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.