Hurricane Season 2008

On June 1st , hurricane season began, and the summer's storm predictions were announced. As usual they sounded more preachy than probable. Were there really going to be 15 storms, or were scientists just trying to scare callow Americans about the dangers of coastal living? Regardless, the New Orleans Gambit Weekly published a spaghetti looking map showing all the routes out of town, color coded by destination, to be used if an evacuation was ordered. The Times Picayune editorial page urged everyone to assemble important papers and lay in a supply of plywood for boarding up windows. These helpful tips kindled an edgy dialogue among neighbors, heavy on the gallows humor, about the likelihood of being finished off by the next big one. A few days later, the counterpoint kicked in, with Sunday sermons and letters to the editor saying in effect, "will everyone please settle down; the really big storms don't come along until August."

As reassurances go, this was an improvement over what had passed for voices of calm after Hurricane Katrina. The onset of hurricane season in 2006, eight months after the storm, triggered a collective panic attack, a certainty that the lengthening days would inexorably usher in a final killer storm. Although no hurricanes appeared that year, many families packed and left anyway. Others, thousands of us, continued rebuilding our homes, sometimes on ground where storm surge rose to the rooftops. We're still at it three years later. And I wonder, how crazy are we really?

The Odds

The delusion appears obvious. After a hurricane illustrates how vulnerable we are, a sand castle built too far down the beach at high tide, some of us begin rebuilding. And we don't just erect provisional encampments to use while we regroup and look for higher ground. Nor do we build fortresses to keep us safe in any gale. Instead we're reconstructing normal homes with mainstream flourishes--that half bath we always wanted, central air in the guest room--as if we will have time to grow old inside our freshened walls.

Like many others before us, we behave as if our collective will can forestall future wind and tides. The unspoken contract seems to be:   behave as if our homes belong here, and we will be able to stay as long as we want, regardless of storms. This magical thinking is surprisingly easy to maintain, reinforced as it is by every "Save NOLA" bumper sticker and trip to the hardware store. No one says "halt, this is madness" as we plunk gallons of wallboard cement down by the cash register. On the contrary, store owners are eager to abet the rebuilding fervor. Three new new Home Depots have opened in New Orleans in the past year, and the lumber yard will deliver crown molding to our door. These accommodations, coupled with our drive to recreate a sense of home, help us downplay the less encouraging trends, such as the lake water seeping under the newly repaired 17 th St. Canal flood walls.

"Everyone has a story," is the saying around town, meaning everyone has a story about their collision with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The details of the narratives differ, but the resulting mindset has in many cases been simultaneously enlarged as to the possible events--both horrific and sublime--that life can include, and narrowed to a bunker focus on putting one foot in front of the other. The government's failure to provide sustained aid has increased this effect. Without proposals that capture our imaginations or spur our ire--direction as to where it is safe to rebuild and where it is not, for example--we fall back on our own Katrina freshened philosophies. Often this comes down to:   anything can happen, so we'll keep going until we can't anymore. Overwhelming experiences coupled with the vacuum left by ineffectual government have steered us straight to our gut instincts. If this approach neglects some prudent metrics, it hews to a disaster forged focus on preserving what our varied human hearts value most.

And so New Orleans's faltering recovery goes on, spurred not by informed public investment, but by an assortment of inspired desires:   citizens' desire to rebuild, profiteers' desire to profit, and the desire of tens of thousands of people around the world to lend a hand. Whether they are energy activists come to lobby for solar power or Methodists from Maryland come to gut homes, they show no signs of compassion fatigue three years after the storm. Instead they tackle the toughest, dirtiest jobs and tell us how much they love it. The local press regularly interviews volunteer building crews after long days spent demolding a grandmother's walls or putting up sheetrock in a church, a sure fire human interest story for the evening news. The volunteers stand there squinting in the sun in their soaked and filthy t-shirts, smiling into the camera with peaceful, almost exalted expressions. Their altruism feels as primal as New Orleanians' insistence on staying or for that matter as the winds that swirl together to form hurricanes.

And so, whatever else has changed since Katrina, New Orleans has maintained its status as a hub of kindred yet mutually exclusive feelings and weather patterns. Some, like the volunteers' life giving service, affirm the city's future. Others, like the rising, warming seas cast that future in doubt. But at least for now, there's a sense of wait and see. After all, a hurricane can be unwound just as quickly as a line of roof shingles. Seemingly innocuous physical effects, like a band of cooler water near the shoreline, have disarmed many a monster storm. Power alone does not always prevail. But the same rule applies to us:   there are no guarantees of survival, no matter how strong our worldly fortifications. Looked at this way, the odds seem roughly, if strangely, even.

This slow motion, domesticated game of chicken--human settlements versus hurricane trails--bolsters our enthusiasm for staying, but it also keeps the fundamentals front and center. We drive past ruined homes or hear the hurricane storm predictions, and the fragile stripe of life reasserts itself. This acknowledgement, no matter how blinkered and transitory, lends a clarity to living and breathing in the Crescent City, a vividness that more buffered places in America--the vacant ones with bright yellow curbs--don't often confront.

Upriver wags accuse us of gratuitous hot rodding, of flirting with danger and federal tax dollars. According to them, we should all just get out of Dodge and abandon this 300 year project at the mouth of the Mississippi. But I see New Orleanians as unwitting but pioneering participants in the convergence of trends that are reshaping our world:   incontrovertible changes in weather, the realization that efficient government prevents suffering, and a yearning for meaning through service. It's all here, fodder for human wrestling, and we are among the first westerners to be forced into the mudpit.

Although the whole New Orleans post-Katrina experience may look like a disturbing aberration to some observers, we're hardly irrelevant. Our reactions offer one of the first examples of how Americans handle the essential challenges of the 21 st Century. Along with the inevitable bumbling and gouging, the impulse that continues to show great legs is generosity. We live in a place where many people, strangers and friends, are acting on the belief that compassionate action can transform lives, including their own. It does any number of hearts good, regardless of which way the wind blows.

On Shifting Soil

The Apron Front Sink
I was in the paint store last week and the owner, Ms. Sophia, who has tracked the progress of our home repairs in gallons of paint sold, was filling me in on her own rebuild. She showed me a picture of a good looking modern home, painted a muted gold with big picture windows and a pool out back. She and her husband had bought the house cheap after it flooded post-Katrina. It was in Gentilly, a neighborhood that sits lower than most, and the house was built on a slab--no piers to give them a boost should the waters rise. I wondered how to respond. I couldn't come out and say that their investment in the house was ill-advised, but at the same time, the natural question begged to be asked. Perhaps, I thought, they lived on the Gentilly Ridge, a term that might cause mountain dwellers to scoff, but that to New Orleanians implies a few crucial feet of extra elevation.

Out of a mixture of curiosity and compunction, I made an oblique mention of her home's flood potential, along the lines of "is your home on a ridge and out of harm's way should there be another flood?" Her reply:   "We sure hope so."   Then she returned to her original point, which was that the countertop people wanted her to provide a template of how her apron front sink was supposed to fit into the larger cabinet scheme. And she couldn't find said template anywhere on the web. And her husband was going to ask her how much all this was going to cost, and she didn't want to lie, but at the same time she was sure to be having a painful conversation with him in a few hours.

A psychiatrist I spoke with did not entirely condemn this hope mode. Denial, she said, is an important mechanism that allows people to go on living where they have to without being derailed by fear and despair. The trick, of course, is not carrying it so far that we block out urgent feelings and practical realities that must be given their due. Outsiders can make facile judgments about what makes sense for others. But from inside a life it is more difficult to know when we have crossed the line from stalwart to stupid, as anyone who lends a teenager the family car can attest. Which decision supports a true and living current, and which caves in to fearful habit? The bold choice isn't always the bravest, and sometimes we just have to smell our way along the trail.

All the same, I wondered what kind of conversation Ms. Sophia was going to be having with her husband should their lovely house flood. For that matter, what would my husband and I say to each other if a storm turned our home inside out a second time? There probably wouldn't be all that much to discuss really. We knew the risks and chose to stay because the integrity of our lives pointed in that direction. When the jig is up, there's nothing to do but mourn and move on.

The Purple Mailbox
This spring the river came up to flood stage. I went to see it, and the river's bank-- usually a dry 20 foot slope where rip rap covers gravel stones and rats play hide and seek--was completed covered. I sat by the edge, my feet dangling only inches above the oily water, and watched the barges go by. The river looked a mile wide and effortlessly fast. The water had risen so high that the upriver spillway into Lake Pontchartrain had been opened to relieve pressure on the levees surrounding the city. Going to Baton Rouge one day, I drove past the spillway and the allotted bays were spewing river water like a giant lineup of uncapped fire hydrants. I quailed to think that this display was only a fraction of the river water curling around the city. Should the river levees go, our home would be swept away in a heartbeat. All the planning and sweaty work, the mailbox we painted purple to match the house, gone.

The purple mailbox seemed like such a good idea on a chilly day last fall, but a flood would render it a totem for human folly, a poignant joke on a mud heap. So what's a fussy homeowner to do? Both tranquility and ruin having been proven possible, it makes sense to leave room for both. Indulge in the grace notes if necessary but be prepared to have them snatched away.

An ageless challenge, dealing with human vulnerability, and for a middle class American in these early years of global warming, one couched in terms of home décor not lives at stake. Still, it's not often in U.S. culture that we admit to being powerless over natural forces. The financial buffer protecting fortunate New Orleanians from dire circumstances also affords time to ponder a fundamental question:   how do we keep our balance when the soil keeps shifting, whether we like it or not?

Codes
Some people plant a flag in one camp, like the annoyingly insouciant trippers down the lane or their equally irritating opposites-- the one note doom sayers. New Orleanians are understandably a bit soured on the wonders of technology, particularly as administered by the Corps of Engineers, so we can't really take comfort in the power of concrete. But in other places, where people have not lost their infrastructural virginity, there is faith in the power of regulation and civil engineering. At dinner in downtown San Francisco, where party talk often includes a ritual mention of the ten stories of glass that will tumble into Market Street when the big quake comes, I've had sober minded citizens assure me that a Katrina-scale tragedy could never happen in that city--their prudent building codes would prevent such an outcome no matter how powerful the tremors. I nodded, more out of respect for their wish to cope with uncertainty than for my belief in their codes' ability to stand up against planetary energy.

Regardless, strong building codes are a good idea if you are going to build a city on a fault line. Such clear eyed action also makes sense in places where catastrophes are not so likely. Even communities built high and strong may find that though they are watching disasters from the sidelines today, tomorrow they may be swept up in a fandango of fire or rain. In this situation it can't hurt to have the civicly induced equivalent of sensible shoes, properly laced. Although an argument could also be made that a shapely D'orsay pump--in black satin with pearl piping, say--could provide the sass needed to keep spirits afloat through any number of jolts.

In New Orleans, D'orsay pumps have more fans than do saddle oxfords. Our Carnival season is one long, expensive tribute to the "live now for tomorrow you may die" mentality, to the point where funds and communal will that could be spent building good schools and zoning plans are spent instead on massive parades and wax masks made in Paris. Like any world view, this one is self-reinforcing;   the less attention we pay to practical matters, the more likely it is that a run of the mill disaster turns into a cataclysm, and so we have every reason to live it up before the ax falls. Would we do well with better city services and less fun? Some say we should have both, and that is undoubtedly a goal worth working toward. But the trajectory of our city heads in one direction, and that has a way of concentrating energy along certain lines, for good and ill.

Prayers
Our tradition of passion and pageantry extends to the Mass of Thanksgiving held by the Ursuline nuns at the Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. The mass has been said every January since 1815 when Andrew Jackson's ragtag army defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. With the threat of invasion removed, the nuns began lifting their prayers for the welfare of a city that has since weathered floods, fires, and epidemics. These days people say, not always with a smirk, that the nuns' mass helps keep the city safe from hurricanes.

As my family drove out of town the day before Katrina hit, we were listening to announcements on WWL, a local AM station with a broad geographic reach. I pricked up my ears when Archbishop Hannan took the microphone and began praying. He began with a traditional opening line:    "Oh Lady of Prompt Succor--Hasten to Help Us!" and continued in that vein, asking for safety from harm as the storm came ashore but also for mercy and aid in what would surely be the hard days to come. There was no fooling around; this was a message for heaven broadcast on New Orleans's 50,000 watt clear channel giant. We had just gone over the Huey Long Bridge in bright sun, traffic was flowing, and until he spoke I could persuade myself that this evacuation was a false alarm. But the archbishop's prayer broke the spell. Tears came to my eyes, and I knew it was going to be bad.

Perhaps the nuns' prayers that January had some effect. Hurricane Katrina did swerve away from the city at the last moment, as so many have in the past, hitting Mississippi instead. Our catastrophic flooding was due to faulty levees, not forces of nature. In one stroke the storm both validated the appeal to Our Lady and excoriated our reliance on prayers at the expense of good government.

It makes me wonder about the power of building code enforcers and nuns' voices raised in gratitude. By getting busy in the face of disaster, these men and women aren't deludedly dodging, they're determinedly weaving ribbons in hues from dun to magenta, to be whirled on the maypole that speeds us inexplicably through space. Their party may not be the only game in town, but it has a way of carrying the day. So, as disaster zones proliferate--from floods in Iowa City to tornadoes in Tennessee--it seems only sensible that the rest of us don our footwear of choice and join the jamboree.