New Orleans


I’m a bit slow on the uptake this week: on Sunday, the New York Times Book Review corrected (scroll to the bottom) those factual errors in Timothy Egan’s review of “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. Instead of incorrectly stating the New Orleans levees were “overtopped,” the review now plainly says that the day after the storm hits, “the levees have failed.” Because of – I’ll say it one more time – the sloppy work of the Army Corps of Engineers.

It took a while, but the record has been set straight – at least in this little corner of the media universe. Props to Egan and his editors.

Barge sits in Lower 9th Ward, December 2005

Barge sits in Lower 9th Ward, December 2005

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is upon us, and New Orleans continues to slowly rebound, with a smaller footprint than before but abundant community spirit. But, alarmingly, its long-term predicament remains unchanged, and the opportunity the nation had to confront it has been mostly squandered.

I refer, of course, to the challenge of protecting the city and surrounding coastlines from hurricanes. Three centuries of experience have proven time after time this is a deadly serious risk. And time after time, various government agencies – from New Orleans’s earliest colonial administrations to the Obama White House – have responded in a haphazard fashion, doing just enough to make people feel safe again, but not enough to prevent the next big disaster.

The Katrina disaster was deeply ironic. Turns out America, the nation that tamed rivers and the continent, won World War II and emerged as the globe’s lone superpower, couldn’t build a floodwall. America, the nation of the mass media and instantaneous communication, couldn’t figure out where the New Orleans Convention Center was, or deliver food and water a few blocks to the thousands of people gathered there. Post-K, there was reason to believe these outrages might force a reassessment of how the nation handles not just emergency response – what you do after disaster strikes – but prevention. The rapidly-eroding Louisiana coast seems like an outlier, but this is deceptive – climate change is going to raise the risks not just for coastlines (higher sea levels and – possibly – stronger storms) but for any area where rapid environmental shifts take place and communities built for yesterday’s conditions suddenly find themselves under water, consumed by fire or afflicted by drought or other problems. New Orleans is, in this sense, an important test case.

But no such reassessment took place. Instead, the same institution that screwed this up the first time – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was put in charge of the effort to protect New Orleans and the surrounding coastline. This was crazy and irresponsible, and the results were predictable. The Corps is building a $14 billion stopgap levee system, an upgrade to the old one that is certainly better than what was there before, but not nearly enough to protect the city from a Category 5 hurricane storm surge.

The Corps has been studying the options for bigger and better protection, and how to integrate it with efforts to restore the rapidly-eroding marshlands of south Louisiana, for four years. This is an ambitious project, and (in my view) an essential one. It should have been fast-tracked. It should have gotten some stimulus money. Instead it bogged down. . But there’s nobody really calling the shots at the upper levels of government. It’s not a national priority. President Obama says it is, and is creating a task force that may cut through some of the seemingly hopeless skein of red tape. So, we’ll see. But given the fiscal and political pressures on the Obama administration and the severe bureaucratic inertia holding this thing back (which results from basic power arrangements between Congress, the Corps, and successive administrations) I’m skeptical.

This is human nature, you might say, the way government institutions work. We’re always preparing for the last disaster. We don’t anticipate the “black swans.” But that’s no longer an adequate excuse given what’s at stake – not just a unique American city and cultural treasure, but the shape and structure of the American community in an era of change. Do shrug off these challenges – about which we know a great deal – and consign the vulnerable parts of the country to a slow attrition by disaster? Or do we learn from history, and science, and our own mistakes?

Today’s New York Times Book Review cover piece by Timothy Egan is on Dave Eggers’s new book Zeitoun, a nonfiction narrative of one family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina. So far so good. I haven’t read it yet, but the Eggers book sounds like a fantastic addition to the corpus of Katrina books.

But the review contains a couple of errors. It says the storm hit on Sunday, Aug. 28; actually it made landfall the morning of Aug. 29. Maybe this isn’t a mistake as such – the wind was already blowing pretty hard on Aug. 28. But the second error is significant: “Day 2, the world changes. Zeitoun wakes to a sea of water, after the levees have been overtopped. He’s neck-deep in a city of a thousand acts of desperation.”

As any New Orleans resident will tell you, the levees around central New Orleans, including the area where Zeitoun lives, were never overtopped. Rather, badly-designed floodwalls collapsed and breached in several places before Katrina’s storm surge got anywhere near the top. There was some overtopping in more-exposed areas to the east, but the vast majority of the flooding was caused by those breaches – in other words, human error by the Corps of Engineers.

This is not a minor semantic point. The responsibility for most of the damage to New Orleans and the awful events immediately following the storm lies with the Corps – that is, the federal government. This is not in dispute; three distinct investigations have laid the blame on the Corps, including the Corps’s own study. In any assessment of what happened – scientific, political, historical – this is crux of what went wrong, a terrible failure American know-how whose broader implications are alarming and remain mostly unexamined. New Orleanians and Louisiana politicians and media types do their best to remind the powers that be of these scandalous facts. Harry Shearer has been tireless in making this point. To his credit, Brad Pitt made it on Bill Maher’s HBO show Friday night.

But for some reason, this never quite sunk in with many in the media world, or for that matter the nation as a whole. The shorthand of “New Orleans levees overtopped” – with its underlying associations of “natural disaster swamps city below sea level – what the heck are those people doing living down there?” seems to have been dropped into the review without much thought. I’m assuming that Egan – whose work I like and respect – made the error and not Eggers; but even if it was Eggers, it was up to Egan and his editors not to repeat it in the NYT.

Has the Gross Domestic Product has outlived its usefulness as a measure of economic activity? That’s what Eric Zencey argues, citing the GDP itself, which supplanted the Gross National Product as global trade made “nationality” more or less irrelevant and geography became a better guide to economic activity. (Here’s the Wikipedia explanation: GDP measures output within a country’s boundaries; GNP starts with that and subtracts out income made by foreigners and adds income by citizens abroad – confusing!)

Zencey says we’re at the cusp of an even bigger change now, chiefly because the costs of environmental damage of various kinds – burning fossil fuels, for instance, or the erosion of the Louisiana coastline putting New Orleans in ever-greater danger – are rising rapidly. These have obvious economic impacts that aren’t reflected in GDP. Or rather, they show up only as positive contributions to GDP (in spending on gasoline and in rebuilding New Orleans). It’s an absurd convention when you think about it:

Because we use such a flawed measure of economic well-being, it’s foolish to pursue policies whose primary purpose is to raise it. Doing so is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness — mistaking the map for the terrain, or treating an instrument reading as though it were the reality rather than a representation. When you’re feeling a little chilly in your living room, you don’t hold a match to a thermometer and then claim that the room has gotten warmer. But that’s what we do when we seek to improve economic well-being by prodding G.D.P.

The problem, as Zencey acknowledges, is how to assign value to things that we currently ignore. What value to place on Louisiana’s wetlands, for instance, which provide hurricane protection, fishery habitats, and, of course, living space? Is the value dropping as the wetlands disappear, or rising as the remaining land becomes more precious? There are models for doing this, and Zencey recommends a presidential commission to hash it out, while renaming but not ditching GDP. The real obstacle to this change, though, isn’t even politics but institutional inertia. But as the after-effects of the past century’s bad decisions mount, the politics will inevitably push us in the direction of a more intelligent measurements of economic activity.

This week’s TPM Cafe Book Club discussion on Cheryl Wagner’s New Orleans memoir Plenty of Suck to Go Around was interesting, and shows that like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, post-Katrina New Orleans is a living, changing, endlessly complex phenomenon not easily reduced to a single idea.

But the common theme is the resilience of people like those Cheryl depicts in the book – including herself – who slog onward, rebuilding their homes, dealing with broken bureaucracies, and sometimes having fun, because, well, this is still New Orleans.

In fact, New Orleans culture seems to have turned out to be more resilient than its own residents may have anticipated. “Suck” does an amusing job of sorting through the overlapping hierarchies of property damage and dedication: people with homes in sodden Mid-City naturally feel some jealousy toward residents of unflooded Uptown neighborhoods, but are also proud of enduring a struggle the Uptown folks can never know. Some people in Cheryl’s cohort of friends and acquaintances take the opportunity to alight for other funky, granola-friendly towns like Austin and Portland, while others double down on the Crescent City. Out of this churn, as Harry Shearer pointed out, New Orleans has seen a renaissance of civic engagement. People actually get up in the morning and think about how to improve community they live in – they have to! Louisiana residents have always taken an outsized interest in politics, but far less in the functioning of government and making things work. Katrina has altered that seemingly unalterable feature of New Orleans civic life.

This is a good thing, obviously, and not just for New Orleans. The city and its environs may be cultural and geographical outliers, but its predicament isn’t really so unique. It’s just on an accelerated timetable. Most of us are accustomed to a degree of environmental stability: summers are hot, winters cold. But that’s starting to change, and as the changes spread we’re going to be seeing more big storms, more floods – and more man-made systems failing. This on top of broader alterations in patterns of rainfall and drought that will affect food production, water consumption. In other words, things are already changing, and those changes will accelerate beyond the capacity of governments to keep pace. As everybody could see from Day 1 in New Orleans, the nation as a whole moves very slowly to address these kinds of threats. We’re likely to stumble from one disaster to another for quite a while.

I think the federal government needs to get out in front of these problems – and New Orleans should be (or ought to have been) the ideal opportunity to do so. But if that’s not going to happen, the kinds of resourcefulness and community-building we see in Cheryl’s book will provide a good model of its own. There’s no one-size-fits all solution for a lot of the problems we face, and many solutions will be local, and flexible. That doesn’t excuse the nation from shirking the challenges of climate change, but the example of New Orleans does offer some rays of hope.

Sorry for the long interregnum between postings. I got caught up in, you know, actual paying work for a while. And as others have discovered, Twitter tends to supplant blogging. Even before the recent interruption, I found I was blogging less, and my posts were typically longer. That is, they required me to actually make an argument, something you can’t really do effectively on Twitter. I hope there’s a felicitous balance in there somewhere.

Here are a couple of pointers. This week I’m participating in a TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of Cheryl Wagner’s post-Katrina memoir, Plenty of Suck to Go Around. It’s a very good read of the absolutely crazy aftermath of the storm from the street level of house-gutting, subletting, jobless craziness that so many in New Orleans endured and survived. As always, the question for me is, how is New Orleans going to survive a century of global warming without serious hurricane protection, and why can’t the U.S. government actually make that happen? All the valiant struggles of the past four years are at risk.

Last week I had a second piece up on Yale Environment 360 about mountaintop removal coal mining, this one focusing on what science tells us about the ecological effects of blowing up mountains. It may seem obvious that the effects would be devastating, but there are a number of regulatory fig leaves here. Mining operations are supposed to restore mined-out sites to the “approximate original contour” and revegetate them. Under optimal circumstances, they rebuild the mountain and plant trees. But even this responsible approach, which is rare, can’t undo the damage to hydrology and riverine ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years.

The science puts Obama, who has staked his repuation on following science, not politics, in an awkward spot. The EPA and White House want to broker compromises with mining companies to ease the impacts of mountaintop removal – the politically pragmatic approach. But the science is telling them that won’t do much good.

Mayor Nagin is at it again:

The mayor said the city has an estimated 5,000 to 12,000 homeless people, many of whom came here looking for jobs after Katrina struck in August 2005.

“I’m not suggesting that they were dumped here, but we have a lot of people from a lot of different places around the country, and you may be helping one of your citizens. Maybe we can even find some bus tickets. We’ll see. One way,” Nagin said, drawing laughs from audience members.

After the panel discussion, Nagin said he was “just kidding around.”

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