Flooding in Louisiana? It’s not just Sophie’s choice.

The 1982 movie by this name may be unfamiliar to younger blog readers, but bears on events unfolding in Louisiana as this year’s Mississippi-River floodwaters continue to rise.

Here is the background.

First – the movie. Sophie’s Choice was a truly extraordinary film on every level. Based on a novel by William Styron, the picture won Meryl Streep an Academy Award for her performance in the title role and cemented her justly deserved reputation as one of the greatest actresses of any time.

The full story is complex and tragic; there is no way to do it justice in a few sentences. Here’s the bit that you and I need to know for today’s purposes. Sophie, living in post-World-War-II New York, is tormented by a decision she had been forced to make, on the fly, in a Nazi concentration camp, a few years earlier, during the war. A Nazi guard made her choose which of her two children would go to a children’s camp, and thereby have at least a chance to live; and which would go directly to the crematorium. The only alternative the Nazi offered? That both children could die, then and there. At the end, this memory helps drive Sophie to suicide.

Second – Louisiana today. News media have been covering this breaking story in recent weeks. Faced with record spring runoff throughout the Mississippi watershed, the US Army Corps of Engineers, other federal agencies and state and local officials, have been assessing the inundation likely under a range of scenarios. Under the first, they open the Morganza Floodway above New Orleans. Under the second, they allow the full volume of water to head south uncontrolled. Under the last, they divert excess water through the Old River Control structure. Officials are essentially making a trade: certain flooding of about 3000 square miles of small towns and countryside in rural Louisiana in order to prevent a potentially worse disaster – levee failures in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and flooding exceeding that of Katrina, wiping out whole neighborhoods as well as countless chemical facilities and oil refineries. Those responsible have made the decision – to open the Floodway. They may be implementing that choice even as I write this. Thousands of people are evacuating the areas of likely flooding, sandbagging in an effort to minimize their local loss, and grieving.

Psychologists and social scientists, most notably Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, tell us that when we hear about disasters of this magnitude, we experience numbing. We’re incapable of grasping the enormity of such events as the aggregated sum of immense, overwhelming personal tragedies. Instead, we allow them to become empty statistics. So when we learn of starving millions, when we study the Holocaust, or Stalin’s execution of millions as he cemented his power in the former Soviet Union,  or the fact that a third of the population between Iceland and India died of the Black Death in the winter of 1347-1348, we quickly consign that to some compartment in our brain where we store other factoids (how many ounces in a pound? How many games in Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak? How many calories in a Big Mac? etc.).

Just this once, let’s try consciously to override this universal tendency. Let’s use this occasion to see if we can make ourselves a bit less calloused about the tragedy that is unfolding.

How to do this?

Here are a few ideas.

First, let’s put ourselves in the place of people packing up, preparing to leave the only homes they’ve ever known. Picture the decisions we’re trying to make. Which paltry few things are we going to take? Where are we going to go? What resources can we draw on, given that we’re losing our jobs as well as our homes? What do we tell the kids, who know something terrible is happening but can’t comprehend it? For that matter, how can we explain to grandma, who’s in advanced stage of Alzheimers, who’s being asked to move out of her room? What do we do about the one child who picked today to be sick? Maybe the car broke down last night. Any chance to get that fixed? How do we get our heads around the idea that this has happened after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and last year’s oil spill, have already drained our resilience and our energies?

Or…put yourself in the shoes of people in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. There’s relief…and right behind it there’s guilt. You’ve been saved from the worst – maybe. And only at the price of immense suffering – distress and misery for thousands of folks no better or worse, no less deserving, than you, all across the surrounding area. Some of them are family. How can you look them in the eye next time you see them? What can you possibly do to make them whole? To show your gratitude for the sacrifice they made? To demonstrate that you all really were in this together?

Don’t move quickly on. Dwell on these realities. Let them sink in. Expand this short list, which doesn’t begin to do justice to the state of things. Come up with your better set of thoughts. Remember…this is how it felt to be Sophie’s kids. “What’s happening to my sister? Why is she going that way?” “Why am I being separated from my brother and mother? Mommy!

Second, let’s now put ourselves in the shoes of those who are making the decision to open the Morganza Floodway. Is there any joy here? Any self-congratulation? Of course not. None of these men and women, from Army Corps of Engineers generals and Governor Bobby Jindal on down, can find any reason for satisfaction. They didn’t sign on for this…destruction. They’re builders. Rejuvenators! Givers of hope! This is wrong! They’re today’s Sophie. They were forced to choose.

And here’s a key point. Like Sophie, they simply found themselves in this role. Few of these people played any part in creating the conditions that made this choice necessary. For that, we have to look back to their predecessors – the long line of thousands and thousands of state and local officials, and those serving in the Corps of Engineers over the past 150 years. And none of those people deliberately set out to sabotage cities and towns. Each day out of those 60,000 days, they made small decisions and infinitesimal compromises needed to get through the day. On this scale, it was impossible to see how that ratcheted up the risk, bit by bit.

And they weren’t the only ones. Land developers and business leaders made the decision to snuggle up more and more resources right behind the levees all up and down the Mississippi. And all those who are being flooded out get annual notices from the Corps to the effect that flooding would be a distinct possibility.

Third, we don’t have to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Instead, we need to honestly take stock of our own lives. No quarter of the United States is free from risk from natural hazards, industrial accidents, or willful acts of terror. And every action we take throughout our lives – where to set down roots and start a family, what jobs to accept, whether to be active in community affairs or sit on the sidelines – each decision and its sequelae set into motion a local ratcheting up of risk. Each day, we’re thoughtlessly, opportunistically, setting up a problem for either ourselves or our children.

What’s happening in Louisiana is not just happening to someone else, someone faceless. It’s our destiny unless we consciously make decisions to get off this cycle of inevitable disaster and repetitive loss. Across the nation, each of us has played a small part in what’s unfolding today. And we’re playing a bigger part in similar tragedies lining up to happen tomorrow. We can and should do better. The starting point? Building-in community resilience into every aspect of our thinking, rather than just treating it as an afterthought.

It’s not just Sophie’s choice.

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15 Responses to Flooding in Louisiana? It’s not just Sophie’s choice.

  1. Kent Payne says:

    The dialogue in this blog is not helpful. Here are some facts:

    1. Without man’s intervention (google “Old River Control Structure”), the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya would be far more than the current 30%. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature would flood the Atchafalalya Basin far more than the planned opening of the Morganza gates.
    2. According to the Corps of Engineers projections, the more populated areas in the Atchafalaya Basin could well be flooded even more by doing nothing. Those areas will be flooded regardless of what man does here, but perhaps less under the Corp’s current plan. I have seen no evidence that opening the Morganza would result in more sacrifice to the populated areas of the basin than doing nothing.
    3. The areas projected to take more floodwater under current Corps action are primarily the areas in which the landowners received compensation long ago for a flooding easement.
    4. Considering the foregoing, the idea that these folks are being sacrificed for New Orleans and Baton Rouge is simply misguided, and
    5. The real questions that ought to be asked are a) if the ring levees designed to protect the communities inside the basin are not adequate, why not? and b) should agriculture and development not be restricted in the Basin that is outside the ring levees?

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Kent, for a great set of comments…which are helpful. Couldn’t agree more with your first comment…which calls to mind all that effort from prior years to keep the Mississippi from constantly finding a new path to the Gulf, the way it had for thousands of years prior. Might be that original policy was misplaced…with today’s USACE leaders and politicians holding the bag.

      As to the second, again I quite agree. In no way was I suggesting that anyone involved is making a wrong choice…rather, that it is a choice. [In the movie, Sophie's friend tries to help her see the same thing. She did what she had to do. Same here.]

      The landowners long ago certainly did receive compensation of a kind. However, over time, new folks come in and memories dim. The issue can turn out to be more a shade of grey than black and white.

      Your list of the real questions that ought to be asked are spot on. We’ll probably hear a lot more on both subjects as time goes on.

      Again, many thanks for your helpful comment.

  2. Dan Reed says:

    Kent is mostly right. Nature reeks havoc on civilization without some kind of intervention. Without flood control, the Mississippi would annually flood millions of acres of land and be useless as a form of navagation. It’s primary route would likely have diverted to the west in the last hundred years, flooding all the communities below it, leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge dry in the summer and fall, and allowing salt water intrusion into the aquifers of southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi. The residents and farmers in the “spillway” were compensated in the 1950′s when the spillway was constructed. Outside the three small communites with ring levees, others live and work in the Spillway at their own risk. Where I differ somewhat with Kent is that farming and hunting and fishing camps are actually very reasonable uses of the land. After all, the Spillway has not been opened since 1973. It is just that, one of the consequences of use of the land in the Spillway is that, rarely, it will have to be opened, flooding your farm or camp. Those who choose to reside permanently at a “camp” in the Spillway know better.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Dan. This is a valuable contribution. A question for you, and maybe for Kent as well…If nature wreaks havoc on civilization without some kind of intervention, can intervention ever do more than shape disasters of the future? For example, don’t levees tend towards trading many, smaller-impact disasters for fewer, larger ones?

  3. Eddy Weiss says:

    Powerfully written. Your insight into this is incredible. There are REAL people down there, people I have met, spoken to, become friends with… on television, the sporadic interview does nothing to convey to the rest of America how this is happening to those that are our neighbors. Living in a rural area sandwiched between two large cities myself, I have wondered these last few weeks just what would come of my family and my life should the decision need to be made to destroy all that we have in order to save the metropolis. Surely the barn that I painstakingly built with my own two hands is not of the same value as the stores and schools that dot our neighboring city maps. Surely the field in which my children play is not worth the same as the apartment complex just 23 miles away. But to us…to my family…these things are home. It is heartbreaking to imagine the fear and the confusion being felt by these folks. Thank you for your post, for your insight, and for your sensitivity.

  4. Kent Payne says:

    Despite my (in retrospect) harsh comment, the conversation here is more than worth having. Thank you for the opportunity. The Atchafalaya Basin and our coastal marshes have been my playground for most of 48 years, so I run a little hot on these issues.

    Your philosophical question is interesting and is one that I cannot answer. Nature does seem a bit like a balloon—push it in one place and it pops out in another. Nevertheless, it does not seem that intervention inevitably produces cataclysmic results.

    Example: A dam was erected on the Sabine River (on our western border) years ago, and I have not heard of any losses of species or, for that matter, any great problems. The project created a reservoir and abundant recreational opportunities. It undoubtedly created its own set of little problems, but I am unaware of any big ones.

    We hear much about “serial engineering” in the West and Northwest. Build a dam, engineer something else to fix a problem caused by the dam, engineer something else to fix the problem caused by the fix, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Such would suggest a “yes” answer to your question.

    To me, our flood control problems mostly result from development in floodplains– areas that should never have been developed. Sort of like areas in the basin outside of ring levees. Why would anyone put anything there that they could not either haul out or part with?

    To be sure, our “fixes” for the Mississippi, however, have most certainly resulted in much greater disasters:

    1. The levees prevent replenishment of our coastal marsh with deposited silt. That silt now moves through the levees and out to the continental shelf. Result: Catastrophic loss of coastal wetlands. (Here is your “sacrifice” story, if you want one. There are many in our great state)
    2. Depending upon whom you speak with, locks and dams upriver capture silt, resulting in less silt for deposition, even were we to bust the levees today.
    3. Even the stories of the 1927 floods suggest that the less extensive levee system of that day created bottlenecks.
    4. When the nitrogen-rich runoff from farmland runs down the Mississippi and into the Gulf without being deposited in marshland, dead zones are created.
    5. When much fresh water drainage is concentrated in one area in the marshes, species like our beloved (and delicious) oysters are at risk.

    • william h. hooke says:

      Thanks again, Kent. It was good of you to take the time needed to craft such a valuable comment — especially for a second round! Your on-the-ground perspective, and your years of familiarity with the engineering and the physical terrain have brought this subject to life. I’ve learned a great deal and hope that readers as well will take time to reflect on your points here. Hazards pose challenges like this all across the United States. We’ll need to work together to think through our policies and our engineering for a whole range of hazards –otherwise a lot of pain and suffering lies ahead.

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  6. Chuck Karish says:

    The second and third choices listed in this note are not exclusive. Monday’s news stories say that the Old River Control Structure is flowing at what I think is its full capacity, and that more flow into the Morganza Floodway is still needed to protect the levees of the lower Mississippi River.

  7. Harold Brooks says:

    In 1927, the city fathers of New Orleans blew up the levees south of the city in order to prevent flooding in the city. Plaquemines Parish and the surrounding area were completely flooded. The day after the levees were blown, levees north of New Orleans broke, meaning the destruction of the southern levees had been unnecessary. They had promised to pay reparations but ended up making the requirements to get repaid so challenging that they ended up paying nothing. John Barry’s book Rising Tide covers the story.

    • william h. hooke says:

      Thanks, Harold…and thanks for the reminder on John Barry’s book, which is one of my favorites. It’s both a real tutorial on how we got here…and a real page-turner as well.

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