Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My ideas

A few days ago, I posted a blog about “The despised MR-GO.” Someone using the name “steve” posted this reply:

“Plugging the MR-GO will not solve all the issues, I get that. Ivor van Heerden is not 100% qualified to come up with a total civil engineering plan save the city, I get that too. Something needs to be done. Even if Ivor van Heerden is not qualifed is there a better voice? Is he half right? What do you think can be done? Can the city really be protected? Point us toward some qualified answers. I would like to see your ideas.”

Okay, regarding Ivor van Heerden, I gave a full explanation on an earlier post, but to recap, he simply is not qualified because he is not an engineer. Now you might want to seek medical advice from people who are not doctors, and they might even give you good advice from time to time, but I’m not willing to risk it all on a geologist when we need world-class engineering here. Who then? I have the utmost respect for Tom Jackson, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, currently on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Bank.

A big part of the problem here is communication. Levee safety is a complex subject. Just as I wouldn’t expect the public to understand in any detail how the Empire State Building is able to withstand wind and gravity forces, I really don’t think the average person on the street can ever understand all the ins and outs of hurricane forces and structures to protect us. At some point the public is going to need to let engineers do their jobs.

And before anyone jumps on that bandwagon and yells, “But it was misplaced trust in engineering that got us where we are now,” let me remind everyone that there were many engineers who proposed several alternatives to the hurricane protection system that we ended up with. I do not defend the oversights and shortcomings of my peers who failed us here, but I am of the opinion that we allowed ourselves to be guided by politics, short-sighted planning and false economy when we should have been listening to good engineers.

What can be done? I think we need to take a long-range, universal view of hurricane protection. We can’t expect levees to do it all. We can’t really believe that we can plant grass to stop a storm surge. We have to adopt and enact a full range of strategies to protect ourselves. This should include:

1. Significant levee protection. Not just a 100-year levee at our back door, but multiple lines of levees to an appropriate level of protection. Highly developed, densely populated areas should get 1,000-year levees at the least.

2. Rational levee alignments. Have you ever seen a map of levee alignments? It looks like a 3-year-old’s drawing of clouds. For decades, we’ve allowed politics to place the levees, and we end up with the famous “funnel” where the MRGO levee meets the GIWW levee. Every hydraulic engineer on the planet knows how stupid that is. Dutch engineers I’ve spoken to are amazed at how long and jagged our levees are. They know that levees need to laid out to be as short and smooth as possible on the map. Shorter lengths mean fewer places for potential problems, and smooth alignments mean no more funnels where storm surge concentrates.

3. Raised construction in the flood plain. Okay, so we managed to get away with slab-on-grade construction in the New Orleans area for a few decades. We were lucky. Now that we know how sudden and catastrophic a flood can be, can we please start building our homes up off the ground? Even before Katrina and the levee failures, houses in the New Orleans area would flood when there was a hard rain. I’m talking May 3, 1978, May 8, 1995, etc. We need to elevate. NOW.

4. Evacuate! When the National Weather Service says it’s going to be bad, please, get out of town. Even if we have great levees, even if we have elevated houses, nobody should be betting their lives on them. Ask anyone who stayed for Katrina: evacuation is a lot easier and safer.

Can the city really be protected? If you’re asking for foolproof, 100% protection, the answer is, “No.” Just as there is no foolproof, 100% safe automobile, medicine, or anything else, don’t even ask for a perfect hurricane protection.

I do think we can do much, much better that we have up to now. I do think that with a concerted, cooperative effort between citizens and government at the local, state and federal levels, we can do this.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A hard left from a right blog

I don't know why I bother. I guess I'm just hard-headed.

I stumbled upon a blog that had some fairly callous things to say about Louisiana and our slow recovery from the injuries of Hurricane Katrina. The blog advertised itself as a "right wing" blog, so I should have surfed away.

But I didn't.

The blog and its commenters put 100% of the blame for the before, during and after Katrina problems completely on Louisiana and New Orleans. Their view was that President Bush and the federal government had done everything they could and should, and that nothing more remained but for the locals to finish the job. In their view, people here are stupid, lazy and corrupt, and all our elected officials are eligible for a cameo on The Sopranos.

I thought if they heard more of the facts, they'd understand. I thought if they heard our side of the story, they'd empathize. I thought if they actually interacted with a living human being, they could drop their cruel stereotypes and grasp what their fellow Americans are going through.

You probably see where this is headed. When I went on that right-wing blog to criticize the federal response to Katrina, they jumped all over me. Here is part of what they wrote:

"George Bush promised help and he came isn’t the responsibility of the feds to come in an do the states job..if that’s what it will take, I’m sure the federal government can seize control of your that what needs to happen?"

"It isn’t the Federal governments responsibility to rebuild your is the job of the State. The Feds have sent the money yet it sits…what good will it do to send more if they haven’t even utilized the funds they have received?"

"If New Orleanians are so stupid as to re-elect an incompetent fool like Nagin, why the hell should anyone else care about them?"

"Tim it isn’t just that you elected poor leaders (we do that here too) but you reelected the incompetent Nagin, with the very recent public display of his gross incompetence still in the recent memory."

"As an outsider looking in, it’s time for you, the residents, to say enough with the waste and fraud that your government has garnered a reputation for…You, the people, are the ones "serving time" for the sins(corruption) of your politicians(many long gone), that you all seem accept as the status quo."

"It isn’t your fault that the storm hit, but you run a risk when living in cities like that."

"Tim, those of us that don’t live there see things a bit differently. NOLA has been sinking yearly and prior to Katrina, it was well below sea-level…there is a risk that the individual takes in choosing to live in that particular region…that may sound cold, but it is true."

Although I was critical of the president and congress, I agreed with much of their criticism of our local politicians. I take the position that in this case, there's room for everyone at the table of blame.

But these folks would have none of it. I was repeatedly told that it was completely a local problem.

And to throw salt on the wound, they even accused me of exaggerating the scale of disaster. When I pointed out that this was a catastrophe without equal, they scoffed. Can I coin a new term here? They're "Katrina Deniers."

"The largest was Camille in 69." one poster noted with a link to a web page that ranks the most powerful hurricanes by wind speed at landfall.

I have a joke for that guy: Knock, Knock. Who's there? Storm surge. Storm surge who? DOUCHE!

Except the joke is not all that funny.

To me, the problems we are dealing with in the aftermath of Katrina were neither made by nor can they be resolved by one political persuasion or another. We have problems and we need to get things fixed. I honestly would not care if the president was a Christian Socialist and the governor was a Whig--all I care is that they do their jobs.

This catastrophe was the result of neither the scheming nor the negligence of any political party. We got whacked with the biggest hurricane we've ever witnessed and the hurricane protection system did not do the job it was supposed to. Period. Now let's get out of this mire and fix it so it never happens again.

But you know, for those who consider politics a game, Katrina is just good sport. Naturally, the president gets most of the blame, with generous heaps of culpability to spare for the Governor and Mayor. And now that the president's loyal opposition runs Congress, the legislative branch is jumping on the issue to rub the president's nose in it.

But the blame game doesn't help. It doesn't rebuild houses, it doesn't fix the streets, and it doesn't promote confidence that anybody "in charge" knows what needs to be done or will do it.

Again, I don't care about the politics. I'm registered neither Republican nor Democrat, so quit playing that loser's game.

My analysis of the situation is that there were failures in every corner: Failure of engineering, failure of community planning, failure of state building codes, failure of local emergency preparation, failure of state levee boards, failure of federal response, failure of the president to fulfill his promises to help us rebuild, failure of the governor to draft a sensible plan, failure of the mayor to articulate a vision, failure of the voters to entrust leadership at all levels to reputable and effective people--the list goes on and on.

About the only people who have no blame here is the National Weather Service.

They were, unfortunately, deadly accurate in their warnings and forecasts.

To those who harbor such animosity toward the people of Louisiana and New Orleans, I have nothing more to say. Their callous contempt for their struggling fellow Americans reveals the content of their character.

Given the choice, I'd rather be here in my city and my state with all its flaws than with people like them any day of the week.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


According to The New York Times:

* Damage from Hurricane Andrew amounted to about $139 for each Floridian.

* Destruction caused by terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, cost about $390 per New Yorker.

* Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked roughly $6,700 worth of damage per capita in Louisiana.

See the editorial "Unmatched Destruction," published February 13, 2007.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The struggle to understand the struggle

There's an old saying that the lawyer who defends himself in court represents a fool. I wonder if this axiom can also be applied to psychoanalysis?

Because even though I'm no psychiatrist, I've been trying to psychoanalyze myself some lately. Dangerous territory to be sure.

I've noticed that recently my reading list has been almost exclusively about tragedies. I've always enjoyed history, especially American history, but now it's become almost obsessive.

Late last year I read Flags of our Fathers, which was recently made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. It's the story of the invasion of Iwo Jima and that most famous photograph of all time of six men raising the flag on the splintered volcanic rock of Mount Suribachi. The book was written by the son of one of those men, a Navy corpsman who by all accounts was incredibly brave and effective throughout the weeks of battle.

And this son, one of several children born after the war and raised in a loving home, knew almost nothing about his father's fame. You would think a hero such as one of the flag raisers immortalized in the photograph, and later in the largest bronze statue in the world, would be proud to talk about his service to his country and his accomplishments under fire.

But he did not. He barely spoke of the war even to his own children, with the result that it was not until after he died that his own children learned that he had received the Navy Cross, an award that is second only to the Medal of Honor.

The book is the result of his son's investigation into what his father really did on Iwo Jima and why he almost never spoke of it. And without spoiling the book for anyone, the simple answer is this: horror. What those young men did and saw and participated in on Iwo Jima were some of the most frightening and awful events in military history. It was not just a few terrifying hours or days of battle. Iwo Jima devoured the lives of the fighting men sent there for a full month, day after day devouring young lives and feeding on the refusal of the Japanese to give up the futile battle. The horror they experienced chewed at the survivors for the rest of their lives.

It was, I must report, a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Soon after that, I read In Harm's Way, an account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the ship that is remembered in history as the ship that crossed the Pacific Ocean in record time to deliver the first atomic bomb to the air base on Tinian Island. It is also famous as the ship that was either overlooked or forgotten a few days later and was sunk by a Japanese torpedo in the shark-infested waters of the south Pacific. The book is the story of how about 900 men went into the water, but just 317 were rescued four days later when the Navy finally realized a ship was missing. This, too, was a book about the horrors of war, and in this case, the chewing was not metaphorical.

Most recently I read 102 Minutes, a change of pace of sorts from my prior reading. This one was about what went on inside the World Trade Center towers on September 11 during the 102 minutes between when the first plane hit and when the last tower collapsed. Through interviews with survivors, official transcripts of 911 calls, police and fire department radio recordings, and from accounts of the final emails and phone calls of those who would not survive the day, the book recounts the struggle of people trapped and rescuers who tried to save them. Ultimately, many of the rescuers themselves became victims of the attack.

And now I'm reading The Killer Angels, another war story, but this time historical fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg.

I've enjoyed them all.

So here is where I take to the couch and begin to ask myself probing, personal questions: How can I, a resident of flood-ravaged New Orleans, find pleasure in reading about these tragedies? Why am I not reading "happy" books, like The Cat who Came for Christmas or Confederacy of Dunces? You know, books that make you laugh or fill you with the warm glow of human kindness?

The answer I've come up with is based in part on a movie review I read many years ago. In the 1970's, there was a succession of popular disaster movies, including "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno." A reviewer at the time wondered how it was that Americans, weathering the oil crisis and stagflation among other things, would want to see such movies. Movie houses were, after all, a place to escape from every day life and its problems. So why the fascination with disaster films?

The reviewer postulated that such movies were appealing because the disasters they depicted were always an order of magnitude worse than what anyone in the audience was experiencing. Disaster movies not only validated the struggle of human existence, but also were reassuring that things were not as bad as they could be.

Perhaps movie-goers walked out of the theater thinking, "Man, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that." And in contrast, they felt better about their lives and their struggles.

This is my amateur self-psychoanalysis then: perhaps when I read about soldiers, sailors and Marines dying in war or innocent people being murdered on 9-11, it makes me feel better about our situation here in New Orleans. Perhaps it helps me cope, to somehow appreciate what we have here.

As long as I'm pretending to be a competent psychoanalyst, I will further suggest that it is not the struggle that is most difficult here in New Orleans. Hard work is simply hard work, and for many, the hard work we've been pressed to do as a result of Hurricane Katrina is no more or less difficult than any other work anywhere else in this world.

The more daunting struggle here is to understand the struggle. How could we let this happen? What did we do to deserve this? How are we going to get out of this mess? What could we have done differently? What should we do differently in the future?

These are the questions that push people over the edge. When you hear about people snapping under the pressure, succumbing to the conditions here, it's not the hard work that's getting to them.

Okay, enough for now. I'm hopping off the couch, going back to being an engineer, husband and father. And I'm going back to my books, too. Generals Lee and Longstreet are riding toward Gettysburg and the first day of the battle, and I already know that General Pickett will get his moment of bloody glory on the battlefield in a charge that will eclipse all his prior brave deeds.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I saw a man pursuing the horizon

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never -- "

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

~~Stephen Crane [1895]

It's been a crazy couple of weeks here at our cubie quarters. My Darling Wife, our Precious Daughter and I have been taking turns being ill and have missed a combined 8 days of work and school.

It's a different experience being home during a weekday in this flood-ravaged part of New Orleans. It turns out there is a lot of activity here during the work day that I had not known about. Although I spent most of my time in bed, I would say no less than four large trucks per hour rumble up and down our residential street.

I know this because each truck announced its passing with shudder and a shake of our little FEMA travel trailer. I wondered, is this what it's like to live in a fault zone in California?

But although they shook and bounced me while I was trying to rest, I did not mind. All that activity was, to my mind, good news. Every truck means that another heavily damaged house is getting demolished or another new house was getting a load of supplies.

A lot of people in this neighborhood have been wringing their hands over the fate of the nearby church and school property. They worry that preservationists might succeed in declaring the church "architecturally significant." That would likely chase away the folks who want to demolish all the buildings there and construct on an open site. And they have declared with all the melodrama they can muster, "The fate of our neighborhood depends on the full redevelopment of that property!"

Well, I tend to disagree. Not that the new property owner wouldn't be good for the neighborhood--it certainly will be good. Any new construction in this part of town (unless of course it's a urea processing plant) is going to be good for the neighborhood. But I think if the deal falls through that this part of the city will do just fine anyway.

I could feel the march of progress and the bustle of reconstruction moving briskly along as I lay in bed those sick days.

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. I regret to report that several of my neighbors continue to rebuild their homes right back where they were. In the same location. At the same elevation.

And I can say with some certainty, these houses will flood again.

I say this without contempt, and without wishing ill upon any of my neighbors. I say it because it quite simply is true.

It could happen this spring, when a heavy rainstorm parks itself over the city and the already damaged drainage system is unable to keep up. This past summer, we had a rainfall of only moderate intensity that filled the street next to our trailer with about 10 inches of standing water.

It might happen this fall, when a tropical cyclone moves across the city and the power fails at the pump stations as it did during Hurricane Katrina, leaving the rainfall to accumulate in the lowest parts of the city.

Or, it may happen sometime in the next few years, when a hurricane brings a storm surge that exceeds the 100-year level of protection that the levees and floodwalls are designed to hold back. Any number of scenarios could see water topping the levees at the lake and ponding right here.

Elevating is no guarantee, but certainly, every foot higher puts a house farther and farther from harm. Without elevating, these houses will flood again.

I have warned a number of people about this, but the responses are either flat denial or some sort of rationalization. "It won't matter because I'll be dead before it floods again." Or, "It won't matter because I still have flood insurance."

When I suggest they could improve their lot by elevating their homes, I am brushed off with, "It's too expensive," or, "Raised houses are ugly," or, "What good will it do to have a house that survives if all the other houses are flooded and people move away?"

That last excuse is a prophesy that gains momentum each day. The more houses that are rebuilt right back in the same place and in the same way, the more it emboldens others to do the same with their homes. I would guess at this point that homeowners building raised homes are outnumbered 5 to 1 by those who refuse to elevate.

What do you say to them? How can they be convinced?

"Your house will flood again," I say.

"You lie!" they cry, and run on.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The despised MR-GO

The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet is about 1,500 feet wide and its banks are no more than 2 feet above sea level. Along part of its west side is a levee, and to the east is marsh (about 1 foot above sea level) and the wide open water of Lake Borgne. Hurricane Katrina pushed through this area with a storm surge in excess of 20 feet above sea level and an eyewall about 30 miles wide.

Pop quiz:

How much of Hurricane Katrina’s massive storm surge flowed within the MR-GO channel?

No need for you to reply, David Vitter. We already know your answer.

The Times-Picayune reports today that Mr. Vitter is pressing the Corps of Engineers to “plug the channel to block storm surge.”

“MR-GO is a hurricane highway,” he declares.

Senator Vitter obviously believes that most if not all of Katrina’s storm surge came up the MR-GO to flood St. Bernard and Orleans parishes. Clearly, he thinks putting a plug or a gate in the channel will protect us from future similar events.

Sorry, Senator. Wrong answer.

Not that we can actually fault the junior Senator from Louisiana for promoting this irrational fear of a shipping channel. It seems everybody and their mama down in da parish know that before the MR-GO was built, they never had flooding like Katrina. Therefore, everybody knows it’s the MR-GO’s fault.

The fact that they never had a hurricane anywhere near the magnitude and intensity of Katrina before is immaterial to them and their quixotic Senator.

The fact that both the Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources ran computer models and concluded otherwise does not seem to matter, either. Both agencies independently determined that the influence of the MR-GO on storm surge heights along the levees of St. Bernard and Orleans parishes was negligible.

But then again, facts are not exactly David Vitter’s strong suit.

Why just about two weeks ago, our excitable junior Senator wrote a letter to The Times-Picayune chastising the Corps of Engineers for not immediately moving to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

“The corps has the authority to begin closure now,” he wrote. “The law I passed last summer makes this perfectly clear, specifically authorizing structures to block storm surge and build wetlands.”

The Senator fails to cite the legislation he is so proud of, but my best guess is that he is thinking of P.L. 109-234. But there is no mandate to plug or build a gate in the MR-GO in this law. The only “perfectly clear” direction on the MR-GO is that Congress orders the Corps to do a study—yes, another study—to consider the impacts of closing the despised shipping channel.

There is some money for wetlands restoration, but as I’ve explained before, you just can’t realistically think you can plant enough grass out there to stop a major storm surge.

Today that same paper reports that Senator Vitter is pleased with assurances that the Corps will begin making plans to close the MR-GO in the event Congress directs the Corps to close it. The article clearly notes that Congress has not yet decided the fate of the channel.

So, Senator, what about your claims in your exasperated letter of two weeks ago? Was the authority to close the MR-GO "perfectly clear" or perfectly imaginary? I guess the biggest benefit of being a populist is you don’t have to worry about getting your facts straight.

Here’s why this concerns me:

I am no fan of the MR-GO. I have no financial interest in any business related to it, and I own no property anywhere near it. If the good people of Louisiana want it closed and Congress passes a law to de-authorize the channel, it’s no skin off my nose.

But let’s be sure we know what will happen if we plug it, fill it, or gate it. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that closing the MR-GO will quickly and easily make all the bad storm surges go away.

It won’t.

I’m just afraid that the MR-GO will be closed and Congress will congratulate themselves for saving Louisiana and people down in St. Bernard will rebuild their homes and once again go to sleep at night thinking they’re safe—but they won’t be.

And David Vitter is leading the way.