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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

It is raining like heck here in Montreal, the tail end of Katrina. Yikes. I say "raining like heck" because it is obviously not raining like hell, that's what it was doing in the Other Major French City.

I'm glad to see the Pentagon is finally mobilizing the Navy to help rescue people. Where were they on Sunday when people couldn't get out of New Orleans because the roads were clogged? As a society, we're better at dealing with crises than preparing for crises. Everyone thinks it's not going to happen, whatever it is. When the Whittier Quake struck, I heard someone on the tv saying "we never thought it was going to happen to us." Even though when you move to California, everyone mocks you because of the quakes. People lose their houses to fire in the Santa Monica Mountains because they treat wildfires as something exceptional, something out of the ordinary. They are part of the natural life cycle of the chapparal. The hills are supposed to burn every 20 years. They've been doing it since the glaciers cleared out.

Disasters are exceptional, but it is fairly safe to say that one disaster or another is going to get you. In Quebec, we had a terrible ice storm half a decade ago. San Francisco had an earthquake and (much worse than the quake) fire in 1906. LA is just waiting for The Big One.

Thing is, most disasters are foreseeable. Not predictable but foreseeable. There will be an eight-pointer in LA. We just don't know when. There will probably be an eight pointer in Missouri, too, though nobody talks about it. There was one in 1857. Does anyone believe it can't happen again?

Jared Diamond talks about societies overrunning their margin of safety in his terrific book Collapse. All the Mayan cities were abandoned after one period of drought or another. Droughts were foreseeable, but populations expanded into marginal farmland, and when the drought came, there was no way to feed people. Famine, war, cannibalism, total collapse of a city followed.

New Orleans was built under sea level. Whether it's true that the Bush administration cut the hurricane budget for New Orleans last year, or that the understaffed National Guard failed to sandbag the levies in some places isn't the point. This wasn't even the worst storm that could have hit. It could have been a Category 5. It could have hit New Orleans rather than Biloxi. (Biloxi is pretty much just gone.) There was no likelihood that New Orleans wouldn't be devastated by a hurricane. Unless the various governments (municipal, state, federal) had taken the necessary and painful steps to prevent it. That would have meant 25 foot levees in town, not 20 foot ones. It would have means removing the Mississippi River levees that prevent flooding outside the city so that the barrier islands and marshlands restored themselves -- at the cost of whoever lived outside the city getting swamped every few years or so. It would have meant building up the city with landfill so that it wasn't below sea level. All that takes money.

Or, it would have meant forbidding people from building in drained swamps.

My dad once asked me how many earthquakes I'd have to live through before I bailed on LA. My response was that the more earthquakes, the less scary they were. Not just because you get used to them. But because frequent quakes mean that people take quake codes seriously. People don't bribe building inspectors so they can use substandard concrete in their house. At least, they don't the second time around. Frequent quakes mean anything that is going to come down has already come down.

I'd rather be in LA during a serious quake than in Missouri, or Boston. Hell, Montreal can't be far from a fault line. Look at the Hudson River/Lake Champlain corridor through the Adirondacks. Does that look like a fault line to anybody else?

As a society, our hearts go out to the victims of a disaster, and they should. Where we make our mistake is that then we give people help so they can rebuild their homes in the same goddamn place. Flooded out by the Mississippi? Build another house in the Mississippi River flood plain. Your house on a Carolinas barrier island was wiped out by a storm? Build another one. FEMA will help.

When you fly into San Francisco, you can see these lovely new housing developments built on these long, long straight lakes. That's the goddamn San Andreas Fault, people!

If New Orleans really is as devastated as it looks, maybe people should build their new houses upriver and inland. I'd rather a few more tax dollars went there. Buy people's land back, and let the place revert to swampland. Swampland is good. Swampland protects the high ground from hurricanes.

Still no word on Jim Hunter, but I will tell you that his old house -- the one he left ten years ago because it was too close to sea level -- is underwater along with all the rest of the town it was in, Slidell, Louisiana. And if his house is still there, the 100-mph wind rated siding he put in last year might have helped.

Like the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

What foreseeable disasters are on your horizon? What's your plan? Where are your spare resources? Are you just going to wing it?

What foreseeable disasters are on our society's horizon? What are we doing about them?

Preparation is boring. Much of the time, it's a waste of resources. But when the Big Bad Wolf comes, it's nice to live in a brick house.


Let's not forget the toxic chemical plants within the city of New Orleans and how those chemicals have leaked into those areas post-flood.

Let's have a plan for rebuilding the area - zones for flooding, dams instead of levies, modern style construction techniques instead of rebuilding old houses that blow apart like toothpicks, chemical plants outside the town with security and breach procedures. What have been the lessons learned in Thailand et al, after the tsunami? Learn the lessons and implement them - don't ignore them.

If government isn't going to be able to shoulder the burden, then let's get businesses in there to help rebuild the infrastructure (something that should be done in Iraq. Remove the soldiers, bring in the businesses. When people can work and eat and build they feel safer and calmer).

And weren't there ships in the New Orleans harbor that could have evacuated the populace several days prior to Katrina's landfall? I'm not talking Navy but all ships - especially those tankers which can hold quite a few passengers.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20 but if you use it properly it exercises your foresight and makes it just as sharp.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 3:09 PM  

actually, Alex, I sat through a couple minor quakes in Montreal -- my wife endured a bigger one while I was on the road. Big fault line swings down through Quebec, down through rhode island to just offshore Manhattan.

I have several evacuation plans for LA, filed alphabetically under inciting crisis from A/atomic thru Z/zombie.

Sleep tight.

By Blogger Unknown, at 10:48 PM  

Montreal gets quakes all the time - how do you think Mont Tremblant got its name?

But our quakes are small. The fault gives easily, and we get frequent, low-energy temblors. Sometimes you hear them, sometimes you can just feel them with your hands on your desk. At worst, they knock a few books off a shelf.

Now, the ice storm - that was coooool. We returned from a trip in the Bahamas the next night and drove around Pointe Claire. Not a soul was on the street. It was like some divine sculptor had created a crystal world just for us.

We holed up at my in-laws because they had a fireplace. It wasn't too bad for us. We got power back a day later. I'm sure others have less fond memories.

By Blogger Webs, at 3:37 AM  

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