August 29, 2005

I walked home, through a soft misty wet that clung not coldly and not warmly to my face and my hands. A light, sporadic breeze kept it from becoming clammy. The unrelenting heat of this summer had finally broken, if not yet completely the mild drought. A dying moon had only just risen, ghostly visible through the thinning clouds. The light talk on the bus ride had been of sewer taxes, and the likely local consequences of rising oil prices, and the continued viability of the Hummer dealership a kilometre from my home; but now I walked alone, even the late summer teenagers having already decided upon someone's house at which to spend what was left of the night.

Perhaps once a week now are days during which I exist almost solely on the Internet: research, read, absorb, write. A very odd feeling, that: there is no point in my life where I feel disconnected, yet during the research days I feel connected: the world an intricate tapestry, the movement of a single thread touches its twitch to my fingertips. I go through massive reams of current events stories and wherever the tangents may lead me during these days. It had been an intense day, of the kind of catch-up where much work is accomplished and almost nothing to be seen for it. For all that I think I did accomplished something of value, there existed almost nothing I could point to and say: I did that. Some tasks are like that: a reason I start laughing whenever someone tries to explain how yardwork and housework can be made more efficient and far less time-consuming. Some days are like that.

This day, perhaps an hour, if all the minutes and seconds were to be summed up, watching the weather radar and following the path and predictions and preparations for Katrina, reading a weather alert like no other I had ever read before. A very light, misting rain against the windows. The winds of Katrina were miles and miles away from where I stared out the window. The winds of Katrina stared out behind my eyes.

A bowl-shaped city, lying in a depression well below sea level in an area prone to severe storms, is a disaster waiting to happen: yet perhaps it is exactly that constant awareness, at least in part, that has shaped the "live for today" attitude so strongly associated with New Orleans. At the last minute the strength eased by some tens of kilometres per hour: leaving the entire storm as a whole only the equivalent of a two-hundred-mile wide F3 tornado. At the last minute it also shifted slightly in its path to the east, seeming to spare the city of New Orleans its full wrath while bringing it down on places such as Biloxi instead.

From the north and east are the directions of New Orleans' weakest and lowest levees, those protecting it from Lake Pontchartrain. The worst case scenario had never involved New Orleans being struck directly. People knew this beforehand, yet no solid evacuation plan existed beyond telling people to get out now. Nothing existed to compensate for the vulnerable transportation and electrical and water and sewage infrastructure; and its failure in turn doomed any reliable food supply.

A levee had been breached. I watched, another lesson in inevitability behind my eyes. I had never been there (unless having grazed it in a late night Greyhound change of intercity buses counts): but I dreamed the city flooding, last night, and I had known all along that many had been left behind in the mandatory evacuation. "If you are forced to your attic by flooding, take along an axe."

Among those who survive, cleanliness will go first as water supplies fail. Then thirst: sewage and refineries contaminating the existing water supply; and water cannot be boiled without a reliable source of heat and with no way to start a controllable fire. Some houses had burned during the hurricane, with no way for rescue crews to get to them, and no pressurised water to put out the fire even if they could. Then hunger: existing food supplies in the ground-floor kitchen contaminated by flood waters. It is a very, very familiar scene in many parts of the world: Bangladesh knows it particularly well, and almost exactly a year ago tropical storm Jeanne killed over two thousand people in Gonaives, Haiti. It took four days for those floodwaters to recede: and Gonaives is not below sea level.

Biloxi and the rest of the immediate gulf region have been destroyed, on the surface the damage is far, far worse: but those waters have drained away, and rebuilding is now at least possible. New Orleans too will once again rendered habitable, of course, if only because it is too powerful of a symbol to be abandoned: but unlike the rest of what Katrina hit, restoring New Orleans will be no simple rebuilding project. The bodies must be retrieved and buried quickly: the entire area stands on the cusp of epidemic. The levees must be rebuilt, the water pumped out, the electricity and sewer lines rebuilt; the very soil must be decontaminated. People staying in hotels will run out of money and then out of savings and credit; and the hurricane has destroyed not only their homes but their livelihoods. People who survived but are now stranded must be rescued quickly: three days is the limit of law-of-averages survival in such cases. If the rescue units don't move quickly, it will be realised that survival is what is at stake here: and what is not given quickly, people will take. It is already beginning. And the consequences of what happens then will leave its marks upon the soul not only of a person, or a city, but an entire nation.

Don't leave the people of New Orleans and Biloxi and the gulf region in a refugee camp until they can return home. Enough supplies are available, enough private homes have been opened. Set the immediate disaster relief focus on getting people to somewhere safe and clean, but also immediately start trying to pair up individuals and families needing shelter with those willing to provide it; and then provide the transportation to make sure they get there.

The invoice, in the end, will be far, far less costly.


Added it to everything else, forgot to add it here:

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