New Orleans Under Water


New Orleans under water after Hurricane Katrina
Source: AP Photo/David J. Phillip


I can’t tear myself away from the photos and news stories. “HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS” now seems like an understatement.

…the poor people in the ‘dome. Gad. It’s awful.


Interesting article about building a new levee system that would protect against a CAT-5. I guess they did not do enough praying to Helios.

I don’t think praying would have helped.

Various people on NPR having been referring to articles in the local New Orleans paper over the last few years that funding from the federal government for levee reinforcement and wetlands regeneration had been reduced or totally cut, due in part to the cost of nation building in Iraq. Ouch.

I seriously doubt that it matters. No matter much funding you provide, this is a losing proposition in the end: the sea and the river are rising while the city is falling. Regardless of funding you can forestall that reality only so long. This isn’t about Iraq: years ago, before Dubya, I can recall a Scientific American article outlining the awful possibilities. This was a terrible and inevitable thing. People have been saying for decades that, regardless of funding, we would eventually reach an endgame here.

Let me add: places like the French Quarter and the Garden District have great psychic significance to people (myself included). I have no doubt they will be rebuilt. But we need to think really hard about whether whatever rebuilding package the Federal Government comes up with will involve providing incentives for much of the population to rebuild in a less vulnerable location. What happened here was *decades* in making. Blaming it Dubya and the Iraq adventure (regardless of how blameworthy they are in other respects) is to shift attention from a fundamental reality: New Orleans simply is not tenable as such a large population center. People are blaming the levee system, but that is what allowed so much of the urban expansion of NO in the late 19th and 20th century. We thus created this terrible and circular dilemma, as further efforts at “engineering” the situation both allowed larger populations to grpw up there and raised the stakes for continuosly holding back the lake and the river as we got in this ultimately losing spiral. New Orleans will recover, but we need to think hard about a realistic future size for the city so that we can minimize the future risks for those poor people who have been hit by this.

On television they were just discussing one other key element of this disaster: the disappearance of the protective coastal wetlands. They main ingredients in their disappearance: first, in the Delta, the long tradition of levees on the Missississpi has slowly undercut things like silting patterns that were key to wetland regeneration; second, decades of development have slowly and literally displaced wetlands.

By the way, hello from Chapel Hill and I hope things are working out for you out on the left coast.

Peter, good to hear from you. The gist I get from NPR is that the Times-Picayune had reported in the past year on a number of occasions that funding for levee reinforcement and wetlands regeneration had been greatly reduced (and some speculated or implicated the Iraq war as the cause).

I agree that it’s a losing proposition to blame every thing on the Iraq war, but this seems like a concrete example with documented evidence. Of course the truth is New Orleanians, at least the ones I worked with, were well aware that a direct hit by a hurricane would spell the end of the city and that at least 100,000 (among the poorest people) would not be able to evacuate. This has seemed to be common knowledge for some time.

An interesting quote:

As military engineers struggled to shore up breached levees, experts in the Netherlands expressed surprise that New Orleans’ flood systems failed to restrain the raging waters. “I don’t want to sound overly critical, but it’s hard to imagine that the damage caused by Katrina could happen in a Western country,” Ted Sluijter, a government spokesman.

“It seemed like plans for protection and evacuation weren’t really in place, and once it happened, the co-ordination was poor.” (New Orleans evacuated as 1,000 feared dead, Daily Mail)

I’d actually heard this before: if the Netherlands can do it, why can’t New Orleans? The answer I’ve heard in various venues is that first, the issue is acute spikes in water beyond what the Netherlands experiences and second that the Netherlands situation isn’t worsening. Look, sometimes you can “get away” with this. FDR built Sacandaga (to my embarassment as an upstate NY native, I probably spelled that wrong) in part to stop annual floods of the capital district of NY and it appears to have worked, without enduring consequences. But a whole variety of factors, like the role of silt in flooding, did not have the same urgency in the case of the Hudson valley. From the very beginning, engineers have suggested that we were going to get into this terrible chicken race with Ponchartrain and the Mississippi: to stave off disaster, we make exactly the kind of engineering maneuvers that have been underfunded in recent years, but are that only worsens the hole for the future. It is really a terrible circle, and eventually we would run out of room to do this.

If you want a reason to criticize Bush in the present context, here is a dimension of this story that has me, your old conservative friend, enraged (from WWLTV):

Managers at the Covenant Home nursing center were prepared to cope with power outages and supply shortages following Hurricane Katrina. They weren’t ready for looters. The nursing home lost its bus after the driver surrendered it to carjackers. Groups of people then drove by the center, shouting to residents, “Get out!”

On Wednesday, 80 residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were evacuated to other nursing homes in the state.

“We had excellent plans. We had enough food for 10 days,” said Peggy Hoffman, the home’s executive director. “Now we’ll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.”

People are being killed in New Orleans by the worst sort of savages our society can offer and Mr. Toughguy in Iraq has done nothing. The storm is not an issue: Bush has Marines, for example, who can be inserted by helicopter almost instantly into the center of this. For the sake of poor, decent and civilzed people trying to survive this mayhem (can you imagine what it must be like being a single woman trying to protect two small children in the midst of this?), Bush has an absolute responsibility to restore order, by Roman means if necessary, and right now. Last night Fox news tried to brush off such criticism: well, you know, soldiers aren’t trained for law enforcement. Justin, bullshit: I’m not talking about fucking parking tickets or citations for people taking water or infant formula from stores out of dire need. I’m not even really referring to the people stealing flat screen TVs from abandoned Best Buys. I am talking about roving armed bands hunting innocent people and their property (what little they have), and a group of Marines with shoot to kill orders can rectify that situation very quickly. To the poor people in the way of this violence, an ounce of deterrence now is worth a pound of prosecution later. Bush has betrayed the very principles he claimed to stand for. I just do not understand what he is waiting for: he has had the means and the legal authority to do something about this for days, and people are probably dead because he sat on his hands. Mother nature is one thing, but our own failure to defend our norms of civilization is our national shame. He had a duty to make sure that those poor people in New Orleans at the least didn’t have to worry about this. (As a side note, it amazes me that so much concern has gone into transferring the county jail prisoners, so many of whom are non-violent drug offenders, while this mayhem has gone unchecked. Why doesn’t Bush offer the non-violent prisoners (the vast majority) Presidential clemency in return for honorably serving the recovery effort, freeing up security forces to deal with these mobs? I’ll tell you why: because Bush lacks that kind of imagination.)

Sorry to rant, but I really believe that this is a betrayal. Francesca is going to be and has been keeping us up to date about the fate of Tulane colleagues. Email me at pmlance at email dot unc dot edu and I’ll forward her messages to you as I get them.


you callin’ playing the guitar NOT taking action?

The corps has long wanted to strengthen some of the levees which have been sinking, and on its website yesterday said it planned to build a further 74 miles of hurricane defences. But according to local media, it was last year refused extra funding by the White House which wanted to save money to pay for homeland security against terrorism. “In its budget, the Bush administration proposed a significant reduction in funding for south-east Louisiana’s chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4m, a sixth of what local officials say they need,” reported Newhouse News Service yesterday. (Why city’s defences were down, Guardian Unlimited)

From the perspective of national security and energy infrastructure, not properly preparing for the destruction of New Orleans is having much more than just a humanitarian impact.

But the extra levees buy time, not a solution. At some point we have to think about the kind of question Dennis Hastert raised yesterday. These sort of invesments strengthen the defenses of NO at the moment, but at the price of accelerating the processes that are digging this long term hole for the city. The funding for hurricane defenses has waxed and waned across administrations, but it doesn’t change a fundamental truth: sooner or later we will run out of room to maneuver on this present course. If we invest billions in the next few years in strengthening the levy and pumping system, I want to promise you the following: this will happen again.

As for the question about the economic impact of Katrina, it will probably be nil. People always predict that these storms will cause the end of the world economically, and it never materializes. The temporary fuel price shock could possibly somehow cause the housing bubble to burst, but that won’t really be due to the storm in a real sense: something was going to burst the housing bubble. It might has well have been Katrina.

It’s just so horrible….and gets worse and worse. I wish I had some sort of skill which would be useful (like midwife or nurse or search and rescue…just something!). The only skill I have is an over-abundance of love for pets and there’s gotta be a ton of them which also need help.


Dis is absoulutly heartbreaking to watch


I can’t believe it’s only been a year. It feels like forever ago…and yet the city is still a wreck. I recommend “When the Levees Broke” the doc by Spike Lee on HBO. Anyway..hi, Justin!


Email (optional)

Blog (optional)