:: By Lydialyle Gibson
:: Illustrations by Mirko Ilic
The Big One
Exploring the catastrophic possibilities of the modern world, scientists and sociologists explain why the sky may, in fact, be falling.
Americans were still watching hourly images of other Americans in flooded attics and filthy shelters—of old women expiring in wheelchairs, homeless families wading through streets, National Guardsmen cradling the frail—when Janis Tupesis moved into a janitor’s closet at Baton Rouge’s River Center. It was September 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and Tupesis, an emergency-medicine physician, had flown in with a team of seven other doctors and nurses from the U of C Hospitals. He expected to find crisis: acute trauma, broken bones, infections, drownings. Instead he discovered a deeper catastrophe, more difficult to absorb. “What surprised me was the amount that people had truly lost,” he says. “It’s hard to comprehend that when somebody says they don’t have anything, that they don’t have anything. No food, no clothes, no shelter, no money, no proof of identity. They just walked into this room.”
For two weeks Tupesis and his colleagues moved from cot to cot in the convention center, dispensing medicine, checking blood pressure, changing bandages, and handing out dry socks. “We were seeing chronic issues—people who hadn’t had insulin in a week because there was none, people who had not taken their antihypertensive because they didn’t know where it was, people suffering the effects of standing in water for four days. There were sick kids, really bad substance-abuse problems, mental illness.” As many as 2,000 people sought refuge in the River Center daily, and Tupesis’s crew acted as social workers for those trying to navigate their way toward relief money, permanent shelter, and missing family members. “When something like this happens, it’s a complete breakdown of every possible infrastructure,” he says. “It looks the same in New Orleans as it does in Uganda. Just disaster.”
Katrina’s devastation set the nation reeling, but it was only the latest in a string of catastrophes—most notably 9/11 and the tsunami in Southeast Asia—that has kindled fresh anxieties. People worry about terrorism, disease, and natural disaster. They see climate change coming. Disaster is “all the rage,” says Rutgers sociologist Lee Clarke, whose latest book, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination (2005, University of Chicago Press), went to press seven months before Katrina roared ashore. In the book he plucks a few would-be calamities (including a hurricane-propelled storm surge in New Orleans) from a seemingly endless field of terrifying options: a magnitude 7 earthquake in Manhattan, smallpox outbreaks, chemical accidents, volcanoes, an exploding asteroid that swamps the Eastern Seaboard with 400-foot waves. Chronicling historical disasters and near-disasters, Clarke bolsters his warnings with technical findings from the Department of Energy, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and a group called the New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation. “There are possibilities for accident and attack, disease and disaster,” he writes, “that would make September 11 seem like a mosquito bite.”
Richard Posner, senior lecturer in the Law School and U.S. Seventh Circuit appellate judge, pushes the imagination even further in Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2004, Oxford University Press). Posner’s hypothetical asteroid measures several miles in diameter and—announcing its arrival with forest fires, tidal waves, earthquakes, and volcanoes—kills a quarter of the human population within 24 hours (the rest survive only a short while longer). Atomic collisions in a powerful particle accelerator could produce quarks, Posner warns, that arrange themselves into a “strangelet” compressing the planet into a sphere about 100 meters across. He describes nuclear winters, terrorist hackers, robots that attack their human creators, self-replicating nanomachines that devour all organic life. In Posner’s reckoning, a truly catastrophic version of global warming would happen abruptly; in the span of a decade, rising ocean levels would drown the world’s coastal cities and a disrupted Gulf Stream would turn Europe to ice. The chance that any of these scenarios might occur remains minute, Posner concedes, but not negligible, and people should not simply dismiss them. His compendious footnotes mine federal reports, scientific studies, and transcripts of congressional hearings to prove that the danger “is real” and the risk, more often than not, underappreciated. The scenarios’ cataclysmic scope should compel societies to at least consider a response. Clarke calls this “possibilistic thinking,” noting that odds do occasionally run out.
Not all catastrophes lurk on the outer limits of probability. The threat of an avian flu pandemic keeps federal health experts awake at night, and Homeland Security officials insist future terrorist attacks inside the United States—nuclear, biological, or otherwise—are a matter of when, not if. Reports of rising average temperatures and images of Arctic icecaps collapsing into the sea have convinced many people that global warming (the slow kind, anyway) is real. It may well be, Clarke says, that disastrous possibilities are multiplying, but equally potent is the “immediacy” of each new disaster. “All of us can replay that second plane going into the World Trade Center over and over and over,” he says. “It’s so available to us through the Internet and TV. There are more disasters, believe it or not—more hurricanes, for instance, and they’re getting stronger—but there’s an immediacy available to us through the media that in the not-too-distant past simply wasn’t there.”
Returning to New Orleans six weeks after Katrina, Marie Breaux, AB’82, coins a term for those neither victim nor survivor.
Awareness, however, hasn’t always translated into preparation. Katrina should have surprised no one, but it seemed to surprise everyone. “When you go there and talk to people—even disaster scholars at New Orleans universities—they still say, ‘Well, we knew it was possible, but we didn’t think it would be this bad,’” Clarke says. “These are people whose business is to think in terms of disasters. It’s just difficult for people to think about the destruction of their entire community.” Larger catastrophes, meanwhile, utterly overpower the psyche; Posner blames an inherently limited human imagination. “People are very busy, and there’s a deep, built-in, cognitive inability to think carefully and intelligently about catastrophic risks with unknown or slight probabilities. When you ask them to start thinking about something that doesn’t connect to anything in their experience, a purely theoretical danger, it’s difficult for them to take it seriously.”
Moreover, humans increasingly author or augment catastrophes. Science has made people safer, healthier, and happier—it has extended their lives and opened up new freedoms—but headlong pursuit of new, often ill-understood technologies poses a rising danger, Posner contends, casting a wary eye toward genetically modified crops, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. Escalating industry exhausts or pollutes natural resources. Human overpopulation squeezes out biodiversity. Even the fundamental architecture of modern societies, Clarke argues, puts people at risk. “We work in tall buildings, we live in dangerous places, we fly in monster airplanes,” he says. “We concentrate ourselves in places that make for targets, or that make us more vulnerable when a worst-case scenario comes our way. Eighty percent of Florida’s population lives within 20 miles of coastline. Over half of America’s population now lives close to the coast.” The Pacific Rim’s “ring of fire” is dotted with volcanoes—and major cities.
Several of those cities are in California, where last year civil engineer Warren Paul, AB’75, advised officials on how to address vulnerabilities in the Central Valley, home to the state’s massive agriculture industry. Stretching nearly 400 miles north to south—from Redding to Bakersfield—the valley is protected from ocean floodwaters by levees and barrier islands originally reclaimed from the ocean in the late 1800s. But the islands are now below sea level and the levees, built by farmers a century ago atop a foundation of peat, are sinking. An earthquake in the wrong place, Paul says, could wreck the whole system. The levees would breach and the islands would flood, sucking salt water from the San Francisco and San Pablo bays into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Ecosystems would be destroyed and irrigation pumps to the valley would have to shut off. “Well into the 20th century, the solution to the levees sinking—which will take the islands with them—was to dump more dirt on top,” Paul says. “Katrina hit a lot of people like a lightning bolt.” California officials have estimated the cost of earthquake-induced flooding at $40 billion, but because so many other states rely on the Central Valley for fruits and vegetables, the effects would be felt nationwide.
Interdependence—the social and economic networks that tie one community’s fate to people and events half a world away—sharpens the potential for disaster. “The last blackout in Manhattan didn’t last very long,” Clarke says, “but it’s not impossible for the North American power grid to go down for weeks, even months. What happens if Manhattan goes dark for weeks? You would be talking about the shutdown of the commercial center of the world.” The more people rely on each other, the more they interact. “The scary thing about SARS was not its mortality rate, but how quickly it traversed the globe.”
Catastrophe is not always so tangible. In his 1994 book A New Species of Trouble (W. W. Norton & Company), Yale sociologist Kai Erikson, AM’55, PhD’63, argues that chemical and nuclear toxins represent a novel and uniquely pernicious threat to both the survival and social fabric of infected communities. “Toxins locate themselves somewhere inside you and betray you from the inside; the disaster has snuck into the interior of the human body,” he says. “They have a way of making the world around you more corrosive, and they’ve got the terrible impact of being inheritable. That’s an awful thing to cope with.” His book examines, among other calamities, the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island power plant and the decision to deposit nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Erikson has since traveled to an atoll in the Marshall Islands whose residents believe they were irradiated 50 years ago by nuclear tests 300 miles away in Bikini. “The women there have come to believe that the breast they give their children the first moment they’re alive may be contaminated.”
Despite whatever fatalism the image of a Texas-sized asteroid or a pandemic flourishing from sneeze to sneeze conjures, humans are not helpless in the face of catastrophe. Societies intent on lowering death tolls, Clarke says, must track their “vulnerable” populations and try to insulate them from danger. For the most part, he’s talking about the poor, who are more likely to live in trailer parks or near chemical plants, or to be without air conditioning during a sudden heat wave, like the one that flattened Chicago in 1995. Here Katrina offers a lesson. Overwhelmingly, those stranded or killed by the floodwaters lived on lower ground. Some lacked the means to escape ahead of the storm. “It is not difficult to figure out where the vulnerable, less-resilient people are,” Clark says. “It takes will, it takes political commitment and research money, but we can do that. The question is, do we care?”
Faltering federal relief efforts in Katrina’s aftermath confirm another of Clarke’s recommendations: local communities should “disorganize” for disaster. Big organizations don’t always fail during catastrophes, Clarke says, but they usually do. “If your building catches on fire, the one most likely to save you if your leg is broken is the person in the cubicle next to you,” he says. “By the time first responders—they’re really ‘official responders’—get to the scene of a disaster, most of the people who are going to die are already dead. Those who did most of the life-saving in the World Trade Center were regular people helping the injured down stairwells.” Clarke would shift resources and planning to the level of workplace, school, and neighborhood. Cuba, he says, has put this method to good use. Before hurricanes residents go house-to-house evacuating neighbors and helping families get to shelters with their dogs and cats. Storms that wind up in the United States often hit Cuba first—and harder—but casualties there are rare. “The preparations are done in the community, so there’s institutional trust and people don’t hesitate.”
Calling failure to plan for a New Orleans hurricane “a shocker” and noting the absence of a tsunami warning system two years ago in Southeast Asia, Posner too calls for more and better disaster preparation. To cut through “psychological and political fogs,” he subjected strangelets, asteroid collisions, and global warming to cost-benefit analysis. “The probable costs of the catastrophic risks,” he writes, “when compared with the probable costs of efforts to minimize them, indicate that we are not doing enough.” In a chapter dense with concrete suggestions, he lays out plans for an international environmental-protection agency that would enforce a revamped Kyoto Treaty, taxes on carbon-dioxide emissions, and regulations and review boards to rein in risky technologies. To fend off another 9/11—or worse—Posner would monitor scientists and their labs, increase prison time for computer hackers, and restrict civil liberties. “You wouldn’t want to curtail them to the point where you started worrying seriously about spiraling down into tyranny or anarchy,” he says. “That would be a different kind of catastrophe, a political catastrophe. But we’re a long way from that.”
Such organized action is difficult to muster. When it comes to uncertain risks, says Harris School lecturer Charles Wheelan, PhD’98, individuals make bad decisions. They drive instead of flying. They smoke, gain weight, eat junk food, fail to exercise. They don’t save for retirement. “Basically, preparing for catastrophe goes to everything we know individuals aren’t good at,” Wheelan says, “and therefore groups of individuals are going to be even worse. So now you’ve got a country of 280 million people making decisions that involve trade-offs over time.” Legislatures and bureaucracies find themselves further hampered, he says, by 30 years of a “systematic antigovernment focus from both political parties.” The conviction that big government is bad rarely draws a distinction between wasteful and necessary spending, he says. “From an economics standpoint, it’s very clear that there are some things we simply cannot do as individuals. We can’t build roads. I personally cannot guard the borders or hunt terrorists in Afghanistan. I can’t stop global warming or avian flu.” Heading off catastrophes requires pooling resources and using them effectively. “The levees in New Orleans are a perfect example. I mean, even if you’re Milton Friedman [AM’33] fixing the levees is a classic example of a public good.”
Too often catastrophes don’t have a “natural constituency” of advocates, Wheelan says. “Then you’ve got nobody making a case, in the face of this assault on big government, for why we ought to do whatever it is, even if it is arguably legitimate for the commonweal.” The remedy, he says, is to set up “broad-bucket” federal agencies—or expand the scope of existing agencies—to suss out the risks of any given disaster and chart a course of action. “Then leave them alone and give them sufficient funding.” Divided roughly into categories like health, terrorism, and natural disasters and staffed by experts, the agencies would set priorities and make decisions. To make this work, scientists would have to resist hyperbole (or understatement) when communicating catastrophic danger to the public; politicians facing deficits would have to resist borrowing catastrophe funding for other uses. “We should not be debating on the floor of the House whether asteroids or avian flu is a bigger risk. That’s a recipe for sending money all the wrong places.”
Clarke agrees. Disputing the assumption that ordinary people panic in crises, he argued in a 2004 op-ed, published in New Jersey’s Home News Tribune, that federal officials should have shared intelligence warnings with Americans in the weeks leading up to 9/11. Most discussions and decisions about potential catastrophes, he says, ought to be more transparent. And citizens ought to listen and take part. “So maybe we decide, OK, as a society we don’t want to spend money preparing for near-Earth objects. Fine. But to sleepwalk our way through time without thinking through the trade-offs concerning hazards—that’s where I have a problem.”
Far from sleepwalking, researchers at Chicago are studying ways to head off catastrophes that seem less remote all the time. A Chicago geophysical scientist who has charted global warming for two decades, Raymond Pierrehumbert is waiting for policy makers’ debate to catch up with the one ordinary people are having already. Citing polls that indicate six in ten Americans believe human-induced global warming is a threat to future generations (although they don’t yet regard it with the urgency he’d like), he says, “The shift is everywhere but at the top.” Among scientists, a fundamental consensus holds: “Twenty years ago, no scientist would say observations coming out of the noise level were detectable. But in just 20 years, the warming has become strong enough that we can say confidently, yes, the world is truly warming and there is no explanation other than carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. ... There is no competing theory that gets you the pattern we’ve seen—not solar heat, not volcanoes, nothing.”
Beyond detectable readings, uncertainty abounds. Researchers debate when the warming began and how much humans are to blame; they can’t say precisely how much or how quickly the earth will heat up—although they find its current speed alarming—because different models predict different outcomes. Long-term effects remain a subject of conjecture. “In biology there are a lot of surprising interactions,” Pierrehumbert says. “Our ability to model physics is much better than our ability to model biology.” Some global-warming consequences, however, seem clear. Arctic ice will disappear, leaving polar bears stranded. Fish will drown in warmer, less-oxygenated waters. Hurricanes, droughts, and floods, he says, will become more intense, and rain forests will die. The Amazon may dry out and burn. Malaria might spread. “If [Chicago geophysicist] Dave Archer is right and we cancel the next 400,000 years of ice-age cycles, we don’t know how the planet will respond,” Pierrehumbert says. “So uncertainty about the impacts should be a source of caution, not comfort.”
Persuading officials to live with imprecision is difficult, but necessary, he says. “Decisions have to be made before there’s likely to be any narrowing of the uncertainty. In the next ten years, several thousand coal-fired power plants are scheduled to be built—they’ll last 50 to 60 years. And although you have some time horizon to deal with the emissions, you don’t have time to deal with the economics because of the capital life of the energy infrastructure.” Policy makers could start, he says, with “low-hanging fruit,” like replacing coal plants with biomass gasification facilities, while laying plans for a “less carbon-intensive economy” that might include more trains, greener buildings, and alternative energy sources. “We’re going into a climate the earth hasn’t seen for 50 million years, and we have to start now halting the growth in carbon-dioxide emissions.”
Time is also a problem for Olaf Schneewind. A physician and microbiologist who studies pathogens like plague, anthrax, and the ubiquitous Staphylococcus aureus, Schneewind was appointed in 2003 to head the federally funded Great Lakes Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research. A University-based interdisciplinary consortium, it’s one of eight national research centers set up in response to bioterrorism worries. Its long-term projects include finding therapies and vaccines for virulent microbial scourges: botulism, Ebola virus, plague, anthrax, and Dengue viral hemorrhagic fever.
Schneewind and his colleagues hope to develop new drugs to fight gram-positive bacteria (a category that includes the Bacillus, Listeria, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, and Clostridium genera) by disrupting the assembly of surface proteins that help the bacteria bind to host cells and escape the immune system. Rather than killing all microbes in the body—a contributing factor in antibiotic resistance—the new drugs would combat disease-causing germs without interfering with benign ones.
Because bacteria and viruses can replicate in only 20 minutes, “it’s no surprise there’s greater diversity and evolution there than in an organism such as us,” Schneewind says. “In fact, it’s a surprise we’re still around, considering that the largest biomass on the globe is microbes.” Germs are hitching a ride on increased human population and mobility, and the interdependence Clarke describes. Ancient and medieval plagues, and 16th- and 17th-century syphilis epidemics, had to travel by foot or by coach. “Nowadays if you introduce a pathogen even in a remote place in the world, its spread is almost ensured. The idea that it will infect large numbers of people is by now a fact.”
Humans—who, unlike pathogens, do not inherit immunity—hasten possible epidemics by overusing antibiotics and antiseptics, boosting drug-resistant bacteria. No longer are resistant microbes confined to hospitals. “They’re community-based now; people go to the hospital and arrive with 50-percent resistant strains.” Food and Drug Administration regulations, meanwhile, make licensing antibiotics difficult and expensive, “so for the most part pharmaceutical companies—the large ones anyway—have disappeared from the infectious-disease market.” In the 37 years since the U.S. surgeon general told Congress that victory over infectious disease was at hand, the National Institutes of Health has twice doubled its infectious-disease budget.
The federal budget may also find more room for David Grdina. A radiation biophysicist at Chicago, he began work on radiation-protective drugs for nuclear industry workers in 1984 as an Argonne researcher. In those days, it was the Soviet Union that kept Defense officials on edge; by the early 1990s the communist empire’s demise had eased nuclear fears and Grdina’s research had shifted to the Hospitals, where he and oncology colleagues developed the drugs to prevent secondary tumors in cancer patients who’d survived radiation therapy or chemotherapy. “As we’re getting more effective at treating cancer,” he says, “we’re getting individuals who have a real risk of therapy-induced tumors.”
Then 9/11 happened, and Grdina’s research found new relevance. “In their final report, the 9/11 commission identified that the greatest threat to the U.S. is nuclear terrorism,” he says. If a ten-kiloton nuclear device—“what most doomsday scenarios model for major cities”—exploded in the Loop, he says, 250,000 people would die unless they were treated right away. At one kiloton, even a suitcase bomb would be “enough to swamp the entire medical system in the upper Midwest.” Grdina’s drug could prevent those casualties, but side effects have proven intolerable. At a fraction of the dose, however, it can treat the thousands of others with less severe radiation poisoning, who would likely develop tumors later and pass on damaged genes to their children. Called phosphorothioates, they “scavenge” and remove free radicals (the source of most radiation damage) as soon as they form in cells. They also take part in stabilizing and repairing DNA. As a result, Grdina says, the drugs can work up to three hours after radiation exposure.
In 2003 Grdina and two colleagues founded a start-up firm called Congressional Pharmaceutical Company to bring their drugs to market. Now owned by Hollis-Eden Pharmaceuticals, the firm is conducting trials using macaque and rhesus monkeys. Grdina and fellow Chicago researchers, meanwhile, are investigating ways to “mate” the drug with two other radiation-protective agents developed by other labs. Effective remedies for nuclear fallout should contribute, he says, to what he sees as necessary changes in the national mindset. The country’s “culture of fear” when it comes to radiation, he says, hampers its ability to prepare. For example, ordinary first responders are instructed not to enter an affected area to save someone’s life if they would accumulate a dose of 25 rads of radiation. But people can endure exposure to probably 100 rads, Grdina says, without requiring medical attention (although cancer risks rise). “What we have on the one hand is this terrible fear of radiation, which makes us concerned about micro-Curie amounts of tracer elements spilled in experiments, versus the new world we are moving into—nuclear terrorism and dirty bombs—where the reality is that emergency workers may have to enter radiation fields far in excess of 25 rads.”
Sociologist Erikson sees the profound alarm radiation provokes as a wider dread of toxins, whose emergencies, he writes in A New Species of Trouble, “are not bounded” by the usual patterns disasters follow; they do not have “a beginning and a middle and an end.” A lasting sense of contamination takes hold. In general, he believes, man-made catastrophes are always more difficult to bear. “When they come to feel that other people can’t be relied on, either because they don’t care or they’re sloppy—or because they mean you harm—people think of that as a true betrayal,” he says. “They have some psychological protection against the idea that nature will sometimes deliver them a blow, but they can’t live their lives comfortably if they have to assume other human beings with whom they live are going to do the same thing. It’s the shattering of an illusion.”
New Orleans owes much of its enduring misery, Erikson says, to the fact that Hurricane Katrina feels more like a man-made disaster than a natural one. The levees, built by engineers, didn’t hold; development destroyed much of the area’s protective wetlands; local, state, and federal governments failed to provide a quick rescue. Having spent time in the city since the hurricane, Erikson says, “So far as I can tell, there’s not a single person living in New Orleans who truly thinks this was a natural disaster.”
Nor does anyone one think the catastrophe is over. In his book, Erikson traces the devastation that washes over communities long after calamity has come and gone, and he is not optimistic about New Orleans’s future, citing a study by researchers at Columbia University and the Children’s Health Fund. Released in April, it found children from New Orleans suffering high rates of chronic health problems and both parents and children plagued by mental issues. “We don’t know what will happen,” Erikson says, “but it’s a very important question because of the hundreds of thousands of people who have evacuated from all along the coast. The assumption has been made that they’ll be coming back, but it’s increasingly clear to them and to others that many of them are never going to make it back.” Also predicting most New Orleans evacuees will not return, Clarke sees a “real chance” that the city will transform into “an outpost for Disney World, where the boats will come up and the tourists will get out and walk around the French Quarter, get drunk and gamble, and then get back on the boats.” That scenario leaves the poor living in FEMA trailers without a home, Erikson says. “Here the trauma of the disaster will be compounded by the trauma of having to leave their homeland, the territory in which they felt they were truly whole”—an ominous augur for future catastrophes.
Returning to New Orleans six weeks after Katrina, Marie Breaux, AB’82, coins a term for those neither victim nor survivor.
By Marie Breaux, AB’82
The unprecedented, almost overnight diaspora caused by Katrina has proven our language inadequate to describe the experiences of the estimated 1.2 million people who, like me, were forced to live away from their home as a result of the storm. My family evacuated August 28, the day before landfall, and drove 12 hours to stay with friends in Shreveport, Louisiana, far away from danger. We didn’t know everything about our lives would be changed.
As the anticipated short visit turned into the long 30 days of September, controversy erupted over what to call people like us: refugees? evacuees? victims? survivors? “Refugees” did not seem the right term to apply to Americans being sheltered by other Americans, while “evacuees” implied we had somewhere to return when, for many, this was not the case. “Victims” did not fit those with no damage at all, and many people—even those with substantial losses—could not accept being an object of compassion when others had suffered so much more. Worst of all, declaring anybody a “survivor” seemed premature and arrogant.
Why doesn’t English have words for an in-between state of being neither survivor nor victim? Why does it insist on declaring winners and losers? We need a different approach to get closer to the truth, something like the French word sinistre, which means both a natural disaster and casualty (as in insurance losses). In French, people caught up in a catastrophe are les sinistrés, a noun that also carries the connotation of being without shelter or lodging. Such a word captures the vulnerability we felt after Katrina.
Six weeks after the storm, my husband and I made our first trip back to New Orleans under the mayor’s “look and leave” order. Driving from the dry area near the Mississippi River toward our Gentilly neighborhood in the north part of the city, slow minutes passed without seeing other moving cars or people. As we drew closer to the flood zone, it seemed a vast army had trampled the city: trees knocked over, grass and plants dead, doors broken open, windows empty and black. Like ligature marks on a strangled victim, dirty rings around buildings marked the water’s height—three, six, eight feet. The stained houses stood silent and wounded mile after mile, through every neighborhood. Ferrara’s, the small grocery store where we bought hurricane supplies the day before leaving, no longer had a façade, and its north wall had partially collapsed as if it had taken a tank round. Ashy grit was everywhere.
The highest ring around our house stood at six feet. I knew the water would have been over my head and that we would have been trapped in our bedrooms on the second floor. I looked at the one-story home across the street and imagined what would have happened if our neighbor had stayed. Starting her first postdoctoral appointment at a nearby university, she owned no car. Our last act as we left was to roll down the car window to hand her the keys to our Honda in case her other evacuation options did not work out. They didn’t, and both she and her jolly giant of a dog escaped in our second car.
My neighbor could have been any recent PhD. Not only the underprivileged or the old and infirm lacked transportation. It was mere luck that we saw her as we left and learned of her tenuous evacuation plans. With the wrong twist of fate, anybody could have found themselves trapped by Katrina. Anybody. What is the word for the humility that comes with this knowledge?
On that first return to the city, helped by friends, my husband and I spent two days pulling the ruined contents of our life out of our home and piling them into a trash heap at the curb. This was the easy part. These were the ruins that were OK for the world to see—furniture, rugs, papers, clothing, cookware.
But what about the more personal losses? What to do with our books? What to do with the desk I’ve used for more than 20 years that collapsed into the flood water? As an attorney, journal keeper, and writer, I’d produced and edited thousands of pages sitting there. What to do with the piano? Its black keys had come unglued and sat askew. Many of its white keys had swollen and popped up into unnatural positions like crime victims in rigor mortis. Is grief the word to use for objects that were never alive?
This sudden, overwhelming experience will leave us changed, but it is too soon to tell how. Social networks—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors—have been shattered. Families find themselves spread across different states. In January 3,000 people were still listed as missing (by April the number was down to 500). Anecdotally, divorces, death rates, and suicides are all up.
Even nine months later, in the 80 percent of the city that flooded, few people can live in their homes; few groceries, gas stations, or pharmacies are open, and the open ones have limited hours and stock. Mail service has started up sporadically (letters but no magazines or catalogs). In areas without working telephones, businesses operate cash only because they cannot process credit cards. Many traffic signals remain inoperable, even at four- and six-lane intersections. Thousands of physicians have moved for lack of patients or facilities.
Close to 1 million people woke up the day before Katrina with one life, and woke up the day after with another. Whether or not they return to New Orleans, their new lives will be in a different place.
“Southern culture” is often seen as a deep, even pathological, attachment to the land. It is an affliction I failed to escape, which explains why I returned to New Orleans after graduating from Chicago. Yet too many of the bottom lands, swamps, and marshes that drew me back no longer exist. They belong now to the sea. New Orleans and all points south are sinking. Half my lifetime ago, when asked, “How far is New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico?” the standard answer was, “About 100 miles.” Today we say, “About 80 miles.”
If Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are not saved, it may not matter what we do to rebuild New Orleans. At stake is an area the size of Connecticut—some 3 million acres—which represent one-fourth of all coastal wetlands in the United States and the most productive estuary in North America. Every 35 minutes Louisiana loses an area the size of a football field. Every ten months the losses add up to a land mass the size of Manhattan.
These wetlands defend us against hurricanes. For every three linear miles (or less) of wetlands, tidal surge is reduced by a foot. Unless their erosion stops, we will be in an ever-escalating, never-ending, and rarely winning battle to protect New Orleans. Yet despite national public-awareness campaigns, the steady death of Louisiana’s wetlands has failed to inspire the political will or funding necessary to restore the city’s first and best line of defense.
The reluctance, even after Katrina, to address this environmental crisis seems to stem in part from our inability to find the right vocabulary for the discussion. Engineers speak a language of certainty and fixed points; scientists, a language of uncertainty and flux. If we hope to restore Louisiana’s coast and provide long-term safety for New Orleans, an essay in the Spring 2006 Tulane Environmental Law Journal argues, we need to create a new process and a whole new language—one where immutable human designs respect and follow the evolving science of coastal restoration, rather than the other way around, where the forces of nature are somehow expected to respect and to conform to the structures built by man.
Eventually we will know whether to call ourselves victims or survivors of Katrina. In the meantime, if I had the power to make a new word for the English language, I would name us all the disastered, people fallen under an unfavorable star but struggling on in hope of something better.
Marie Breaux, AB’82, is an attorney and writer living in New Orleans again and learning all about the guts of old houses as she rebuilds in Gentilly.