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.

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