Monday, January 26, 2009

Its rightful place for New Orleans

Tucked into the rich folds of his inaugural speech, it was almost too easy to miss what in the long run may be the most significant and far-reaching change in policy made by President Barack Obama.

To be sure, his acknowledgement of “when the levees break” was encouraging to those of us who have already suffered such woes. It reveals the import of such events in the new president’s mind--in great contrast to his predecessor who made no mention of such issues in successive State of the Union addresses.

But what could have far greater impact on us in the recovering city of New Orleans, and all of America for that matter, is the president’s plan to rededicate our efforts to the most successful investigatory tool ever devised.

In the heart of his inaugural address, the president outlined his vision for America including his goals of reviving a struggling economy, building infrastructure, bolstering public education and harnessing alternative energy.

And that’s where he also said: “We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”

I am not the only person to seize upon those words and all the promise that promise incurs. Cynthia Tucker writes in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Obama’s embrace of science is cause for hope.” She recalls how not so long ago the US was the leader in scientific study and accomplishment which certainly accounts in great part for the high standard of living and abundance of wealth we enjoy compared to most of the world.

But Tucker joins me in sadly observing the current wave of anti-science. With George W. Bush as “the chief cheerleader for a rejection of reason,” Tucker notes that Americans have become “a nation of superstitious ignoramuses.”

And who could disagree? On a regular basis we are reminded that the United States lags in basic education compared with other modern nations. Religious belief remains strong and popular support for Creationism and “Intelligent Design” persists in spite of a total lack of evidence and universal scientific rejection. These are just some more commonly known examples; the list is as long as the string of letters representing human DNA.

You may wonder how reaffirming America’s support for and confidence in science could possibly be more important than significant hurricane protection. It’s nice to have science, but as far as New Orleanians are concerned, nothing trumps good levees, right?

Wrong. The two are inextricably connected. We cannot expect to have a robust hurricane protection system unless we pursue it with good science. We cannot expect to be safe without serious and studious observation and application of lessons learned.

But there are indications that superstitious citizens will not yield. Despite several studies and repeated explanations, the average citizen still clings to the false impression that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet caused devastating flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina, pundits and politicians alike nicknamed the shipping channel “the hurricane super highway.” With no science to support the claim and ample evidence against it, the popular notion survives undaunted. Even the junior senator from Louisiana, a person one would hope we could look to for leadership and vision, suffers from belief in this irrational myth.

In another highly visible example, National Geographic posted the Internet story “A City's Faulty Armor” in April 2007. The story features the criticism of engineering professor Bob Bea, who boldly declares the new floodwall constructed to protect the Lower Ninth Ward will not stand against future storms.

Dr. Bea offers no scientific basis for his condemnation of the new wall. There is no mention of soil testing, laboratory analysis, model tests or calculations of any kind.

The only evidence offered by Dr. Bea, according to National Geographic, was a taste test.

Yes--a taste test. Bob Bea, who also happens to be an expert witness in litigation against the government, saw puddle water in the road near the wall and speculated it could be seepage coming from the Industrial Canal on the other side of the wall. To test his hypothesis, he tasted the gutter water and declared it “tasted salty.”

If there is any doubt in the foolishness of Dr. Bea’s methods and conclusions, we only need to remember Hurricane Gustav’s assault on September 1, 2008. Water filled the Industrial Canal almost to the top of the walls and waves splashed over for several hours. Despite dire predictions, the walls did not budge. Gustav killed 43 people in Louisiana but could not breach a single floodwall in New Orleans.

It is an embarrassment to the engineering profession that any engineer practicing in the 21st century would actually form an opinion on the stability of a concrete floodwall based on a taste test of gutter water. And it is testimony to how far this nation’s esteem for science has fallen when a national magazine dedicated to scientific study can publish such blatant quackery as serious inquiry.

Now that President Obama has staked out a position in support of science, I have great hope that the United States will change its path. I have great hope that science, and engineering as well, will find its rightful place in the rebuilding of America and especially in the fortification of New Orleans against future storms.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Democracy demands it

A lot has been said about The Current Occupant, soon to be former-president, George W. Bush. Many have said he was ineffectual if not destructive. While everyone has someone who loves them--even disgraced and convicted Edwin Edwards has fans--it is clear the majority of America is more than happy to see him go.

Count me in the majority.

And even though our president pledged in a major speech in front of Jackson Square in New Orleans that, "We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," I am glad that Mr. Bush is personally reneging on that promise. Based on past performance, I don't really want him to stay any longer.

We get a new president this week, a new face and a new voice to represent the people and the government of the United States of America.

As with all newly-elected politicians, there were promises of change inspiring great hope in the people. We know that no one is perfect and that no one person can do it all alone, but I will try to remain optimistic in the months ahead. And cautious, too, because effective democracy demands the constant attention of citizens.

The job is just beginning--for Barack Obama and for us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not on the agenda

Another meeting today with another design team. Technical issues. Schedules. Cost estimates. Coordination with local agencies. Testing. The meetings are incessant, coming like a rolling rhythm on a snare drum leading up to some great finale, a cymbal crash that will signal we've accomplished our goal, a goal that we know rushes toward us but always seems so far off, until...

About 20 minutes after the start of the meeting, John appeared at the door. Shyly, but wearing an impish grin, he slid along the wall and came up behind his mother. She was talking at the time, explaining the finer details of a particular design decision. John, who may have been 7 years old, wrapped his arms around her neck, but she did not miss a beat. She continued to outline her vision of the work at hand.

A good civil engineer knows that you have to get your point across, you have to explain yourself clearly and succinctly, because you may only get one chance. Gone are the days when engineers could toil quietly away for days on a calculation without interruption. In the fast-paced environment of a multi-billion dollar program, we meet and debate the merits of alternative plans, we quiz each other on the pros and cons of each other's designs, and we challenge each other to do it better, stronger, faster and cheaper.

John, however, was not on the agenda. His attendance at today's meeting was completely unplanned. Earlier, John had been involved in some sort of playground mishap. His school--perhaps being judiciously cautious, or perhaps in yet another demonstration of the pervasive fear of litigation that grips America today--had called his mother to recommend taking him to the emergency room. Just to be sure.

Luckily for him, nothing was broken or out of joint. Unluckily for him, his mom is a key engineer on an important project and she had to return to work--with him in tow.

As the discussion moved from one topic to the next, I couldn't help but keep an eye on John. He wandered in and out of the room a few times, at one point finding a bag a chips to munch. After a while he sat next to someone on the other side of the room. It looked like they were playing some sort of drawing game, each taking a turn and then showing it to the other.

The meeting continued, of course. We all understood the importance of our jobs, just as that mom engineer understood the importance of her dual jobs this afternoon. Under different circumstances, she almost certainly would not have returned to work after bringing her son to the emergency room. But as we all know, Hurricane Katrina changed the circumstances. We spend long days designing the best structures we can to keep this city viable for the next 50 years, and an uneventful visit to see the doctor is no excuse to delay that mission.

Nobody said it, and likely no one needed to, but John had every right to be at that meeting today. After all, we were discussing plans to build the life-safety system essential to the future of New Orleans.

Who better to represent the future of the city than John?

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Year's 2009: Not yet time

We spent the last hours of 2008 in Algiers Point at a friend’s house on the west bank of New Orleans. It was a breezy, crisp night and I think my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter did not wear enough layers. But neither did I.

A few minutes before midnight, we walked to the river levee. Hundreds of people were gathered along the crown of the levee. Some brought chairs and ice chests with drinks. Some were shooting fireworks and making a small show on the bank of the Mississippi River.

We were surrounded by the sound of crackling fireworks popping rapidly like bubble wrap that is twisted like a dishrag. Intermittent whistles followed the fiery trail of rockets into the sky which ended with a pop and few sparks.

And then, near the French Quarter across that mighty river, the real fireworks show started. Tubes thumped like mortars as the professional pyrotechnics began to light up the sky. Large, colorful blooms burst suddenly over our city, the sparkling reflected in the windows of the tallest downtown buildings. Low booms followed each new fire blossom, always just a couple of seconds late it seemed.

At midnight, we cheered and kissed. It was a happy crowd, a moment of joy for what is certainly a tired citizenry.

On the way to the levee I joked with some that we should see if we could blow it up with our fireworks. “I’ve heard about people blowing up levees,” I said. “I want to see if you can really do that.”

“Oh no,” one lady told me, “These are good levees. They ain’t going nowhere.”

Truthfully, she had no idea. She only knew that in 80 years, longer than most could remember in their lifetimes, the Mississippi River had not flooded the city. Those levees worked, uniformly and consistently. That was all she needed to know.

Who designed them, who built them, what were they made of, how high they were, who maintains them, who inspects them, who pays for all of the above—she neither knew nor cared to know.

And that’s typical.

We don’t worry about things like levees until they don’t work.

Reading recent letters and editorials in The Times-Picayune, that reality is thrown in my face over and over. People generally don’t have a clue about levees, but they have very strong opinions nonetheless. They know this city and its surrounding communities got flooded badly in 2005. They know the levees didn’t work then, and lacking any understanding of how or why, they remain wary.

I thought perhaps our experience with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike would have helped. I thought—having seen how the new and reinforced floodwalls stood strong, how the outfall canal gates and pumps worked flawlessly, how the levees facing Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain had performed brilliantly—that the average person would know that improvements are being made to our levees. And that these improvements work.

But I guess it’s not yet time.

I smoked my customary New Year’s Eve cigar and watched the fireworks show over the city. We huddled together to stay warm and block some of the wind. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin these past few years, but I still feel the chill from time to time.