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?