Washed away

A special report from the Times-Picayune titled "Washing away" and published in June of 2002 foresaw New Orleans' hurricane disaster with tragic accuracy. Some of the articles from the five-part series:

  • IN HARM'S WAY: Levees, our best protection from flooding, may turn against us.

  • THE BIG ONE: A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It's just a matter of time.

  • LEFT BEHIND: Once it’s certain a major storm is about to hit, evacuation offers the best chance for survival. But for those who wait, getting out will become nearly impossible as the few routes out of town grow hopelessly clogged. And 100,000 people without transportation will be especially threatened.

  • LAST LINE OF DEFENSE (.jpg graphic): Army Corps of Engineers officials say hurricane levees in the New Orleans area will protect residents from a Category 3 hurricane moving rapidly over the area. But computer models indicate even weaker storms could find chinks in that armor.

The report predicted that citizens would have to be sheltered in the Superdome, that aid workers would struggle to reach survivors, and so much more of what happened this past week. Because of that, it was stunning and horrifying to see the disaster unfold in Louisiana, especially because meteorologists and government officials knew Katrina was on its way. That even advance warning was not enough to save thousands of people is a tragedy of massive proportions.

It was heartbreaking to see footage of citizens of New Orleans stranded and awaiting help when those same citizens had no way to look back out on the world. They were cut off from the rest of the world with no idea when aid would arrive or what the rest of the world was thinking. We were staring in at them through the glass of the television as if staring into a snow globe that had been shaken up.

I was just in New Orleans a few years ago for a bachelor party, and to think that the entire city is just destroyed now is impossible to fathom, even with all the images and video. Will New Orleans be rebuilt where it once stood? That area has always been below sea level, in a geographic bowl, and many of the structures there are likely ruined beyond repair by sitting in floodwaters for days. Even if you could rebuild there in a timely fashion once everything had been cleared out, wouldn't it make sense to relocate New Orleans out of the bowl? Why rebuild on a site in which the forces of nature (gravity, e.g.) invite water? The city can rise up from the disaster of Katrina, both figuratively and literally, whether that means relocating to higher ground or simply building the city up a level as parts of Chicago and Seattle were after huge fires.

Derek visited this weekend, and as always when hosting out-of-towners, I see New York City through new eyes, their eyes. One thing I was conscious of was how badly New York trash smelled in the summer. I'd gotten used to it over the long summer, but Derek made me conscious of it again. If New York City could be rebuilt, would it be built with alleys like Chicago so trash could be stored in dumpsters, containing the odors and keeping the unsightly piles of trash off of the sidewalks? Would that justify the loss in rentable living space? We weren't sure when alleys were built in Chicago, but perhaps after the Chicago Fire, city planners decided not only to upgrade from wood to brick to prevent future fires, but also to install alleys for parking garages and dumpsters and throughput. New Orleans can take this opportunity to not just rebuild and repair but to redo.

As an aside, and an unimportant one when the focus should be on rescuing the survivors, this disaster exposed problems with our nation's emergency response. Some blame Bush; it doesn't help that he just came off an extended vacation, one that earned him a good tan but doesn't seem to have aided his crisis management skills. When he said to Diane Sawyer on ABC that no one could have foreseen the breach of the levees, he hung himself with his own ignorance. Not all the blame lies with him, of course, but this is one black mark that will play for the rest of his term, a constant reminder of the failure of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and many others. After reading the The 9/11 Commission Report and comparing it with earlier snap judgments and analyses of that tragedy, I'll wait for the water to clear to pass judgment on all involved. Snap reactions are bound to reveal more about the biases of those making the judgments than the truth.

Just as people have difficulty handling extremely low probability, high impact events, perhaps institutions do also. Live in New Orleans long enough without being hit by the big one, and the impetus to move declines. If you're in office, constantly funding systems to defend against a low probability event like a massive hurricane may feel like throwing money away, especially if you don't expect it to hit on your term (awful as that line of thinking may be). Perhaps the only ones who do think rationally about such an event are insurance companies. They did the math and did not offer flood insurance in New Orleans.

If you've already donated through the Red Cross, and almost everyone I know has, donate again! One of the blessings of the Internet has been how easy it has become to donate to charity with only a few clicks. I hope that Visa and Mastercard are foregoing their usual fees on these credit card donation transactions.