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.

Friday, April 18, 2008

As agile and responsive as the world in which we live

In early 2006, the US House of Representatives weighed in with their assessment of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Their report, "Failure of Initiative," came out too early to be able to discuss the engineering specifics but was nevertheless a thoughtful look at the big picture issues.

The major take-away for me was this statement:

"Officials at all levels seemed to be waiting for the disaster that fit their plans, rather than planning and building scalable capacities to meet whatever Mother Nature threw at them. We again encountered the risk-averse culture that pervades big government, and again recognized the need for organizations as agile and responsive as the 21st century world in which we live."

(From the Report by the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina,

Two big ideas there.

First, since when does Nature play by our rules? She does not, so anyone who plans for a specific scenario and ignores all other scenarios is planning a catastrophe.

And second, you don't avoid risk by ignoring it. You can pretend that there is no risk, but all you're doing is pretending.

When I read the report about two years ago, I immediately copied down that quote and kept it close. I like to remind myself of those two big ideas from time to time, and I hope it helps keep my guard up.

But then recently I gained a new insight. This statement, written to chastise government agencies and functionaries, has much broader application. Could not almost the same be said of many rank-and-file citizens?

Because surely, if we rebuild our houses at exactly the so-called 100-year flood elevation and not one inch higher, if we refuse to even consider raising our homes and simply repair them where they are, regardless of the reality that there recently was 6 or 8 or 10 feet of water in them, are we not guilty of the same poor habits the congressional report excoriates?

And if we rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding communities in exactly the same way, refusing even to consider doing anything differently, rejecting all attempts at improvement, and fail to take advantage of this opportunity to change things, what will be said about the citizens of New Orleans if (when) the city floods again?

We may very well find ourselves accused of "Failure of Initiative."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

River rising

Everybody's talking about the rising Mississippi River and the levees that keep it in check. And I'm not just talking about in the coffee shops and beauty parlors of New Orleans; my office is intense with activity.

It's called a flood fight, and with good reason.

When the water gets this high, even though reliably forecast to peak several feet lower than the tops of the levees, the weeks of water pressure and velocity on the levees will take their toll. As in any battle, troops will be deployed and defenses will need to be reinforced as the fight goes on. In 1973, I understand there were two locations where the main levee was showing signs of considerable stress, so a backup levee was constructed to keep the river at bay.

This is normal procedure. Cause for concern--yes. Cause for panic--no.

This is considerably different than a hurricane event. For one, the river is a well defined problem. We have mountains of historical data and a thorough understanding of how its waters flow. Hurricanes, to the contrary, are still very unpredictable. The National Weather Service has made huge strides in tropical cyclone prediction in recent decades, but it remains a game of odds. We don't have such gaps of knowledge when facing our foe in the Mississippi River. We know what's coming and when with great accuracy.

When a hurricane comes, all we can do is run away or hide behind levees. Again, a flood fight is different in that we can do much more. We have tools at our disposal--spillways that we can use to reduce pressure on our levees and divert the peak flows of the river.

Another difference is in how we conduct the fight. During the height of a hurricane it is simply not possible to closely monitor flood defenses or to attempt repairs. Even pump operators must take refuge in armored "safe houses" when the wind is at its worst. But the Mississippi River provides no such obstacle. Throughout the flood fight, inspectors will drive the levees and look for even the smallest indication of trouble. And when trouble occurs, crews will be able to respond quickly.

We can take solace in the knowledge that the river has not flooded the city since then: the levees have worked every time.

However, we must not let any of this lead us to be complacent. Just as we should never forget the hard lessons of 2005, we must always remember the suffering of 1927.

There's a reason it's called a flood fight. And the fight is on.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Remember Ashley Morris

"Ashley Morris, PhD, passed away on April 2nd, 2008. Ashley was a father, a husband, a teacher, a scientist, a musician, and above all, a New Orleanian. He was a fiery spirit who inspired and energized anyone whose life he touched. Ashley left behind a wife and three small children and expenses are mounting. Please remember Ashley and help his family by making a donation through the PayPal link below."

Ashley Morris Fund

Keep Me in Your Heart

Greg Peters over at Suspect Device gives us this tribute to Dr. Ashley Morris. It features photos of his family and friends and the music of Warren Zevon.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ashley Morris

Died yesterday.

It's hard to believe someone who lived and loved with such ferocity could suddenly be... gone.

The NOLA Bloggers are still in shock, but so too are they mobilizing to help Ashley's wife and three children. Talk of fundraising and memorials that will carry his passions forward are in high gear.

Ashley was both large and larger than life. As passionate and enraged as he often was on his blog, in person he was one of the most considerate and affable people you could possibly know.

Some quick stories to remember:

When we had what was left of our house demolished, I blogged about losing my albums. My music collection was mostly 70's and 80's rock and punk, and I lamented that many were either too rare or too local to ever replace. Ashley immediately rushed in to help. He offered to give me his collection of old LPs and a turntable that he said he no longer used. Ashley noted that we shared a similar appreciation for early punk rock. Tempting as it was, I had to turn him down because there was no room in a FEMA travel trailer for such a gift. Undeterred, he later offered to give me a TV.

When the Saints returned to the Superdome, Ashley was right there. His blogs about that experience were so powerful, so completely heartfelt for something as trivial as a football game--yet Ashley was able to make the connection between a mere game and the soul of this struggling city, a city down physically and emotionally. His words poured out of his blog like fine wine, each phrase so delicious to savor. Out of the blue one day, Ashley invited me to be his guest at the next Saints game. This time I took him up on his generosity and we enjoyed a smashing Saints victory.

Ashley later had a large fleur de lis inked into his arm. When I saw him at Rising Tide II last year, I immediately asked to see the tattoo. Ashley's grin grew as wide as his biceps as he yanked up his sleeve. Nobody ever loved such a dysfunctional, backward, messed-up place as New Orleans as much as Ashley did.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Keeping count

FEMA trailers as of today:

18,176 in Louisiana.

6,360 just in New Orleans.