Friday, August 17, 2007

New Orleans lessons, continued...

The New York Times has been publishing a series of stories leading up to the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, following the "recovery" and storm defense improvements that have been - and are still - taking place. The article includes a collection of maps by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) that show projected flood security for the different areas of the city.

I looking at New Orleans' situation as a loose model for what other metropolitan regions may go through when they become identified as potential victims of major storms. New Orleans is special, of course, because so much of the city and its outlying neighborhoods are below sea level. As the sea level rises, other coastal areas will find themselves in a similar situation, and their citizens will have to go through the stressful decision making that current NO residents and dealing with.

“If people were looking for a quick and easy answer — is it safe? — there is no easy answer,” said David E. Daniel, the president of the University of Texas at Dallas and the head of a panel that monitors the corps’ investigation of the Katrina disaster.

Some can live with thoughtful uncertainty more comfortably than others. Marion LaNasa, a homeowner in Lakeview, said he loves New Orleans and cannot imagine being happy anywhere else. “If you were really smart, would you stay?” he asked. “Probably not. But there’s more to life than assured comfort and no risk.”

As far as the work being done, chiefly by the USACE, much has been done, but there's plenty left to do and no gS Army Corps of Engineers (uarantee that another strong storm won't be able to overcome new and reinforced defenses.
Col. Jeffrey A. Bedey, commander of the corps’ Hurricane Protection Office, acknowledged that the work so far has been piecemeal, because the scale of project is so enormous. The drive to provide protection against that 1-in-100 storm by 2011, Colonel Bedey said, is more thorough.

He said the maps that will predict the impact of that work, which could be published before the end of August, “should show Upper Gentilly looking very good,” and much of the rest of the city besides.

And so, he said, the analysis that many people will have to make is, “Am I really willing to take the risk between 2007 and 2011” that no big storm will overpower the work done so far?

That requires more than an analysis of risk; it requires a calculus of hope. And it is not a question that needs to be asked only in New Orleans. It is the same question that comes up when a steam pipe in New York City explodes or a bridge 1,200 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans collapses. Getting infrastructure right is hard, and keeping it strong takes vigilance. And that means safety, uncomfortably, is a relative thing.

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