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.