Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Remember what's good

This story filled me with admiration, pride and sorrow all at the same time.

Lest We Forget, published online by GovExec.com, reminds us that there are at least 180,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines away from home this holiday season--many in harm's way. Read it and remember.

I do not agree with the political policies behind our incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I strongly question the Constitutionality of the use our military there. But I salute those who live up to the Army Value of Selfless Service.

This time of year--the darkest and coldest days in the Northern hemisphere--is the time commonly chosen to remember what's good in this world and to dream about how it can be made better in the coming year. Let's remember the outstanding individuals of our volunteer armed forces.

Wishing everyone everywhere Peace and Happy Holidays,


Friday, December 19, 2008

Made in China

The other night I showed my Precious Daughter what grown-ups do for Christmas. Well, grown-ups who are also NOLA Bloggers, that is. If you didn't know, they engage in a Christmas video war dubbed the "Hostilidays."

The idea is to post the most silly, annoying and offensive videos. So far, a whole slew of bloggers have joined in battle including Oyster, Maitri, Varg, Greg, Leigh, Loki, Adrastos, Mark, and Howie.

I had not participated in this ugly annual exchange--until now.

It just so happens that my Precious Daughter has started to learn Chinese in school. She came home today eager to tell me about how they were learning "Jingle Bells" in Chinese, and that they had seen a truly awful video of it as part of the lesson. She suggested it would be appropriate for Hostilidays and I agreed.

So here it is, "Ding Ding Dang" and all! Enjoy it (if you can).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Unlimited fuel

Such a simple thing. It's almost inconceivable that the City of New Orleans has no written criteria for assigning take-home vehicles. And no established method to monitor or restrict their personal use. And no requirement that employees with take home vehicles document any public purpose for all the expenses the city pays to provide insurance, maintenance and unlimited fuel.

I said, "almost inconceivable," because in fact, we are talking about New Orleans here.

And who ever thought for one second that our city was well managed?

We didn't need proof, but now we have it. The report by the city's own Office of the Inspector General came out yesterday, and it's a scorcher with silk gloves. Again and again, the report makes straightforward, common-sense observations about what should be done and what is not done. In a community that is struggling every day and with every dollar to get back on its feet, the results are chilling.

Waste? That's almost a given. But what would you expect when you give employees a free car with unlimited fuel and nobody watching what they do or where they go with it? How can there not be waste when there's no written criteria or centralized oversight for who gets a city vehicle with take home privileges?

Fraud? There's no way to gauge it since there's no accountability, but I think it's safe to assume the worst. The report notes the curious instances where an employee with a city-owned Ford F-150 equipped with an 18-gallon gas tank pulled into a gas station one day and put 91.2 gallons on the city's credit card. And the employee with the Ford Taurus, a car that holds 18 gallons max, who charged 39.9 gallons on a single visit to the pump.

Abuse? How about take home cars assigned to two employees who live in Baton Rouge. And the tortured story of the city employee who had four city vehicles parked in front of his house for at least a month: the first was old and unreliable and only for local use, the second was borrowed from an employee on sick leave, the third was a brand new truck that was to be assigned to others but was being used by the employee until the full shipment of new vehicles arrived, and the fourth was yet another new vehicle assigned to the employee to replace the old and unreliable first vehicle. Huh?

And here's the kicker: this is just an interim report. There's more to come once the OIG gets to investigate the use of cars by the NOPD, Aviation Board, Civil Sheriff, Criminal Sheriff and Sewerage and Water Board. If those guys are smart, they'll start to get their house in order BEFORE the OIG shows up, especially since now they know what they'll be looking for.

Kudos to Robert Cerasoli, Inspector General for an outstanding job. Give him credit for a report that avoids finger-wagging and haughty accusations of mismanagement. Instead, the overall tone is one of helpful advice. Nowhere is it suggested that anyone knowingly misused or abused privileges, and this makes it much easier for the responsible city officials to take the constructive criticism of the report and make changes.

If there's one person who deserves as much help as we can give him, it's Robert Cerasoli. Let's hope that he--of all the city's employees--truly has unlimited fuel to keep doing what he's doing.

Thanks, Maitri, for hosting the Interim Report on the Management of the Administrative Vehicle Fleet.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Snow in New Orleans

It doesn't happen too often, so when it does it's quite an event. I had already arrived at work today when we started to hear reports of snow.

Baton Rouge, we heard, then Covington.

Suddenly one of my colleagues was putting on her coat. "What's going on?" I asked.

"I'm going outside to see the snow," she said.

I thought she might be kidding or was duped by a rumor until I looked out the window and saw it: large flat flakes floating and blowing by the window. Snow!

I took some pictures with my cell phone so the quality is limited. Still, you can see the white covering the cars in the parking lot, and the blanket of white all the way up the Mississippi River levee.

The rooftops of the houses nearby were blanketed white. Somehow, it made the aged, beaten buildings all look pretty.

Most of my coworkers made it to the office okay, but a one or two who lived on the North shore phoned in saying they couldn't make the trip. Since the office was open, they will have to use their own leave time for missing work today. I don't think anyone was complaining about that, though. It was probably a good day to take off.

By lunchtime most of the snow had already melted away. New Orleans returned to being just another cold, wet city.

Snow day 2008 in New Orleans lasted about 4 hours.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Where ya been, Tim?

Working. "Like a rented mule," as my Darling Wife likes to say.

Not only that, I'm afraid there's just not been much to write about lately. We're happily settling in to our new home, paying bills and taking in some of the pleasures of living in New Orleans. Nothing wrong with that, but it's just not the sort of stuff I think makes for good blogging.

But here is something: our Precious Daughter recently completed a writing short course at NOCCA. The students each wrote a story based on a life experience. Some were true stories, others fiction. My girl's story is fictional, although it takes place at our pre-K house in Gentilly. Like any parent I'm proud of what she wrote and I asked her if she would let me put it up on my blog.

"Really?" she said.

Yes, really, I replied.

And here it is, my 12-year-old's creative writing. Enjoy!


When I was seven years old, my father built me a play set in our backyard. It wasn’t fancy, made of wood with swings, a sandbox, a slide, and monkey bars. But to me, it was my castle. I suppose it was 8 or 9 feet tall, and I had just discovered a way to climb on top of it. I would weave myself up the panels and beams until I got to the very top, where there was just one beam left, suspended above the ground. It was exhilarating to be up there, with just a beam between you and the grass. It felt like I was a bird on a telephone wire, or a coyote howling on the very edge of a cliff. I went up there often to tight-rope walk around and smell the woodsy scent of the outdoors. My parents weren’t thrilled about my discovery for no parent likes their child to be in any sort of dangerous situation. They told me to stop, but the exhilaration overwhelmed me and I continued to walk on that beam of wood, held above the world, and look into my neighbor’s yard.

One day, I was walking around on the beam like normal when my foot slipped off the side. I felt my balance falter. All of the exhilaration drained away like some one had pulled the plug in a bathtub. Suddenly, I fell from the beam, face forward, the grass coming closer and closer towards me. Then, just as suddenly as it had started it stopped. I hung upside down, and it was as if someone had paused my life. The next emotions that washed over me were relief and panic. I twisted up, and found by luck, my shoelace had caught on a nail, preventing my fall. I breathed a sigh and then cut it off when I saw that my shoelace would not last long since the nail was splitting it in half slowly. I knew that the next time I fell I would hit the ground. What could I do? I shrieked and cried, twisting farther up to see just how long I would have to wait before my shoelace snapped. Then, my last hope failed me and the final string of my shoelace broke. I felt the air whoosh past me as I fell for the second time.

I hated the feeling of falling, because I couldn’t control it and I was afraid that gravity would suck me in and I would never come back out again. But, to my surprise, the first thing I felt after a small moment of falling was not the hard, sharp feel of our St. Augustine grass, but of my father. I was suddenly very aware of my father’s arms that were wrapped around me, and how he smelled like bacon and cologne, and how he had saved me. I started sobbing again, and he started humming to me a soft lullaby, and when I had cried all of my tears he carried me inside and told me that I should have listened to him in the first place. Even though he was scolding me, it did not seem that way to me, for with every word he held me closer and didn’t let me go for a very long time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The 4,900-year gap

A neighbor from Vista Park had another letter in The Times Picayune today.

KC is one of the few people in New Orleans who truly understands the risk of living here. As he rebuilds his home just a few hundred feet from the London Avenue Canal breach, KC has been tireless in his efforts to get the word out: We Are Not OK.

Just one small point I need to make about KC's letter: the Dutch design goal is to provide for a MINIMUM 1,250-year event, mostly in farm or less-developed areas of the county. Highly populated urban or industrial regions get 10,000-year protection (0.01 percent chance of exceedence per year).

But KC is cold correct when he points out who is responsible to manage the residual risks: individual citizens.

Friday, October 17, 2008

From the seat of my pants

Driving in Orange County, California turned out to be quite an amazing experience for someone from New Orleans.

Bumps, potholes and anything that would add vibration to travel on the city streets simply do not exist in Orange County. Specifically, I was driving in Santa Ana this week, the city where John Wayne Airport (yes, it’s named after the Duke) is located.

It took a few moments for me to comprehend the beauty of the silky smooth roads there. I was driving a rental car, so my first thought was that the car had a really nice ride and excellent seats. But as I looked down the pristine roadway of perfectly manicured black asphalt, it dawned on me: these are really nice streets.

Perhaps you have to be a civil engineer to fully appreciate what a well built and impeccably maintained road is all about. But perhaps the experience is not so cerebral and requires nothing more than buttocks accustomed to the constant rumble of unraveling asphalt and cracked concrete of an aging, neglected city like New Orleans.

As I drove along, I began to look for potholes or any sign of distress that would tell me I was driving in a real city, a city like my own sweet Crescent City that struggles to keep up with street maintenance. It was a fruitless search.

Making my way toward my hotel, I turned off the major thoroughfare onto a more local street, again hoping—yes, hoping—that I would find the urban decay that was so much a part of home. Again, nothing but smooth, disturbance-free travel.

A few blocks on, I came upon a small traffic jam. A-Ha, I thought, they may have beautiful streets, but they still can’t efficiently convey the full flow of weekday traffic. As we merged over into a single line of cars, I saw up ahead the common trappings of roadway work: large orange warning signs and the ubiquitous traffic cones. Drawing closer, I saw a pair of paving machines and men in bright safety vests moving hot asphalt about with shovels.

And painted in block letters on the equipment were the letters “SAPW,” Santa Ana Public Works.

The city actually had their own in-house crew resurfacing streets. Even though the street for a mile in either direction was, to my best judgment, in excellent serviceable condition, here they were fixing whatever minor imperfections they had found with all haste.

I pulled up to the hotel a few blocks later and parked the car. After settling into my room, I opened the curtains to look over the vista. Down the hill was an unbroken quilt of urbanized terrain. Hotels, gas stations, shops, banks and houses blended into an unbroken cityscape down the slope to the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Weaving them all together were the streets, those vital threads of commerce and communication, the very lifelines of the modern city.

It is no accident that we talk about our roads in biological terminology. No organic community will grow or thrive or be healthy without adequately functional arteries. Living as I have for most of my life in New Orleans, I guess I had developed low expectations for what high quality streets looked like or even how maintaining excellent streets could even be possible.

But what my mind had lazily never considered or dreamed possible, my buttocks discovered and exclaimed: it is not simply a fantasy to have streets in good repair.

Various professional and trade organizations as well as government highway officials have warned us for years that poorly maintained roads cost the public a lot of money—more even than the money our politicians might think they are “saving” by permanently deferring maintenance. Every mile we drive over pocked and damaged roadway takes a toll on our cars in maintenance, lost travel time and reduced fuel efficiency.

And I will add that every mile we drive on the pitiful streets of New Orleans dulls what should be our collective community outrage over the sad condition of this most basic city service. It lulls us into the dangerous mindset that, “That’s just how things are here. There’s no point in trying to fix this or any other of our city’s problems.”

As defeating and destructive and that thinking is, I realized perhaps an even greater damage done to us by our pathetic streets comes in the reverse situation to my recent trip to Orange County.

As awed as I was by the quality of their streets, what must the visitor to New Orleans think of OUR roadways? And what must they conclude about the viability of OUR city? Who wants to live in a city or invest in a city that can’t even fill the potholes?

It’s a jarring thought, even more jarring than driving down a local street here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

My biker friend

In those dark days following Hurricane Katrina few things were certain. Among them, I knew I must return to the city as soon as possible. I also knew I had no place to live when I did.

In an incredible turn of luck, a friend introduced me to a UNO professor named David. Luck, seemingly in short supply in September 2005, became suddenly plentiful. Not only did David have a house that probably had not flooded, he was not planning to return with his family for a few months. David told me I could have free use his house for as long as I needed. And luckier still, he had evacuated to within a 45-minute drive of where we were in Virginia. I picked up the keys as I headed back to the city in late September.

I lived in David's house for about a month and he has never asked for anything in return.

Next week, David will once again be pedaling his generosity as he participates in this year's National Multiple Sclerosis Society Bike Tour. It's a 150-mile ride to raise money for those who cannot ride for themselves. David will join with a thousand or more cyclists in a mass demonstration of care. When I heard he was looking for sponsors, I did not hesitate to toss a few dollars into his hat.

If you'd like to make a donation or join the team, please visit the National MS Society Bike Event page. Let David know we all support his efforts and his dedication.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

'Tis the Season

Hurricane season continues, at least according to scientists, until November 30.

While I'm sure they put a lot of thought into selecting that date, it remains rather arbitrary. There's no reason why hurricanes can't develop and strike after that date (and they certainly have). Nature has relentlessly resisted all our attempts to fit the seasons into neat little boxes on our calendars since long before Roy Rogers sang, "Don't Fence Me In."

The good news for the people of coastal Texas and Louisiana recently whacked by Gustav and Ike is that statistically at least they are in the clear. Scientists say there's two more months of hurricane season, but the worst part of hurricane season is over. Those on the wet and battered coast have reason to be optimistic as they continue to clean up, repair and rebuild what they can.

My Darling Wife forwarded this little bit of hurricane season levity via an infinite string of forwarded emails. I don't know how long it's been making the rounds, but I think it's the first time I've seen it and I think it's a clever contrast.

So here now are the Top Ten Reasons Hurricane Season Is Like Christmas:

Number Ten: Decorating the house (with plywood).

Number Nine: Dragging out boxes that haven't been used since last season.

Number Eight: Last minute shopping in crowded stores.

Number Seven: Regular TV shows preempted for "Specials."

Number Six: Family coming to stay with you.

Number Five: Family and friends from out of state calling you.

Number Four: Buying food you don't normally buy . . . and in large quantities.

Number Three: Days off from work.

Number Two: Candles.

And the Number One reason Hurricane Season is like Christmas:

At some point you're probably going to have a tree in your house!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Evacuation is the wise choice

There's been some ongoing discussion around town about whether or not people would evacuate should another hurricane turn toward New Orleans. The one thing everyone agrees about is that evacuating is unpleasant and costly.

But that's not the point. Evacuation is a matter of safety. That is, it could be the difference between life and death.

To help the more stubborn arrive at a fully informed decision, I've created an Evacuation Decision Matrix. Please click on it for a closer view.

Evacuation Decision Matrix - Click for larger view

Feel free to print it out for easy reference if you need to. For those wanting a more detailed comparison, check out this story from The Galveston County Daily News. They say experience is the best teacher. In the case of hurricanes, it's even better if you can learn from the experience of others.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Outlook grim as Ike approaches

That's the title of reporter's blog entry from The Galveston County Daily News at 8:00 pm Friday night:

"I hope that the staff at the National Hurricane Center and the local National Weather Service are wrong...

"...[W]e are facing the highest tidal surge since at least the 1900 Storm and possibly even exceeding that if the highest projected tidal surge materializes...

"If the surge threat is not enough, the National Weather Service is calling for 80-95 mph sustained winds with gusts to 105-mph. Hurricane force winds are expected to last for an incredible 8-10 hours on Galveston Island..."

When hurricanes lurk in the Gulf, everyone hopes it doesn't come his or her way and everyone is relieved when a hurricane misses their community.

But no matter where these monsters make landfall, no one is really happy. No one can feel glad knowing what is happening to Galveston tonight.

Our hearts are with Texas tonight.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Running a long race

Back home, power on, minor damage to the house and yard. We didn't have Internet, so I haven't been able to post an update for a few days.

In New Orleans, Hurricane Gustav will not be remembered for doing billions in physical damage. The majority of my friends and neighbors will remember Gustav for leaving everyone's nerves frayed. Indeed, some have already proclaimed they will not evacuate again.

I've collected a few of the reactions from friends which I think paint the picture well.

"House is a wreck, but I'm comfy and wired now, and oddly exhausted. I think my airplane rubber band unwound. Pent up survival adrenaline all left me in a rush."

"[Road Home] gave all us employees an emergency number on a laminated card to put in with our ID badges. Yer supposed to call it to find out about work. They said they'd have it going, no matter what. Of course, it doesn't work."

"After cleaning up shards, branches and debris off the gallery just now, I started crying. When [my husband] asked me why, I said I feel like I just got done running a long race and don't know if I have to run another one."

"I am soooo tired. I too just wander around the house and don't see any point in doing anything. Depression I guess but in reality, there really is no point in cleaning the house if I have to leave again in 4 days."

Goodbye, Gustav. Hello, Ike.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notes from the road

Evacuated to Greenville, Mississippi, waiting and hoping for the best for us and all our friends and family.

Yesterday we ventured out into this little town to get lunch at a local restaurant called Tabb's Barbecue. My Darling Wife had seen an advertisement describing it as, "The best dang barbecue in the whole dang delta." We found it tucked in the middle of a typical strip shopping mall.

And as you could have guessed, it was filled with red checked tablecloths spread over wooden furniture. Each table was outfitted with a roll of paper towels and squirt bottles of barbecue sauce. There was also the obligatory vintage farm tools and product logos nailed up on the walls.

I ordered the pulled pork platter and split it with our Precious Daughter. All-in-all a nice meal, but it was hard to forget the current crisis besieging South Louisiana. Especially because the decor included framed photographs of The Great Flood of 1927. Yes, Greenville is situated on the same river as New Orleans and so they have their history of misery by flooding, too.

Today I saw a story from the AP with this line from hizzoner: "I would not do a thing differently," Nagin said. "I'd probably call Gustav, instead of the mother of all storms, maybe the mother-in-law or the ugly sister of all storms."

Except of course, Gustav is a MAN'S NAME, so HE would not be the mother, mother-in-law nor sister of anything or anyone. Try again, Ray.

News from the neighborhood is almost all good: branches and a tree or two but otherwise all in tact. No power as of this afternoon according to some who remain there.

I've been using Twitter to keep in touch with the NOLA Bloggers and credit them with helping maintain my sanity through this. As I noted in another post, the mainstream media made a total mess of this one. Had it not been for the fact-checking and on-the-scene "tweets" from the hearty NOLA Bloggers I'm sure I would be an emotional wreck right now.

Monday, September 01, 2008


If you're like me, you've suspected it for quite some time. The main stream media (msm) often don't have a clue.

But does that stop them from broadcasting?

Absolutely not.

Last night I saw a weatherman from Anywhere-but-Louisiana standing in front of a beautiful satellite montage photo of greater New Orleans. As he spoke and gestured dramatically about the likely path and power of Hurricane Gustav, the photo rotated and zoomed in that fancy Google Earth way that makes you wonder how the heck we got along without this stuff before. As the graphics were doing their thing, the weatherguy continued to talk about the potential storm surge and the threat to St. Bernard. And right smack in the middle of the graphic was "St. Bernard" with its levees all highlighted and easy to see.

Except it wasn't St. Bernard he was showing us--it was New Orleans East.

Doubtless the dramatically gesticulating dude did not know 7th Ward from 9th Ward, either, but who cares? It's just news for goodness sake.

Today, CNN was reporting breaches in the Industrial Canal. Except there were no breaches.

And later, there was a phoned-in interview with someone from the Corps' public affairs office to explain why the London Avenue Canal gates were being closed. There was discussion of the safe water elevation and the need to coordinate pumping with S&WB. During the interview CNN decided to show footage of the Industrial Canal with water to the top of the wall and waves and wind splashing and spraying over the wall. So I'd bet most of America looking at that broadcast thought they were looking at the London Canal floodwalls.

As Maitri advises, "PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT WATCH CNN AND FOX NEWS!" and she gives a nice link to web page that allows you to watch feeds from four local television stations all at once. Easy and accurate.

Get your news from people who know what they're reporting about.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


I've loss count how many times we've evacuated. Georges, Ivan, Katrina, others I suppose. And now Gustav.

Jarvis DeBerry has an excellent perspective in The Times-Picayune today, writing about the fear of losing again what we've only just regained after losing it three years ago.

We only just moved into our new home in May, just 4 months ago. As we readied to leave in the predawn hours this morning, my Darling Wife stood in the kitchen and covered her face with her hands. I know what she was thinking; she was terrified that after so much effort, so much work and expense, we were still having to evacuate from an oncoming hurricane. We were still not safe.

A moment later she was ready to go, and as we drove out of the city, we held hands.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hurricane Katrina Quiz: Third Anniversary

Social justice, anyone?

Try this quiz from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and find out the good, the bad and the ugly about recovery help for the most vulnerable citizens of New Orleans.

(Thanks, Loki!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Still more notes on Rising Tide III

Some random observations:

- Just before keynote speaker and author John M. Barry spoke, I counted almost 80 people in the room and 11 glowing laptops.

- Cade Roux was blogging on a wacky mint green notebook computer that looked like it was half the size of a full-grown computer. Turns out he borrowed it from his kid for the day. Which worked out well because between panels Varg learned to play with Zwinkys.

- The Rising Tide III poster, shirts and other promotional items featured images of origami cranes. This was a play on so-called "Recovery Czar" Ed Blakely's comment in March 2007 that, "By September, we hope to have cranes on the skyline." Just shy of a year later and no cranes in sight, artist Greg Peters thought the paper cranes might be helpful. Mominem brought a large origami crane to display, but alas the paper was limp and ineffective--just like Blakely.

- Beyond jabbing at the city leadership's ineptitude, I recently learned that in Japan the origami crane is considered a symbol of peace. Legend says that a person who folds 1,000 cranes will have a wish come true. There had been talk of folding a large number of cranes to bring to City Hall, but even though the origami protest did not come to fruition, it pleases me to know that Rising Tide is now a part of the peace movement.

- Clay showed that engineers are not fashion-deaf, arriving Saturday in a sporting summer jacket and a dashing country-club hat. Not to be outdone, Dangerblond wore a vibrantly colored "mood dress" and Clancy DuBos wore the bright blue RISING TIDE III shirt. Which proves the room was just chock-full of genuinely bright people.

- Ashley Morris, the man who loomed so large among NOLA Bloggers, was felt and seen at this year's event. Varg made sure to place Ashley's face at the lower right corner of the conference schedule which was projected on the big screen for most of the day.

- At the conclusion of panels and speakers, Oyster and Leigh handed out the first three Ashley Awards for excellence in blogging. Ashley was the first recipient of the award bearing his name, and the room rose to its feet in applause to honor him. When Karen was given her Ashley Award, she said a few kind words of thanks, and then shouted loud and proud, "FYYFF!"

- Ray has large biceps and I don't. Ray has lots of fancy ink and I don't. Ray refrains from alcohol and I definitely don't. But something I noticed this Saturday we do have in common: we bounce our legs when seated.

- Friday night at the social at Buffa's, Robert Cerasoli waded through the beer and wine glasses to meet the NOLA Bloggers. The Inspector General of New Orleans walked up to meet Jeffrey and immediately declared he was a fan of the yellow blog. We thought it might just be polite banter until Cerasoli began to discuss specific issues presented on the snarkiest blog in the western hemisphere. You would think Jeffrey would have been pleased to have a fan in such a notable position, but no. Jeffrey instead said he could not believe Cerasoli would waste his time reading such a rambling, pointless blog. "Could be worse," I said. "He could be reading the comments at Nola.com."

- Lunch was great thanks to J'anita's on Magazine Street. As I was enjoying the BBQ beef and pulled pork, I remarked to others, "This is really good! I'm so glad no one sponsored lunch and I can eat."

- RISING TIDE swag was all the rage this year. As noted above, Clancy DuBos wore the official imprint shirt all day Saturday and Dangerblond and racymind used their koozies at the after party Saturday night. I guess I waited too long to get over to the merchandise table because when I did they only had XXL shirts. I bought one anyway to "support the cause" and now Precious Daughter is enjoying her new nightshirt decorated with origami cranes. Peace, my girl.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More Notes on Rising Tide III

The RISING TIDE III journalism panel was almost as much fun as the keynote speaker. First of all, because the topic was of great interest to me. And second, because the panelists maintained an engaging yet humorous tone.

No need to blog about TV's Lee Zurik and the eyebrow-raising comments of the assembled NOLA Bloggers—others have that story covered. I will simply say that Zurik was a plucky sport and withstood the tweezing questions with aplomb. My Precious Wife says it’s not the eyebrows that cause her to wonder. Instead she wants to know, "But does he wear eyeliner?" She will tell you he looks like a prince of Egypt, which I guess is not too shabby a compliment. But eyeliner? That will have to be a question for another day.

Zurik was not only unpretentious, he proved he reads blogs and readily shared credit for busting the NOAH scandal with NOLA Bloggers and "amateur investigators" Karen, Sarah and Eli. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that people who are eager to share credit with others are the most confident and accomplished, so Zurik's stock is up on that account.

And on the NOAH scandal, there was one particularly interesting thing Zurik said that's worth exploring. Essentially he gave our NOLA Bloggers credit for uncovering and researching the story and himself the credit for transmitting that story to a wide audience. Very few bloggers have more than a few hundred regular readers, and none has the daily reach of a news program on a local network affiliate, even in a small market like New Orleans. So that's how the cooperative works according to Zurik: NOLA Bloggers found the story, TV distributed it.

It makes perfect sense because surely there are more people watching television than surfing the Internet. But think about that for just a moment. What will happen in say, 5 or 10 years, when there are just as many people online as in front of the tube? What will happen when consumers of blogs outnumber the consumers of TV news? Once that happens, what added value would TV news bring to the table? Now I'm not going out on a limb predicting the demise of everything Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite created, but it makes for an interesting vision of our possible future.

Kevin Allman was the most introspective of the journalism panel, claiming that journalism is a civic duty. He also cited the ugly willingness of capitalists to take the creative work of bloggers to make money. I agree in large measure with his concerns, but I wanted to tell Kevin, you know, this goes both ways. I and so many other bloggers run our blogs at no out-of-pocket cost thanks to the dozens of totally free web services. I take full advantage of free photo sharing and free web email. At what point do you say, "Hey, freeloader, you have to pay to play"?

I'm all for creative control, but we all know this stuff ain't really free. Somebody is paying for upkeep of the code and the servers and all that entails. They must see financial advantage in giving away these services at no charge, and we are all to willing to oblige them. So we should not be so shocked when schemes arise to recoup on all that investment in the "free" realm of the Internet. I'm just sayin...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Notes on Rising Tide III

Of course John M. Barry was the highlight of the conference. Perhaps the most learned and easily the most accomplished of speakers and panelists gathered for Rising Tide III, Barry was also as charming and friendly as anyone could have hoped for. He autographed a stack of his books prior to speaking, scribbling "John Barry" in all except for Sophmom who asked for and received a personalized imprint.

I think Barry’s presentation was exactly what the conference was hoping for: historical background, scientific facts and a passionate belief that New Orleans not only can be protected but must be.

And none of this namby-pamby "New Orleans has great food" and "New Orleans has great music." Barry went right to the jugular in pointing out that without the deep-draft ports that stretch some 70 miles in and around New Orleans, ports throughout the interior of the United States would be reduced to hauling corn and manure amongst themselves. If New Orleans is lost, Barry said there will be no more international trade on the waterways in the heart of America.

Will it be expensive to protect New Orleans? Barry did not flinch or attempt to hide the cost, which he said would be at least $100 billion. But how could it not be worth it?

Barry also talked about the challenge of protecting the port city, which by necessity is both close to the sea and close to sea level. He noted that sediment which used to be carried to Louisiana by the Mississippi River has decreased sharply with development upstream, particularly with the installation of locks and hydroelectric dams. (Where have we heard that before?) And because of levees to prevent river flooding, almost all the remaining sediment ends up dumped off the continental shelf into the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Barry was optimistic. He’s no engineer, but he does seem to have an informed view of the complexities involved in preserving coastal Louisiana. Barry was clear in his conviction that solutions are possible if only the will exists to make it happen.

Overall, it was an excellent presentation and I cannot recall a single statement made by Barry to which I would take exception. Rising Tide participants gave Barry a standing ovation at the conclusion of his talk and Q&A. This was surely a sign of the respect and appreciation we have for all he’s done for New Orleans, including serving on the levee board and writing magazine articles and newspaper op-eds defending and promoting our city.

Still, I’m worried for him. At no point did Barry place full and square blame for the flooding of New Orleans on the Corps of Engineers. When talking of projects that tended to make the coast more vulnerable to storm surge and saltwater intrusion, Barry said, "People built the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. People built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet."

Recall how Sandy attacked the American Society of Civil Engineers for making presentations to engineering groups and students about Katrina. ASCE spoke of engineering failures and system failures, which Sandy interpreted as a whitewash of the federal government’s culpability and a cover-up for the Corps. If Sandy is consistent in her reasoning and conviction, Barry should expect a harsh press release in the next few days. After all he's done he does not deserve such treatment, so I hope he is spared the assault.

John Barry was an excellent choice for keynote speaker. The organizers of Rising Tide III deserve heaps of praise for their excellent work on this year’s event. And John Barry, too--thanks!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A great event filled with great people

RISING TIDE III was a big success. I have much to say and write about it in later blog posts.

For now I will simply note that one of my favorite moments was when venerated journalist Clancy DuBos declared, "Ich bin ein Blogger!"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ride the tide!

You still haven't registered for RISING TIDE III?

So what are you waiting for? An engraved invitation???

Okay then--here it is (click to enlarge):

Your invitation to Rising Tide III - A Conference on the Future of New Orleans.
For more info and to register, visit http://www.risingtidenola.net/.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"A scar that won't quite heal"

John McCusker succeeded where I failed: he demolished his slab-on-grade house in the Vista Park neighborhood of New Orleans and built a new, elevated home for his family. For that, John has both my admiration and praise for what he's accomplished and the setbacks he's overcome.

Still, the streets are haunted by what used to be and by what happened there when Hurricane Katrina came roaring into town. He tells his bittersweet story in last Thursday's edition of The Times-Picayune.

Welcome home, John, and best wishes to you and yours. As you have demonstrated, it's all "up" from here.

UPDATE: JudyB showed me a slideshow featuring John's original music and a reading of his essay. One photo in the set is of the house of my friend the rocket scientist, who I'm glad to say didn't move to Denver--they only got as far as Metairie. I miss you, Vista Park.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I'll take Atlanta 1996

The Olympic Games are underway and receiving a lot of attention from news reporters, sports fans and the general public alike, but don't expect to hear me talking about it. That's because the games are taking place in China this year.

The country of China is run by a totalitarian regime. Many things can be found in abundance there, but liberty remains painfully scarce. You can count me out of supporting nations that ban or severely limit freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

So instead of talking about the 2008 games, I'd like to blog about the 1996 games. Instead of joining the chorus of "Oooos" and "Ahhhhs" over the recent opening ceremony from the police state of China, I'd rather talk about the night Atlanta hosted the Olympic opening ceremony and the man who was the final link in the long torch relay to deliver the flame to the games.

In my book, that was the greatest opening ceremony in Olympic history. And it featured the man who coined himself "The Greatest," and most people agreed with him.

The last torch bearers that night were themselves acclaimed Olympic athletes. They carried the flame into the stadium and around the track and up a high ramp to hand it off to the final man in the relay from around the world.

That man stepped slowly, deliberately from the shadows. It was obvious he probably could not have run even if he had wanted to. Holding an unlit torch in his right hand, his left arm shook uncontrollably with the unmistakable jerks brought on by Parkinson's syndrome.

Muhammad Ali, a gold medal athlete from the 1960 games, didn't look all that different than he had when he was known as Cassius Clay. His face remained focused and serious as he touched his torch to the runner's torch to receive the flame. And then, even as his left arm continued to wobble in muscular dysfunction, Ali turned toward the gathering of athletes and dignitaries who filled the stadium and lifted the torch up into the air.

The crowd roared.

Ali did not smile; perhaps it was not possible for him to do so. The man who was in many ways the loudest, boldest symbol of black power, the man who refused military service in a controversial conflict and suffered the loss of his boxing title as a result, the man who defied the conventional model of humble African-American athletes who came before him, the man who was for many years the essence of strength, endurance, and confidence, stood before his peers and the world, barely able to walk and hold a torch.

But no one could doubt in that moment who he was.

He was The Greatest.

And he remains The Greatest, now and always.

Keep China 2008. I’ll take Atlanta 1996.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

We know better than anyone what we have

My sister-in-law was in town with her children to attend a family wedding this weekend. The groom was a nephew, a boy by many measures and yet man enough to enlist in the Army and get married.

He arrived in his Army greens, the brass on his lapels shining almost as much as his shaved head. Everyone thought he looked more handsome and healthier than ever before. I asked him about his assignment in Colorado. He said it was okay, but he fully expected to be "downrange" within a year or two. I immediately understood what he meant, and I was surprised with how easily he spoke of it.

His bride was a slim young girl wrapped elegantly in a beaded white gown, shoulder-less to reveal her tattoos. She had a scorpion on her shoulder blade, and it occurred to me that my soldier nephew might just enjoy a few months with his new bride before having to encounter the real thing in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was a happy occasion trimmed with somber realization.

Earlier that day I had taken my own Precious Daughter and two of her little cousins to City Park. We tried out all the features of the playground, then took our skills to conquer the trees. Ancient, heavy trees. The park is loaded with oak trees, many which might recall the distant sounds of battle when General Jackson turned back the British, and when gunboats steamed up the river during the Civil War.

"This tree is falling down," said one of the children happily as he walked on a branch that stretched horizontally along the ground almost as far as it reached up to the sky. "Gravity eventually overcomes all of us," I said to my own amusement. My response neither informed nor interested him and he continued to explore the ancient oak on his own terms.

The heat eventually drove us toward the old casino building where we found food and drinks and ice cream. My Precious Daughter said it had been closed since Katrina, but was glad to find it recently reopened. Almost three years it had been closed. Three years since the hurricane and flood had soaked our city.

An old song tells us "you don't know what you got till it's gone." That's a true enough observation that I'm sure applies anywhere. But here in New Orleans, where the loss is still so real and present, I'd like to think we know better than anyone what we have. And I hope we can appreciate what we have. I know I'm trying.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Tidal exchange

Meet and greet, think and drink, listen and learn, orate and organize...

You can do it all at the third annual gathering of NOLA Bloggers later this month.

It's called RISING TIDE III, running from August 22 to 24, right in the middle of New Orleans and the 2008 hurricane season. If you have not signed up yet, now is the time.

Not a blogger? It's okay, nobody will know. Come meet some great people anyway.

This year RISING TIDE features none other than the celebrated author John M. Barry.

Currently a commissioner on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, Mr. Barry also just happens to be the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, the definitive book on the flood that dared America to control the Mississippi River.

And check out the official conference poster created by Greg Peters.

Rising Tide III - A Conference on the Future of New Orleans.

Click on the poster to get all the details. Hope to see you there!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Here's mud in your eye

A recent headline on Yahoo! News decried the loss of soils in the recently flooded states to the north of us. This is particularly significant to us on the southern end of the Mississippi River.

A lot of people have said that we could solve Louisiana's coastal erosion problem by just letting nature do the work for us. We need "The river wild" they say.

But here's a part of the story nobody likes to talk about: sediment load.

That is, how much mud does the muddy Mississippi River contain?

The answer: Not nearly as much as she used to.

Going back as far as 1935 and the birth of the Soil Conservation Service, government at all levels has teamed with private citizens to halt the flow of topsoil washing into the nations' rivers. In recent years EPA has been tightening what is called Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations--standards that seek to keep turbidity down.

These and a hundred other well-meaning and beneficial initiatives mean that water flowing past New Orleans today contains just a fraction of mud one would have found in that same water even just a few decades ago.

And what that means is if historically the river was able to build a few hundred square miles of marsh per century, it would take centuries longer to do the same job today.

Would it help to let the river run wild? Yes, but don't count on any help from our neighbors north of the 30th parallel. They need that mud just as much as we do.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wetlands for hurricane protection might make cents

A study published in the June 2008 journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences attempts to calculate the economic value of wetlands as hurricane and storm surge defense features. I first heard of the study online and was fortunate to find the full text of the journal article here.

It is first important to note what this paper is NOT. It is not an engineering analysis; it is an exercise in econometrics. It does not propose any new design methods, nor does it test any of the natural mechanisms by which wetlands can provide storm protection for human populated areas. Early on the authors acknowledge this fact and note that the best empirical studies they find place the storm surge reduction benefit of wetlands at about 3 inches per mile. Regular readers of this blog will likely recognize that factoid.

What the researchers have done is gathered a ream of existing hurricane data, applied some simplifying assumptions to fill data gaps, and crunched the numbers through a series of statistical tests. The result, the authors can claim with some credibility, is that the value of wetlands as hurricane storm barriers can be expressed in dollars.

This is not a new problem. Economists have struggled to quantify the monetary value of natural features for decades. The vexing part of the problem is how to properly and fully equate wild lands and habitats in economic units of dollars used to store and trade wealth in human commerce.

Take any forest, for example. What is it worth? Is it simply the market value of its trees cut down and shipped to the mill plus the going rate for its developed acreage? We know this is not the right answer because forests have ecological value as carbon storage centers and aesthetic value as places humans enjoy seeing in person and in pictures.

Government agencies have for this reason studiously avoided placing economic value on wild lands. If forced to complete in the market of capitalist values, naturally occurring features will almost always lose out to commercial development. Environmental scientists instead have been using other more nature-based measures such as the Wetland Value Assessment and assigning "Habitat Units" in lieu of pure dollars to compare alternative land uses.

The authors of the Royal Swedish study set out to define the relationship between raw acreage of natural features as storm defense systems and the avoided damage from those same storms. First, they obtained a data set of hurricanes that struck the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts since 1980. This data included storm path, intensity and estimates of damage. They found a wealth of scientific and economic data in the Emergency Events Database (www.emdat.be) created and maintained by the World Health Organization, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, and the Belgian Government.

Next, they needed to calculate the total possible damage of strike locations. By comparing the experienced damage with the theoretical maximum possible damage, the researchers aimed to quantify the value of avoided damage. And this is where the econometric gymnastics kicks in. The authors took statistical data on US and individual state gross domestic product (GDP) and assigned a GDP value to a map of coastal America on a grid resolution of 1 kilometer square. Because GDP data is not readily available in this resolution, they interpolated and assigned GDP value by looking at satellite photographs taken at night. Areas brightly lit were given higher GDP values than dim or dark areas of the country.

Armed with this data, the authors ran the numbers and found some statistically significant relationships. Their primary discovery was that damage in areas near wetlands was reduced proportionally with the quantity of wetlands. Everyone has long acknowledged this fact, but here was proof--expressed in dollars.

The researches went further and attempted to calculate the average annual benefit of wetlands as storm protection. Their conclusion: wetlands save America from billions in storm damage year in and year out.

But let's not get too far ahead here. I have some serious misgivings about the methods employed and with the way the results were tabulated and presented. I will elaborate on some of them here.

1. It is interesting to note that the methods employed here failed to provide satisfactory results in several key instances. For instance, researchers had to limit their analysis to only the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts because of the scarcity of data. They admit to wishing they could apply their skills to the thousands of known disastrous tsunamis, monsoons and other coastal storm events, but found insufficient data to do so. The resulting data set includes just 34 hurricanes out of the nearly 270 major storms to strike the US during the selected period.

2. The researchers initially set out quantify the storm barrier benefits of forested wetlands, too, but found the statistical correlation not significant enough to support their hypothesis. Several widely published papers have touted the benefits of mangrove and cypress swamps in knocking down storm effects. The authors of this study could not validate that claim, and it makes me wonder why they proceeded with their work in spite of that glaring problem.

3. The use of GDP as a measure of potential storm damage leaves much to be desired. GDP is an expression of economic productivity; it says nothing about the present value of homes, businesses and other infrastructure that fall victim to nature's fury. Likewise, the Emergency Events Database records the total estimated damage wrought by storms. This would include wind and rain damages, but it is primarily the storm surge damage that is thought to be muted by wetlands.

4. To convert their calculation of avoided damage into an annually recurring value, the authors developed hurricane return frequencies using a data set with a period of just 25 years. This is hardly a large enough sample to extrapolate reliable return frequencies.

5. The authors conclude their paper with an editorial on the virtues of wetlands far beyond the apparent correlation to protection of human economic activity. They opine how coastal wetlands are "maintained by nature" and that such features are "far more cost-effective than constructed levees." But there is absolutely nothing in this article to support these conclusions. Indeed, the authors themselves note that Hurricane Katrina alone destroyed some 50,000 acres of wetlands.

These are just a few of the shortcomings of the study.

It is also important to note that the study tells us nothing about how and where to build wetlands as part of a storm defense system. The study considers gross acreage in the path of hurricanes assumed to be 100-km wide; nowhere does the study enlighten us as to how we would go about designing a wetlands plan.

I was disappointed that the researchers included the rather colloquial analogy that wetlands function as "horizontal levees." In fact, all physical features exist in three dimensions: earthen levees and wetlands both have length, width and height. The difference is the primary storm defense benefit of levees lies in their height, while the frictional resistance of wetlands is manifest in their area--length and width. But to equate the two, as if to suggest one could substitute some acreage of wetlands for some or all of a levee is ludicrous--if not dangerous.

It is noted that as I was preparing this blog entry, The Times-Picayune ran a story on the study that seized upon the expression "horizontal levees" as if it were a valid scientific result of this study. It is not.

I think the study represents a remarkable effort to quantify the hurricane defense benefits of wetlands in dollars--not an easy task--even if the results seem exaggerated to my eye. As an engineer, I find little in the study to help me understand and design these vital systems. But perhaps the study gives our society the justification and incentive to take wetland preservation and construction seriously as a bonafide contributor in our overall strategy to protect coastal developments. In the end, much research remains to be done before this general appreciation of wetlands can become a plan of action with predictable results.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A space oddity?

It was 29 years ago today that America's first space station, Skylab, came falling down to Earth. Some people at the office were talking about it and I recalled that it was quite a newsworthy event.

Pat O'Brien's even created a potent cocktail to commemorate the event. They called it the "Skylab Fallout."

But I was surprised to find I was the only person in the group who had ever heard of it.

Surely other people recall getting knocked dizzy in the French Quarter by a Skylab Fallout!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Exposed weaknesses

At the Rising Tide 2 conference, writer and panelist Joshua Clark commented that Hurricane Katrina exposed many weaknesses in our lives. I wrote it down back when I first heard it last August, and I've been thinking about it here and there since.

The idea stuck with me.

As an engineer, I recognize how minor flaws can become major problems under certain conditions. A hairline crack in concrete can let in moisture. That moisture can cause rust in reinforcing steel, which in turn exerts pressures that will further crack the encasing concrete.

Weaknesses can go undetected for weeks, months, years, and then... a bridge falls, or a tower crane buckles, or a floodwall bends and bows to failure.

Engineers also understand that loads transfer from one part of a structure to another. If one connection of a truss fails, it might not result in an immediate collapse. The load will be transferred to another connection, much the same way a current of electricity will seek the shortest path to ground, or water the swiftest path to the ocean. This load transfer is automatic and instantaneous.

If the new connection can't hold the load, it too will fail and send the load to the next connection. Sometimes this transfer/failure/transfer cycle happens quickly--resulting in a successive collapse. Sometimes, it goes undetected for a while.

I've been thinking about the load of Hurricane Katrina on us, our lives, our community, and our support system. When something fails to hold up, do the others race in to help? And if the load and stress of this disaster and the rebuilding process pile on, will we stay strong, or will we suffer sudden or rapid successive collapse in our lives?

You could say we've already seen this happen at the District Attorney's office. Inefficiencies, blunders and scandals accumulated and brought down Eddie Jordan's office and career. It started out small, but grew over many months until the ability of the public to stomach the news had been completely diminished. It was a textbook illustration of the expression, "The straw that broke the camel's back."

I also think we see this happening with housing. With so many displaced from their homes, demand for rentals and rental rates are up dramatically. Amazingly the federal government and the city decided this was the time to tear down most public housing projects. The stress of housing has transferred from one market to the next, so that we can truly say there is a housing crisis in New Orleans.

Families feel the strain, too. The recent death of NOLA blogger Ashley Morris shows us how the burdens of life are distributed. The stress and strain was quickly transferred--shared--throughout the Morris family's circle of friends. Several NOLA blogger stepped in mightily to help them bear the load.

And the Morris family survives.

So I think I'd like to add a thought to Joshua Clark's observation. Katrina exposed weaknesses, yes, but she also revealed our strengths.

And not just as a matter of contrast. Just because one floodwall fell over and the one next to it did not is no reason to think that remaining floodwall is somehow representative of an ideal design; it just means it was at least a tiny bit better than the one that fell.

No, I'm thinking that New Orleans is a city of many strengths--strengths that were there all along, but we overlooked them or forgot them in the day-to-day journey of life.

Sense of community, love of neighborhood and civic pride are some examples. Would we say that these have sprung full-grown from our wounded city? Or isn't it more likely we had these things all along? I think it took several feet of flood water to push these powerful sentiments to the surface. And to this day if anybody says a cross word to us about being "stupid to live below sea level" you can bet they'll get both barrels of love right back.

Like travelers on a yellow brick road, we've been through hell and high water just to find out that what we were searching for we had all along.

I know we'll never forget that awful August three years ago, when unforgiving nature exposed and exploited all our weaknesses.

But I also hope we'll remember our discovered strengths, and that it's because of those strengths that we're still here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

"Those tiles will be replaced"

That's what Entergy V.P. Rusty Burroughs said. His letter of apologies and promises was printed in the newspaper.

And so two months later, NOLA Blogger Oyster goes back to check and finds...


Friday, June 27, 2008

Back on track

I don't know who had the idea or made it happen, but they deserve praise.

This week the streetcars returned to Carrollton Avenue. For the first time since Hurricane Katrina tried to drown New Orleans, you can ride a streetcar from Claiborne Avenue to Canal Street via the world famous St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.

Signs placed along Carrollton Avenue warn drivers to be on the lookout for the return of streetcars in New Orleans.

And somebody had the wisdom and forethought to put up these signs.

Automobiles cross paths with the streetcars at each of dozens of cross streets cutting across the neutral ground. After an absence just shy of three years, automobile drivers have likely fallen out of the habit of looking out for the streetcars. Hopefully these signs will remind drivers to be on the lookout.

This is positive and proactive and I like it.

Compare this to the stoplight camera scheme.

In the past few months the City of New Orleans and its neighbor in Metairie both installed cameras at intersections to catch drivers crossing through red lights. The goal, government officials said, is to improve public safety. Additional revenue brought by fines, government officials said, is just coincidental to the plan.

But what are the rules about crossing under a yellow light? Is anyone really sure? Ask any two drivers about traffic light rules and you'll get three different answers about what is legal and illegal when it comes to yellow and red lights. Where is the effort to educate the driving public of what is safe and unsafe? Where is the public education on the correct rules for traffic lights?

Apparently, nobody thought it necessary to provide information. They just put up cameras and started mailing invoices. The plan, it seems, is that once a driver is forced to write a check, he'll learn.

This is why I was so pleased with the "Back on Track" signs. They inform and educate in order to promote safety, and that is the way it should be.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Cats at home

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were tough on a lot of people, but they were also tough on our animals. You could say that for our pets Callie and Smudge, it was a complete cat-astrophe!

(Okay, okay, a very bad pun. Last one, I promise.)

Callie and Smudge are our two remaining cats. Prior to the storm we had four cats and took every one of them with us when we fled town in the middle of the night almost three years ago. Packed into cat carriers, stacked on the back seat next to our Precious Daughter, I think it's safe to say they were pretty traumatized in those first days.

They did not watch the round-the-clock news coverage of the storm, the wall failures, the flooding, the failed relief effort, the bodies abandoned around the city, the desperate cries of help from the Superdome and convention center. They could not comprehend the enormous force of nature bearing down upon the city nor the necessity of driving away in the middle of the night. It must have scared the heck out of them.

If even a slender parallel can be drawn between the experience of our cats with the suffering of our neighbors here, it would be in the uncertainty. After the flood, thousands of displaced citizens were herded onto busses with no indication of where they were going or what awaited them once they got there: I imagine this is what our cats experienced, too.

We evacuated with four cats, but we gave two away. In those first few days when we realized we could not go home--we had no home to go to--we were very fortunate to have several options as we were invited to stay with close relatives. But we knew having so many pets would be a burden on our hosts. We knew that the coming months of moving from place to place would be difficult on our older cats. A difficult decision, but we put two of our cats up for adoption in Dallas. They're still there.

Our journey with the two remaining cats took us from Texas to Virginia and back to New Orleans where we've lived in two temporary homes until we finally settled in our new house just in the last few weeks.

I've blogged about my furry friends before, as at each stop in our journey they've had to learn, adjust and adapt to their new surroundings. They seem to have handled it well. How can I tell? They eat and sleep and seem to be in every way the same cats we've had for these several years.

Here at the new house, it's not just a new place. It's filled with all new furniture and beds and bedding. I had thought it would take them a while to adjust since almost everything here is new and strange. Well, there's US, but you know what I mean.

And as expected, they did slink cautiously around for the first day and hid under the bed for most of the next two days. But it wasn't long before they were lounging on our new king-sized bed as if they had been born into such privilege.

Callie admires her own reflection in the pretty wood floor.

Callie, with her exquisite long and puffy coat of calico-spotted fur, looks especially content when she rolls halfway on her back and stretches her paws out over her head. It's tempting to want to rub her soft white belly when she does this, but anyone who approaches is quickly rebuffed with a warning glare of her golden eyes.

Smudge napping at the new house.

Smudge, always the more passive of the two, prefers to curl her thin body up in a tight spiral when she's taking a power nap. She's a short-hair Siamese, and her favorite sleeping pose is to coil her brown tail around her mostly white body and put a paw over her closely-set blue eyes.

Seeing them this way on the bed or enjoying the cool hardwood floors, I know they're comfortable. I know that they've accepted (yet again) the place their keepers have carried them to. I know they feel at home and they're happy to be here.

And I can tell you that it makes me feel cat-egorically happy, too.

(Oops! Just couldn't stop myself.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Eternal vigilance

We were all talking about the high water on the Mississippi River a few weeks ago. Since then, the river stage at New Orleans rose to 17.0, Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened, millions of gallons of water were shunted into Lake Pontchartrain, the river stage finally began to fall, and Bonnet Carre Spillway was closed.

In sum, an exciting and rare event.

But that's not why we paid so much attention. A few weeks ago, nobody was expressing awe at the rarity of the event.

We were worried.

We worried that the Mississippi River levees might not hold, or that the spillway diversion might not be enough, or that if the river ever got loose... Well, let's just say Hurricane Katrina and every other catastrophe in the nearly 300-year history of this city would have been knocked one notch down the list of worst disasters.

But I think all this worrying is good. When we worry, we pay attention. When we worry, we acknowledge the importance of maintaining a strong system of protections, and we encourage thinking about consequences and contingencies.

There's the old expression, "When we fail to plan, we plan to fail."

But even more relevant is this expression from the time of the American Revolution: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

"Vigilance" as in keeping watch over the state and federal agencies who design, build and maintain the levees, walls and gates. "Vigilance" as in keeping apace with changing technology and scientific understanding of the threats. "Vigilance" as in maintaining the urgency and critical life-safety purpose of the protections.

"Eternal" as in always and forever. When the last load of clay is dumped and spread and compacted on that final levee, the job will still not be done. Maintenance must be ongoing and uninterrupted. Designs must be checked periodically to assure effectiveness under changing coastal conditions. The work must go on.

We all have our parts in this effort. Government will establish standards and enforce rules, and citizens must support and in fact encourage the prosecution of work.

And we who live behind these walls and levees know that if we stop paying attention, all kinds of bad things will happen.

Not "can happen" but "will happen."

If we are not vigilant, money for the required work will get diverted elsewhere. If we are not vigilant, the goal of effective, resilient flood protection will become the goal of bringing in a marginal project on schedule and under budget. If we are not vigilant, the carefully calculated decisions of safety-oriented engineers will be replaced with the whims of policy wonks and accountants, political appointees and the NIMBY neighborhood associations.

Am I preaching to the choir here?

Let's hope so. Let's hope that just shy of three years since that horrible event we're still laser focused on what really counts to this water-tested community. Let's hope we can keep that focus for 30 years or 60 years or 90 years and more, because that's what it will take.

We're eternally vulnerable, so we've got to be eternally vigilant.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yes, all of the above

Where is the optimism I had two years ago? In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was sorry for myself, but not sad. When I saw the carcass of what was once our home--dank, molded and smelling like a garbage truck--I was filled with sadness, but not remorse.

I don't know if that makes sense to anyone except me, but it's how I used to feel.

And somehow, I was defiant. I was determined. I was optimistic. I started writing this blog to express those sentiments to myself, my family and friends, and the world.

Now that we have a new house and we officially sold our vacant property to the Road Home, I feel very different.

I feel tired, and beaten, and a bit depressed about it.

Am I tired because this has been going on for so damn long? Is it because our particular "Road Home" has been a winding, uphill trek of more than two and half years? Is it the long hours I've been working, saddled with the "time off" spent working on the "new" house?

Am I beaten because I originally envisioned a new house on our property in Vista Park, rising high above the ground to escape future floods and strapped down at every stud to resist powerful winds? Is it because I had to take down that sign we had out front for the past year, the one that proudly proclaimed, "We're rebuilding"?

Am I depressed because I see the slow, painful progress of my once beautiful neighborhood, and I know that I am doing nothing to help? Am I shook up by my neighbors who have not elevated their homes but merely nailed up new sheetrock, as if the basic flood protection here, still under construction, was in fact bulletproof and finished? Does it bother me that national newspapers print smug and insulting stories of our struggle to recover from a disaster of biblical proportions, while local media uncritically print and broadcast the unsubstantiated allegations of angry and irrational critics?

Yes, all of the above.

I tell myself things will get better. I tell myself my life will be easier in a few weeks once we've fully unpacked and settled into our new home, leaving behind forever the tiny lifestyle of a FEMA travel trailer. I tell myself that buying a house and investing in New Orleans is a positive act of helping with the recovery.

I tell myself that the unreasoned scorn of strangers outside of Louisiana is not important, that their anger is theirs own alone. I tell myself that New Orleans was created by outcasts, misfits and adventurers, and that the only proper way to rebuild it will be with the help of outcasts, misfits and adventurers.

And I make it a rule never to lie to myself.

More than two years after the water went down, I still have a house full of love, appreciation and support. I still live in one of the great cities of the world. I still have a lot to look forward to.

Oh, there's that optimism!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Vagaries of government decisionmakers and whims of developers

"One guy is building 12 feet in the air because he's freaked out. The next guy is building at eight feet because that's the new flood regs. The next guy is building at four feet because he's grandfathered in [to the pre-Katrina code requirements], and the next guy is building right on the beach because he knew somebody at city hall and was able to get away with it."

Except for the beach part, you could almost imagine this is about Louisiana.

But it's not: it's coastal Mississippi.

Read the full story from The Christian Science Monitor.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The essential luxury

Here is what I like about our new home: Hot water.

Oh sure, there are hardwood floors, a king size bed and the breeze-swept balcony with a view of the New Orleans skyline. My Darling Wife loves the high ceilings and fans and our Precious Daughter is enjoying her red and black room with full-length mirrors on the closet doors.

But for me, the greatest improvement in quality of life is the new bathroom.

Let me explain.

Here's how my mornings used to go: My alarm would go off. I would turn on the hot water heater. I would reset my alarm for 15 minutes. I would go back to bed. My alarm would go off again. I would get ready to shower. I would stoop slightly and step into the tub. I would remain bent because if I stood straight my head would hit the ceiling of the trailer. I would shower and shave as quickly as possible, because the trailer hot water tank only held about 6 gallons and it usually lasted about 15 minutes.

That's how it was for about 22 months in the FEMA Travel Trailer.

Here's how my morning goes now: My alarm goes off. I get ready to shower. I stand up and no stooping or bending is required. I stand under the strong spray of hot water for as long as I please. I emerge happy.

If clean water is one of the hallmarks of a civilized living, hot water is one of its essential luxuries.

Oh, I could probably wax poetic about the essential nature of water versus the sensuous pleasure of a hot shower, or even the paradoxical relationship we have with water since it was, after all, a water event that plunged us all into this long journey of misery in the first place.

But I'll let that alone for now.

I suppose at one time or another we've all been deprived of the luxury of a hot shower. Whether camping or during a power or gas outage, we probably had to deal with the inconvenience of little or no hot water for a day or two.

Well that's nothing. Try it for 22 consecutive months.

And then you'll know why my favorite part of the new house is all wet.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Unambiguously home

There is a line that runs through all our lives here. It marks the place where everything changed.

It is first and foremost the water line. Thirty-two months ago, every house, pole, tree, car and street sign in the flooded parts of New Orleans bore the line. We've washed that ugly stain from most of our homes now, but the line remains. I can still see the line in my own neighborhood--the line that separates what survives from what dies.

Everyone knows that to survive, you must stay above the water line. That water line was the subject of a song by Paul Soniat. He sings about how a lot of lives "fell below the water line" in 2005. A lot of relationships, jobs and schools fell below the water line and did not reemerge.

The City of New Orleans is ignoring the water line. At City Hall, the only line they notice is the imaginary line drawn on the flood insurance maps. All they seem to care about is the Base Flood Elevation, that magical line that will allow you to get a building permit, and the best flood insurance rate, and the peace of mind we all crave. Or not.

There are other lines.

There is the line on the calendar that separates our lives in time. It is a line that separates the lives of the people of New Orleans into pre-K and post-K. It starkly separates our lives between how we lived before August 29, 2005, and after. In far too many cases, it starkly separates life and survivors from the dead.

And surviving the hurricane and flood was not an end; it was the beginning of the survivor saga. Fellow blogger Karen Gadbois wrote to me, "Funny how this storm has turned us all into other things." She sees how people have changed where they live, where they work, where they go to school. She knows people who are doing things they never dreamed and never planned to do. But they crossed the line in time and they changed.

For instance, we all know a lot more about flood maps and how to navigate insurance claims than we did before. I always thought I was up to speed on insurance, but you never really know until something happens. You never really know what lurks in the fine print until you get a form letter from the insurance company that matter-of-factly describes what is covered and for how much.

And having traversed that timeline in 2005, we all know more about tropical weather forecasting than ever before. During the past two anxious hurricane seasons, everyone here was keenly aware of every puff of rainy weather in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic.

Another NOLA blogger, Mark Folse said, "I don't think anyone without AMS certification knew anything about Invests, etc. until after K. Now we're all looking at computer model tracks and wondering about the reliability of this model over that, thinking about sea surface temp, wind shear, etc."

When we crossed that line, we all became armchair meteorologists, studying the maps and reading the reports and checking the computer modeling. I haven't heard of any fantasy forecasting leagues starting up yet, but surely one cannot be far from forming.

And then there is the line for help. Lines of people at the Road Home closing center. Lines of citizens at City Hall trying to get permits, or to talk sense to their Assessors. Lines at the hardware stores.

Now my family is approaching yet another line, a line that will officially denote our passage from Post-K to Post-Post-K. We bought a new house and we're moving in this weekend. For the first time since Katrina filled our city with despair, we will have a roof over our heads that we can call our own. We will sleep in beds that belong to us and us alone. We will change our voter registration and discard stationary with our "old" address on it.

We fled the city and our home in August 2005, seeking shelter with family in Texas and Virginia, brief stays in friends' undamaged houses in Harahan and uptown New Orleans, a few months in an expensive apartment in the Sliver by the River, and almost 22 months in a FEMA Travel Trailer.

We bounced around quite a bit, but only now are we landing safely in a place we can unambiguously call, "home."

My family for the past almost three years has been somewhat controlled by a broken line on the highway, a line on a map, a line on the calendar, a line to get help, a line of credit to replace what was lost, and of course, the water line.

Most of these stories are recorded in the lines on our faces. I'm hoping that by this time next week, the dominant line on my face will be a smile.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sounds of New Orleans

We spent the day working at the new house, painting and getting ready for furniture and the final “move-in.” D-Day is Saturday, May 3.

Our new house is just a few blocks from The Fair Grounds, host of the annual Jazz Fest. We had the windows and doors open, but we heard nothing more than a few booms and thumps carried on the wind. Nothing you could identify as anything other than just remnants of music.

Fortunately we had the radio, and WWOZ was broadcasting select acts from the Blues Tent. That’s how I was able to hear Delbert McClinton late in the afternoon. Had I been able to get the Jazz Fest today, I would have been in the Blues Tent for that set.

At one point, my Darling Wife asked that we turn the radio off. “What will we listen to?” asked the Precious Daughter, who was a great help and did her best to keep her budding teen angst at bay. “The Sounds of Silence,” I said.

“We’ll listen to the birds, the cars, the people on the street,” she said earnestly. “We’ll listen to the world around us.”

That struck me and the Precious Daughter as a radical idea, but we gave it a try for a while.

Two interesting observations from this experiment: because of Jazz Fest, there were two small planes circling The Fair Grounds. They were trailing advertising banners and they buzzed over our house at regular intervals. I hadn’t noticed that when the radio was on.

The second thing I noticed was the frequent wail of sirens. We’re near Esplanade and right off Broad, two busy streets that carry a lot of traffic. We experienced the same thing a few years ago when we lived for a year on Esplanade near City Park.

Sirens. Day and night. Believe it or not, you get used to it.

After a long day, we cleaned up and headed back to the trailer. There was a hard rain again this afternoon and the many vacant lots in Vista Park were no doubt saturated. The sun had set and the street lights shined off the wet pavement.

As we walked from car to the FEMA Travel Trailer, my wife noted the echoing noise that filled the street. “Listen to those happy frogs,” she said.

A chorus of amphibian singers filled the night. There was a steady “Chirp, chirp, chirp” being carried by a countless collection of frogs, punctuated by the longer “Ree-bee, ree-bee” and the warbling bass section.

These are the sounds of New Orleans today: frogs, sirens, Jazz Fest.

And these sounds remind me again of the diversity of life in the Crescent City: a soundtrack with room for everybody and everything, a soundtrack worth listening to.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ashley put street name tiles in the news

A letter from Entergy assures us that New Orleans' distinctive street name tiles will be replaced by the utility company as it proceeds with routine work in our historic neighborhoods. They blame the whole unfortunate episode on "a subcontractor's crew."

And while they claim to have uncovered and dealt with the issue on their own, they mention columnist Chris Rose who wrote briefly about it in The Times-Picayune two weeks ago.

I have no reason to doubt their story, but do take exception that they credit Mr. Rose for calling attention to the matter without any credit to the man who first kicked over this ant pile: Ashley Morris.

Yes, Ashley Morris, the same "pain in the ass" neighbor of Mr. Rose who the columnist realized too late was a true friend of New Orleans.

There's a big difference between people who talk and people who do. It is my observation that the "complainer" gene is rampant in the species, and people like Mr. Rose are an excellent example. By definition, reporters show up after the fact and scribble notes about what happened. Columnists like Mr. Rose complain about why something happened or did not happen largely for entertainment value.

But the credit for making something--anything--happen rarely if ever goes to the journalists. It is the "citizen soldiers" who carry the battle to the enemy. People who show up at City Council meetings and speak up. People who write letters and campaign for good causes. People who alert their neighbors and agitate for change when things go awry.

People like Ashley and the exceptional crew of NOLA Bloggers.

Mr. Rose would marginalize these doers. To him, folks like Ashley are mere "voices in the wilderness, raging at the machine." Although he wrote these words as praise of Ashley, there is clearly a belittling tone to writing that someone spends his time "tilting at windmills."

Well Mr. Rose's column and the letter from Entergy appear to dispel that myth.

Street name tiles are in the news because Ashley made them news.

We interred Ashley's remains several weeks ago, but don't think that means he's finished.