure enough equipment had arrived Monday to start cleaning up the mess.

Columns of elevated house fall over during construction in New Orleans.

The lesson is a good one: hire people who know what they are doing and check everything. Going tall is great for flood protection, but let's not forget that hurricanes pack a punch of wind, too. You don't need a degree in engineering to know that taller houses are going to catch more wind, but perhaps you do need an engineer to properly design for it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Malcolm Suber offers leadership

We’ve got an election here on Saturday the 20th, and you wouldn’t know it except for the annoying and slick public relations commercials on TV and radio. Like their national counterparts, the plethora of wannabe politicians wrap themselves in images of family and blue-collar workers, all carefully scripted and created to project an image of trustworthiness and commonness.

But we know it’s all fake. We know that it’s all a fabricated veneer like the rich wood grain skin that hides the cheap and unreliable particle board of low-end furniture. I mean, seriously, is there really an iota of difference in the way the ad people are packaging and selling John Georges, Aaron Broussard or Jeb Bruneau?

But then there’s Malcolm Suber, candidate for New Orleans City Council At-Large.

Malcolm is running for the seat vacated by the reprehensible Oliver Thomas, a “public servant” who will forever be remembered as the man who served himself first and foremost.

In stark contrast to the pack of lifelong politicians, Malcolm is a lifelong community activist. Malcolm does not play the political games of saying only focus-group-tested platitudes. Malcolm does not pledge allegiance to the voters while secretly stuffing his pockets with the contributions of rich paymasters.

I met Malcolm at a party uptown last Friday night. It was a meeting of progressive candidates--no Democrats or Republicans were allowed. Just as Cynthia Willard-Lewis and Jackie Clarkson represent the failed politicians of the past, I believe the Democratic and Republican parties are monuments of past power and money-controlled politics that has led our government far too long. It’s the Democrats and Republicans who have led us to where we are right now.

Happy? Satisfied?

I’m not. I’m going to vote for as many non-Republicrats as possible. I’m looking for independents, Greens and Libertarians. If you think this country, this state, and this city are headed in the wrong direction, then let somebody else drive. Don’t just vote for the same people, the same political gangs, and the same well-connected machine of moneychangers.

With Malcolm on the ballot, we have the opportunity to remove the distasteful flavor of corruption and self-enrichment from the council. Malcolm’s slogan is, “No More Sellout Politicians!” and I believe he means it.

Malcolm and I talked about education, about empowerment, about building a community that trusts its police to protect them. I found him to be sincere and forthright in every instance. I'm not going to try to paraphrase his ideas here; I encourage you to visit Malcolm's web page to read for yourself.

No, I did not fully agree with him on every issue. But that’s one of the reasons I will vote for him. Malcolm is not going to just spout empty slogans and patronize values as determined by public opinion surveys. There’s no bait-and-switch here. Malcolm tells the truth about what’s important to him, about what he wants to do about it, about his desire to lead a revolution in this city.

And by any measure, that makes Malcolm a leader.

Isn’t that exactly what we need in New Orleans?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Produce your rights—or lose them

When danger lurks, Dangerblond writes.

What a pleasure it was to read my follow NOLA blogger in The Times-Picayune today. In “Produce your papers, or else?”, Dangerblond exposes the slow shredding of our Constitutional rights by a cynical, paranoid government. And while she unravels some complex legal issues, she delivers this important dose of civil rights medicine with a generous portion of New Orleans sugar.

I read it out loud to my Precious Wife this morning and she enjoyed it. I’m hoping you will like it, too.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

ENR: Engineering News Record

It's a magazine for us engineering and construction types. Not the type of place you'd expect to find a heartfelt story like this one:

"It happens daily in my mind, like that convention they used in old movies of the calendar pages turning to represent time passing. As I drive through different parts of town, the pages flip at lightning speed, and only I know the stories, people’s faces and details that cram the day boxes on the calendar. As the pages flip, my emotions run the gamut – loss, sadness, frustration, anger, stress, fear, relief. I turn onto Fox Drive, which happens to be around the corner from where some friends used to live. They moved to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and swore they would never come back to “the parish.” By the time I walk down the driveway, I am exhaling a huge, mind-clearing breath and thinking, this has been a helluva two years."

Read the full story by Angelle Bergeron at:
Two Years Later, Men Still Moved to Tears

Thursday, September 20, 2007


WONT41 KNHC 201956
400 PM EDT THU SEP 20 2007




The sky was black and only faintly blue on the horizon when I stepped outside this morning. The cats capered happily past me emitting squeaky meows as they ran out to greet the day. Dawn--the eternal symbol of hope and a fresh start, slowly peeled the darkness from New Orleans. Stars faded and disappeared.

I walked down the three steps from the FEMA Travel Trailer and stepped onto the concrete walkway. The walkway extended another 15 or so feet, and then vanished into rubble and dirt and low-cut weeds. Until about two years ago, I would have been walking this concrete path in the other direction at this time of morning. I would have been walking out looking for the newspaper, or perhaps leaving my house to go to work.

But that house is gone.

I am amazed by the sky this morning. We have had several clear, bright days in succession this week. Hot, but not too hot. Humidity practically unheard of for New Orleans. Absolutely wonderful weather.

It will not last, because the nature of nature is change. I know this day will pass. I know this FEMA Travel Trailer will one day be taken away. And perhaps most importantly, I know this time of trial will pass, too.

Despite this fabulous string of beautiful days, my colleagues and friends are worried about the weather right now. All of New Orleans worries. A thunderstorm in Florida with 30 mile per hour winds demands our fearful attention. Once bitten, twice shy I suppose, and Katrina took a huge bite.

We watch the tropical weather reports much more closely nowadays. We have the National Weather Service National Hurricane Center in our list of web page favorites. We study the maps like Allied strategists planning the invasion of France, and sift through the weather reports with the intesity of a baseball fan poring over the box scores.

But for now, the air is still and cool, and the horizon stretches around my neighborhood with ever brightening arms. We must embrace this day, even if it is just the calm before the storm.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Digitize me

I am identified
By my number
My insurance company knows me
By my number
SBA has my paperwork filed
By my number
I have a name
But names do not matter
Road Home can only talk to me
If I can give them my number
The bank is happy to serve me
By my number
The grocery store will give me food
If I give them my number
The more numbers we use
The more numb to humanity we are
I have a name
But I'm nobody without my number
The day is coming soon
When we will all be fully digitized
And the only digit I will give you
Is the middle one


Monday, September 17, 2007

The view from K-Ville

K-Ville premiers on television tonight. Folks here in New Orleans have been looking forward to it for many weeks.

The K is for Katrina, of course.

But it could just as well be for kennel, which is what it must be like to live in one of those FEMA Travel Trailer cluster parks where people are stored for some future undetermined purpose.

Or it could be for keister, which is where many of us landed after getting thrown out of our homes, our schools and our jobs.

Some of us, feeling abandoned or shortchanged by our fellow Americans, may think K-ville comes from the kiss-off we believe we've been given. I don't think that's the case. To be certain, a few compassionate conservatives have told us to kiss-off, but so many more have been generous that I'd rather think of their example of kindness.

But perhaps K stands for Kingfish, as Louisiana's populist Governor Huey Long was called. His legacy of Robin Hood-style government casts its long shadow over us to this day. Or looking at more recently elected officials, it may be a nod to the kickbacks extracted by greedy politicians such as Oliver Thomas and Edwin Edwards. Scum of their ilk have helped cement our reputation as among the most politically corrupt places in America.

However, I'm sure a few of you will see that K and think instead of the junior senator and his alleged kinky habits. Or of the free display of knockers exposed by drunken, out-of-town women on Bourbon Street.

Please, spare us.

If you read the newspapers, you'll be convinced K-Ville gets its name from the daily killings here, a sad statement of the social breakdown in some segments of the population and of the kill-or-be-killed rules of the drug trade.

I’d like to think that K stands for karma, that mystical principle that says what comes around goes around. The idea that as you sow, so shall you so reap. I see my city struggle in so many ways, and I know that if we deal with each other fairly and honestly, we will all benefit. And I hope that those beyond New Orleans who help us will themselves be helped when they are in need. I don’t wish ill upon anyone, but I strongly wish to see mercy served to those who are merciful.

But sadly, that K is just Katrina, that miserable hurricane that ruined so many lives two years ago. It will be difficult to think or talk of New Orleans without linking us to Katrina for many, many years. The water has been all pumped out and stinky refrigerators are long gone, but the stain and stench of Katrina will remain for a generation.

Perhaps the day will come when we'll have to be reminded what the K in K-Ville stands for.

If we’re lucky.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hang on to your hat

I could hardly believe it.

I was looking at a display for new roofing shingles at Lowe's. I was at the big box since the corner hardware stores are closed on Sunday. I wasn't shopping for shingles, but I was drawn by the pretty display which included large photographs of pretty houses showing off their new roofs.

And in the bullet-list of benefits was the shocking claim that these shingles were designed to withstand winds up to 60 miles per hour.

Sixty. Six-zero.

Who in the New Orleans area is buying these shingles?

Other shingles in the display promised protection up to 70 mph. What??

Doesn't everyone know that a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale has winds from 74 to 95 mph?

And it gets worse. You’ll only get the promised protection if the shingles are installed properly. Although the instructions are clearly written on the label of every pack of shingles, don’t count on a contractor doing a proper installation job. I know of two people who read the instructions on the package and then watched the laborers proceed to do almost everything wrong. Both had to browbeat their contractor into following the proper installation procedures.

So for everyone who bought cheap shingles and had them installed improperly, how much wind can your house withstand? Hope you never have to find out.

Recall how many Blue Roofs you saw after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA reports they installed temporary tarps on nearly 100,000 houses under their "Blue Roof" program following Hurricane Katrina.

And aren't we fond of pointing out how minor the wind damage was in our fair city? Yet look at how many damaged roofs we had. (NOAA reported a maximum surface wind speed at New Orleans Lakefront Airport of 60 mph, with gusts up to 75 mph!)

I guess we know why now. Sixty miles per hour shingles? How crazy is that?

The current building code for the New Orleans area is 130 mph. That's according to the International Residence Code adopted by the State of Louisiana.

So if state law demands 130 mph, the question is not merely who is buying these substandard building materials. The question is also why is Lowe's or anyone else selling 60 and 70 mph shingles?

I suppose you could use them for other than residential construction. You might want to put them on your detached garage or garden shed. You might want to put them on a child's play house.

Sadly, that is not what is depicted in the pretty color photographs in the Lowe's display. They show these substandard shingles on the roofs of upscale homes. That is patently irresponsible and perhaps even dangerous.

We all want "Category 5 Levees"--I hear it on the radio and read it in the paper all the time. But Category 5 hurricanes also have winds of 155 mph or more. What good will tall and strong levees be if the houses just get blown apart by the wind?

How can anyone expect the rest of America to take us seriously when some of us are installing roof shingles that will not even survive a Category 1 hurricane?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Another lifetime completely

For our anniversary, we used a gift card given to us at Christmas to enjoy dinner at the Red Fish Grill. We knew it would be special to eat at one of the Brennan restaurants in the Quarter. We did not know it would be our last meal in a fine New Orleans restaurant for many months to come.

It was late August, 2005. A few days later, we packed up our Precious Daughter, the four cats and a hedgehog and headed to Texas.

We left New Orleans fully expecting to be back in a few days. Everybody did. New Orleans, as you may have heard, is still not back. Not quite yet.

It's surreal to think about it now. There we were, the rightful inhabitants of this fertile delta, slipping away like thieves in the night, while Hurricane Katrina, uninvited, unwanted and unstoppable, came howling toward our home like a braggadocios minister bellowing to chase demons from the soul of the city.

In fact, it was surreal. The decision to leave was just the first to be made in the face of that hurricane. What to bring? What to leave? What about family elsewhere in the city? How do we secure the house? What about the neighbors?

Preparations consisting of a thousand decisions. I was worried that the solid wood driveway gate would be blown away by the storm. Could I secure it? No. So I pulled out the hinge pins and I carried the two large gate sections under the patio.

What about the cars? We would take my Darling Wife's Honda since it was newer and in better condition. The Toyota would be left behind. I drove it up the driveway and parked it as close to the side of the house as possible, thinking that the house might shield it from flying debris.

How about my guitars? Would love to take them, but no room. But what if a window breaks or the street floods and water gets into the house? I put my two guitars, a six-string acoustic and an electric bass in their cases and put them on the bed. Surely even if water got into the house, they would be safe on the bed.

Come Saturday, full scale evacuation was the order of the day. Governor Blanco was on the radio. "Get out." Mayor Nagin was on the TV. "Leave as soon as you can."

All lanes of the Interstate were converted to escape routes away from the city. Contraflow for the second time in just a few years.

Saturday traffic reports gave grim news. Slow going in all directions. Let's wait until late at night to leave. Maybe we'll catch a window and avoid the stress.

So many decisions, so many plans.

Contraflow worked. Our midnight run worked.

But inevitably, mistakes.

Two weeks later, I was a thousand miles away looking at the aerial photographs of the brown water that wrapped around every house in my neighborhood. I called my Darling Wife over to the computer. “Looks like the water goes right up to the house. I’m sure we got flooded.”

She leaned in to look. “Yes, but I wonder how deep?” These were, after all, overhead pictures.

I reminded her of the Toyota, the white Corolla we had left parked next to the house.

She looked closely. “I don’t see it. Where did it go?”

It’s still there, I speculated—just hidden by muddy water. That would make the water 5 to 6 feet deep, I guessed.

Brutal reality sets in.

When I finally got back to the house in October, I find the car is indeed right where I left it. And so are the wood gates.

And my guitars, having ridden the bed up to the ceiling and back down again, look unnaturally normal in the house where furniture and belongings have been haphazardly rearranged by dirty lake water.

But a closer look reveals the lie. The cases are damaged by water and covered with mold, and the guitars inside are warped by water and the relentless pull of their own strings. Both are lost and unplayable.

And now there are more decisions to be made. Where will we live? What can we save of our flooded belongings? What is to become of this house?

We left New Orleans in the middle of the night, leaving behind a city and another lifetime completely.

We entered the Contraflow two years ago, and we’re still traveling that road, hoping to arrive at our destination before too long.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A reference

During the Q&A following my presentation at Rising Tide 2 on Saturday, someone asked for more details about a study I mentioned.

I had talked about the minimal effect of wetlands when it comes to storm surge reduction. The study I quoted estimated that wetlands reduced storm surge at rates from 2.8 to 3.1 inches per mile. As expected, my marginalization of wetland restoration as hurricane protection was not popular. We all so very much want to believe that the answer is simple and easy. Sorry. It's not.

Anyway, I did not get the name of the person asking for the source data, but just in case she looks here, or someone else wants to investigate further, here is the reference from USGS:

Lovelace, J.K. 1994. “Storm-tide elevations produced by Hurricane Andrew along the Louisiana coast, August 25-27, 1992,” U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 94-371, Baton Rouge, LA.

I suggested to Maitri that they should post all the powerpoints presented at the conference on the web page. That might prove helpful, too.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

When bloggers meet

Here’s what I love about my fellow bloggers: they’re completely open and honest.

Like at the Friday night party that kicked-off the Rising Tide 2 conference. I saw Ashley across the crowded room and made my way to him to say hello. “Hey, Tim!” he said, and then without missing a beat or any prompting whatsoever, “I had a vasectomy today!”


Later, I was telling Bart how much I admire his ability and willingness to really open up on his blog and tell the whole story of his life. “That’s not true,” he protested. “I don’t blog about when I take a crap. Of course, if somebody else takes a crap—like in my yard—I blog about that.”

It's true. There are pictures.

Here’s something else I love about my fellow bloggers: they understand the power of words. They savor words in the way a wine connoisseur swishes the wine around her mouth before finally letting the fruity liquid descend through the throat. Bloggers enjoy the bouquet of good words in much the same way.

During my talk at the conference yesterday, I mentioned how the word “polder” had entered the vocabulary of my fellow engineers. Polder is the Dutch word for a drainage basin or sub-basin.

Mark immediately recognized the significance of the word and its impact. It’s a sign that we’re working with the Dutch and learning from them. It’s a symbol of the partnership and hopefully signals better things to come.

I did not realize that until now. I had blurted out the word as if it was just another carbonated beverage we gulp without a thought. It took Mark recognize and appreciate the fine vintage.

Overall, it was a fun, informative, engaging, entertaining event. I can’t believe I got all that for just twenty bucks. Many, many thanks to the good folks who had the vision and put forth the effort to make it happen. At the risk of leaving someone out, as I am sure I will, we definitely owe a debt of thanks to Maitri, DangerBlond, Oyster, Ashley, Morwen and Lisa. Thanks!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Miles to go before I sleep

August is a busy month. I've calculated that historically about 1/12 of all the significant events in human history occurred during the month of August.

The first atom bomb was dropped in August. The King of Rock'n'Roll passed away. Hurricane Katrina.

Some good things happened, too. My Darling Wife and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage this month.

And I've signed up to make a presentation at the Rising Tide 2 Conference on the 25th of this month. The title of my talk will be "In Levees We Trust." I picked that title because I thought it was a little more catchy than, "I don't know who is crazier: my neighbors who are happily going about fixing up their slab-on-grade houses that are for the most part below the 100-year flood elevation in a city that does not yet have even the marginal 100-year level of protection and likely won't for several more years to come, or, Congress and the President who seem all too eager and happy to send gazillions of dollars overseas to a war-torn country that will likely tear itself apart in civil war whether we remain there or not while dragging their feet on the appropriation of money to programs that would really benefit Americans, such as health care and infrastructure and flood protection."

Ultimately, August has been and will continue to be a busy month for me and that’s partly why I have not been so faithfully posting here. Work, family and other needs and obligations conspire to keep me from writing.

Not that there’s anything good to write about.

My Darling Wife and I have been slowly (very slowly) moving forward with our plan to build a new elevated house on our property in a severely flooded area of the city. I don’t think that is going to happen now. The cost of constructing a new house at a reasonably safe elevation is prohibitive. I have been searching for the poetic, deeply meaningful way to express the disappointment that does not give in to despair. I have been thinking of ways to frame the shock, the letdown, the contempt, and I don’t know—a hundred other emotions that come with the reality that has landed on us now. But it does not exist.

The simple fact is that building a new house in New Orleans today is very expensive. Elevated? That costs even more. I’ve talked to builders and we even got quotes from modular home builders that left us short of breath.

So now we’re looking to purchase an existing house. Of course it would need to be in the unflooded parts of city. Of course it will be expensive. But it will be less expensive than building new.

And it puts a curve ball on The Road Home and SBA. We have asked Road Home to change our grant from Option 1 to Option 2. We asked SBA to change our loan application from a Rebuild to a Relocation. As simple as it is to say that, it means a complete change in paperwork, as bureaucratically different as if we were going from roller skates to a nuclear submarine. I fully expect that, in the Rube Goldberg methodology of those two agencies alone, this could mean many months delay in the process.

We celebrated one Christmas in our FEMA Travel Trailer. What’s one more?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Creation and destruction

Here is the irrefutable fact about creation and destruction in the natural universe: destruction is fast and easy, but creation takes time.

It takes years to grow a tree, but you can cut it down with a chainsaw in a matter of minutes.

It takes months of gestation and years of nurturing, nutrition and support to produce an adult human being. But you can snuff out his life with bullet faster than he can emit a scream.

It took years of planning, design and financing, as well as millions of man-hours to build the World Trade Center Towers in Manhattan. But it took barely a dozen religious terrorists less than two hours to completely destroy both of them with two jumbo jets.

Destruction is always faster and easier than construction.

So why do so many people lament about "the slow recovery of New Orleans?" Is it because they don't understand this simple rule about creation and destruction?

More likely it is because they do not appreciate the magnitude of the destruction.

We're not talking about a few dozen houses clipped by a twister. We're not talking about a few lost shingles and some fallen trees.

We're talking whole subdivisions in which every house was flooded. Almost 400 of them in my own Vista Park neighborhood alone. To the roof. For more than two weeks.

All this destruction in a matter of days. Most of it in the span of a few hours.

I've heard it estimated that 200,000 homes just in Louisiana suffered severe or major damage due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. How long does it take to repair and rebuild that many homes? One year? Two?

According to the US Census Bureau (Manufacturing, Mining and Construction Statistics), 1.6 million new single family homes were constructed in the entire United States in 2005.

So 200,000 new houses is about 12 percent of the home-building capacity of the entire nation. It would take a monumental shift in building resources to make that happen. Stretch it out to two years, and it would take locating 6 percent of the nation's home-building resources in this one state for two years to rebuild that many houses.

Could we really expect that many houses to get built in a state that is home to less than 2 percent of the US population?

As the expression goes, "Rome was not built in a day." And New Orleans will not be rebuilt in a year, or two, or even three.

So let's do ourselves a favor and quick talking about why things are going slowly, or why things are taking so long to get done. Every day we move forward is a good day. Every month we measure progress is a good month. Every year we stand taller and defiant against the forces of nature and the indifference or incompetence of politicians is a good year.

Here is one irrefutable fact about New Orleans: WE ARE STILL HERE.

Friday, June 29, 2007


Regular readers of Chris Rose know that the locally revered writer for The Times-Picayune sought professional counseling to deal with depression last year. Rose credited his return to functionality to medicines prescribed to alter his mental state.

Over lunch recently, some colleagues admitted they, too, rely upon medicine bottle maintenance to keep their cars between the lines. Funny thing is, none of them lost a house to Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. I'm pretty sure none of them experienced even minor flooding. And I was the only one at the table that day who sleeps in a FEMA Travel Trailer.

They joked, "Tim, you must be taking more pills than all of us put together!"

People are amazed at how calm I am. I can’t explain how or why, but I’ve always had an attitude that there’s always hope for tomorrow, and of course, it could always be worse. I’ve been called Pollyannaish for this point of view. I’ve also been called Scarlett’s twin brother.

I remember being this way even as a young lad. I remember one morning on the school bus when we were involved in a minor accident. I may have been in fourth or fifth grade. My little sister was sitting next to me when the bus driver slammed on the brakes and we went flying forward for lack of safety belts.

The moment the bus came to a stop, children all around began crying. My own sister had a bloody nose after hitting the seat in front of us. I remember looking at it and, not seeing any cuts or protruding cartilage, calmly telling her to pinch it and hold her head back. I assured her that it would all be okay and that her injury was minor. As the bus driver made his way down the isle to check on each passenger, I told him I was taking care of her and that she was alright.

Nobody went to the hospital, and no one required medical assistance of any kind that I recall. After a few minutes, we continued to school and nothing more came of it as far as I know. But I remember wondering at the time why so many children were crying when there were no serious injuries.

More recently, I attended a class at the University of Tennessee in Project Management and Teambuilding. As part of the training, we did a mock bridge building project and I was made the project leader of one of the teams. One of our instructors was a retired Army colonel--a large man with a booming voice. I probably attracted his attention once or twice in class by asking sticky questions or outright challenging him.

Anyway, the whole point of the exercise was to give us a simple task that gets bogged down with every kind of problem imaginable to see how we would respond. The instructor played the role of the project sponsor, who was looking over my shoulder the whole time, making stupid suggestions, asking interminable questions and generally just getting in the way of my task. I responded by being as diplomatic as possible, and tried to keep focused on the goal.

About 30 minutes into the exercise, he got right into my face and was telling me that the way I was doing things was going to doom the project and that I had better listen to his suggestions. I told him, “Sir, I appreciate your input, but in this instance I think we should do it my way.”

His eyes grew large and his hands balled up in fists. And then he said, “Doggone it, how can you stay so calm when I’m throwing everything I’ve got at you?”

“Well, it helps to remember that this is just an exercise,” I said.

Since last year, family, colleagues at work and neighbors have variously expressed a similar sentiment. “How can you stay so calm?” they’ve asked. “If I was in your shoes, I’d be a nervous wreck!” they’ve said.

My answer is similar to my response to the retired Army colonel: “Well, it helps to remember that everything I’ve lost is just things. I still have my family, and I have to do my best to keep them happy and safe.”

What good would it do to break down and cry over lost possessions? What good would it do to mourn the loss of money and property? My Darling Wife and I decided early on that we would remain forward looking. We decided that we should teach our Precious Daughter a most important lesson in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Don’t despair. Keep hope. Work to make things better.

I am not claiming to be super-human. I have had my bouts with fear and frustration, financial worries and physical and emotional stress. But at the end of the day I must keep going, and I am confident that we will be okay. We have survived so much already, this sometimes just seems like an exercise.

And truth be told, we were never at any time in any mortal danger. We evacuated early. We never missed a meal, never worried that we would not have a safe place to sleep. Even our pets have had a relatively easy ride compared to many.

All that we lost was things, so perhaps my calm disposition is not all that remarkable after all. Under the circumstances, I find it easy to play the “Glad Game.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Unlevel protection

The American Society of Civil Engineers released a very readable analysis of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe last week. Maitri, a blogger and scientist with a curious mind, first made note of it on her blog. (The Times-Picayune finally noticed it Tuesday.)

The report is wide-ranging, and no doubt everyone who reads it will find something of passionate importance. Mine is this: level of protection.

As I have complained for months, greater New Orleans is doomed to flood again and again because of the very low level of protection. Congress and the president have deemed our fair city worthy of only a 100-year level of protection, a standard so low that commercial insurance writers are all but totally abandoning the area. We are rapidly approaching the point at which only government-backed insurance programs will be willing to take such risks.

ASCE notices this, too.

ASCE compared the level of protection we get with the level of protection afforded to Americans who live and work in the shadow of dams. They point out that dams are not designed merely based on frequency and availability of flood insurance--they are designed for LIFE SAFETY.

Let me say that again for the speed-readers and those of you in the back: THEY ARE DESIGNED FOR LIFE SAFETY.

ASCE points out that the federal Bureau of Reclamation's guidelines for public protection consider both the probable frequency of a catastrophic event and the likely loss of life. Simply stated, events that are both frequent and result in large losses of life are unacceptable.

Here's ASCE's example of unacceptable: "the historical performance of the hurricane protection system: a catastrophic failure, resulting in approximately 1,000 fatalities, which occurred once in 40 years of operation."

Applying the methodology for dam safety to hurricane levees, ASCE concludes:

"...if the hurricane protection system had been treated as a major dam, it would have needed to be designed so that the likelihood of failure would occur roughly once in 100,000 years to once in 1,000,000 years of operation."

Something to ponder as we await the release of the IPET Risk and Reliability Report.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It really is all about the food

Tom Fitzmorris, local celebrity/restaurant critic, wrote about the joy he experienced when quintessential neighborhood eatery Mandina's reopened earlier this year. He describes his stroll through the flood-damaged area:

When I reached Canal Street on North Cortez, a streetcar rolled by. When it passed, it revealed the neon lights of Mandina's, lighting up the corner as it has for decades, as if nothing had happened.

The sight of that spread a smile across my face. I've rejoiced in the reopening of dozens of important eateries around town, but rarely did one made me feel this good.

I shared that thought with a man I didn't know who was waiting for a table to open up inside. "I live in the neighborhood," he said. "But I didn't really start working on my house until I knew for sure that Mandina's was coming back."

Tom's website is called The New Orleans Menu.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The sun sets on Cabrini Church

They say you have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelet. The curved concrete shell that covered Saint Frances Cabrini Church proved somewhat more resistant than an eggshell, but it cracked and shattered nonetheless.

It marks the end of an era, that’s for sure.

I was still at work on Tuesday when my Darling Wife called me with the news. “They’re tearing down the church. A bunch of people are parked by the side of the road watching it.”

About an hour later I passed there on the way home. There certainly were a lot of people there. Many I recognized as neighbors from down the street from me. Some had simply come out from their houses across Paris Avenue. One lady leaned on the rail of her FEMA Travel Trailer and saw all she needed to see.

The demolition of Cabrini Church in New Orleans.

A lot of cameras. A lot of elderly ladies with long faces. A lot of men with their hands on their hips, shaking their heads as if to say, “What can you do? Nothing.”

By the time I arrived, the machines had stopped for the day. A few workers were still on site getting ready to wrap up the day. I saw one of them gather some bricks in her arms. Several feet away, two ladies waited outside the construction fence. The worker dropped the bricks by the fence and pulled it up from the bottom. “I got three for each of you,” she said. The two women scrambled to collect their souvenirs.

Collecting souvenirs from St. Frances Cabrini Church, New Orleans.

One of my neighbors, Kenny, was there. He and his wife were photographed by The Times-Picayune as they watched the church where they were married get smashed apart. “It’s sad, but it’s good,” she said. “It’s a new beginning.”

I also snapped a few photographs as the sun set on Cabrini Church. The broken cross still hung from her sleek spire. (Trivia: the cross was broken by Hurricane Cindy a few weeks before any of us had even heard of Katrina. All Hurricane Katrina did was turn the cross to point in another direction.)

There were no last-minute heroics as far as I could tell. The wrecking ball worked the landmark building into rubble without any of the theatrics that had occurred some weeks ago when the plan to demolish the church had been announced. But there were many sad faces on the street that day.

Hurricane Katrina flooded Cabrini Church in New Orleans.

There were a few Holy Cross shirts in the crowd as well. Some had brought lawn chairs and set up on the neutral ground to watch the show. They were the happy ones this day, as the useless hulk of concrete and brick was finally being removed from the site. Holy Cross has announced plans to build its new school on the site, with no room for 40-some-year-old church. The school plans to erect all new buildings, albeit with architecture that echoes the traditions of their 130-year-old campus they are abandoning in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I wonder if I’m the only one who sees irony in that.

I love my neighborhood, Vista Park. But by a strange twist of logic, I think we’re tearing down the wrong building.

Throughout the neighborhood are slab-on-grade, ranch style, suburban American houses. They were constructed before there ever was a FEMA or a National Flood Insurance Program. Consequently, pretty much all of them are below the 100-year Base Flood Elevation. Somehow, the owners of many of them think it appropriate to fix ‘em up and move right back in. They made no effort whatsoever to elevate or flood proof their homes.

Cabrini Church, on the other hand, was a landmark, a genuine statement of architecture as it was practiced in the 1960’s. Its owners decided it was not worthy of renovation, and they labored tirelessly with government agencies to clear the way for demolition.

It seems to me the church should be spared and the houses demolished and replaced—not the other way around.

I wonder if I’m the only one who sees irony in that.

Ultimately, this is just one man’s opinion. I don’t own a share in Cabrini Church or Holy Cross. You didn’t see me picketing or writing impassioned letters to the newspaper over this. It’s not for me to say.

I will simply note in this blog that in the first days of June 2007, the skyline of Gentilly was permanently changed, and that many more changes are rapidly coming.

It marks the beginning of an era, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cabrini Church

is being demolished. Right now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Electric and acoustic

Food, bands and fun on the bayou. More details here.

Tastes like shoddy engineering

UPDATE: National Geographic has taken down the video of Bob Bea putting gutter water into his mouth. The story remains at their web page, and the link button is still there, but it links to a different video now. Perhaps they realized how foolish and dangerous it is to taste gutter water, and perhaps they understand how irresponsible it is, especially for a man of science and someone who claims to be an engineer, to set such a poor example. The edited story is here.


The last few days have not been good for those of us working to protect New Orleans from future disaster.

First, we get college professor Bob Bea, a man who purports to believe in the scientific method and rational engineering, performing a “taste test” of gutter water as an alleged engineering assessment of a nearby floodwall.

I am not making this up. Bea bent over and dipped his fingers into a puddle of water at the edge of the roadway and put them into his mouth—twice—in order to determine the salinity of the water. He then announced he had determined, by the taste, that the water had come from the nearby Industrial Canal. Bea concluded that the newly constructed wall in the Lower Ninth Ward was being undermined and was thus doomed to failure.

It’s all on the video from National Geographic News.

Bea did not indicate what ASTM standard he used to perform the taste test. Neither did he say when was the last time his tongue had been calibrated for salinity testing. But nonetheless, here he is, on video, putting dirty, perhaps biologically infested gutter water into his mouth.

Shame on Bea! What kind of scientist performs taste tests on dirty water? What kind of engineer sets such a poor example by putting potentially disease-filled water into his mouth? Notice in the video that the reporter immediately follows Bea’s despicable example. Let’s hope this does not inspire people around New Orleans to taste the gutter water near their homes as they mimic this alleged expert.

Second, we have John Barry, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East board, repeating--as if it were well-established science--the unfounded but popular claim that a mile of marsh will “absorb” a foot of hurricane storm surge.

Barry wrote an excellent piece in The Washington Post this week about why we need New Orleans, and why America owes its brothers and sisters at the mouth of the Mississippi River the best hurricane protection we can afford.

He starts off on scientifically solid ground, recounting how the river built south Louisiana with sediment from the north. Barry goes on to explain how the river no longer carries the mud necessary to continue its work.

But then he repeats the myth of marsh as hurricane protection, stating as fact that “Each land mile over which a hurricane travels absorbs roughly a foot of storm surge.”

Not true.

The best research to date indicates that each mile over land reduces a hurricane storm surge by about 3 inches. And mind you, even this is really not all that conclusive—it could be much less.

Why is this important? Why would I want to knock Bea and Barry, who are obviously allies of New Orleans and who are out there fighting for a safer future for us?

Because the way I see it, shoddy science and ill-considered engineering are what got us into this mess in the first place. We don’t need any more of that.

If we’re going to have a safe and secure future, we have to proceed with the best information, the most accurate and scientifically valid information available. We need engineers and scientists to wear out their pencils working on this problem, and we need them to develop a rational, methodical plan to get us where we need to be.

What we don’t need is rumors, myths, new-age pseudo-science, and stunts. And unfortunately, that’s what we recently got from Bea and, to a lesser extent, Barry.

Let’s hope Bea doesn’t contract dysentery, and let’s hope he starts to act more like an engineer and less like a carnival side show act.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Don’t Worry About The Government

Today is the birthday of David Byrne, who was not born in New Orleans.

I forgive him for that oversight, though. I've been a fan of his band Talking Heads from day one. In my post-Hurricane Katrina life, I no longer have the collection of vinyl albums and video tapes I had collected of this crazy, quirky, brainy group. But I remember it all.

A favorite of mine is the song "Don't Worry About The Government," a happy enough pop ditty with a simple arrangement of guitar, bass, drums and a belltone keyboard effect that sounds innocent and pure.

"I see the clouds that move across the sky
I see the wind that moves the clouds away
It moves the clouds over by the building
I pick the building that I want to live in…"

We all make choices. We pick our building--our community of comfort and support.

"...My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax alone with my loved ones…"

We're at home at home. We enjoy ourselves. We enjoy each other.

"...Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,
Take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important…"

We work in buildings, too. We find meaningful, productive work, but we always have time for friends and family.

"...Don't you worry bout me
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry bout me
Don't you worry bout me…"

The more you say, "Don't worry," the more I worry.

"...I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C.
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

"Some civil servants are just like my loved ones

They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along…"

The whole country is like a big building. We live and work, and we can count on each other. Don't worry about the government, because the people who work for government are just like you and me.

David Byrne wrote this in 1977, not long after Nixon had resigned and in the midst of "stagflation." Was he being optimistic, or sarcastic? Was he toying with socialism?

And what happens when your building gets severely damaged or destroyed? Will other buildings take you in? Will the government take steps to make sure that the buildings are strong?

Well, I say forget about it. It's just a pop song. It's just a little ditty to pass the time.

Don't you worry about me. I wouldn't worry about me. Don't you worry about me.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The one-two punch

John lost his mother and brother in the past few months. You might say he lost them to Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Sunday morning I wandered out of our FEMA Travel Trailer to look at the day. Across our vacant lot, across the lot next door made recently vacant as well, I saw John standing with his hands on his hips. I walked over to say hello.

The house that used to stand next to our vacant lot was knocked down last week. The backhoe arrived late one afternoon and parked in the front yard. When I got home from work the next day, nothing but brown dirt remained. The only evidence of the house was a few glass shards and chips of brick.

It's one of those odd circumstances of urban living. We moved here about 6 years before Katrina, before the flood washed the neighbors away. John lived just two doors away. But I don't recall ever meeting him before this day.

So as suddenly as the levees breached, as swiftly as the neighborhood had been doused, as quickly as that house between us had been ripped up and carted away, we stood there and talked as if we had been talking like this all along.

John told me that he had lived here since he was 10 years old. His mother and father had built one of the first homes in Vista Park. He said it was the second house on the whole street. He pointed to a white-brick house a few hundred feet away, telling me that was the only other one here back in the early days.

And now, John observed matter-of-factly, it's looking a lot like it did back then. Vacant land all around. A few houses and not much traffic.

John was soft-spoken and alert when I talked to him. But there was a slight slur as one side of his mouth lagged in movement. It was easy to guess that he was in his 60's; I wondered too if he had suffered a stroke recently.

The clear sky radiated a blueness that only occurs on the hottest days. The bright light of morning was tempered by the low humidity and light breeze of what was starting out to be a beautiful day. In stark contrast, John told me about the unhappy journey his life has become since that not-so-perfect-day in August 2005.

The Saturday before Katrina attacked, John and his elderly mother were planning to stay. They had stayed for Betsy. They had stayed for Camille. The street had never flooded and damage was mostly from a few fallen trees.

But Sunday morning John heard panic in the voices of the reporters and meteorologists on the TV. The hurricane had not turned. It was headed here. He heard desperation in the pleas of the Mayor and Governor. He decided to leave his childhood home, still expecting to come back in a few days. John took his mother to the north shore, to a house his brother owned on the relative high ground of St. Tammany Parish.

We all know what happened that Monday.

The weeks and months that followed have continued to be hard on John. Harder still on his family. His elderly mother was not able to return home, and his brother took up the job of filing the paperwork for insurance and government assistance. John was not specific--and I did not press for details--but at some point his brother was not able to go on. He killed himself less than a year after Katrina.

John's mother, now dealing with further grief, had to move to an assisted living facility. "She lasted six months," John says, so plainly that it startled me. As if her death from the one-two punch of a hurricane and a suicide was a given.

"And how about you?" I asked. "How are you getting along?"

He tells the same lie we all tell when asked. "Fine."

He purchased a condo in Metairie soon after the storm. John initially wanted to return here, had the house gutted and treated for mold. He's been keeping the lawn trim and made some inquiries with contractors.

But now he thinks not. "I don't need a three-bedroom house," he says. "And I don't have the energy to do the work anyway." His current plan is to sell it to The Road Home program, and he knows what will happen to his childhood home then: demolition.

He surveys the land around us. "I remember all these trees when they were first planted," he says with a mixture of pride and sadness. He smiles a crooked smile and shakes his head.

John lost his house in Katrina, and you could say he lost two family members, too. But more than that, he lost his home and probably all that remained of his youth and energy.

The rising waters drowned a lot more than just houses, and many, like John, are still treading to survive the flood. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Of Leaders and Opportunists

Leaders inspire us with vision.

Leaders help us to become more than we thought we could ever be.

Leaders show us how we as a community can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Leaders are in short supply in New Orleans right now--or are they?

I guess it depends where you look.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Correction and update

It was pointed out to me by both my Mom and my Darling Wife that I can't tell the difference between a thistle and a cleome. It's the latter that I captured in the photographs below. Oh well, I guess I should stick to engineering.

That's the correction; now the update.

I've noticed that I get at least one or two hits per day here from people searching for Camellia Grill. I find it hard to imagine that when one googles Camellia Grill, probably the most famous lunch-counter eatery in this city so famous for great food, they wind up at this non-culinary blog. Well, I do on occasion blog on food, because ultimately, it's always about the food in New Orleans. But that is far from the main topic here.

Anyway, the family was in the Riverbend neighborhood on Sunday so we walked by the tall white columns of Camellia Grill to see what was up. The doors were wide open, probably to let the place air out from a fresh coat of white paint. Relaxing comfortably on a chair off to one side was a bright-eyed fellow in painter's coveralls chatting cheerfully on a cell phone. He lowered the phone and announced, unprompted, "Open soon! Come back!" I'm as much a linguist as I am a gardener, so take it for what it's worth but I would guess his accent was Italian. In fact, he said next week.

We three peeked in to see what we could. The walls were bare and newly painted or spackled. The counter is still there and looks the same. The stainless grill equipment and shelving is still there and looks the same. Several stools looked as though their seats had been ripped off and were ready to receive new cushioning. My Darling Wife and I wondered if in fact it could be ready by next week. Still looked like a lot to do to us.

But as we turned to leave, I could've sworn I caught the delicious scent of frying bacon. Open soon! Come back!

Monday, April 02, 2007

A thistle grows in New Orleans

A few months ago, I was admiring the sunflowers popping up in the neighborhood.

Today, it's thistle that catches my eye.

Their large, round, spiked buds shine bright pink and purple in the afternoon sunlight. Some reach upward no less than 4 feet on a tubular, jagged stalk.

Thistle volunteers in post Katrina New Orleans.

My Darling Wife loves them. When I told her that I was going to trim our little patch of lawn the other day, she asked, "Why?"

Because it needs to be cut, I said.

"Okay, but don't cut the wildflowers." Apparently, she thinks some of the scraggly, odd-shaped weeds growing around the FEMA travel trailer are actually pretty. Not knowing much about plants and gardening, I made her come outside and point out what she wanted to keep just to be safe.

She pointed to a tall, ominous looking plant sprouting near the steps; a thistle that had not yet bloomed.

Gardening Factoid: There is no biological designation for a "weed." A weed is simply a plant you don't like that shows up in your garden uninvited. If for some reason you DO like it, it's not a weed--it's a "volunteer."

So being the fine husband I am, I carefully cut around the volunteer and complained about it profusely.

Thistle (I learned after I looked it up on Wikipedia) come in several varieties. Ours is probably a Milk Thistle. The Wiki folks describe its prickles as "an adaptation protecting against herbivorous animals." I don't know about that, but speaking as an omnivore I can assure you I was not even slightly tempted to eat it.

There were several other scraggly, climbing and spreading imposters that I was told to leave alone. The current environment in this damaged city seems to favor the wildest of weeds (or volunteers) over the nice grasses we usually would have had before the waters came. The brown that dominated following Hurricane Katrina is quickly being overrun with green.

And we continue our love/hate relationship with nature here.

The city of New Orleans considers unkempt lawns a sign of dereliction and is starting to enforce what is called a “Good Neighbor” ordinance. It’s a law that requires homeowners, whether here or there, to maintain their empty houses and properties. In the neighborhoods of New Orleans, untamed nature is not to be tolerated.

At the same time The Times-Picayune trumpets the need for us to work with nature, to allow her the space to “do her thing.” We are told that humanity’s desire to control our environment is at the root of all our problems here in coastal Louisiana.

The answer, I think, lies between these two views. I don’t agree that we are helpless and should surrender to the furies of the natural universe. But I also don’t think we should view nature as the enemy at the gates. This is not about mankind versus nature, but of mankind living within nature.

Hurricanes are part of the natural environment of the Gulf of Mexico. And our insatiable appetite to build and shape the human environment is perfectly natural, too. Heck, even the most ardent environmentalists will draw you a picture of what they want the coast to look like--as if nature needs their help to make her vision a reality!

No, I say we ARE nature. I say we have to enact our own adaptations to survive in this environment. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build a hurricane protection system that incorporates multiple lines of defense, so that one localized failure won’t doom the city. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build our houses up off the ground and strong enough to withstand the wind.

We will struggle on. It is the nature of nature, you might say. The people who have not left, the people who are coming, we will all make it happen. Our houses will rise over the tangled, tortured landscape.

My Darling Wife and I are finalizing plans for our own high-rise home here. We are going to stake our claim to this land and this city. We are not defying nature; we are working within nature to make our home here.

Around us, other houses are rising. Several new slabs have been poured here, and the homes of the new New Orleans are taking root. Only time will tell if we will be viewed as volunteers or as weeds.

Thistle growing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I looked again at that strange thistle, and had to give it credit for its perseverance and tenacity. Looking around at the neighboring vacant properties, I see several more of them scattered about.

They rise defiantly on the vacant land here, growing where some would not approve, reaching where some would not dare.

A few months ago, it was sunflowers, rising up from the damaged landscape.

Now it's thistle, standing tall and warning away enemies with its prickles.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Memories of war

There are tears welling up in his eyes. “I was given the Navy Cross. But I’ve never worn it.”

Joe is more than 80 years old now, but he is still pained to think of what happened when he was just a teen. A frail, slightly bent man, Joe is the recipient of numerous professional association awards. A man who made his career in Civil Engineering, a man who tells me, to my surprise, that he was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.

We talk in the hallway of the hotel, near the ballroom. It is time for cocktails as the guests arrive for the banquet that is part of the annual spring conference. Idle chatting turns solemn.

“I’ve never talked about it. How can you,” he says. He describes his service in the Pacific, driving landing craft for five separate invasions. “How can you describe seeing a young man’s scalp torn off, a young man that may have been riding in the landing ship on an earlier trip, his brain washing in and out of his skull with the wash of the waves?”

Joe, I tell him, it’s good to talk about these things. You should be proud of your service.

“I don’t deserve that medal,” he says. “Not after all those boys who didn’t come back. What did I do?”

You did your duty, I say. And you should talk about what you went through to honor those that didn’t make it and to educate young people about the sacrifices of war. You did your part, and you should be proud for what you and all those other guys did.

He nods, but I am sure he is not convinced. We talk of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, how they are working to document the stories of his generation—before they’re all gone.

“Stephen Ambrose hounded me for years,” he confesses. “But I never wanted to talk about it.”

He finally admits that someone from the museum recently did get him to talk. She came by his office with a video camera and taped about three hours of his war memories. Joe says she was pretty.

I laugh. You dirty old man, I say, so that’s what it takes.

It was his fifth landing that was the worst, he says. They told him there would be little resistance. They told him there would only be a hundred or so Japanese on the island they attacked that day. There were 9,000.

The Japanese thought Joe knew something about the Navy’s special ordinance. Joe says he thinks that’s why they didn’t kill him. That’s certainly why they tortured him. Joe survived more than a year in their brutal hands.

“They used to wake us up before dawn by jabbing us with bamboo sticks,” Joe recalls. “Then one day, the sun was up, and nobody came to get us.” He hitched a ride with an Aussie soldier on a battered personnel carrier all the way to Singapore. After more than a week, he arrived and found a Navy Destroyer anchored in the bay. They told him the news. The Japanese had signed a treaty of unconditional surrender. It was September 1945.

Joe’s eyes glisten as he speaks, but he manages not to cry. So many years ago, and yet so clearly near to him.

“Hey, this is supposed to be a party!” he says suddenly.

Yes, let’s go get another drink, I tell him. You deserve it.