Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Winter trees

I have not posted much about the neighborhood lately. And that's because I'm leaving.

I had such grand plans. I was going to build the model home on my street. I was going to build tall and strong on our vacant lot. I was going to lead the way and build the house of the future New Orleans.

But now, for the many reasons explained in prior posts, I am leaving. I'm selling to the Road Home and hitting the road for the relative high ground of Esplanade Ridge.

And I feel like I'm selling out.

Am I happy about the new house? Yes. Am I excited? Yes.

But these happy emotions are tempered by the feeling that I'm abandoning my neighbors and my neighborhood.

Our street ends in a cul-de-sac, around which a half-dozen or so houses are arranged. They always were a solid community of their own down there, always reliable for their pumpkin-carving parties in the fall, New Year's Eve parties in the winter, and the occasional neighborhood gathering all the rest of the year.

Almost every one of those families is back. They fixed up their slab-on-grade houses and moved right back in as fast as they could. I think most of them were back before 2007 arrived. And they're back at it--hosting parties and making the kind of neighborhood noises that we used to take for granted in Vista Park.

On New Year’s Eve just a couple of months ago, I took my Precious Daughter down to the cul-de-sac about a half-an-hour before midnight so that she could see the mass expenditure of money in sparks and explosions. They put on quite a show, and for a few moments there you could almost imagine that everything was back to normal, that everything was okay, or that Katrina and the 6 feet of flood water that drowned every house and building in this neighborhood had never happened.


But the reality is that we are living with one eye closed. We see the good, the grand, the potential of this cluster of houses and all the joy it brings these families. And we refuse to see the bad, the catastrophic, the reality that these houses have a better than 26% chance of flooding again before most of them can pay off their SBA disaster assistance loans. That's a 1-in-4 chance or more of rising water returning.

My neighbors may or may not want to acknowledge this, but they must certainly know it's possible. It is as if they wink at fate and the weather and the promise of a world-class hurricane protection system that will not be complete until several years from now. They see only what they want to see.

In a way that's probably better. Because if they really acknowledged the risk, they might not be able to sleep at night. They might not be able to laugh and enjoy their fireworks on a cold December night not even a half mile from one of the major canal breaches that decimated this city.

I found it hard to talk to my neighbors that night, carrying the knowledge that we were on our way out. We had already made plans to leave and sell to the Road Home--and that decision placed an infinitely high and wide wall between us. We no longer had the things in common that bonded us together. They were staying; I was leaving. They had rebuilt in place; I was moving to higher ground. They staked their money and lives to their pre-flood houses; I had knocked down what was left of our house and was selling out ASAP.

No longer friends across the fence, we were more like two ships passing in the night.

The cold of December has long since passed, and January, too. The trees of Vista Park are still dormant, although only a few are bare. But as they have for millennia, those winter trees will bloom again. We plan not to be here to see them, but they will grow lush and green again in the thick New Orleans heat of spring and summer. And for as long as they can--as long as nature allows them--Vista Park and the many other neighborhoods of New Orleans will blossom into the fullness of life.

It's just that I won't be there. I know my neighbors will probably not understand our decision to sell and leave any more than I can understand their reasoning to stay and repair. I wish them well.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dear Senator Obama,

I was not able to attend your rally today at Tulane University in New Orleans, but I did read your scripted remarks online.

I want to thank you for taking a strong stand in support of building significantly improved hurricane protections around the New Orleans area. I particularly appreciate your use of the words, "Never again." This is truly a level of commitment that no one in Washington--with the exception of the Louisiana delegation--has dared articulate. Again, thanks.

I would also like to ask a favor of you. It is a simple thing I am asking, but I hope you will recognize how vitally important this is to citizens in Louisiana--and many more citizens across America--who live with the risk of flooding daily.

In your speech, you refer to the current objective to provide protection from a "100-year storm."

Senator, I must tell you there is no such thing as a "100-year storm."

The terminology "100-year flood" or "100-year storm" may be popular in the common vernacular, but it is patently misleading. What we are really talking about is the flood or storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring or being exceeded in any given year. It is a theoretical weather event that is used to benchmark the risk of flooding.

Such careless terminology encourages the belief that such storms are rare and only occur once in a lifetime or less. Unfortunately this is not the case.

That 1 percent chance only applies to one year. Once we experience a "bad" year, there is no assurance whatsoever that we will have 99 "good" years. We could, in fact, see two consecutive "100-year" hurricanes occur in back-to-back years.

We need only recall the hyper-activity of tropical cyclones in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 to recognize that large back-to-back storms are not some distant probability. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma all reached Category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson scale in just a single hurricane season.

In fact, statistics reveal how common that "100-year" event can be. There is a 26% chance that a 1% storm or flood will occur within 30 years. And there's a better than 50% chance that a person will experience the 1% flood within a normal lifetime.

Once in 100 years? Not by a long shot.

And so the favor I ask of you is that you take care to use the correct terminology when talking about hurricane and flood protection. Could you say, "1 percent per year chance of exceedence," or, "1 in 100 chance per year of being exceeded." In my work as a Civil Engineer, we often call it the "1% storm" for short.

Because Americans are looking to you for leadership, it is imperative that your proposals regarding hurricane protection be as accurate and precise as possible. The risk we face from flooding and hurricanes is real and must not be carelessly dismissed or misrepresented. That's the mistake we made before.

I hope I will again hear that you say, "Never again" when talking about hurricane protection. That's the kind of commitment to protecting Americans that can really make a difference and improve the quality of life for all.



(This letter was suggested by Maitri.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Part seven: The city on the edge of forever

A continuation of the How's the house coming? saga...

By now, even the most hardy readers will be wondering, "When is this story going to end? How much can they endure?"

That's exactly what we were wondering, too.

More than six months had passed since we had first made an offer on the house. The fuse had been burning on this deal so long, we were genuinely startled when it suddenly took off like a rocket.

At SBA, the final hurdle was leapt right after the new year. The dollar amounts were finalized, the various paperwork issues were resolved and our most recent case worker finally said the words we had been waiting to hear: "I'm sending the request for a check today. We'll overnight it to the title company as soon as it comes in. You should have it by next week."

We called the title company and scheduled the closing for two days after the promised check arrival.

That night, dinner in our little FEMA Travel Trailer was accompanied with sparkling wine. My Darling Wife and Precious Daughter were near joyous, but I was unable to get excited. Not yet. It ain't over until it's over, I said.

My Darling Wife said it was my role to be the cautious, skeptical one, but she would not allow me to be the wet blanket that night. Our Precious Daughter also brushed me off and talked about how she wanted to decorate her new room. Torqoise blue and lime green, she said. My Darling Wife and I were tactful. "We'll think about it."

We hurriedly pulled together the final details to go to closing. I signed the insurance application and wrote a hefty check. We drew a cashier's check on our insurance proceeds for the down payment and our share of the closing costs.

We all gathered at the title office--the seller, the realtors, the Whitney Bank loan officer, the attorney and us. We passed around a few dozen papers and signed everything in sight. To my great astonishment and relief, all the numbers added up. The three checks--SBA, Whitney, and our own--combined correctly to the penny to complete the purchase.

On Friday, January 11, 2008, we once again became homeowners.

That night, my Darling Wife and I had dinner at the Red Fish Grill to celebrate, courtesy of a Christmas gift card, and I was certainly in a better mood.

No, we haven't moved just yet. We plan to refinish the wood floors, paint and do some other things to fix it up depending upon how much we can afford. I'm guessing we'll move in sometime in March.

The adventure is not completely over. As of this writing, Road Home still has not been able to make a simple amendment to our application. Just since July 2007, they have contacted me four times to schedule a closing, each time with the same error resulting in the wrong paperwork. But at least it's not holding us back anymore.

Meanwhile, we were relieved when our Precious Daughter said she had changed her mind about what color to paint her room. She asked if instead she could paint her room red.

We rolled our eyes.

And we told her yes.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fog on the river

It's Lundi Gras, and there is fog on the river.

People usually don't like the fog. In ancient times it was hard to navigate the river when there was fog. Reduced vision meant danger and sometimes death.

Others equate fog with spooky graveyards and ghost stories. No doubt Jack the Ripper used the London fog to his benefit.

But today, I look at the fog and I think it's beautiful. It's a natural event that neither hinders nor threatens me.

Like "soft" focus often employed in old Hollywood movies, I think it hides the blemishes, the faults and the shortcomings.

This past weekend and through tomorrow, New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras. It is celebrating itself. Like fog on the river, Carnival Time will wrap around this city and make everything beautiful.

We will decorate and put on costumes and pretend for a while that New Orleans is in fact "new."

We will spend a few days under the influence of liquid spirits, enjoying the fog of alcohol to the greatest extent possible.

We will envelop our city in irreverence so that the pain of rebuilding (or the lack rebuilding) is temporarily hidden from view.


Let's enjoy it while it lasts. If you're in the New Orleans area, celebrate Mardi Gras for the soul that survives and the spirit that endures in spite of all obstacles.

And if you're not in New Orleans, think about us on Tuesday. Pause during your work day to remember that life is good, that even the hardest lives is worth living if just for a few moments of joy. Think about what it is that makes humans--not just New Orleanians, but all humans--refuse to bow to the whims of nature, to choose to struggle and fight on. Remember that the ferocity of the fight often corresponds to the sweetness of the success.

I promise to think of you on Mardi Gras. When our marching group Mondo Kayo reaches Canal Street, I promise to make a toast to all the good people of America who don't celebrate Mardi Gras, who don't partake in this grand event. I will wish you well, and wish you could be here with us in this beautiful crescent of the Mississippi River.

Happy Mardi Gras!