Tag Archives: New Orleans

Katrina Echoing

New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park on September 9, 2005.

New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park on September 9, 2005.

I knew that storm was coming our way. The sky had begun to darken, a mix of gray and white, and the Gulf waters were encroaching further and further up the beachfront. I mentioned that to everyone, as we piled into the two vehicles and headed back west on I-10.

“It’s too far away,” one of my friends said dismissively.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled in response. “Those things are pretty powerful.”

We left Panama City, Florida that Saturday morning; the final weekend in September 1995. It had been a good, one-week vacation. It had been four years since I’d visited a beach. Panama City wasn’t Ixtapa, México, but it was still relatively small and quaint. I fell in love with the place the moment we pulled up to our condo rental. I was saddened when Hurricane Opal tore into the town the first week in October; just days after we left.

That year, 1995, was a busy hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean region. With 19 tropical storms and hurricanes, it was second only to 1933, which produced 20. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural elements of our world. I keep track of various natural catastrophes, mainly to satisfy my desire to know more about them, but also as a display of my personal reverence. When nature goes on a rampage, it humbles the human spirit. People usually realize only then that we aren’t as significant as we like to think we are.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural calamities ever to strike the United States. It wasn’t the deadliest; that dubious distinction is still held by a hurricane that struck Galveston Island, Texas in 1900. It certainly wasn’t the deadliest to strike the Western Hemisphere. The “Great Hurricane of 1780” took 22,000 lives in the Caribbean. It wasn’t the deadliest in the world. The Great Bhola Cyclone ravaged Bangladesh in November of 1970 and killed an estimated 1 million people. Katrina wasn’t the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. in terms of wind speed. Camille retains that legacy. But, Katrina holds a cruel and bitter place in the American psyche. Its attack on the Gulf Coast almost destroyed a major city, killed more than 1,800 people and cost over $105 billion. Katrina’s onslaught is a perfect example of human vulnerability and government ineptitude. But it also showed the power human benevolence and of the will to live.

Scientists had warned the city of New Orleans for years that it was prone to massive flooding from even a modest tropical storm system. Essentially surrounded by water on three sides, some 80% of the city lies at or below sea level. It is the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. with such unfavorable characteristics. Yet its residents had always felt relatively safe with the multitude of dikes and levees. That faith melted violently on August 29, 2005. But such misguided sentiments have their base in reality; born of another catastrophic event nearly eight decades earlier.

Beginning in the summer of 1926, the mid-section of the U.S. received some of the heaviest rainfall it had ever experienced. By the following spring, the Mississippi River repeatedly overflowed its banks, inundating roughly 27,000 square miles of land (as much as 30 feet deep) from Illinois to southern Louisiana. In one 18-hour period, beginning on the night of April 15, New Orleans alone received 15 inches of rain. Up to 630,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were directly impacted by the flooding. That so many of the displaced were poor African-Americans struggling to live in a staunchly segregated society didn’t go unnoticed.

The “Great Flood of 1927” sparked a massive migration northward towards cities such as Chicago and Detroit among disenfranchised Blacks. It also sparked the U.S. Congress to enact the Jadwin Plan, named for General Edwin Jadwin, then head of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, to set standards for levee construction and maintenance. The development of a stronger and more intricate levee system prompted New Orleans to expand northward towards Lake Pontchartrain, one of the largest lakes in the U.S., but one that is basically an extension of the Gulf of México. Engineers dredged out swampland to create open spaces for homes and other buildings; certain those levees would protect everyone from a repeat of the 1927 flood.

Much of that certainty was tested, when Hurricane Betsy rolled over southeastern Louisiana in 1965. Betsy cost $1.425 billion in damage – the first billion-dollar storm in the U.S. – but killed only 76 people.

When I started working for an engineering company in November of 2002, one of my constituents was a young woman from New Orleans. While she was too young to remember the storm, her parents and grandparents had vividly painful memories of it. They often spoke as if it was a person who had terrorized their lives. “Betsy took this and Betsy took that,” my colleague said, mimicking one of her grandmothers, explaining why they had so few family photos and other personal effects that people gather over the years.

It took a while for New Orleans to recover. Many of the levees had failed, and some residents – no longer assured of their safety – moved out. The city’s population continued dropping and stood at just under 800,000 when Katrina struck. More importantly, the bulk of New Orleans’ citizens lived on some type of government assistance. That fact alone put so many people in jeopardy. With so few financial resources, they couldn’t afford to own vehicles, much less rent one or buy a plane ticket to flee the city ahead of Katrina. Struggling to make it from one day to another occupies a person’s time and energy. They don’t often make room in their minds for levees.

In 2003, the State of Louisiana launched a year-long endeavor to review the stability of those levees. Called the “Hurricane Pam” Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project, its goal was “to develop a functional, scenario-based exercise that would drive the writing of Incident Action Plans for catastrophic hurricane response.” The engineers convinced themselves, and subsequently New Orleans city officials, that the levee system would hold up from a Category 3 storm, “Pam.” But incident action plans were about the only solid results of the exercise. Things always look so good on paper anyway.

Then Katrina arrived. And everything changed.

Two of my acquaintances lived in New Orleans a decade ago and ended up in Dallas because of Katrina. One, James*, fled the city before the storm hit; the other, Max*, barely survived it. James took heed of the storm warnings. He got a sick feeling about it. On the evening of Sunday, August 28, he made the gut-wrenching decision to gather his two small dogs, pack what he could into his car and get the hell out of there. No one wants to leave their home, even in the face of a pending disaster. Home is where we’re supposed to feel safe. But James told me that nauseating sensation, deep in his gut, ordered him to leave. He felt somewhat vulnerable, in part because he was alone and had his dogs with him, but also because he suffers from night blindness. Heading west on I-10, he arrived in Calcasieu Parish later that evening and stopped for the night. He was physically tired, he told me, but also emotionally tired. He worried about family and friends and wondered if he’d be able to return to his house. The next morning, as Katrina made landfall, James took off for Houston, where friends said he could stay until the worst had passed. The worst took much longer to pass away than anyone expected. He later traveled to Dallas where he stayed with other friends. By the time he got back to New Orleans, he found a city in ruins and his house unlivable. It took a while to get things together, but James eventually made Dallas his home.

Max knew he should probably leave, as well. Like so many New Orleans residents, he waffled about his decision. He’d lived through storms of various magnitudes before. Yes, there was flooding and, yes, there was wind damage. But they always recovered. Some friends in Dallas had called and offered their place as a refuge. Late on August 28 he decided to take off. With only a half a tank of gas in his compact car, though, he didn’t know how far he could get; certainly all the way to Dallas. He drove around, looking for a gas station, but every one of them was closed. He returned to his one-bedroom, ground-level apartment and opted to wait it out. Early on Monday morning, though, he worried that he wasn’t safe there. So, with some important belongs and a few bottles of water stuffed into a duffel bag, he drove through torrential rains and bruising winds to the New Orleans Superdome; the place where Mayor Ray Nagin and others said people would be safe and secure. Built atop a series of old railroad tracks, the dome was also on stable ground. But, by the time Max got to the Superdome, police were turning people away; the dome had reached its capacity. Late arrivals were redirected to the city’s convention center. Max got as close as he could to the latter building and parked his car on a street that was already flooding. With his duffel bag in tow, he sloshed through the water and made it inside the convention center. He shoved himself into a corner and, along with thousands of others, waited as Katrina raged overhead.

“New Orleans is one of those cities you really have to love in order to live there,” Max told me. And, he really loved it. This quirky jewel of the Deep South is unlike any other place. It calls out to equally colorful characters like Max. Thus, lumbering around the convention center that Monday afternoon and in the following days, Max wondered how his cherished city would recuperate from this mess. Like everyone else trapped there, he didn’t realize just how bad Katrina had torn into the city, until days later.

Max managed to make it out of the building, determined to leave the area any way he could. He was certain his car was gone and his apartment was flooded. He also looked across the vast see of desperate people and realized that, if no one was going to save the children and the elderly from that mess, they certainly weren’t going to save him. Young and middle-aged men are expected to sacrifice their time and their lives for everyone else. But, should they need help, they are viewed instead as worthless moochers. So, Max turned westward and started walking. He visually took in the devastation with each step and, at one point, came across the body of a dead man. Recounting the story to me and several others at a Dallas bar one night several years ago generated the usual response of horror.

Then, one little gal asked, “Didn’t you do anything?!”

Max looked at her, surely wanting to smack her upside the head, and quietly replied, “Yea.”

That’s a hell of a think-on-your-feet question. Quick! You see a dead body on the street in a post-apocalyptic world. What do you do?

  1. Keep walking and pretend you didn’t see anything.
  2. Stop to say a prayer.
  3. Rifle through the person’s pockets.
  4. Look around for embalming fluid and some flowers.
  5. All of the above.

Max chose option a. He just walked. And walked. And walked. And walked…until he ended up outside the city and at a truck stop. He dragged his tired, sweat-soaked body into the diner; still dragging that duffel bag behind him. Sitting at the counter, he struck up a conversation with a truck driver who was headed to Houston. The trucker offered to take Max there where he could then rent a car and head to his friends’ place in Dallas. Max accepted and wondered for a moment, if he’d just entered the lair of a psycho-sexual serial killer. But the driver turned out to be friendly and, as promised, dropped Max off in Houston. By the time he was able to return to New Orleans, he knew his car was gone and his apartment was wrecked. He just had that duffel bag. Like James, he decided to make Dallas his new home.

The effects of Katrina aren’t short-lived. Asking people why they don’t just leave in the face of such pending disaster is easy. Look around your own home at the myriad items you’ve collected over the years. What would you take, if you had to leave? Imagine if you were elderly or infirm. How would you get away?

Social and political conservatives chided their liberal counterparts for denouncing the lackluster response of President George W. Bush; saying, for example, during the 2008 presidential race, that hopefully the next president would be able to stop a hurricane the way Bush couldn’t. Stopping Katrina was never a thought. I don’t know anyone who said that. Responding to the storm was the key issue. Liberals, however, seemed to think everything lay on the shoulders of the federal government.

FEMA was supposed to have all sorts of action plans in place ahead of such calamities. Created in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter specifically to respond to various types of emergencies, FEMA ended up under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003; a government agency created solely in response to the 09/11 terrorist attacks. Under the direction of Michael Brown – whose disaster management experience included heading an Arabian horse club in California – FEMA’s definition took on a new meaning: Fix Everything My Ass!

Katrina couldn’t have hit a city more vulnerable than New Orleans or occur under a presidential administration more incompetent than Bush. Plenty of folks condemned Bush’s response. He watched the storm’s aftermath from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, before heading to Las Vegas for a speech before the local Republican Party. He later claimed he wanted desperately to visit New Orleans immediately after the storm hit, but the Secret Service didn’t feel it was safe. Besides, there was no place to land Air Force One. Louis Armstrong Airport was flooded.

In reality, just about everyone in charge screwed up. Nagin, for one, didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – who apparently was genuinely more concerned about Katrina than Nagin – still didn’t order National Guard troops into New Orleans until September 1. The only people who reacted timely and positively to the storm were the U.S. Coast Guard. They were in New Orleans, almost as soon as the storm passed, on tattered rooftops and in the filthy floodwaters; literally rescuing thousands of people. They just couldn’t reach them all.

Just as things started to develop some semblance of normalcy, another Category 5 hurricane, Rita, entered the Gulf and struck Louisiana; this time on the western edge, along the border with Texas. Often called the “Forgotten Storm,” Rita was actually the fourth most intense tropical storm in the recorded history of the Atlantic / Caribbean region. It made official landfall shortly before midnight on September 23 as a Category 3 storm. It triggered one of the largest coastal evacuations in U.S. history. It had set its sights on Texas, particularly the Galveston – Houston area. But, at the last minute, a massive air system swept down across Texas and shoved it back out into open water. Rita generated significant storm surges along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama. For the first time in anyone’s memory, one state was ravaged by two monster storms in the same season.

That year, 2005, turned out to be the single busiest hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean basin, with a total of 27 hurricanes and tropical storm systems, plus one unnamed sub-tropical system. The list of names was exhausted for the first time since meteorologists began naming them in 1953 and had to continue with the Greek-letter system. The last official name on the list, Wilma, turned out to be another Category 5 hurricane and was actually the most powerful in terms of millibars, 882, ever recorded in the region. No one had ever seen anything like it before…or since.

As part of my job with the engineering firm and the contract with the government agency, I volunteered to work in New Orleans. Two of my colleagues had been in the area almost as soon as the storm passed, along with scores of other contractors and government employees. In fact, my constituents were desperately trying to make it back to Texas on the night of September 23, as Rita lurked offshore. Together Katrina and Rita created one of the worst ecological and environmental catastrophes the U.S. has ever endured. Aside from inundating a large city with toxic floodwaters, Katrina alone devastated the Mississippi River Delta, already made fragile by rapid development and oil and gas exploration. Much of the boggy coastal areas had been depleted; material that acts as a natural impediment to powerful storm surges, which is actually the deadliest feature of any tropical storm system. Katrina uprooted millions of trees and other forms of vegetation.

Because of the heavy flooding in New Orleans, sewage and water treatment plants stopped functioning; thus millions of gallons of lethal waste were released. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quickly warned people in the city not to touch the floodwaters. The EPA had some of its people in the area the day after the storm hit, wrapped up in hazmat suits, gathering soil and water samples. They reported that, even with face masks, they could smell the toxins. Once the floodwaters receded, those elements didn’t just dissipate; they settled into the soil where even mild winds could hurtle them into people’s noses.

I arrived at Armstrong Airport on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving 2005. I had taken the place of one of my colleagues, David*, a native of north-central Louisiana. He and the onsite supervisor, Sarah*, had been holed up in a seedy motel in a small town on the northwestern rim of Lake Pontchartrain for a while. Sarah was able to move into a much nicer hotel in Metairie, where the airport is located. David had paid ahead for several days at the seedy joint, so that’s where I ended up initially. There were only 3 good things about the place: a waffle house, a steak restaurant and a drive-through daiquiri shack. After a couple of weeks, I was able to move into the same hotel as Sarah.

The environmental impact of Katrina – and, to a lesser extent, Rita – wasn’t lost on anyone. In advance of my trip, I underwent a series of shots, including for hepatitis B. At our work location in Metairie, an on-site health clinic was always busy. People complained constantly about sore throats and itchy eyes. Later, in cataloguing various health reports, I spotted some alarming conditions. At one point, even I developed something unexpected: gonorrhea-like symptoms. I wondered if I’d had another alcoholic blackout shortly before my trip, but that wasn’t the case. After arriving home for Christmas, I managed to make an appointment with a clinic that found…nothing. It may have been just a brief urinary tract infection; something I found out in the following months affected several people living and working in the area.

Our company’s liaison to the government agency, Doyle*, was New Orleans native. A hulkish figure of a man with a far-right political bent, he had willingly returned to the city of his birth to oversee the contractors. He took some time out to visit a local cemetery where some of his relatives were interred. Several years ago the city of New Orleans outlawed subterranean burials because of the swampy ground. All of Doyle’s deceased relatives, however, were buried in above-ground crypts. Arriving at the cemetery in hip-wader boots, he recounted one afternoon, he had to step over the remains of disinterred residents. It was only then, he said, the full horror of the storm became real to him. “Even the dead were trying to get the hell out of there!” he said.

I looked around at the various people I saw and encountered and wondered how they managed to survive Katrina. What stories did they have to tell? Doyle had his. So did James and Max. Millions of people were directly affected by Katrina, as any natural disaster tends to do. And there are millions of tales of heartbreak and survival to go along with every one of those individuals.

Someone told me a while back that we shouldn’t reflect too much on what went wrong with Katrina.

“But we need to remember those things,” I replied. “Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistakes again.”

New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast has recovered from Katrina; recovered as best as possible. How are you supposed to move on from something like that? What incident action plan is there for such dramatic events in one’s life? There are no written guidelines. But there’s something called “a will to live.” Max demonstrated that by setting out on foot; determined to save himself – or die trying. People up and down the Gulf Coast have embodied that same spirit, as they rebuilt homes and jump-started their lives. That’s just what people do. It’s how we’re wired.

It’s how humanity has survived for millennia. Plenty of people just gave up, but thousands more did everything within their power to survive and move forward. It’s just in most of us. Another monster storm will hit New Orleans in the future and do the same thing, if not worst. Tropical storm systems have been ravaging the coastlines of the world, long before humans thought of building summer beach homes and towering condominiums. They’re not going to stop because we want to windsurf or take pictures. We all just have to live with that, as we have to live with all of Earth’s natural forces. Somehow, somewhere, people will survive.

*Names changed.



Filed under Essays



The above photo is from fellow blogger Penny Howe who sat on a bench overlooking the Columbia River, near her home, during this past spring’s winter snow melt.  I shared it with several friends who expressed concern for Penny’s mental health.  I assured them she’s a writer like me, so they immediately understood.

But, the picture made me think of the real threat soil erosion poses to major urban areas located near large bodies of water.  It’s a genuine concern with climate change and rising sea levels.  Half of the world’s population – roughly 3 billion people – lives in urban areas; a sharp rise from 13% in 1900.  At the start of the 20th century, only 12 cities across the globe had populations of 1 million or more; now there are 336.  More alarmingly has been the rise of “mega-cities,” urban areas with populations of at least 10 million.  In 1950, New York was the only city in the world with that distinction; now, there are a total of 17 such metropolitan areas.  Those people have to live and work somewhere, and that has increasingly come to mean larger edifices – gargantuan structures of concrete, steel and glass.  All of those individuals and all of those buildings weigh several tons, which – along with food and water consumption – has an impact on the overall environment.

People will probably be debating the pros and cons of global warming until…well, until they drown.  But, here in alphabetical order, is an informal list of some of the world’s fastest sinking cities.

Amsterdam – The Dutch capital is also the Netherlands’ largest city with about 820,654 people crammed into 84.56 square miles (219 km²); the greater metropolitan area has over 2.3 million residents.  More importantly, Amsterdam is at constant threat from the water that surrounds it on 3 sides.  In February of 1953, a series of calamitous floods from the North Sea killed over 1,800 people in the Netherlands alone and prompted Dutch engineers to rethink defenses for all of the nation’s cities.  A large series of dikes and canals mostly keep the waters under control, but Amsterdam – built on sand and clay – is still sinking at roughly .078 inches (2 mm) per year.

Winter floods in 1953 forced the Dutch to re-think their urban defenses.

Winter floods in 1953 forced the Dutch to re-think their urban defenses.

Bangkok – The capital of Thailand boasts a population of some 8.281 million people, crowded into 606 square miles (1,569 km²), with over 14 million living in the general metropolitan area.  Located on the Chao Phraya River delta, Bangkok has experienced a major economic boom in recent years.  Like Amsterdam, Bangkok residents used intricate waterways to navigate the city for centuries.  But, constructed on soft marine material known as Bangkok clay, the growing metropolis is sinking some 4.7 inches (120 mm) annually.  Some engineers have warned about the dilemma for decades; mainly due, of course, to soil erosion and groundwater removal.  Only recently, however, has Thailand undertaken measures  to protect Bangkok by building dykes and retrofitting flood gates.  But, for a city considered a “climate change hot spot,” that may not be enough.

Houston – The fourth largest city in the United States has some 3 million residents in its 627 square miles (1,625 km²) and practically sits right on the Gulf of México.  In June of 2001, Tropical Storm Allison devastated parts of the Texas Gulf Coast, but Houston experienced the worst flooding.  Allison dropped 6 – 10 inches (152 – 254 mm) of rain in less than 5 hours.  That made Houstonians realize how vulnerable they are to nature’s elements.  But, in 2010, University of Houston geologist Shuhab Khan announced that much of Houston (and overall Harris County) is sinking at approximately 2 inches per year.  Like so many other coastal cities, Houston continues to build and drain groundwater to accommodate the expansion.

Jakarta – Located on the northwest corner of the island of Java, Indonesia’s capital has nearly 11 million people residing in 285.8 square miles (740.3 km²) and over 28 million inhabitants in the greater area known as Jabodetabek.  About 40% of Jakarta’s land area sits at or below sea level.  A 2010 report by the Bandung Institute of Technology noted that Jakarta is sinking at a rate of 3 – 4 inches (10 – 12 cm) per year; most of it due to the usual culprits: groundwater extraction and rapid infrastructure development.  But, they act in concert with soil compaction and plate tectonics.  A massive 9.1 earthquake off the coast of nearby Sumatra in December 2004 proved that seismic activity makes the entire Indian Ocean region vulnerable.  Analyses done from 1974 to 2010 show that large portions of Jakarta sank anywhere from 9 – 27 inches (25 and 70 cm).  A massive seawall built to prevent the Java Sea from inundating the city is also sinking.  The Indonesian Forum for Environment has gone so far to claim that Jakarta will sink completely into the Indian Ocean by 2030, if construction and groundwater extraction aren’t limited.

Flooding earlier this year almost paralyzed Jakarta.

Flooding earlier this year almost paralyzed Jakarta.

London – As the provincial capital of the United Kingdom and the official capital of England, London is unique its dual role.  And, contrary to popular American mythology, not everyone in England lives here – even with 8.174 million residents in its 607 square miles (1,572 km²).  People have lived in the area for millennia, but the Roman Empire began building the former Londinium at the mouth of the Thames River in the first century A.D.; thus, making it one of the oldest continuously-occupied cities in Europe.  In 2002, however, satellite photos showed that London had sunk about 2 cm between 1996 and 2001.  Recent observations have noted that the legendary “Big Ben” at Britain’s Palace of Westminster is tilting at a somewhat precarious angle and that the entire parliamentary structure is gradually sliding towards the Thames.  The growing subsidence may be due partly to development of the “Jubilee Line Extension” and the new “London Power Tunnels;” all constructed to meet the demands of a growing population.  But, much of London’s descent could be traced to Britain’s overall recovery from the last Great Ice Age, when a massive ice sheet blanketed most of the island and depressed the entire land area downward.  With the retreat of the ice, Britain is showing signs of a colossal rebound: Scotland is actually rising, while Wales and eastern England are technically sinking.  Still, with a series of walls, dykes and the “Thames Barrier” – the world’s second-largest movable flood barrier – London hopes at least to delay any pending deluge.

México City – The Mexican capital is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere – in both population and land area – with some 8.851 million residents in 573 square miles (1,485km²) and roughly 21.2 million people in the overall metropolitan area of 761,601 square miles.  It’s the only city on this list not located by an ocean or a sea, but its continuing subsidence is very real.  Both can be attributed to the ancient Aztecs who began building Tenochtitlan, the center of their vast empire, nearly 1,000 years ago on a marshy island amidst 5 lakes that formed the base of the Valley of México.  They dredged water to create an extensive series of canals and bridges, as the city grew.  Spanish explorers were awed by the sight of it upon their arrival in 1519; at the time, Tenochtitlan had about 200,000 residents, larger than any city in Europe.  After gaining control of the region, the Spaniards merely continued the expansion.  Today, a small portion of one of those bodies of water, Lake Texcoco, remains.  But, this giant metropolis, which was plunging at an astonishing 19 inches annually in the middle of the 20th century, is still sinking 2 inches per year into the soft bedrock.  Many streets have sharp drop-offs from their sidewalks, while water and electricity lines are in constant danger of snapping or bursting.

An artist’s conception of what Tenochtitlan may have looked like when Spanish explorers arrived.

An artist’s conception of what Tenochtitlan may have looked like when Spanish explorers arrived.

New Orleans – Like Amsterdam, New Orleans is surrounded by water on 3 sides: Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the west and south.  With about 343,800 people in 350.2 square miles (907 km²), it also has the dubious distinction of being the fastest-sinking city in the U.S. – roughly 1 inch (2.5 cm) per year.  In fact, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, scientists took a closer look at New Orleans’ geological state and realized it was sinking into the Gulf of México much faster than previously thought.  That may explain why the city’s complex levee system failed during Katrina and allowed some 80% of it to be flooded.  As of 2006, scientists estimate, some of those levees had sunk up to 3 feet in the previous 40 years.

New York City – Composed of 5 individual, self-governing boroughs, New York City has about 8.245 million people in a total land area of 468 square miles (1,213 km²); altogether, about 19.3 million people reside in the New York metropolitan area.  Last year’s Hurricane Sandy made all New Englanders realize the extent of their vulnerability to nature’s wrath; even toughened New Yorkers trembled.  Sandy flooded parts of 4 of the city’s boroughs, but scientists have noted for years that densely-packed Manhattan Island, in particular, is slowly sinking into the Atlantic.

Shanghai – Founded around A.D. 1291, the most-populous city in the world boasts some 23.47 million residents.  Located on the Yangtze River, Shanghai (which means “Above the Sea”) is sinking as much as 4 inches (101 mm) per year.  Groundwater extraction has added to the problem, but so has the city’s rapid infrastructure growth.  One report by the Shanghai Geological Research Institute claims that the physical weight of the city’s skyscrapers account for as much as 30% of Shanghai’s subsidence.  In response, city officials have begun pumping roughly 60,000 tons of water per year back into wells; built hundreds of levees along the Yangtze; and are planning an emergency floodgate on the river’s estuary.

Venice – One of the oldest and most ornate cities in the world, Venice long ago ceded its fate to the sea; they’re just partying in advance of the grand finale.  Some 264,000 people live in its 160.1 square miles (414.6 km²), which scientists believe is dropping between .04 and .08 inches (1 – 2 mm) annually – more than previously thought.  Built against the Adriatic Sea, Venice is actually a cluster of islands that has always had a classic love / hate relationship with the water.  Moreover, it’s tilting to the south at .12 – .16 inches (3 – 4 mm) per year.  In just under the past 300 years, scientists believe Venice has dropped 2 feet (60 cm).  That may not seem like much, but Venetians are experiencing more floods – about 4 or 5 times a year.  Canals and bridges are part of the city’s landscapes, along with floodgates designed to close when high tides reach a level of 43.30 inches (110 cm).  Street lamps linked to flood gauges automatically shine brighter as the water begins to rise; thus warning pedestrians to seek higher ground – or at least jump into a boat.

While sunken cities feel like the products of wild imaginations, recent advances in submarine archeology have proven the existence of submerged metropolises across the globe.  Take Helike, for example, an ancient Greek port city that once thrived on the southwestern shores of the Gulf of Corinth.  For centuries, its existence and demise were dismissed as purely mythical.  But, in 2001, scientists found remnants of Helike buried further inland and have since confirmed that a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the region in 373 B.C.; subsequently leading to the city’s destruction.  It’s possible the catastrophe spawned the legend of Atlantis.  Karen Mutton’s “Sunken Realms” provides an extensive and fascinating list of many other submerged cities, along with theories of what may have happened to them.

Nothing lasts forever – certainly nothing made by humans.  Quakes and tsunamis may have once posed the greatest threat to archaic urban areas.  But, in our infinite arrogance and bloated self-assurance, modern people don’t realize how little control we often have over our own fates.

Proven true – Helike really did exist.

Proven true – Helike really did exist.


Filed under Essays

Broken Windows, Broken Cars, Broken Lives

A few years ago a friend and then-colleague of mine arrived at work bemoaning the sudden loss of his car – a 1980’s-era Oldsmobile Cutlass with sagging interior roof, no handles for the rear windows and skull caps atop the locks.  The city of Dallas had confiscated it from the spot in front of the townhome he shared with his fiancée, he said; blaming the local homeowners association.  He made it sound as if some unfriendly curmudgeon in the neighborhood had called the city, and the dilapidated jalopy was gone the next day.  It wasn’t that simple, though, and after much prodding, I finally got the entire story out of him.  He was returning home from work one afternoon, when – as he made a left turn just blocks from home – the steering column suddenly came loose.  Not just the steering wheel – the entire steering column!  It literally popped out and fell into his lap.  He managed to slow the vehicle and arrive safely against a curb, before pushing it all the way to the spot in front of the townhome where he normally parked it – and leaving it there.  A few days later the city placed a glaring bright orange sticker on the driver’s window warning that the car needed to be moved, or risk being towed – the kind of sticker a vehicle owner shouldn’t miss, both because of its vibrant color and its proximity to where you enter the car.  A few days after that, it vanished.  He decided not to pay a fine to pick it up from the city impound lot; instead driving way the hell out to South Dallas to retrieve the items in the car’s trunk, which he said collectively were more valuable than the vehicle itself.  But, he kept blaming the homeowners association.  Now, I agree that HOA’s are one of those most evil entities humanity has ever created, right up there with the IRS and Congress.  But, in this case – as much as it may have hurt my hard-headed good friend – I had to agree with the HOA.  That car needed to go.  The dirt and the skull-shaped lock tops were the only things holding it together.

On March 2, 2012, James Q. Wilson, a well-respected Harvard social scientist, passed away at age 80.  Wilson is best known for his “broken windows” theory about crime and the communities in which it festers.  In his seminal 1985 essay, “The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy,” Wilson proposed that broken windows in any given neighborhood – if left unrepaired – are an indicator of that area’s social ills and portend its subsequent collapse into economic despair and criminal behavior.  In other words, if no one cares that homes and buildings have broken windows, then who cares if trash clogs the streets?  Who cares if cars lie abandoned on front lawns?  Who then would be left to care if drugs are being sold on the corner?  Who would stop prostitutes roaming the streets and parks?  Who would care if someone gets robbed in broad daylight?  It’s a domino-type of ideology; seemingly simplistic with its catchy moniker – broken windows – but much more complex than most people, regardless of political or social ideology, can imagine.  And, even more difficult to solve.

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson

Wilson didn’t pretend to have neatly-crafted hypotheses for all of society’s troubles.  The “broken windows” theory wasn’t a panacea for whatever quandaries plague a particular neighborhood.  But, I find it perfectly logical, since I’ve experienced it firsthand.  In the early 1990’s, I moved into a relatively small, but comfortable apartment complex in far North Dallas.  It was nice, quiet and nondescript.  People were pleasant, and not much out of the ordinary happened.  But, by the end of the decade, I’d noticed the quality of life had begun to decline.  People were getting into more arguments on the property’s grounds.  More cars were getting towed.  Empty beer bottles and other trash were being tossed into the bed of my truck.  By 2003, when I finally moved, things had gotten worst.

It actually seemed to begin late one Sunday evening in January 1999, when a man in a neighboring apartment started terrorizing two women and a young girl.  The shouting and screaming continued for hours into the following Monday morning.  The man got one of the women onto the icy ground of the parking lot just outside my bedroom window.  What I thought at first were gun shots were actually the sound of his hand hitting her face and head. I called 911. The police arrived quickly and arrested the man; something I hadn’t seen yet at the complex.  The event terrified me and other residents.  But, I didn’t know then that it was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

During Memorial Day weekend 2002, people crowded around the pool for a mass cookout; lots of people – loud and boisterous – with music, footballs, dogs, plenty of food and plenty of alcohol.  When I strolled by the area the following Tuesday evening, I was stunned by the sight of the debris.  Beer cans, wine cooler bottles and other refuse lay strewn about the grass; jutting out from the bushes and floating in the pool, which looked like a septic tank on a bad day.  On another occasion, I saw an auburn wig on the same area.  The next day it had been dragged closer to the pool.  I told people at work I’d figured out it wasn’t a long-lost set of dreadlocks; it was a rare red squid trying to find its way back to the ocean.  During one week that following August, police were on scene every single night.  I mean, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT of the week; something I definitely hadn’t seen before.  By then, I had a roommate to help me with living expenses; we resided in a 2-bedroom unit.  A young couple lived above us and, almost every morning – in the pre-dawn hours – they’d suddenly and inexplicably explode into a vociferous series of arguments.  When I heard a baby crying on one occasion, I called 911.  The operator had the audacity to ask if I’d tried to find out what was happening.

“Are you kidding me?!” I retorted.  “Never mind!  I’ll just go up there with a two-by-four and crack it over the head of the first person who answer the door.”  I hung up – and waited.  She called back a few seconds later and said she’d dispatch an officer to the scene.  When police finally did arrive, the couple was still arguing so loudly it was a while before they opened their front door.

I relayed the story months later to my supervisor, and he chastised me for calling the police over such a “trivial issue.”  He added, “You can’t call the police for that.  They don’t have time for that.”

I reminded him there was a baby in the apartment and – with the couple screaming at each other so badly – that child could have been in danger.  He conceded I was right.  Besides, I emphasized, domestic violence is a serious offense, and if someone doesn’t make an effort to get involved and stop it, then somebody could end up hurt or worst, dead.  There’s a fine line between minding your own business and not getting involved simply because you don’t want to be labeled a snitch or a troublemaker.  I lived in that complex and had come to hate it solely because of the low-class people who apparently had taken it over.

But, while I still lived there, though, I felt an obligation to keep it as orderly as possible.  I didn’t let my roommate’s puppy crap wherever he wanted and just walk away; telling myself someone else would pick it up – like the trash by the pool or that set of dreadlocks.  I cleaned up a broken mirror in the middle of the parking lot one afternoon.  I noticed blood stains outside another apartment and informed the manager.  Very early one morning a young man hurtled a curio cabinet from his third floor balcony onto the sidewalk below.  The wood scraping against the balcony surface woke me up, before the sound of it slamming into the pavement sent me and my roommate’s puppy into the ceiling of my bedroom.  I looked out my window at the mess and lay back down.  No, I thought, I can’t just do that; someone could be hurt in that apartment; there could be more trouble.  So, I dialed 911.  The police knocked on that apartment door, but got no response.  I called the management office the next morning to report it.  The assistant manager told me several people had already called her, but no one had reacted like me – contacted the police.  No one else seemed to care.  No one else wanted to get involved.  I kept thinking I’d just overreacted; that it was probably a lovers’ quarrel.  She had walked out on him, saying she’d return for her things later.  And, he decided to get back at her after a night of drinking; taking it out on inanimate objects.  He could have taken it out on her, and I guess that’s what I’d thought might have happened.  Why did I care so much?  Why didn’t I just mind my own business and not worry about it?  It wasn’t my stuff he was tossing off the balcony.

Wilson understood that a person’s innate character reveals how they will function within their given society.  “At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”

Wilson wasn’t a self-righteous academic elitist; judgmental and prejudicial towards entire groups of people.  He was speaking about the core of human decency – character.  And, while he formulated his “broken windows” theory during the 1970’s (the “Me Decade”), he noted that character is formed in groups.  In his 1993 masterpiece, “The Moral Sense,” he wrote, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

While Washington focuses on such failed states as Somalia, we Americans only have to look at a handful of cities here at home to see how order has crumbled and given way to treacherous lifestyles.  Take DetroitEminem may love it, but many of its former residents felt the opposite and took flight.  At one point, Detroit was the 4th largest city in the United States with a peak population close to 5 million by the 1960’s.  It was the hub of the automotive industry and a vibrant economic metropolis.  But, by the end of the 20th century, it had fallen into almost complete disarray.  Buildings and homes sit empty – with broken windows and junked cars.  A Time photo essay reveals the true sadness in a way only pictures can.  City officials were so concerned about the Census Bureau’s 2010 revelation that Detroit’s population had declined to 714,000 that they brazenly questioned the authenticity of the government’s research methods.  It’s perhaps a predictable response from a city hall that’s lost control of its environs; a classic case of denial.  But, that sense of disconnect is what made many Detroit natives show their disgust by voting with their feet.  If the city council didn’t care, why should they?

New Orleans is another example of a city in a seemingly perpetual state of crisis.  Many people blame Hurricane Katrina with delivering a near-fatal death blow to the “Crescent City.”  Others, however, actually credit the massive storm with exposing the poverty, racism and political corruption that had long infected New Orleans.  This latter view is closer to reality, as one of America’s most beloved cities had been in a downward spiral long before Katrina even formed in the Atlantic.  Like Detroit, New Orleans once was a gleaming metropolitan area; a major shipping port with an ethnically diverse citizenry that enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle.  Its population had peaked at roughly 900,000 by 1960 and began to see a gradual decrease in the ensuing decades.  By the time Katrina struck in August of 2005, New Orleans was home to a little more than 400,000 residents; about three-fourths of whom lived on some type of government assistance.  Much of the petroleum industry that had made New Orleans into a thriving industrial center had shifted westward; outside of the city and sometimes, outside of Louisiana.  Thus, went the lucrative jobs that oil and petroleum corporations provide, and New Orleans began to rely more and more on its myriad tourist attractions to generate revenue.  Many of its residents subsisted on various temporary jobs that frequently paid in cash; often moving about via mass transportation, or on foot.  Thus, when Katrina arrived, a number of them just didn’t have the money to buy a plane or bus ticket or to rent a car.  They had literally become trapped in a city that had already trapped them economically.

As with any place on the verge of moral and financial collapse, the problem doesn’t just lie with a discombobulated city hall.  It includes local law enforcement.  And, the New Orleans police department had one of the worst reputations for corruption in the United States; harboring a shameful record for police brutality.  Throughout the 1990’s, the NOPD’s Internal Affairs Division received numerous complaints of officers roughing up citizens, often without sufficient cause.  Many of those complaints were never addressed, much less resolved.  The corruption was systemic.  It permeated nearly every phase of operations and encompassed officers at all levels – from rookie patrolmen to high-ranking deputy superintendents.  Between 1992 and 1995, for example, roughly 60 NOPD officers were charged in a wide variety of crimes.  Part of the problem lay with salaries: New Orleans’ police officers at that time were woefully underpaid.  In the 1990’s, starting salaries for patrolmen were only slightly above $15,000 a year at a time when the annual salary for the average American was about $35,000.  Even veteran officers were barely making above $25,000 annually.  Most New Orleans cops had to moonlight at second jobs known as “details” to keep up with living expenses.  At one point, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the NOPD force had second jobs.  The temptation to delve into illegal and more lucrative enterprises was too good for some to pass up.  The “Big Easy” had warped into the “Big Sleazy.”

For years scientists had warned that New Orleans was in danger of serious flooding from a major hurricane.  Surrounded by water on three sides, it’s the only city in North America with the bulk of its geographical area at or below sea level.  It’s also one of the fastest sinking cities in the world, dropping about a quarter of an inch per year.  In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted a disaster simulation in which a fictional hurricane named “Pam” struck New Orleans with 120 mph winds and 20 inches of rain.  The final report questioned whether the multitude of levees around the city would hold, but estimated that up to a million residents in and around the New Orleans area could be safely evacuated.  FEMA established guidelines for moving even the most vulnerable of residents out of harm’s way and setting up shelters where people could remain for up to 4 months.  The city itself even created a plan to move out citizens using school buses.  Everything, of course, always looks good on paper.

Many blame the federal government’s lackluster response to Katrina, but local municipalities aren’t above reproach.  Then New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28 – the day before Katrina made landfall.  City officials told residents they could seek shelter at either the Superdome or convention center, if they chose to remain close to home.  Both Texas and Arkansas stationed National Guard troops at their respective borders with Louisiana, waiting for a call from Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.  But, Blanco didn’t place those calls until nearly a week after the storm.  By then, New Orleans and almost all of Southeastern Louisiana had descended into unmanageable chaos.  When stranded residents finally were evacuated, they didn’t just disappear, of course; they moved to other cities, like Baton Rouge, Houston and Dallas.  And, many brought with them the same disenfranchised attitudes they had in New Orleans.  Hurricane evacuees, for example, were still living in the Houston Astrodome 6 months after Katrina hit.

This points back to the character issue – or lack of it – that Wilson lamented in his “broken windows” theory.  There is a danger, however, that blaming the people for not caring about their community can transmute into blaming the poor for their circumstances.  It’s one thing a lot of social conservatives do; if people have no incentive to work because of public assistance, they say, those individuals become riddled with sloth and don’t contribute to society.  They expect someone else to work and pick up after them; clean up their trash, sweep up their discarded wigs, tow away their broken down cars.  Wilson didn’t condemn people for being born into and growing up in abject poverty.  But, he understood that – while you can’t speak for those conditions – you are ultimately responsible for yourself.  You can only play the victim so much before people get tired of it and develop compassion fatigue.  America grew weary of hearing about Detroit’s woes and they got sick of hearing about the devastation Katrina wrought.  Enough already!  Don’t just complain.  Do something about it.

Wilson emphasized education as one avenue to equalize the economic playing fields and thereby prevent societal decay.  “Nothing better illustrates the changes in how we think about policy than the problem of finding ways to improve educational attainment and student conduct in schools,” Wilson stated in “The Rediscovery of Character.”  The U.S. spends roughly $800 billion annually on education, or about 4% of its budget.  Even with all the money spent in the past decade on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, taxpayer investment in education exceeds that for national defense.  Still, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in reading, math and science; 48th out of 133 countries, according to the World Economic Forum.

In 2009, more than half of patents awarded here went to companies outside the United States.  In American graduate schools, nearly half of the students are foreigners who often choose to return to their homelands after completing their education.  While academics push for i funding, you only have to consider former presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s “snob” comment about President Obama and the current debate in Congress on mitigating student loan debt to understand how politics can disrupts the educational process in this country.

No one may lament James Q. Wilson’s death the way they did, say Michael Jackson’s, or someone else with a more colorful personality.  Our society doesn’t seem to mind losing intellectuals, just the celebrities who entertain us and cause trouble doing it.  That’s a shame.  We need more folks like Wilson.  We need more people with character.  We need more people who care.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays