Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

My Photo
Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

More on Katrina

I'm going to use this posting to consolidate my responses to a variety of comments I've received regarding my previous remarks on Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and where to go from here. Most of those comments occurred as replies to 2 postings on my blog ( on August 4 and 9.

Other Reactions

First, tho, I refer one and all to the responses that other people had to "Why New Orleans Still Isn't Safe", the cover story in Time 2 weeks ago that prompted my initial post. The letters to the editor that worked their way thru the culling and editing process to see publication are available here. (Mine is not among them; I didn't expect it to be, since they'd recently run one of mine on a different subject.)

In addition, Time gave a synopsis of letters they'd received, including the unpublished ones:

 • 61% -- Funding won't protect New Orleans; it's an untenable location.
 • 39% -- New Orleans could be saved, but corruption and poor engineering will do it in.

Now, I understand that Time has chosen to simplify things to fit 100% of the letters into only 2 categories (which is how they report reactions to their cover stories), but I find it telling that a 3rd alternative -- "We have to do everything we can to restore New Orleans to just the way it was before." -- evidently didn't draw enuf support to deserve a category of its own.

The Scale Problem

Several of my critics have made much of the fact that I got my scale wrong. One commenter (Kurtoons) had pointed out that the country needs a major Southern port to connect to the Mississippi River. I agreed but questioned why it had to be in that particular spot. Here are my exact words:

New Orleans is already, what, 25, 30 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi? It didn't park its ass right on the shore (the way that, for example, Miami or Galveston did). The ships already sail some ways upriver to get to the port. Apparently the idea was to build at the lowest conceivable point that wasn't absolutely soggy year-round, so as to minimize the distance the ships had to sail.

Well, we've seen how poorly that idea worked, especially since the only places available for expansion off the little bit of solid ground that was the center of the original city was to go down into the bogs.

If we need a port (and we do), it should be another 5-10 miles upriver, where there's solid ground ALL around.

Now, the fact that I was quoting these distances offhand should have been apparent from my use of "... already, what, 25, 30 miles upriver ..." and "some ways". Instead, this on-the-fly guess was pounced upon as evidence of my total ignorance on anything and everything to do with the subject:

[Slave Driver:] No, Dick, New Orleans is 110 miles up the Mississippi river from the Gulf. The reason why it didn't "park it's ass on the shore" is because, until recently there were miles and miles of wetlands that acted as protection from storm surges....

Boy do you have your head up your ass! You go five or ten miles upstream from New Orleans and you've got nothing but low lying swamp land. These two statements show that you know NOTHING of what you speak. Once again, I expect better arguments, better knowledge of facts, from you, Dick. Know your geography before you embarass yourself with you ignorance.

and, later, from the same person,

You also made some statements that you obviously know nothing about, like New Orleans is already 25 to 30 miles from the mouth of the river. You also said that five or ten miles upstream there is plenty of dry land where New Orleans could be relocated to. You have your facts WRONG. First of all, New Orleans is 110 miles from the mouth of the river and secondly there isn't any solid land 5 or 10 miles upstream. You can even go 90 miles upstream to where Baton Rouge is and it's still not all solid ground, the swamps and wetlands go on for miles and miles. I'm telling you this because I know it to be true. I live there! I drive these areas all the time, I know what I'm talking about.

So, all I'm saying is if you're going to sit there and armchair quarterback from a thousand miles away, could you at least do a litte research and get your facts straight? ... Well when you make some of the claims you did about New Orleans that were flat out wrong, that's exactly what I did, I told you you were full of shit, because you were.

and, from another person,

[Intelligentrix:] Really, Dick? Solid ground all around a mere 5-10 miles upstream? What were those silly people thinking then? Gosh, too bad they didn't have you around to set them right from the beginning!

who later added:

It would be impossible for me to continue to try holding a reasoned debate with you on this subject as your ignorance on the economic, historical and cultural significance of the city and its placement knows no bounds. I don't have the time required to correct your errors on why New Orleans is where it is, the hydrological facts of the delta area, the importance of the river in commerce, the reasons the port cannot be farther up the river, the billions of dollars in infrastructure not only still standing but in service, the meteorological history of the gulf region, ...

You do not have enough facts to draw the conclusions you draw. Your argument is not logical, it is mean-spirited and foolish and armchair quarterbacking at its worst.

Well, let's look at this. I have consulted my good friend, Mr. MapQuest, who informs me that the distance from New Orleans to Venice is 75 miles. So my admitted guess was low by a significant amount.

Does this invalidate my basic point? Au contraire, Pierre, it reinforces it. Here's a challenge that Slave Driver presented to me:

How would you, or anyone else in Madison like it if I tried to tell you, from a thousand miles away the layout of Wisconsin? What if I said Madison was only ten miles from Lake Michigan? You would tell me I'm full of shit, right?

Let's run with this. Suppose I said, "It's easy to walk from my house to downtown Madison, but harder to go all the way to Lake Michigan, which is a whopping 10 miles away." And the critic would then point out that, in fact, it's more like 90 miles away, as if that somehow makes it easier to walk to Lake Michigan.

My basic point, quoted above in the original, compared the idea of building on solid ground to building on glorified swampland. If you wade ashore at Miami or Galveston (2 other cities I cited), and walk another several hundred steps, you are on solid ground -- "a piece of the continent, a part of the main", in the words of John Donne. Not so in the case of New Orleans. I wrote that you have to sail "what, 25, 30 miles" to get to solid ground. No, as it turns out, lots farther.

And, I went on, there's undoubtedly more solid ground somewhere upstream. I guessed 5 or 10 miles. Evidently wrong. Does that mean that there's no solid ground, firmly attached to North America, anywhere upstream? Not at all. It merely redoubles my original point. I had operated on the (evidently mistaken) presumption that New Orleans was at the tip of a peninsula of solid land protruding off the southern rim of the continent, surrounded west, south, and east by bogs and swamps. Now, as it turns out, it's more like an island, with bogs and swamps to the north as well. This makes it an even less desirable spot to build.

So, upon closer examination, I understated what turns out to be an even stronger case than I originally made.

So Why There?

I had offered the above observations as an explanation for why New Orleans was built where it was. Slave Driver disagreed:

Why is New Orleans loceated where it is today? BECAUSE OF THE RIVER, ASSHOLE!

Again, consulting the Internet so as to get my facts straight, as advised by my critics, I find that the Mississippi River is 2,320 miles long. So if "because of the river" is the correct answer for 1 of those miles, why is it the wrong answer for the other 2,319, which do not have a major port located along their banks?

It's due to the fact that the correct answer is not "because of the river" but rather "because of the land". As I wrote originally "Apparently the idea was to build at the lowest conceivable point that wasn't absolutely soggy year-round, so as to minimize the distance the ships had to sail."

Is this idea wrong? I have yet to hear any of my critics address it directly. They prefer instead to harp upon my errors of scale.

Why Not Somewhere Else?

I had suggested an alternative to rebuilding New Orleans on ocean bottom. I wrote that we should look at doing our rebuilding upstream, in Baton Rouge, for the population, and building a huge pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico from Slidell, for the oil and other goods that require a port. That way the ships wouldn't have to sail upriver at all; they could just dock at the pier (or stand off of it if the weather is bad). And I proposed high-speed rail to get the workers from Baton Rouge to Slidell. This struck me as a good way to accommodate both the people and the economics, while having the salutory additional benefit of freeing the Mississippi from its concrete banks and letting it get back to its normal business of delta-building.

Slave Driver didn't think much of the Baton Rouge idea:

How stupid! What you don't know is that almost half of the people who haven't been able to return to New Orleans are already in Baton Rouge, and the people of Baton Rouge are not pleased by that at all! Why don't we just relocate the whole city to Madison? How would you like it if your city were to suddenly increase its population by 200,000 overnight? While were at it, do you think Madison could handle everyone in San Francisco and L.A. too? I mean, after all they're due for an earthquake anytime now. Why not relocate those places before the event actually occurs.

This conveniently overlooks the fact that we're going to have to rebuild somewhere to accommodate all the people displaced by Katrina. Why is New Orleans preferable to Baton Rouge? Slave Driver does not say.

Where would the refugees like to live? Apparently some of them would like to live in Baton Rouge.

And, if the people of Baton Rouge aren't happy having a ton of escapees dumped on them now, what makes you think they'll be any happier about it when (not if) it happens again in 10 or 20 years?

OTOH, virtually every city I've ever heard of is delighted to proclaim itself as a growing community, a hotbed of economic development. And every one of them would be absolutely thrilled if someone else was paying for it. Would I want to have a hundred thousand new people in Madison? Hell, over the last 20 years that's exactly what's happened in Madison. The Chamber of Commerce couldn't be prouder.

So ask yourself, what is it that the citizens of Baton Rouge could possibly be objecting to. Population growth? New construction? An infusion of capital?

Or might it just possibly be the strain of having to deal with a ton of property-less escapees, landing all at once, sucking up municipal services, and contributing very little to the community?

And which of us is more interested in coming up with a way of preventing that from happening again, the one who wants to remove potential victims from harm's way or the one who wants to send them back there?

Is That Pier Idea Any Good?

Well, since I invented it after about 5 minutes of looking at a map, it's obviously not something that has any details fleshed out. But I still think it's got potential and should be one of the ideas in the policy mix.

As to how the goodies would get from the pier to the river, a quick glance at a map make it look like Lake Pontchartrain and canals would do the trick. Of course, we'd have to periodically re-aim the canals to keep up with the meanderings of the river, but that's gotta be a smaller engineering project than trying to manhandle the entire river to match the canals.

The point is, I'm actually trying to figure out a reasonable solution. Don't like mine? Come up with your own, one that doesn't put hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars at risk.

Can I Really Be That Cruel and Heartless?

In my original letter to Time I wrote:

It isn't the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers but rather that of the residents of New Orleans themselves, who consciously choose to live below sea level, knowing all the while that Mother Nature wants that area to be a lake -- and won't stop until it is.

Now, despite the clear-cut qualifier "who consciously choose to live below sea level", several of my critics have chosen to misread me as saying that 100% of the population of New Orleans needs to clear out, so the government wrecking balls can come in and level the entire city, Superdome and all. Despite my repeated admonitions that these folx should read what I actually wrote, not what they seem to imagine I wrote, they continue to castigate me for an argument I never made and have since explicitly disavowed, as in "Of course, there are parts of New Orleans that AREN'T below sea level. I've got very little problem with that. Such buildings don't display conspicuous idiocy.". (I won't bother quoting the entire wearisome dialog; it's all available with datestamps and everything on the blog.)

I do wish, however, to explicitly address the comment of the very 1st person to reply to my original posting, one "Anonymous", who wrote under the subject heading "Shameful":

And how many of your fellow Americans are you willing to abandon to death? LA has lost 1500 square miles of coast in the last 50 years. It will lose another 1000 square miles in the next 50 years if America continues its "It is not my problem" attitude. You may not care about your fellow citizens, but you will care when your gas price doubles and you will care when you can't get that seafood you eat.

This is all too typical of the "head in the sand" attitude I've been getting on this subject. Let me make it perfectly clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt (not that there should ever have been any in the 1st place): I utterly abhor needless death and destruction!

It is for that precise reason that I oppose sending more potential victims back to the swath of ocean bottom that constitutes over half of New Orleans, so they can await the next disaster.

Indeed, as long as we're in the business of hurling insults here, why is it that the pro-rebuilding advocates favor more death and destruction, which will follow as surely as night follows day if they get their way?

Want a few more trigger words? Why do you hate black people and poor people, who are gonna be the primary victims of the next one, just as they were of the last one?

See, it's a game 2 can play. But I'd rather not play it. As I said on several previous occasions, I think it's a disastrous policy error to build human habitations below sea level. (For the inordinately picky out there, yes, I'd make exceptions for underwater research facilities, none of which will ever amount to a major population center.)

To be more specific, I think it's the height of human stupidity to spit in the face of Mother Nature like this. If this doesn't qualify as stupid, the word is meaningless. If you don't like "stupid", what else would you call it? Wrong-headed? Senseless? Ill-advised? A big, fat mistake? Failure to learn from experience? Whistling thru the graveyard? OK, I can buy that. It's all of those in addition to stupid.

I've already cited the I-35 bridge disaster to support my point about New Orleans. I now quote from another tragedy, the Utah mine disaster. Mining is an inherently dangerous activity, but a necessary one, and it's possible to take extensive precautions to minimize (tho we can never eliminate) the risks. But the Crandall Canyon mine apparently experienced something that nobody had anticipated, a "mountain bump" strong enuf to register as an earthquake. It caused a cave-in, trapping 6 miners. During the frantic rescue efforts, another bump occurred, and 3 tunneling rescuers were killed. The authorities, shaken, called off further rescue attempts, except for the drilling, which wouldn't put more people in danger.

There are limits to how far we can go to fix problems. There are different limits to how far we should go or can afford to go. But there are limits. It is delusional to think that New Orleans is immune to them.

Dueling Parables

Slave Driver recently tasked me for insensitivity with this analogy:

Dick, if someone raped your mother or sister and tried to kill her, but failed, and I said to you, "I think the guy ought to come back and finish the job he started," wouldn't you be upset? Any normal person would be enraged. When you make a statement like, "I think we should let mother nature finish what Katrina started," that's what you're saying to someone who lives in New Orleans, it's that personal. Some of your arguments are not entirely wrong, but for chrisake man if you can't find a better way, a less offensive way to express them you're not going to get many people to listen to you, and you might even get your lights punched out.

Bad analogy. I'm not the one proposing to dress Mom up like a hooker and station her on a street corner in the red-light district, just asking for it. I'm the one saying "I'd rather move my family to a safer part of town.". I'm the one trying to prevent Mom from being killed, not close my eyes and hope or pretend it can't happen.

Let me counter with an analogy of my own. Say you're a sweet little old lady whose husband has died and whose kids have grown up and moved out. You no longer need that big rambling house, so you move into a condo and rent the old family homestead out to tenants. But you keep getting bad reports from the nabors about loud parties and trash on the lawn. You call, you send letters, and you stop by in person to talk to them, but they won't listen to you and won't let you in. You inform them by registered mail that you don't want to rent to them any more and they'll have to leave, but they just laff at you. Finally, you decide you have to evict them. The deputies show up to serve the notice, but a huge fight ensues, the cops call in back-up and the end result is that 3 of the roomers end up in jail and 2 more in the hospital. You survey your old home and discover it's been trashed, partly by the fight but also by the lifestyle of the inhabitants. The next day you get an angry visitor at your front door, demanding to know why you had her brother beaten up by those neo-Nazi stormtrooper pigs.

In this parable, the little old lady is Mother Nature, the squatters are the people camped out on her seafloor despite all the warnings, and the angry visitor corresponds to the people in denial about who's really at fault for the ensuing mess.

Does this seem harsh? In my experience, some people won't listen to anything less.


Post a Comment

<< Home