Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste

If any TV show deserves not just ratings but love, it’s Treme. The HBO show (which concluded its first season Sunday night; a second has been greenlit) has interesting characters, an epic overarching storyline, a fascinating setting and great music. And the themes it treats – the frayed yet unbroken civic bonds of New Orleans society, and America, in the face of disaster – are very important. Not just because south Louisiana now confronts another catastrophe, but because of our crumbling infrastructure, dirty energy economy, institutional rot, and climate change, there are going to be a lot more of them.

And yet, to me anyway, Treme has not lived up to expectations. (I will pause here to ask my New Orleans friends for forgiveness.) It’s had some great moments, but just as often it’s been erratic and self-indulgent. Compared to the awesome mastery of The Wire, Treme still feels like a minor work in the David Simon oeuvre, yet to find its focus. (more…)

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

A controlled burn of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, May 19

David Brooks has a good column today on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sums up a significant problem my last post touched on: modern life is made possible by various complicated technological-bureaucratic systems. And these things can go south rather quickly and surprisingly. Part of the problem is that they’re complex, and not managed well. That’s par for the course. But the tricky thing is our collective expectations: we (and often the people running them) expect them to just work, and our expectations are way wrong:

Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As [Malcolm] Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This is about right. But not exactly. (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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(more…)

NASA photo of oil slick off Louisiana coast

Is there any more beautiful, yet over-exploited, abused and benighted place in America than the Louisiana Gulf coast? Okay, maybe Appalachia. But today we’ve got to give this tragic distinction to the delta, where a massive, growing, seemingly unstoppable oil slick is now impinging on its vast, fragile marshlands.

I’ll never forget my first visits there. Drive out through cypress swamps and pass strip malls you might see anywhere. Then you’ll enter small communities organized along bayous, former Mississippi River tributaries whose banks provide high ground and traditional living space. The people are mostly energy industry workers and fishermen. Hundreds of shrimp boats line the channels. Keep driving, and the homes and seafood shacks finally disappear and there’s nothing but marsh grass and water seemingly going on forever. In winter, especially, the light is pale and gorgeous. (more…)

Barge in backyard, Lower Ninth Ward

An all-star lineup of GOP pols has gathered in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. But do they have any idea where they are?

Here’s what J.C. Watts told the conference-goers:

“Some might think that George W. Bush had his shortcomings,” said Watts, “but let me tell you something — history’s going to be kind to George W. Bush.”

Just up the street from the GOP’s venue at the Hilton Riverside is the New Orleans Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people gathered in the days after Hurricane Katrina and waited in stifling heat without food or water for rescuers who didn’t know they were there. Even though they were on TV.

That was probably the low point in a catastrophic breakdown of government capacities at all levels – local, state, and federal. (more…)

It’s been a scant few weeks since the story about unintended acceleration in various Toyota models reached its apogee. Already it’s gone through a furious, though predictable, media arc – shocking revelations, public fear, congressional hearings, expressions of outrage, abject apologies from the company CEO, debates about damage to the Toyota brand, and even an alarming – though unresolved and possibly faked – acceleration incident while all this was happening.

My question is, WTF just happened? Because the statistics tell us that, essentially, nothing did.

Six million cars have been recalled, and the reports of Toyotas experiencing sudden, uncontrolled acceleration number in the dozens. Robert Wright, who drives a Toyota Highlander, did the math and concluded that there isn’t that much to worry about. You’re much more likely to die in a car accident than have an acceleration incident:

My back-of-the-envelope calculations (explained in a footnote below) suggest that if you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall, your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million — 2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.

This doesn’t mean nothing is wrong. (more…)

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

At The New Republic, Noam Schieber argues the blanket media coverage of the Haitian earthquake aftermath is just too much. It’s redundant, it’s interfering with aid operations, it’s a waste of resources. His solution: pool coverage. Just as the president is followed around by a rotating pool of reporters, maybe Haiti and other natural disasters should be too:

Just like they do for White House coverage, the major (and some not so major) news organizations could draw up an agreement to send a contingent of print, radio, and television reporters to wherever the next global disaster strikes. The participating news organizations could then use the raw material transmitted back to them to fashion their own reports. The pool correspondents could even be available to conduct on-air interviews with different television organizations, depending on their editorial needs. The arrangement would obviously be less than ideal for the outlets with the biggest budgets. But, collectively, the media would have the peace of mind of knowing it’s not exacerbating the same problems it’s trying to alleviate.

I yield to no one in my contempt for the crass, sensationalistic conventions of TV news (which, given technical demands and the quest for ratings, has by far the biggest footprint of any media). And the coverage of natural disasters employs most of those conventions, notably the faintly ridiculous notion of journalist-as-globetrotting-hero.

But do we really need less coverage of Haiti? (more…)

When disaster strikes, it’s invariably followed by a rush of memes and metaphors about What It All Means. In the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti, one of the ideas circulating is particularly facile and wrong-headed: likening the Haitian quake and Hurricane Katrina.

There is a superficial comparison to be made, of course: impoverished city, its residents overwhelmingly of African descent, chronically neglected by richer, whiter centers of power. So reporters who covered both disasters are freely comparing the two: “Several times in the continuing cable news coverage, [Anderson] Cooper and other reporters drew comparisons to the scenes they witnessed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman said: ‘Roll back the clock four and a half years ago. What déjà vu.’”

Others are using the two disasters to analyze Barack Obama’s presidential leadership and his political fortunes. Will he screw it up, like Bush did Katrina? What calculations are going on right now in the White House to avert Bush’s post-K, post “heckuva job” fate? A skeptical Dan Kennedy expertly parses some of these reactions. Of them, Howard Fineman offered the purest distillation of this point of view:

Elected in part out of revulsion at the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Obama now finds himself confronting an even more devastating and complex humanitarian crisis.

And, adding irony upon irony, the racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.

Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this.

This doesn’t make sense even on Fineman’s own narrow political terms. (more…)

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?

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