September 2, 2005

And then, Katrina.

It took some time for the dimensions of the Katrina disaster to register in my head... as a true disaster.

Talking to Stephanie after I returned and she was getting a little irritated with my lingering skepticism regarding the accuracy of the news media reports on hurricane Katrina. After years of disappointment with mainstream news (the hype, a gothic delight in amplifying bad news, the agenda setting, the lack of self consciousness, ... shall I go on?) , I wasn't ready for Chicken Little to really report the news. I thought this would be like all those other times when small events were dressed in Holloween costume to sell the papers and network news.

This time, the sky really fell.

Check out this 2002 report on an analysis of the effect of a catagory five direct hit on New Orleans:

And just across the Mississippi River, Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB?kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

And a little further down, a practical solution that probably sounded outlandish three years ago:

The Haven

"It's a lifeboat," explains Suhayda. "And the lifeboat is there because it anticipates, at some point, possibly, the main ship is going to sink."

Some scientists believe that if a huge storm hits New Orleans, the city would have to be abandoned. Bulldoze the rubble, rebuild someplace else. But Suhayda thinks they could save a piece of it. He wants the nation to build a massive wall around the downtown heart of New Orleans. It would be like the giant walls that protected medieval cities. It'd be almost three stories high, and miles around. It would enclose the French Quarter and government buildings, and a hospital and housing. If a monster hurricane comes, at least that part of the city could survive. Suhayda calls it 'the community haven.' He shows me a small example.

"What we're on now is a concrete wall that is of the type that I was suggesting as a community haven," explains Suhayda.

This one's about 20 feet high, with grassy slopes. It shields the nearby houses from the lake, sort of like a gated community. There's a pair of huge solid-steel gates?like a bank vault?at the entrance to the neighborhood.

"So," says Suhayda, "we would have a wall of this type, maybe a little bit higher, that would enclose the community haven. "

Suhayda pictures the scenario unfolding like a disaster movie: the forecast comes in, a giant hurricane's approaching, and government officials sound the alarm: 'Get to the haven, if you can.'

The quote from a resident of the French quarter at the bottom of the article is particularly chilling.

Then I read stuff like this:

New Orleans is not going to be "saved". It's not possible. It's Atlantis. This is a disaster on an unprecedented scale, the kind of comic-book catastrophe like a major shift in the New Madrid, the La Palma tsunami, the Yellowstone caldera, or a significant meteor shattering over a major city and creating a firestorm that no society has the resources to really "shield" a city from and that no society has the technology to magically "fix" in the aftermath. For all intents and purposes, this may as well have been a nuclear meltdown. Nature is history's greatest monster, and when it decides to go on a killing spree, even the most powerful superpower in human history is simply incapable of fighting back. Nothing within the scope of our imagination can make New Orleans a habitable place right now.
Is this true? Are things that bad?

Then, I read this:

And the hospitals are full. The hospitals are turning people away, because they don't have enough food and water to be able to take care of the people who are in the hospitals. So, the boatload of people that came apparently to the hospital this morning or this afternoon, a father, a mother and two little kids came in a boat, and the people at the hospital turned them away, sent them away, because they didn't have room for them. Another 20 people walked up to the parking lot -- parking garage. They had been in the Holiday Inn downtown. That Holiday Inn lost electricity, lost everything. So those people just left, and they have been wandering around the city looking for a place to stay, and the security guards had to turn them away. They sent them back into the flood waters because they didn't have enough food or water or that to even be able to take care of necessarily the people that are here.

So who's left behind in New Orleans right now, you are talking about tens of thousands of people who are left behind, and those are the sickest, the oldest, poorest, the youngest, the people with disabilities and the like, and the plan was that everybody should leave. Well, you can't leave if you're in a hospital. You can't leave if you're a nurse. You can't leave if you are a patient. You can't leave if you're in a nursing home. You can't leave if you don't have a car. All of these things. They didn't have - there was no plan for that.

And so, we are talking about somewhere in the neighborhood, I think, of 100,000 people probably in the metropolitan New Orleans area that are still here. And the suggestions from local officials are, you know, in the suburban parish next to us, they announced on the radio -- we have one radio station, have no TV, have no cell phones. Nothing. The only calls we are able to get are the calls that come in. And the suggestion was that people should take a boat over toward the interstate, and then they would pick them up there.

But, you know, these people don't have a car, people who live in an apartment with their mother, you know, people who are sick. That's why they couldn't leave. They don't have cars. They certainly don't have boats!

And so, there's a huge humanitarian crisis going on here right now.

These are times that transcend cliche:

In a sort of cliche way, this is an edifying experience. One is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life. It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care physician. We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible. I don?t know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear. Despite it all, this is a soul-edifying experience. The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuild will take. And the horror of so many dead people.

PLEASE SEND THIS DISPATCH TO ALL YOU THINK MAY BE INTERESTED IN A DISPATCH from the front. I will send more according to your interest. Hopefully their collective prayers will be answered. By the way, suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes will be needed as the Ritz turns into a MASH.
Posted by Dennis at September 2, 2005 8:30 AM

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