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.