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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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…)


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