Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Gone with the water

My friend Matt emailed this to me today. I'm not going to bang on about the failings of the US government to adequately protect the people of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina. But I would like to point out that not only was this disaster and the aftermath predictable. It was predicted. And it's not like National Geographic is an unknown or fringe news source.
It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.
- National Geographic Magazine.
(October 2004 edition)

8 Comments:

Blogger Ms Vile File said...

Bloody hell.

I read this as a recent account... Not until I read the date on the last line did I feel goosebumps...

6/9/05 21:20  
Blogger L said...

our government is full of idiots

8/9/05 00:44  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

our government is full of idiots

This is true. But you guys hardly have a monopoly on that. It's just the fact that your set of idiots has way more power than any other set. So when they screw up, it tends to be on a much larger scale and affect a lot more people.

8/9/05 01:00  
Blogger Andrew said...

But I would like to point out that not only was this disaster and the aftermath predictable. It was predicted.

Hmm. True, but the timing wasn't predicted, so the account from National Geographic is all but useless. After all, I could write a lurid and descriptive account of London being hit by a dirty bomb at some point in the future, and claim incredible prescience when it actually happens, and then I could even have the gall to ask why no-one did anything. The problem is that if I don't say exactly when it's going to happen, no-one can do anything.

Sure, the analogy with New Orleans isn't great, but there's always a trade off between the risk of an event (probability and severity), and between the immediate cost to totally mitigate that risk. With New Orleans, I'd guess either the estimated cost was too high or they thought the risk wasn't that high (either probability or severity).

And just to be really provocative: As someone who believes in managing down our resource use in the near future, do you think we ought to be concentrating our energy on defending stupidly sited cities from hugely unlikely events?

8/9/05 17:28  
Anonymous David Duff said...

Jim is becoming over-excited - again - and is thus in danger of pointing his shaking finger in the wrong direction. Try this:

http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007219

Alas, 'I''s statement is what the philosophers call 'true but trivial'. *All* governments, everywhere and of all shades, are full of idiots.

10/9/05 08:56  
Anonymous PMM said...

Thought this might be of interest...

http://edge.channel4.com/news/2005/09/week_2/10_oil.wmv

10/9/05 19:51  
Anonymous pmm said...

Well let's try that again...

http://edge.channel4.com/

news/2005/09/week_2/10_oil.wmv

Put the two together...

10/9/05 19:53  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I have to say David that life in your neck of the woods must be very tedious if you read anything in my post or comments to suggest that I'm "becoming over-excited".

I pointed people towards a year-old article in National Geographic magazine which I thought was interesting and a little chilling for the incredible accuracy of the predictions - about the aftermath more than the hurricane itself. I provided this article with next to no commentary. Certainly no finger pointing.

So what exactly are you referring to, David, when you suggest that I am "pointing [my] shaking finger in the wrong direction"?

Also, when you said "All governments, everywhere and of all shades, are full of idiots" are you aware that you were just repeating my earlier comment about the US government not having a monopoly on idiots?

I ask only because it seems that you've started completely ignoring what I actually write; and are instead responding to some fantasy version of my words that exists only in your mind.

And Andrew, I believe you may also have misconstrued my intent in pointing people towards this article. When you ask "do you think we ought to be concentrating our energy on defending stupidly sited cities from hugely unlikely events?" my answer is a clear "no".

However, I do believe that it is the duty of a government to defend the governed. The point of the NG article (in my view) was to illustrate just how precarious a position New Orleans was in (just as with the fenlands of Lincolnshire and certain areas of the Netherlands). Governments are therefore obliged to either provide adequate protection for those places; or to explain to those living there why they are withdrawing that protection and why - therefore - those people should leave.

The US government did neither. It failed to provide adequate protection, but crucially also failed to inform those in New Orleans that the city was not adequately protected.

I don't believe that resources should be used to build ever greater flood defences for cities like New Orleans. But where a government agrees with that principle, then the inhabitants should be warned and helped to relocate.

We are experiencing global climate change such that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more extreme. Compounded by rising sea levels, the only sane solution is for people to move from places like New Orleans or parts of Lincolnshire to more sensible locations.

But so long as governments are claiming that the solution is to build levees, people will continue to live in the shadow of those levees and governments must be prepared to rescue them when the floods come.

13/9/05 19:22  

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