Remembering Katrina and New Orleans

“…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg address

The last few posts, as we’ve started to think about disasters, we’ve asked, what’s it worth to see a disaster coming? Katrina shows vividly that it’s worth relatively little if we can’t or won’t act. People had been vocal about the growth of vulnerability in New Orleans for decades, even as the vulnerability and risks ratcheted up. The warnings didn’t seem to be enough.

Some salient features of this landscape? Well, for one, the 2002 series of articles by Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Washing Away: how south Louisiana is growing more vulnerable to a catastrophic hurricane.” For another, the 2004 article by Shirley Laska in The Natural Hazards Observer, “What if Hurricane Ivan had not missed New Orleans,” and her June 2005 talk as part of an AMS environmental science seminar on Capitol Hill, in the Senate Hart Office Building, on the topic of “New Orleans, hurricanes, and climate change: a question of resiliency.” That afternoon, one hundred policymakers were in the room, including U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA, who to her credit had always been concerned about this threat and working hard, first to avert it, and since to recover from it). Dr. Laska, a sociologist at the University of New Orleans and then director of the Center for Hazard Assessment, Research, and Technology (CHART), laid out the whole scenario. She touched on the growth in Louisiana population, the development of the Port of New Orleans and the offshore oil extraction and the associated refineries. She recounted a century of bad engineering along the Mississippi, the degradation of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and the subsequent loss of their natural protection. She discussed the risks in depending upon evacuation as a strategy: the vulnerabilities of the lone evacuation route over Lake Pontchartrain and the fact that at any given time, 100,000 people would be too poor to find a ride, and 2000 people to sick to move. She estimated it would take 90 days to dry out the “bowl” (that portion of New Orleans under sea level and most vulnerable to flooding), and twenty years to recover. So far, as we say in our trade, that forecast seems to be verifying.

In these recent posts, we’ve also been thinking about the value of a human life. This is where Lincoln comes in. Lincoln knew that life is holy and that this transcended any notion of price. He held no illusion that any eloquence could make such loss aright, or add meaning to that loss for those still living.

Why compare those 1800 New Orleans residents who died with the 6000+ fallen soldiers of Gettysburg? Weren’t (roughly half)[1] the latter brave volunteers in the struggle to end slavery and restore unity to the country? Wasn’t the scale of the Civil War deaths much larger relative to the population of the country at that time? Absolutely, in both regards.

But look at it this way. For every Civil War soldier who aspired to die gloriously on the field of battle, tens or hundreds hoped to live – to do their duty, but somehow make it through. Instead – not by any design or failure of foresight so much as chance – they found themselves swept up by terrible events – that “tide in the affairs of men,” – into the line of fire on the battlefield that fateful day. In the same way, most of those who died in New Orleans in 2005 were already living under difficult circumstances, imposed on them largely by accidents of birth, or race, or poverty, or illness, or some combination of these. Most were simply trying to “get through another day,” dealing with the quotidian crises that the poor, the ill, the under-represented face week in and week out. Suddenly, belatedly, on August 29th, they found their decisions and choices horribly growing much more consequential. There is less difference between the combatant losses and the civilian casualties than we might at first think, especially in the early 21st century.

Furthermore, like Lincoln, those of us who are still living face the challenge of how to pay proper respect to the memory of those who suffered and died in Katrina. This week, extensive media coverage invites us to relive those momentous events of 2005. We all find much to grieve – and a few triumphs of the human spirit to celebrate. Nevertheless, despite all the coverage, we realize that we can’t adequately pay homage to the Katrina victims. How could a few additional words make any difference? Might there not be another way to show honor and respect?

Of course there is. In Lincoln’s day, it was to prosecute the remainder of the Civil War with courage and resolve – and in the end, adding many other lives (including Lincoln’s) to the list of the fallen, but preserving the nation, and restoring the notion of “freedom” to its rightful meaning. In the present case, in the present day, we too can change our actions. We can prove that Katrina brought home the huge price of our growing vulnerability to real world extremes – made an impression on us, mattered – by mounting and sustaining a concerted, good-faith effort to minimize any future loss.

The task may well prove more difficult than we might wish, but more feasible than we’d like to admit. We will have to make major adjustments. However, these are not matters of financial cost, so much as giving up laziness in our individual and collective thought process, becoming more realistic, and more disciplined, in much the same way as we have to do in order to lose weight or get exercise. Our past history in these matters provides little reason for optimism. But the stakes are increasing, as we’ll see.

A bit of a roadmap. We’ll start with a look at the realities: (1) we’re living on a world that does much of its business through extreme events. (2) We’ve made decisions for centuries that have increased our vulnerability. Much of the latter has to be undone. Since it can’t happen overnight, what are some policy options that might help turn things around over time? Over the coming several days, we will consider at least four ideas:

–          “No-adverse-impact” (we apply that in other realms of life; why not here?)

–          Learning from experience (why is this one so hard?)

–          Keeping score, and

–          Public-private collaboration (already a recurring topic in these posts)

[1] Significantly, Lincoln himself seemed to make very little distinction between Union and confederate losses at Gettysburg.

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