I was thinking a lot today about Hurricane Earl, as some of my neighbors in the northeast and Atlantic states made unusually careful preparations for what – at least for now – seems to be a diminishing threat. I didn’t for a moment “pooh-pooh” all the caution, but it summoned memories of another hurricane and another time.
This summer I made a moving visit to New Orleans along with a group of talented and dedicated researchers from the Academy for Critical Incident Research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. We come from any number of disciplines, yet are all interested in the impact of sudden incidents – from violence to natural disaster to other catastrophes — on social fabric, on community ties and cohesion, and on individual well-being.
The extraordinarily dedicated people with whom we met and spoke — activists, residents, clergy, officials, doctors, mental health professionals – formed an awe-inspiring critical mass of passion and persistence.
Today, though, it was all the preparation up here in the northeast for Hurricane Earl that stopped me cold.
People in my neck of the woods freely admit that the Katrina experience remains a looming cloud, a dark memory that has led many to think more carefully about disaster readiness, a warning to take news about storms and tornadoes and earthquakes more seriously.
And why not? Other than some amusing types of ” preparation-overkill, ” (you can see people buying duct tape in such a frenzy that sometimes I think they are planning to eat it) all the shopping and planning sometimes seems more revealing of people’s anxiety than what actually will make them safer. But they are preparing.
The problem is that using Katrina to motivate disaster planning masks an absolutely fundamental distinction between most weather-based catastrophes and the unique and tragic events in New Orleans five years ago.
It was a bad hurricane. A horrible and lethal hurricane.
But it was the failure of the levees that caused most of the death and destruction, levees that didn’t magically materialize and blow into town, but levees that — according to a slew of experts along with the informed and unstoppable activists at Levees.org led by Sandy Rosenthal — failed in fifty places due to a combination of poor design, poor construction, too low a safety factor, and levees that simply weren’t high enough.
I once had a brilliant professor, a distinguished sociologist named Gaye Tuchman, who – among other things – had a profound and deeply held shtick about human agency and action. Always be aware, she implored us, to look behind language that would seem to attribute social change or calamity to unpreventable weather or randomness. This narrative and this vocabulary, she warned, denied human agency. It minimized the individuals and institutions whose actions could often be found hiding behind all the talk of water and wind.
So I am fine with people thinking more carefully about preparation. But when I hear Katrina summoned as a reason for this increased vigilance, I want to ungraciously and angrily yell out:
Yeah, they had a horrible, horrible hurricane. And we may have one too.
But never, ever stop your mental film of Katrina at the point when the wind blows and the water flows. That water and wind may – in its almost biblical force – make for a good Cecil B. DeMille moment, but it also may obscure the almost banal and bureaucratic human actions or inactions that – when combined with the weather – were what really wreaked havoc.
That is why I support and admire enormously the work of Sandy and her dedicated colleagues at Levees.org. You really should take a look at what they are doing and how they are refusing to accept anything other than a full accounting of what happened when disastrous weather met poor design and construction with unspeakable consequences. The engineering excellence needed to withstand hurricanes in vulnerable locations may have already existed, but it was nowhere to be seen when the levees gave way in New Orleans.
And — in the event you find yourself touched by a natural disaster — always look at the actions of flesh and blood people, of institutions, before you blame wind and water. The media love the wind and the water and the fire and all the rest of the catastrophic imagery. Great visuals. Great painters have produced seascapes of incredible majesty and beauty. But, at least right now, I can’t think of any museums exhibiting paintings of city council meetings and Army Core of Engineer planning sessions. Not very scintillating.
Media coverage of engineering and infrastructure, often at the core of supposedly “natural disasters,” does not make for great visuals. Cement and pumps aren’t half as sexy as some exhibitionistic anchorman being blown around in his new LL Bean parka.
But that cement and those levees and those canals have more to do with the resulting mayhem than all the drenched and waterlogged reporters in the world.
We are the enemy.
Not the water. Not the wind.