Irony of ironies – the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina marked by the entrance of Hurricane Isaac.
What occurs to me is something often said in conversations that have to do with New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and acts of nature. Year after year around this time, there is that gnawing feeling that this will be another time of upheaval, where people who live in hazard’s path must take up their things and move, hoping that in a few hours, or days, they will have something to come home to.
Inevitably the question comes up. Why do people continue to live there? An interesting question, for which there is only one simple answer: It’s home.
Home means so many things to so many different people. For some, it’s just a place to lay one’s head, whether it’s a spot under a bridge, a temporary hotel room or an apartment where one may leave in a matter of days or weeks or months, or a dream house on a perfect street. Or it might be the city or country where you are from, your place of origin, where generations ago your family first laid down its roots. Or it’s where your ‘people’ are, the place where you can go and feel like you belong, where when you go there, they have to take you in.
To the person who talks of ‘home’ with a palpable longing, the pull of home is a strong as the ties of mother to child. It’s the place of ultimate safety and comfort.
For some, leaving there is an unthinkable thought. It’s where people live because it’s where they feel like they belong. So when I hear that question, I know the answer.
It’s the reason people live along the San Andreas fault on the west coast, in the mudslide- and wildfire-prone hills of California, along the oft-flooded banks of the northern Mississippi River, or the tornado alleys of the Midwest. People live in places of geographic vulnerability because most of the time, when things are good, the land is dry, and the winds are calm, it’s the place where they best know how to be who they are.
So people live in New Orleans because their mama lives down the street and she likes seeing the kids grow up and she makes the best gumbo ever and Sunday afternoons after church belong to her. Or they live there because their great-grand daddy built the house they live in with his own two hands, and the land and the house belong to them, free and clear. Or because nobody knows how to throw a fish fry like their cousin Randy who lives three blocks away, and there’s nothing like the scent of red beans and barbecued chicken wafting through a neighborhood block party on a sultry summer night.
Or because five generations ago, their people set down roots there, and they live there still because they always have and they always will.
They live there because it’s home.
But why live there if it’s so dangerous? Why live there if every year around this time you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Will I stay or go?'
The fact is, New Orleans used to be a much safer place to live. When the city was built on the high banks of the Mississippi in the 1700s, the Gulf was much farther away, by 20 miles or so. Where there is now water, there was a system of barrier islands and wetlands breaking up storms, providing defense against the ravages of high winds and water, and protecting the city. Now those wetlands are disappearing, giving way to canals and channels that weaken that natural system, allowing in salt water (bad!) and inhibiting their ability to replenish themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, back in the day, it wasn't such an odd place to build a city. It was, after all, on a big river, and it had access to the gulf. And it was, comparatively, safe.
And once a safer place to live, it could be a safe place now:
1) If the protective, storm-diffusing wetlands around New Orleans, that have been eroding at the pace of a football field an hour, were restored.
2) If the federal floodwalls had not been built with inferior materials, and if new levees were built to withstand at least a once-in-a-thousand-years storm.
3) If the houses in low-lying areas were built like the new Brad Pitt Make it Right houses of the Lower Ninth Ward, with high elevation, wind-resistance measures, and with sustainable, hurricane-proof specs.
4) If developers had not built communities in the below-sea-level areas of the city without adequately protective floodwalls.
5) If the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, (built to provide a shipping shortcut, but effectively creating a storm surge that took out the Lower Ninth Ward) had never been built in the first place.
All these things would cost something that is even more elusive than money – wisdom and forethought.
The bottom line is people are sometimes going to live in harm's way. They are going to live where they want, where they feel they must, for reasons, sometimes emotional, or sentimental, or...whatever...that those who don't live there just can't fathom. That's just the way it is.
But there is an answer, and it lies in one word – adaptability. Live where you want to live, but adapt to the environment. Live in humble deference to the natural forces common to the land, and with respect for its powerful inclinations. Rather than impose our will on nature, hoping it will bow to our wishes, we should build and live with the utmost respect for it, because if we disrespect it, it will win.
The Dutch had the right idea. If you are going to put a city by the North Sea, you'd better come up with something that shows a little respect. The Dutch levees protecting Amsterdam are beyond huge. If you look at them, and then look at the levees around New Orleans, the comparison is laughable. True, they cost a lot; more than any levee system built in America, many times over.
But isn't it worth it, given the potential price in things besides money?
Someday New Orleans, South Louisiana, and the surrounding parishes will be safe. Better levees will be built, the wetlands will be on their way to restoration. By that time, countless dollars and lives will have been spent needlessly to accomodate the slow-moving winds of change.
Hindsight has always been the greatest teacher. But the lessons seem to get harder and harder to learn.
The once-in-ten-thousand-years levee built by the Dutch has, so far, kept Amsterdam safe from the North Sea.
Compared to Katrina’s, and now Isaac's price, in loss of home, land, livelihood and life, the cost of those Dutch levees would have been a bargain.