Friday, December 31, 2010

So long, 2010

As 2010 comes to a close, I must admit this blog does not get the attention it used to--not from me and as a result not from readers.

This is not a bad thing. I started blogging in the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, when the city of New Orleans was still mostly deserted, when the power was not yet on in many neighborhoods and the heavily damaged parts of the city were off-limits in daytime and at night. I blogged because I had a story to tell. I knew I was living through something unique, something terrible, yes, but something people needed to know about nonetheless.

But the main reason I started blogging was for my own sanity. My mind was filled with images and ideas that I had to put into writing. My mind was screaming with despair for what had happened but also with hope for what would come.

But I guess my life is more "normal" now. I don't expect anyone will want to read about what I had for lunch, and I don't feel a need to wax poetic about the new TV we bought earlier this year. Hence, this space is left quiet.

I hope everyone remembers that just five years ago, there was talk that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Many, in Congress, on the news and especially on the Internet said it would be "stupid" or "a waste of time and money" to rebuild New Orleans. This talk has subsided, but the sentiment remains. Just yesterday I heard myself defending the existence of New Orleans yet again, telling a Virginian my well-rehearsed line about how New Orleans is almost 300 years old--what makes you think it won't survive 300 more?

Today, New Orleans is growing and thriving. Like every other city in America we have our challenges. But we face them, head on. What kind of cowardice has taken hold of America when someone can seriously propose that a major port city should not be continued?

New Orleans is no place for cowards. We steadfastly struggle with nature, ourselves and everyone else on a daily basis. Someone wrote to The Times-Picayune a few years ago that every day in New Orleans is 24 hours long and 48 hours hard. You're damn right.

So everyone who doubts us, everyone who says or thinks we're not worthy, piss off. This is New Orleans, this is America, and WE ARE STILL HERE.

And we are moving forward into 2011 with your help or without it. Doesn't matter to me.

Peace, and Happy New Year.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Paying the poor road tax

Imagine throwing $681 dollars of your money into a hole every year and getting nothing in return. Goodbye hard-earned cash.

Sad to say it but if you drive a vehicle on the crappy streets of New Orleans, that's exactly what you do each year.

A new study estimates that more than half our streets are in "poor" condition--the lowest rating on the scale. Only 13% of roads are rated "good" at the opposite end of the spectrum.

And those pot-holed, dilapidated streets not only make your drives longer and bumpier, they do real damage to your vehicle. Think about it. Rough roads result in more frequent maintenance and repairs, rob your engine of fuel efficiency and even decrease the life of tires.

This damage costs money, and researchers put a price on it. This estimate includes depreciation of your vehicle value, increased fuel costs and the costs of more frequent maintenance. The average annual cost for driving in New Orleans is $681, a figure that is a whopping 70% higher than the US average.

In very real terms, we pay a poor road tax every time we drive on poor streets and highways.

None of us are surprised that streets in the New Orleans area are ranked among the worst in America. If anyone was surprised, it was that we were ranked only 6th in the list of major cities.

The national transportation research group TRIP released its rankings in a report titled, "America's Roughest Rides."

This is a nationwide crisis that everyone predicted. You don't have to be an economist or an engineer to know that roads and highways require continuous maintenance and repairs.

And you probably also know that every year there are more people in more vehicles travelling the roads. Federal Highway Administration data indicate that since 1990, overall vehicle travel has increased 39 percent. So funding of road work has to keep up with the required maintenance of roads that are being used more and more each year.

That has not happened.

A report from the US Department of Transportation estimates the annual investment required just to maintain the status quo condition of streets and highways is $26.6 billion. The actual annual spending on streets and highways by all levels of government: $14 billion.

That's an annual gap of more than $12 billion. No wonder streets seem to be getting worse!

The fix to fix our streets is obvious: dedicate more funding to road work. Government at all levels can pitch in by funding work on streets in the poorest condition. The nice thing about highway projects is that they also create jobs--jobs that can't be exported or out-sourced across the border.

The Federal Highway Administration also estimates that the economic impact of each dollar spent on road, highway and bridge improvements results in $5.20 of benefits in the reduction of vehicle maintenance costs, reduced travel time, reduced fuel consumption, improved safety and even in reduced air pollution.

The full report is here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

NOLA Needs Scenic Canals, Not Grim Levees?

Seriously? THIS is the recommendation of "experts"?

That NOLA needs scenic canals, and not "grim" levees?

Do I even have to do the calculations to refute the idiocy of this suggestion?

Does anyone really believe it's possible to dig enough canals and lakes in New Orleans so that when the next deadly storm surge arrives that water could be safely and efficiently stored to avoid flood damage? This sounds like a plan concocted by third graders--and I apologize to any third graders reading this if that offends you.

Even if we had huge canals and lakes that could contain all the water from a hurricane storm surge, wouldn't they be filled with water all the time? I mean, you can't store more water in a container that is already filled with water, right? So the whole concept would rely upon being able to pump down those canals and lakes to almost empty just before a hurricane storm surge hits us. And then we'd have to devise some way to funnel that storm surge neatly into the canals and lakes before anyone was hurt.

I know we'd all like to think that we don't need those "grim" levees, but friends, there are no other options. I know we'd like to be able to make this hurricane problem go away if we just had more canals and lakes for storage, or just more swamp to knock down the storm surge, or more river diversions to build "natural" defences...

But it just doesn't work.

Okay, so the engineer in me wins out and I will run the numbers just for fun. I know it's stupid but I can't help myself. Let's see what happens if you try to catch hurricane storm surge with canals.

Assume an ordinary hurricane about 9 miles in diameter. Assume it delivers a 3-ft storm surge to the city limits. That's not a very big storm, but let's just see what happens. Assuming a perfectly round eye and a perfectly cylindrical storm surge from the proposed storm, we get about 5.3 billion cubic feet of water.

Let's check my math: volume is pi * r^2 * h = 3.14 * (9 miles * 5280 ft/mi * 1/2)^2 * 3 ft = 5.3 billion cubic feet of water. Check.

Now for storage: assume a typical canal, trapezoidal shape, 20 feet wide at the bottom, 1 on 3 side slopes, 10 feet deep, 80 feet wide at the top. How much can that canal hold? Area of a trapezoid is h * 1/2(b1 + b2) = 10 * 1/2(20 + 80) = 500 square feet.

Okay, so how many miles of canals of that typical shape will we need to be empty and ready to receive that hypothetical storm surge to save our city? Why, it's just simple division:

5.3 billion cubic feet / 500 square feet = 10.6 million linear feet = 2,015 miles of canals.

Yep, that's the answer. Over two thousand miles of canals to store the water from a hurricane delivering 3 feet of water to the city limits. That's a storm many, many times smaller than Katrina. It's a storm smaller even than Gustav.

What if we make the canals bigger? Double the depth--make them 20 feet deep. Okay, so now I'm calculating that we would need 630 miles of canals that are 140 feet wide at the top. Still a completely ridiculous number. It's less than 10 miles from Lake Pontchartrain to the river, so you're talking at least 63 canals crammed into that space.

So how stupid do you have to be to publish an article with the title, "New Orleans needs scenic canals, not grim levees"? It's idiotic to the nth degree.

Now, please, can we focus on building better levees and quit with the artistic and whimsical ideas about protecting our city?

Monday, September 06, 2010

When levees fail, people die

That was the thesis of my presentation this year at Rising Tide 5. I titled it, "When can we get some Dam Safety in New Orleans?" because the title, "Levees should be designed and constructed as life safety systems as dams are," just doesn't have the same appeal to the ear.

During my presentation I used Twitter to share some additional information with the audience. I am repeating those links here for those who may have missed them along with some additional resources.

First, the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889 remains one of the most horrific dam failures in US history. The web page of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association includes several survivor accounts and eyewitness reports of the terror that flowed down that day. I read parts of the testimony of Mary M. Butler during my presentation.

Although no one has an authoritative count of the current miles of levees in the US, several have attempted it. I used statistics compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers as presented in their Report Card for America's Infrastructure. And just as elusive is the number of people who actually live in the shadow of levees and depend upon them for their life and safety. I used a 2006 FEMA report which states that 43% of the US population lives in parishes and counties with levees--still not the number of citizens in peril but probably the best guess.

Federal legislation I referenced in my presentation included:
National Dam Inspection Act (Public Law 92-367) of 1972
● The Reclamation Safety of Dams Act (Public Law 95-578) of 1978
● Water Resources Development Act (Public Law 99-662) of 1986
Water Resources and Development Act (Public Law 104-303) of 1996
Dam Safety and Security Act (Public Law 107-310) of 2002

The eye-witness account from Hurricane Katrina I read can be found along with hundreds of other stories and pictures at the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

I mentioned my blog about how dismal 100-year level of protection is and I tweeted this link: 100-year protection is not enough.

I also compared the probability of experiencing the 1% annual exceedence event at least once during a 30-year period--26%--to the probability of disaster while playing Russian Roulette, which is 17%. A better explanation of probabilities and what they mean to the average citizen can be found in the ASCE publication So You Live Behind a Levee! and in this reference from USGS, 100-Year Flood–It's All About Chance.

I concluded my presentation with a recommendation to enact a National Levee Safety Program following the recommendations of ASCE and the Association of State Floodplain Managers. I tweeted this link to the ASFPM publication, National Flood Policy Challenges, Levees: The Double-edged Sword, which captures all the main points of my talk, not just the policy recommendations.

The thrust of my presentation is this: As long as we think of levees as protection for houses and furniture, there will be no motivation to increase the level of protection. Houses and furniture can be replaced and the government underwrites the insurance to cover those losses.

We need to talk about levees as serving a higher purpose: levees are often life-safety structures. When levees fail, people die. That’s what’s important and that’s what we should be designing for.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rising Tide 5 this Saturday

You may not have heard of Mac McClelland, and thus you haven't realized what you were missing. Here is your opportunity to correct that.

Mac is the human rights reporter for Mother Jones, the famously non-mainstream journal of American progressive thought. And lately, she's been the most steadfast voice for the New Orleans region who wasn't born and raised here.

When the national news tried to say the oil spill wasn't all that bad, Mac took them to task. When they tried to say the oil had simply vanished, Mac took them to the woodshed.

And now she's brought out a Louisville Slugger to respond to the vapid scribblings of a Washington Post reporter who wants you to believe that everything's better now, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward. Oh sure, only 1/10th of the Lower Nine's pre-Katrina population is back, but it's all good, right?

Thankfully, we have Mac at bat for us. Her column at Mother Jones is worth regular reading.

Mac just also happens to be the keynote speaker at the Rising Tide Conference this Saturday. Come on out and hear her in person, and join me in thanking her for being a true friend of New Orleans.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life largely defined by a tragedy

NOLA Blogger Michael Homan writes in an op-ed for the local daily that he is "Ready to forgive, but never to forget."

Highly recommended reading as we approach 5 years since Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Benny Maygarden - Gutted

I remember when Benny Maygarden was gigging with a grinding blues combo called the Backsliders. That was back when Stevie Ray Vaughn was still alive, the Fabulous Thunderbirds were on the charts and Ronald Reagan's address was Pennsylvania Avenue.

Benny worked the harp like a happy child knawing on a cob of corn. It was often hard to tell what part was face, or hands, or harmonica. When he broke to sing into the vocal microphone, it was almost as if he was coming up for air from the ocean of blues.

For his 2009 CD "Come On, If You’re Coming," Benny assembles a powerhouse studio band of blues and swamp rock artists, creating a gutsy and fun set of electric blues in the finest tradition of New Orleans music. Tracks range from the cautionary "Too many Tarzans," to the broken-hearted "Don't Knock," to the easy dance beat of "Let me rock you".

The standout track, not surprisingly, speaks to the hollowness that filled so many houses after the flood-soaked interiors had been stripped down to the studs. "Gutted" tells the story too many of us had to live in concise snapshots: tiny FEMA Travel Trailers, difficulties with the Road Home program, fear of formaldehyde, stressed-out personal relationships, and the struggle to rebuild our homes.

It includes the refrain, "Now I'm gutted. I'm just gutted. Well I ain't moved back in, I'm still just hanging on." It was not just our homes that were violated and left hollow.

Blues done properly is a celebration of life--an acknowledgment of the struggle, yes, but also a declaration of undaunted spirit. In the Post-Katrina world of New Orleans, the struggle is real and ongoing. But the spirit continues to climb.

Benny Maygarden gives us the strength to climb.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - What's Going On?

Ray Nagin never sounded better. Welling up through the opening beats of "What's Going On," the angry plea of the chief executive captures the moment perfectly.

Chaos. Fear. Abandonment.

This was New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck. Floodwalls failed. Levees washed away. The city, the state, the Federal government almost totally overwhelmed to the point of uselessness. It was triple a disaster: what happened before, during and after almost killed an American city.

The soulful horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band pull it back together. In their 2006 release, "What's Going On," they re-invent the classic Marvin Gaye song, reminding us of the timeless message that "war is not the answer."

It was not then and it is not now.

In stark contrast to impotent Mayor Nagin, Chuck D. powerfully calls out the political and moral failures that allowed this tragedy to happen. Lyrics are not included in the CD and I've also searched online with no success. So the lyrics I post here are my best effort at transcribing Chuck D's rap.

"What's going on
When all them guns is drawn?
Here's a memo--remember?
There's a few wars going on--
A couple overseas and on my front lawn."

"No Child Left Behind, what?
You think we're all blind,
Well even the blind coulda seen her
Aftermath of Katrina."

At first listen the song might appear to struggle with itself, the easy pace and laid-back horn arrangements moving in a steady shuffle while Chuck D of Public Enemy fame raps angrily in sharp staccato. But the two meld and counter each other in rhythmic and harmonic ways that surprised me each time I listened to it.

What was going on--when the levees and walls were first so poorly designed? When Congress failed to properly finance their construction? When politicians allowed citizens to build and live in an unsafe city? When local, state and federal responders almost all failed to respond? These questions flooded our thoughts and actions during the disaster and for months and years afterwards.

Chuch D and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, for their part, suggest that a nation distracted and diverting its resources to wars in far away places might not ever be able to prevent or properly respond when such disasters occur. In this observation, they maintain the anti-war sentiment of the original song. It's a message that needs to be repeated, unfortunately, over and over again.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paul Soniat - Below the Water Line

Paul Soniat sings and plays piano.

That's all it is.

And that's all it needs to be.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Rising to meet the challenge

In the face of the almost unspeakable destruction here in 2005, a group of local Bloggers resolved to sponsor a conference on the future of New Orleans. That was the first Rising Tide Conference.

Each year the conference has improved upon the year before with engaging programming and activist networking unlike any event in the city. This year the conference is again taking place in the immediate aftermath of an event of almost unspeakable destruction.

Rising Tide V will be on Saturday, August 28 in the larger venue of The Howlin' Wolf in the warehouse district of NOLA. Find all the details at

When you register, be sure to order this year's beautiful poster and a t-shirt created by local artist (and blogger) Greg Peters. And if you want to be a part of the Oilzilla relief effort, you can join Rising Tide in support of Second Harvest Food Bank the day before the conference. You must sign up in advance to volunteer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Andy J. Forest Band - Let'em Die

I first saw Andy J. Forest perform at the Mirliton Festival in Bywater a couple years after Hurricane Katrina. He and the band put out a sturdy rendition of 3-chord blues appropriately punctuated with fuzzed-out guitar solos and grinding harmonica. I bought their 2007 CD "Real Stories" shortly afterwards and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.

The first cut tells the saddest story of them all, the story of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath with just the right sardonic tone to keep it from rummaging too deeply into the most painful memories. Forest applies the blame generously: everyone gets a shout out: from Mayor Nagin to the Army Corps of Engineers to the President, who provides the title line, “Let’em Die.”

The song is well paced with an outstanding harp solo and sturdy guitar riffing that is sure to snare the table-top drummer in all of us. Forest's phrasing helps him fit all the right words into his lyrics, a technique that almost approaches modern rapping. But have no fear, "Let'em Die" is a blues song from top to bottom with a chorus of singers repeating the refrain like a church choir might repeat a prayer.

It's a dark view of what went down in 2005, but in the tradition of all great blues, revisiting those tragic events seems to provide the will and the energy to go on. The CD was well received and even won a local "Best of the Beat" award for blues.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bonerama - Mr. Go

It starts with horns blowing a tight and urgent alarm. It builds with intensity and anxiety like the soundtrack of a Hitchcock film. And then it breaks into a smooth groove that can only be achieved by a great New Orleans brass line.

Bonerama retells the tale of "Mr. Go," that much hated shipping channel that runs from near Michoud in New Orleans East out to the Gulf of Mexico.

"Twenty feet of water on my crowd,
Mr. Go you bringing me down.
Cypress swamps used to be,
Mr. Go it's broken these.
St. Bernard and Plaquemines,
Lower Nine coming back again.
I don't know what's been said,
Mr. Go you killed them dead."

Craig Klein wrote and sings the lament, delivered at a slightly slower pace than a march, but with an arrangement that soldiers forward through the blues and into post-K victory.

From the CD "Bringing it Home," "Mr. Go" is just one of the outstanding tracks on this 2007 collection of bone-crunching covers and brass-jam originals. Bonerama bills itself as a rock band, and sometimes they really are. But that label limits their artistry in so many ways.

Just listen to the creative use of the sousaphone on this track. New Orleans brass bands know how to toot the tuba at the end of each chord progression, but Bonerama gives the lowest horn an entire solo lead toward the end of the song. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Bonerama recorded "Bringing it Home" at Tipitina's so the CD captures all the spontaneity of a live show that you wish you had been a part of. Regular readers of this blog will know that science does not validate the popular belief that the MR-GO served as a "storm surge super highway" during Hurricane Katrina. But I will not quibble with facts here--this is good rock'n'roll and I love it.

Undaunted joy of NOLA music

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we New Orleaneans had to endure the endless cast of professional pundits and social commentators telling us that New Orleans was "worth saving" because we gave two great gifts to America: food and music.

Forget that all American citizens deserve equal protection under law and the basic rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That seemed to be not enough to warrant serious response to the crisis. America needed more. America needed to know that if bad things happened to New Orleans, bad things would happen to America’s food and music.

But that is not what I want to blog about today. No, today and in several weekly blog posts to follow, I want to acknowledge the tremendous contributions New Orleans has made to music in America and even, in the world. And I want to focus in particular on the impact Katrina had on the music of this city.

It is said that, "Blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling down." Lester Bangs once noted that rock'n'roll is "The sound of restless youth." And it was George Harrison who once opined that pop music is just "Happy songs about sad things."

Citizens of NOLA have boatloads of all of the above. Local musicians, experiencing it probably more than the average New Orleanean, have found ways to express these emotions in music.

Feelings of sadness, frustration, doubt and, yes, conviction, courage and perseverance are expressed in many post-K compositions. And on top of it all, overwhelming, undaunted joy.

Over the next few blog posts, I will highlight some of my favorite local expressions of what the combined forces of nature and politics have done to coastal Louisiana--and the unbridled determination to rise above.

When I listen to these songs, I alternately feel the sadness and the joy, the tragedy and the triumph. It's what makes all great music great, and, in my admittedly biased opinion, it's what makes New Orleans music the greatest of all.


Exhibit One: Mr. Go by Bonerama

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What does it take?

Nominations are now open for this year's Ashley Morris Award to be presented at the Rising Tide V conference.

What does it take to get an Ashley?

► The unflinching courage to tell it like it is.

► A biting sense of humor.

► The ability to put political fakers in their place.

► Powerful skill at making a point.

► An indomitable love of family and hope for the future of New Orleans.

Nominations open now. Find out who is selected on August 28.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Getting ready for Rising Tide V

Over the to left there I've put a big 'ole button for Rising Tide V. That's the annual new media conference on the future of New Orleans I've been happy to be associated with for the last few years.

Registration is just $20 and it includes a full day of great speakers and presentations, a light breakfast, a hearty lunch, and the unique chance to meet some of the people behind the voices in the NOLA Bloggers community.

The official line-up of speakers will be announced shortly, but as an "insider" I happen to know that someone who regularly writes at this blog will probably be part of the program. The keynote speaker is typically the best of all, of course, but I'm afraid I can't divulge any information on who that might be this year. Just remember that we had actor and activist Harry Shearer and author and levee board member John Barry in the past, so the bar is set high--and we intend to move it higher.

To keep up with this developing story, plug into Rising Tide via your favorite social media platform:

And go ahead and register now before the cost goes up next month.

See you at Rising Tide V!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Just sayin'

Jeffrey over at the Yellow Blog compares and contrasts a major difference between living in New Orleans and living somewhere else.

Exhibit A: Lakers fans celebrate victory.

Exhibit B: Saints fans celebrate victory.

The evidence is all there.

Nuff said.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Calling out the haters

I expect trash talk on talk radio. The radio station operators deliver it in super-sized portions because their target audience responds to it and keeps coming back for more. But I have higher expectations from the print medium.

Editors at The Washington Post this week demonstrated they do not have similarly high expectations of us.

In a story about the "suspicious" outcome of an election in South Carolina, it is suggested that the election was tainted by Louisiana. We may well marvel at the imaginative excuses South Carolina Democrats are concocting to explain the unexpected outcome of their recent primary; after all, desperate people will do desperate things.

But what shocked me is the absolute cavalier and reckless manner in which The Washington Post offers credence to the wild and unfounded accusation.

"Louisiana, after all, does political shenanigans more colorfully and brazenly than most," writes staff writer Mr. Manuel Roig-Franzia.

A reputable journalist would have written, “There is absolutely no evidence or fact to support the accusation.”

Ignoring the fact that political shenanigans are epidemic throughout America at all levels of politics, The Washington Post smugly invites readers to roll their eyes in group derision and disgust at the mere mention of the Bayou State. I wonder to what other dehumanizing stereotypes does Mr. Roig-Franzia subscribe?

You can easily imagine the thought process that drove the publication of this story. In lieu of fact-checking and respect for fellow Americans, the Post dumps mightily on an entire state with a chortle and a wink.

“Heck, fellas, it's LOUISIANA--what evidence is needed?”

I wrote to the Post to complain but received no response. Fortunately my sister-in-law in Virginia, who first alerted me to this insult of the entire population of Louisiana, also wrote. Her letter was published today.

It was suggested to me that defending the honor of Louisiana politicians is a fool’s campaign. But I don’t see this as defending our soiled past; this is defending our future. It is just as much about calling out the hypocrisy of the Post to call attention to the splinter in our eye while overlooking the timber in their own.

As my sister-in-law pointed out, “Convicted former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards is doing time in the penitentiary while convicted former D.C. mayor Marion Barry is doing time on the city council. Did somebody say ‘brazen’?”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Prove me wrong

So the president goes on national television for a prime time speech on the ongoing crisis. In a stern tone that assures us he's serious, the president pledges:

"We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

Remember those words?

That was in 2005.

And in 2010, the president goes on national television for a prime time speech on the ongoing crisis. In a stern tone that assures us he's serious, the president pledges:

"We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes...And we will do whatever’s necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."

So forgive me if I'm cynical, because I am.

I've often said that the only real difference between the two major political parties is the color of their neckties. And so far, when I compare the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the response to the current oil-pocalypse in the Gulf of Mexico, I don't see much improvement in 5 years.

President Obama, prove me wrong. Show us that your words are not simply more campaign rhetoric. Make me take my words back and write a blog about how you turned out to be a man of your word. Because I'll do it--I'll gladly eat crow online for all the world to see.

The next move is yours, Mr. President.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beware small, individual decisions

Several of the NOLA Bloggers are drawing parallels between the ongoing BP oil geyser disaster and the catastrophic failure of floodwalls protecting New Orleans in 2005. I certainly agree that there may be similarities in these two different engineering debacles, but we have to be careful.

There is still a lot we don't know about what happened out in the Gulf of Mexico last month and why all the safeguards, standards, precautions, fail-safe systems, redundancies and the workers who lost their lives were not able to avoid or contain the dangerous conditions of mineral extraction. Until we do know--and that may be years--we need to keep an open mind to all the possibilities.

In contrast to the BP disaster, we now know a great deal about what happened and why before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. At different locations where constructed features did not perform properly we know there were specific reasons that those point failures occurred.

But the most significant and dangerous condition was not the result of a single point of failure or isolated bad engineering decision. The most devastating factor in my opinion was what is known as "The Tyranny of Incremental Decisions."

Simply put, during the long trek from project conception to operation, a long list of changes and compromises were made that individually didn't seem significant but which added up in a project doomed to failure. Some of those decisions may have been the result of budget pressures, or local preferences, or just ill-informed good intentions. Poor Richard advised that small strokes fell great oaks; The Tyranny of Incremental Decisions can be viewed in that manner.

As we learn more about the BP oil geyser disaster, I won't be surprised if the news media, politicians and many private citizens clamor for a single point of failure, a "smoking gun" that can be blamed. There may well be one. But I would not be surprised to learn that a series of decisions made by different people at different times had a large role to play in undermining the overall safety and reliability of the drilling operation.

(If you want to read the whole sordid tale about how The Tyranny of Incremental Decisions left New Orleans vulnerable, check out the Hurricane Protection Decision Chronology, or read the synopsis as reported in The New York Times here: Engineers Faulted on Hurricane System.)

(Editorial edits on 17 MAY 10)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Treme media blitz

It's exciting and a little bit frightening. The new HBO show from David Simon is going to premiere tomorrow. Treme, a little-known but essential neighborhood in New Orleans, will soon become a household word.

Already the media blitz is on. David Simon was on The Colbert Report this week, and he gave credit to Ashley Morris for informing the character played by John Goodman in the show. The local newspaper has run almost daily stories on the show including a quick look at some of the real people who inspired some of the characters and events we will see. NPR, The New York Times, USA Today are all on the story--only Tiger Woods is getting more exposure this week.

For those looking for the real story, the true view from actual New Orleans writers, let me suggest Back of Town, a blog that promises to evaluate and parse every aspect of Treme. Knowing David Simon's love of complex characters and intricate storylines, the Back of Town bloggers will stay busy in the coming weeks. And they have all the links to the aforementioned coverage from other sources, too.

New Orleans was all over TV in late 2005. I'm hopeful this time New Orleans will be seen in a better light.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Treme: Looking back

I googled my house again today. My previous house. The one we used to live in. Until 2005.

I zoomed in until I could see the fallen tree in the backyard, and the play gym my daughter loved to climb on, and my white Corolla in the driveway.

None of those things are there anymore. Ruined by floodwater then demolished and carted away by demolition workers, they exist only in memory and in pictures.

Google Earth keeps them fresh for me.

I don't know why I do it, but every now and then I like to google my house to see it again. It makes me feel sad, and regretful, and happy, and proud. All these emotions assault me, they wash over me like the rising tide of flood water certainly flowed over and through my neighborhood.

One of these days I'm going to zoom in on Google Earth, and instead of brown, dead lawns and lifeless streets I'll see vacant lots and greenery. One of these days the numbing, rampant destruction will fade from view. One day, I'll stop being sad about what happened to me, my family, my friends, my city, and my nation when the floodwalls failed.

Or not.

Today, I have a "new" house in Faubourg St. John. I have new furniture and new clothes. I still work at the same place, but I have a new job and a new car. Almost five years later and a lot has changed. I've changed. A lot of that change is good.

But I keep going looking back.

There's a new drama premiering this weekend that takes place New Orleans, and I'm eagerly anticipating it. Because the story starts just a few weeks after Katrina, New Orleans is going to look brown and lifeless--just like those aerial photos of my old house I keep looking at.

I'm hoping "Treme" can get it right. New Orleans took one monumental beating in 2005, some saying the city would not survive. Many souls were lost, but we did not lose our soul. Houses were made unlivable, but we didn't lose our sense of home. The darkest hours this city probably ever saw could not extinguish the light of hope from its citizens.

New Orleans survived. Against all opponents--weather, politics, hatred, apathy and greed just to name a few--we persevered.

It's healthy to look back. We need to know where we've been to understand where we're going. Even after all the ruined houses are demolished or repaired, after all the flood-borne damage and blemishes are removed and Google Earth loads new photos of New Orleans, we will still remember.

But I hope we will remember not only the failures, but the incredible strength of humanity on display in New Orleans in 2005 and since.

That's the story "Treme" needs to tell. That's the story that needs to be told.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Common New Orleans

We're uncomfortable with each other. We sit elbow to elbow and make great effort to not make eye contact. If we do dare look at the person next to us, we do so with utmost stealth, in terror of getting caught looking. We dare not speak to the strangers next to us because that might be rude, or we might unleash a bore, a religious zealot, or someone otherwise totally unlike us.

Flying coach class across America, our knees often touch but our lives never intersect.

I don't have this difficulty with strangers in New Orleans. At the grocery, in restaurants, going about my daily business, I talk to people. And they seem to not mind it from what I can tell.

We may have never met, but we have so much in common. New Orleans is a small town and we're all connected in crime, weather, celebrations and politics. Because New Orleans has its own culture, its own unique food, holidays and traditions, we have shared experiences like no other city in America I know of.

At the seminar I attended in Seattle this week, I was seated at a table surrounded by complete strangers. People I've never met, worked with, or even known existed before we sat next to each other that first day. But the connections were easy. The introductions were natural and friendly.

Even though we had never met, we knew before a word was spoken that we had common interests. We all worked for the Federal government. We were all at a point in our careers that we were all participating in the same seminar.

That's all it takes--one mutually recognized commonality.

We have that in New Orleans. Nobody is ever really a stranger here. It's one of the reasons I love coming home.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Says you!

How many of us have heard children arguing:

Nu uh! Yeah Huh! Nu uh! Yeah Huh! Nu uh! Yeah Huh! Nu uh! Yeah Huh!

It's as pointless as it is annoying. Sadly, a lot of what I hear on talk radio and on certain Internet discussion boards is exactly like this.

Americans seem to have totally lost their grip with objective reality. Scientific facts are now up for debate. Historical facts are questioned ad nauseam, while conspiracy theories are discussed as if they have the same standing as historical facts.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. recently relayed such an encounter with a reader.* Pitts notes that, "We are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth." His observations echo Susan Jacoby's recent book, "The Age of American Unreason."

On more than one occasion I have been asked if I "believe" in evolution or if I "believe" in global warming, as if the validity of such scientific facts relied at all upon faith.

I made the mistake of listening to the "Walton and Johnson" show one morning and received a hearty dose of modern post-intellectualism. In what is advertised to be a humorous program, the hosts relentlessly bashed all things liberal and scientific like snarky school boys blurting out insults about their romantic rivals.

Facts and information from reputable sources were absent. Instead, the program mostly consisted of reading odd news items and then drawing outrageous conclusions about how the story proved either the validity of their own political, social and economic views or discredited the views of those who thought differently. There was a lot of back and forth, "Yeah, that's right," and, "See, that's what we've been saying."

I guess I understand why they left New Orleans years ago to join their contrarian comrades in Houston. What is disturbing is that they are popular enough to be heard beyond Texas and in markets such as New Orleans. Does anyone find their program funny? Are there really enough shallow-thinking, gullible listeners to sustain the program? The answer to the second question is obviously yes.

One thing upon which I did find I could agree with Walton and Johnson: America appears to be on the decline. And these guys are a perfect example of why.

*Note: I first read this editorial in The Times-Picayune but could not find it posted on their web page.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Touching Saints victory

You're probably not supposed to touch it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's bad for it if you do.

But it seems that everyone who gets an opportunity does in fact touch it--and they touch it as much as they can.

I don't know what other teams and coaches have done with the Lombardi Trophy, but I've certainly never seen anyone before the Saints actually encourage fans to rub their unwashed hands over it. Surely the smooth sterling silver football on a pedestal was not meant to be so handled. Yet that's what the Saints have been doing with it ever since a little after 9pm Sunday night.

Not just hold it high for all to see, mind you. Not just carry it around or put on public display. No sir. After the festivities had ended at the Super Bowl, Coach Sean Payton made a point to bring the trophy over to the sideline where Saints fans were gathered. They leaned over the railing and he held up that symbol of victory so that they could all touch it.

He did it again when the team returned to New Orleans the next day. Coach Payton held the most beautiful reward in the entire football universe up through the sun roof of his car. Fans lining the road reached out to touch it, like religious pilgrims yearning to touch the hem of a holy man's robe.

That's perfectly fitting in my opinion.

Everyone in the Saints organization has consistently maintained that the victory in Super Bowl XLIV belongs to the fans. It's our team, and our trophy. We paid for it--not just in public support for the Superdome, the Saints training facility and the annual support from the state treasury. We paid for it in years of tickets and logo shirts and "Dome Foam.".

Even more than that, we paid for it with loyalty, hope and perseverance. We paid for it in our own blood, toil, tears and sweat. So much toil. So many tears.

All paid off now. All paid off in the simple elegance of a 22-inch tall, 7-pound trophy.

By the time the Lombardi Trophy is finally positioned in a glass case somewhere for long-term display, that new trophy will probably not look so new anymore. In fact, don’t' be surprised if it looks about as battered and tested as a trophy of at least 43 years of age. And wouldn't that be appropriate?