‘Losing New Orleans’ 

How my book sunk, like the city.

click to enlarge BODIES FLOATING: All over New Orleans.
  • BODIES FLOATING: All over New Orleans.
Four months before it happened, I described for a New York editor, in detail and with stunning accuracy, the tragedy that is now unfolding in New Orleans. I say this, not to sound especially visionary, but to add my voice to the chorus demanding accountability from President Bush. Like everyone else this week, I’ve seen the images of people on rooftops waving signs that beg for “Help.” Last spring I was in New Orleans, interviewing civic leaders about the threat of hurricanes. In one form or another, all of the people I talked to — even then — said they had been begging for help for years. Disaster officials, in particular, said,they’d been pleading with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, and its Federal Emer-gency Management Agency, for assistance in preparing for an unparalleled disaster. Now that that disaster has occurred, not only to New Orleans but along a broad stretch of America’s Gulf Coast, I stand with the victims wanting answers. It’s time for the president and his staff to explain why “homeland security” did not include being prepared at least for the crisis that now faces New Orleans — a disaster that had been predicted for years. I am particularly interested in hearing from Asa Hutchinson, a candidate for governor, who took a top job at Homeland Security back in January 2003. Specifically, Hutchinson was put in charge of Borders and Transportation Security. It was a post he held until March of this year, when he returned to Arkansas to run for governor. I’d like to know what “transportation security” meant to Mr. Hutchinson, if it did not include the concept of evacuating a stricken city, or protecting its great port, or safeguarding the third of our nation’s fuel that enters by way of New Orleans? If I, a reporter in Little Rock, with nothing more than Internet access, a car and a telephone, could predict, almost hour-by-hour, the horror that Katrina would unleash, what were Hutchinson and his cronies at Homeland Security doing with all the assets at their disposal and nearly $40 billion in funding? After my last book was published, I ran a few ideas for the next one past my editor at Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster. But my proposals all dealt with Arkansas, and the editor deemed them too local. What her bosses were looking for, she told me, was something national — something “big.” We had that talk last fall, about the time Hurricane Ivan was blustering off Louisiana’s shore. For five days it held to a track that aimed it straight at New Orleans. At the last minute, Ivan veered east. But by then thousands of the city’s residents had evacuated – or, at least, had tried to. The evacuation had turned into a Category 5 traffic jam. And that was despite the fact that thousands of other residents hadn’t even tried to leave because they didn’t own cars. For the city’s bus and streetcar riders, the options, come a hurricane, looked grim. Word was that if parts of New Orleans became uninhabitable, they could try to make their ways to the Superdome, which would become a refuge of last resort. What might happen to people in nursing homes or hospitals wasn’t made clear. The city’s website advised evacuees who were hitting the roads to ask neighbors if they might need a ride. If this was supposed to be planning, it carried the whiff of neglect. How, I wondered, could any country, but especially this fantastically rich one, leave upward of a half-million of its people to face annihilation with no better plan? And what about the rest of the country? I’m no whiz at energy policy, but shouldn’t we be trying to protect the supplies of oil and gas that enter by way of New Orleans? Even though Ivan had spared the city, it had left pipelines in the Gulf badly battered. Some deliveries were temporarily halted, pushing oil prices towards what was seen at the time as the amazing price of $50 per barrel. If Ivan could have been dismissed as a fluke, it might have been reasonable not to prepare for his sister. But, as I learned without much effort, meteorologists had generally concluded that hurricanes occur in decades-long cycles, and that we have apparently entered a period that’s likely to see more — and more intense — tropical storms. Since weather leads to geography, I reread “Rising Tide,” John M. Barry’s fascinating book about the great flood of 1927. Half of the levees in Arkansas trace their origin or elevation to that calamity, and the levees that went up in New Orleans exceeded Arkansas’s by many. For the past 75 years, the levee building in New Orleans hasn’t stopped. The city’s obsession with getting the Army Corps of Engineers to channel and contain nearby waters led one admirer to observe that New Orleans had become to levees what China was to walls. But there were always a few Cassandras who dared to suggest that the levees being built to protect New Orleans might turn into a trap. For one thing, if water got into the city, the levees could hold it there. For another, the dredging and channeling that was being done to aid the shipping and energy industries was literally cutting up the wetlands that buffered the city from the Gulf to the south. Channels cut for boat traffic and to lay oil and gas pipelines had left the wetlands in tatters. And flood controls on the Mississippi River had kept essential nutrients from reaching and replenishing that critical wetland environment. By the end of the 20th century, it was no longer just environmentalists who realized the threat that the disappearing wetlands posed. Migratory birds were in jeopardy, yes, but so were many other kinds of animals, the most of which were humans. All this was well understood by any officials who had bothered to look. In early 2001, FEMA had issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely U.S. disasters, and that included a terrorist attack on New York City. The American Red Cross had reached a similar conclusion. But over the next four years, the administration’s “war on terror” sucked up funding that previously had gone toward disaster preparedness. The result, I came to realize, was that we now risked losing New Orleans. Losing New Orleans. The phrase formed itself into a title. I began to think it sounded “big.” It was no title to be bandied about lightly. I would do a lot more research before I typed it on a proposal. What surprised me, as I delved deeper, was how many reports about New Orleans’ vulnerability had already been published and made available on the Internet. NPR and PBS had also raised the alarm. But none of these stories had gained traction — not even the remarkable series that appeared in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans even before the city faced Ivan. That series, titled “In Harm’s Way,” described in graphic detail: • how erosion of the buffering wetlands had essentially brought the Gulf of Mexico’s hurricanes closer to New Orleans; • how the city itself had been sinking, making it ever more dependent on the levees that held the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in check; • how a hurricane of even moderate strength could weaken and perhaps breach the levees; • and how, if such a break occurred, along with the pounding rain of a hurricane, New Orleans could find itself filling up to its balconies with water. The series made it clear that such a storm was not just likely, it was inevitable. “It’s only a matter of time,” a headline in the lead article warned, “before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane.” You can find the Times-Picayune series at http://www.nola.com/hurricane/?/washingaway/. It shows how much was known. It stands today as an indictment. Even after Hurricane Ivan came howling toward the city, underlining every word of the series, Washington remained eerily silent. In November 2004, the Associated Press ran a story datelined Port Fourchon, La. Port Fourchon is where Louisiana Highway 1 ends and the Gulf of Mexico begins. “If you think oil is expensive now,” the piece by reporter Cain Burdeau began, “imagine if Hurricane Ivan had swung west in September and come ashore at this bustling oil and gas port at the southernmost point of Louisiana.” The article continued: “With 75 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s deepwater oil and gas drilling operations supplied by Port Fourchon and 1.7 million barrels of oil a day coursing through the pipelines under it, it is a lynchpin of the nation’s energy supply.” The very existence of a federal government, particularly a Department of Homeland Security, suggests to many people that “someone” is watching out for disasters, and taking prudent precautions. If hurricanes posed any serious threat, a common perception goes, surely someone in Washington would have noticed. And if the nation’s supply of fuel was in any jeopardy, whoever was in charge of “transportation security” certainly would have taken steps to protect it. But when I called the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to ask if Ivan had raised any concern, an official there heaved a sigh. “I’m afraid not,” she said, adding that the book I was considering was needed. Then she sent me a 30-page booklet her own agency had produced to call attention to the problem. Titled “America’s Energy Corridor,” it illustrated for anyone who bothered to take a look how a third of the nation’s oil and gas supply was delivered through the ecosystem south of New Orleans, which was “on the verge of collapse.” That booklet was distributed throughout Washington, one of the contributors told me. But, he added, “It couldn’t compete with Iraq.” Even if one ignored the potential for loss of life and property, it seemed to me that any strangulation of our energy supplies represented a threat to national security. How do you keep up an economy, or run a military, or heat homes in chilly New England, to cite but a few exam-ples, if a storm at a crucial supply point suddenly reduces the flow of fuel? Yet, to all appearances, Ivan’s spin through the offshore treasure had not ruffled an official feather. It was as if the nation had watched a terrorist almost fly a plane into the World Trade Center, but then miraculously veer away, after which everyone gave a shrug and went back about their business. If no book existed about a threat that looked to me so clear, I was becoming determined to write one. A check of Amazon.com turned up thousands of titles — about the city’s history, cuisine, and jazz — but nothing that remotely suggested the risk bearing down on the city. It was time for me to head south and talk to some of the people who had everything to lose. It was the first week of February and raining. The Mississippi River was high where it rolled through the Port of New Orleans. When I climbed the levee behind the Cafe Du Monde, it lapped just inches beneath my feet. Some people say it’s a seedy city, I thought, looking across Jackson Square to the cathedral. But it has been good to me, and I like its mix of people. I tried to imagine the city’s bright colors smeared in a toxic flood. For the next five days, I met with bankers, engineers, environmentalists, seafood exporters, oil economists, and various members of parish rescue crews. I figured they bothered with me out of politeness, or maybe desperation. Whatever their vantage points, however, their stories were much the same: The situation was growing dire. Their attempts to interest federal officials had met with little success. They were repositioning themselves to take their concerns to the American public. They could not rest in their struggle for attention because the consequences of failure were so severe. The president of Whitney National Bank, which has investments spread across southern Louisiana, summed up the situation best. “I fear,” said R. King Milling, in an elegant, almost meticulous drawl, “that our predicament will not be taken seriously until we are in the midst of a national disaster.” I had unwittingly come during Mardi Gras, but the festivities went almost unnoticed. When I walked to my car at the end of the week, bro-ken strings of beads littered the street. I realized that I’d heard a lot of ideas for effecting long-term solutions, though almost none were being funded. What weighed on me was the immediate future. “We’re living at the mercy of chance,” a disaster official had said. Driving back to Little Rock, I wondered how many chances the city would get. What would happen if, by chance, a hurricane like Ivan came roaring back? I’d been in the city for days and heard nothing that resembled a plan. As I sat down to write the proposal for my book, I thought about the hurricane season ahead. It would start in July and keep us guessing un-til November. If some monster was building out there, in the not-too-far future, might we now be enjoying a kind of national Mardi Gras? So here’s some of what I wrote in that proposal, earlier this year: “There is a crisis on the horizon that, given the right turn of wind, could dwarf in both scale and consequence every traumatic chal-lenge that America has ever faced.” “Anyone flying into New Orleans Airport, the ninth-largest in the country, can see the city’s plight from the air. It sits in a bowl, virtually surrounded by water.” “In 2018, New Orleans will be 300 years old. But prospects for a tricentennial celebration are darkening.” “The potential for catastrophe can be seen in every direction. Lake Pontchartrain borders New Orleans to the north. It is twice the size of New York City.” “Without intervention, forecasters say, the city is destined to drown. “That fact is not publicized. What city wants to face — let alone advertise — the risk of its own extinction? “But scientists who have run computer models of hurricanes hitting New Orleans believe that they have a clear, if incomplete, idea of what will happen. “Sooner or later, a storm as big as Hurricane Ivan will again barrel towards New Orleans... It will slam into the city... and if it hits Lake Pontchartrain, its counter-clockwise winds will force lake water over the levees. “The inundation will overwhelm the pumps... Deaths by the thousands could occur... “Crypts and graves will have loosened. Furniture will bob alongside autos.” “The devastation will resemble what followed the tsunami in Indonesia, except that here, in New Orleans, the water will be trapped, unable to wash back out to sea. “Survivors will also be trapped in a city where roads and bridges will lie several feet under water. Injured and in shock, they will inhabit a city littered with corpses. “Snakes and other animals will compete with them for the scarcities: shelter, food and fresh water. And the ordeal will only have started. “The standing water will begin to warm in the tropical heat of a New Orleans summer. “Besides being full of debris, it will be contaminated by toxic leaks, because New Orleans ranks second among the nation’s cities in oil re-fining and petrochemical production. “Chaos and the sheer scale of the catastrophe will slow rescue efforts and the delivery of supplies. “Diseases will have time and conditions to develop. The death toll will continue to rise.” At one point, I quoted Walter Maestri, the director of emergency management for New Orleans’ Jefferson Parish, saying he had placed thousands of body bags in storage. He envisioned the possibility that crews wearing haz-mat suits would steer through the city in boats to col-lect the rotting corpses. “If you look at the World Trade Center collapsing,” Maestri had said, “it’ll be like that, but add water.” But mostly what I outlined was my own sharpened perception of the pending disaster: “It will be a warlike time of exhausting, grim endurance.” “The national relief effort will depend on military assistance.” “It is uncertain how well various services will be able to react, in light of deployments around the world and the blow from the hurricane to the nation’s infrastructure.” “People will be in shock. Fuel supplies will be shortened. The military will be stretched thin.” “Like the hurricane itself, the storm’s repercussions will spread powerfully outward, disrupting commerce, shaking the nation’s economy, and even threatening global stability.” “Food supplies will be hard hit, as 30 percent of the seafood caught off the mainland United States enters the country via New Orleans. That fish-ery will be devastated.” “More than 20 percent of all waterborne commerce in the United States ships through ports in southern Louisiana. The Port of New Orleans is the nation’s biggest entry point for imported steel, natural rubber, plywood and coffee. “More than half of this country’s grain exports leave the U.S. from that port. “One powerful hurricane could close shipping at the mouth of the Mississippi River, as well as the rail and trucking lines that serve it. “Within days after such a hurricane, shoppers at Wal-Marts across the country could start to see shelves go bare.” “From an economic and political point of view, however, nothing will compare to the hurricane’s effect on U.S. fuel supplies.” I explained disaster director Maestri’s complaint that, since 9/11, the new-formed Department of Homeland Security had focused more on vague fears of terrorism than on known and predictable disasters. Finally, I quoted Mark Davis, one of the leaders of a coalition that had been begging federal officials for help. “It’s a collapse,” Davis lamented, referring to Jared Diamond’s recent book by that title. “We’re seeing an ecological collapse, and a collapse of institutional responsibility.” In April, I e-mailed the editor my proposal. Two weeks later, she sent her response. “As much as I hate saying this,” she wrote, “the only way for this book to actually work is if New Orleans had already sunk.” Well... My approach may have been lousy. Or the editor had tired of me. Or there could have been a zillion other factors. Sometimes, I reflected, nothing that happens outside of Manhattan seems real to the people there. There’s probably some of that in Wash-ington, too. But never mind all that. What took my breath away was how the editor had echoed the banker. As I read the e-mail from New York, I was transported to the bank on Chartres Street, where its genteel president had voiced his fear that “our predicament will not be taken seriously until we are in the midst of a national disaster.” In the end, the story of the fate awaiting New Orleans loomed bigger than I could handle. It had arisen from such massive indifference. It heralded nothing but grief. Last month I took down the topographical map of New Orleans that had hung for six months in my office. I wrote notes to some of the peo-ple who’d taken time to answer my questions. I told them that I was abandoning the book, in part because of its weight. I added that my thoughts would be with them, any time a hurricane threatened. The banker, Milling, responded. “Thank you for your kind letter,” he wrote. “As you can see from your journey, we still struggle to get national attention.” He could not have known that just two weeks later, Katrina would kiss his city. The struggle for attention would be over.


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