Saturday, September 03, 2005

Tales From The City

The New Yorker Magazine today Saturday published on-line a special Hurricane Katrina section. It's worth a thorough read.

The intriguing thing about this collection of six very different articles is how competently the average New Orleans native, both rich and poor, and black and white, have handled the storm and its aftermath -- and how incredibly stupid the politicians have been, from decisions made by the Corps of Engineers decades ago to the dismal performance of George Bush this week.

Included are three vivid reports from New Orleans about folk who weathered the storm -- and its aftermath. Christine Wiltz in Home Alone describes how she and her husband successfully weathered the storm only to be surprised the next day when they suddenly had to evacuate.

Dan Baum's compelling On The Roof tells how two desperately poor but courageous New Orleans families "with one good job between them" simply couldn't afford to evacuate, but through pluck and courage somehow survived the storm. In Porch Duty Baum visits the other end of town where heavily armed home owners of million dollar mansions elected to stay behind, armed with more firepower, it seems, than the local police.

Two lead articles are by Nicholas Kaufman and David Remick. With In The Ruins, Kaufman tells us how his father -- who had the misfortune to be flying back home to New Orleans the day before Katrina hit -- now has had his life "book-ended" by hurricanes. He goes on to recall the many past literary foretellings of what we're witnessing now, which lead him to guess that eventually "we will find out that society and nature were co-conspirators" in the tragic destruction of New Orleans.

Here's a brief excerpt:
It’s true that the Bush Administration has repeatedly proposed cutting the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, and that for years there has been a list of widely agreed-upon hurricane-protection measures that the federal government has chosen not to fund, with now horrific consequences. But it’s also true that, after the levees broke, we watched every single system associated with the life of a city fail: the electric grid, the water system, the sewer system, the transportation system, the telephone system, the police force, the fire department, the hospitals, even the system for disposing of corpses.
In "Under Water", David Remick reviews George Bush's fumbling behavior over the past week. Brief excerpt:
During the Presidential debates in 2000, George W. Bush informed his opponent, Al Gore, that natural catastrophes are “a time to test your mettle.” Bush had seen his father falter after a hurricane in South Florida. But now he has done far worse. Over five days last week, from the onset of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast on Monday morning to his belated visit to the region on Friday, Bush’s mettle was tested — and he failed in almost every respect.

* * *
The whole conceit of his Presidency, that he was an instinctive chief executive backed by "grownups" like Dick Cheney and tactical wizards like Karl Rove, now seemed as water-logged as Biloxi and New Orleans. The mismanagement of the Katrina floods echoed the White House mismanagement — the cavalier posture, the wretched decisions, the self-delusions — in postwar Iraq.
The series is glued together by a timely reprint of a John McPhee article written 18 years ago, The Sunken City. It describes far more elegantly (and accurately) than the oft-heard "bowl" cliche, how man has so far created the geology of New Orleans that now we can be blamed for our own city's undoing. Excerpt:
The levees tend to sink as well. They press down on the mucks beneath them and squirt materials out to the sides. Their crowns have to be built up. “You put five feet on and three feet sink,” a Corps engineer remarked to me one day. This is especially true of the levees that frame the Atchafalaya swamp, so the Corps has given up trying to fight the subsidence there with earth movers alone, and has built concrete floodwalls along the tops of the levees, causing the largest river swamp in North America to appear to be the world’s largest prison. It keeps in not only water, of course, but silt. Gradually, the swamp elevations are building up.

As sediments slide down the continental slope and the river is prevented from building a proper lobe — as the delta plain subsides and is not replenished — erosion eats into the coastal marshes, and quantities of Louisiana steadily disappear. The net loss is over fifty square miles a year. In a hundred years, Louisiana as a whole has decreased by a million acres. Plaquemines Parish is coming to pieces like old rotted cloth.
McPhee's is a cautionary tale for Pensacola Beach, as well, where over the years man has relentlessly flattened all the vegetated dunes, thoughtlessly filled in protective wetlands to make way for glitzy developments, and now wants to depend on beach engineers to 'protect' him from his folly.

Read the whole series. Please.

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