Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Katrina’

Read the paper the Day Before

February 20, 2010

The greatest casualty of the 24-hour news cycle is not attention span – it is memory. The current Olympic tiff between the ice skaters is a classic example. Silver medalist Plushenko lashed out at judges after they awarded gold to Lysacek, who performed a more elegant routine – but didn’t do any quads. Why this is a controversy is a complete mystery to those of us who read the paper THE DAY BEFORE the competition, when there was a big article about the ice skating judges who said – flat out – that they weren’t going to judge the competition solely on jumps. I sort of understand Plushenko being upset that he didn’t get gold for a more difficult athletic accomplishment, but he was totally warned THE DAY BEFORE.

The same thing happened five years ago – when this blog began. The day before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the newspaper had a large cross-section illustration describing how the levees in New Orleans would fail and how the city would flood. And then it did. And President Bush and the feds claimed they didn’t expect it. I guess they didn’t read the newspaper, because there it was THE DAY BEFORE.

You can only learn from the past if you remember it, and unfortunately there are a lot of examples of really short-term memory.

New Orleans III

September 14, 2005

In the Chicago Tribune this morning architecture critic Blair Kamin made a convincing case for the rebuilding of New Orleans and several cases for historic preservation. There was the issue of the image of the city, defined by its elaborate wrought iron balconies and exuberantly ornamented houses, from the grandest to the meanest, all with a touch of celebration, a bit of show. There was the argument of the city’s unique cultural blend (choose your metaphor: gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras) and the argument of its tourist attraction.

One of Kamin’s most interesting and astute observations was that neighborhoods built in the post-World War II era were much more easily devastated by flooding than older ones. “Time went forward, but building practices went backward” said Kamin, making one of the most convincing arguments for historic preservation there is: they don’t build them like they used to. Kamin’s argument was mostly about practices like building first floors above raised basements, but it could easily be extended to materials and construction techniques.

Several times in recent years I have tried to get new house developers to say that their products are built better – or as well – as historic houses, and not one has yet taken the bait. We can build houses faster and workers are considerably aided by nail guns and all sorts of precuts, but when I suggest that new suburban homes built since 1990 will not survive longer than their mortgages, no one contradicts me.

Part of the reason for this is construction techniques – a century ago skilled carpenters and craftsmen were less expensive – and part is materials – most of 19th century America was built with old-growth wood. Today you survive on 30-year old pine and spruce and those fabulous glues and steam presses that turn sawdust into steel, at least for a while. Can even the best wood survive a flood? Depends, but old wood, with dense growth rings, with the long-gone possibility of hardwood members, resists water penetration in a way that no postwar house can. New Orleans of course had a terrible termite problem – one of my first thoughts in reaction to the flood was a hope that it had drowned the termites.

The sheer scope of this disaster and the massive belated federal attention to it will bring to bear a host of political and economic pressures that will have a greater impact on what gets preserved than the actual structural integrity of the buildings involved. Kamin ably notes this: absentee owners will push for demolition; planners will seek massive clear sites; politicians will want one glitzy photo-op rather than an everyday rehabilitated neighborhood. They will blame the buildings of course, since they can’t speak for themselves. Which is why the preservationists are there now, seeing what can be saved.

Watch this one closely (i.e., not on television).

New Orleans II

September 12, 2005

So much has been written about New Orleans. My brother sent a link to a Joel Garreau (Edge City) article in the Washington Post that basically says New Orleans is gone. Sure, the high ground of the Crescent City with its historic districts will still be there for tourists, but the low-lying poverty areas would likely be bulldozed. He also notes that the historic reasons for the city – the port – is no longer in the city. Garreau makes some good points and several people have expressed concern that the rebuilding of New Orleans will turn it into a theme park, or that rich people and a homeless Trent Lott will swipe up all the ocean view property at disaster prices and use FEMA and Halliburton to rebuild it and make a quick killing in real estate, leaving the former poor out of a new cleaner, safer, more boring New Orleans.

This is a worry, although the feds record on infrastructure rebuilding (here and abroad) since 2000 is one of underperformance, there is still the de facto land grab of evacuation, and the potential to draw even more tourists…but…

Remember what happened with Vegas in the early 90s? It decided to go family-friendly and reinvent and clean up its image. Didn’t last. The dirty glitzy Vegas came back within a decade – and they have hardly preserved anything besides that welcome sign. I don’t wanna get too spiritual but places do have a character that can’t be kicked away by disasters man-made or otherwise.

Garreau also mentioned how some disasters – Chicago’s 1871 fire and San Francisco’s 1906 quake and fire – actually made the place stronger and better than before, but claims that won’t happen to a dwindling New Orleans without the logic of a port – it will be left only with its tourism industry.

Yeah, but it is one of the oldest tourism industries in the country. Tourism and individuality and wierdness and borderline legality are part of New Orleans character. I don’t think Halliburton can rebuild that but I’m not so sure they can bury it.

New Orleans

September 7, 2005

New Orleans

Katrina has devastated New Orleans, a unique American city, unprecedented and unparalleled in its cultural heritage and central to the history of historic preservation. New Orleans preserved landmarks before almost any other city in North America, and it preserved historic districts before any city here save Charleston. In its integration of architecture and culture it even suggested that preservation was about more than buildings: a blend of music and the peoples and practices of three continents stirred into an intriguing and attracting mix. Now, more of it is gone that we yet know.

The Department of Homeland Security failed its first test in New Orleans, abetting a human tragedy that outweighs any concerns of material culture. It failed even though everybody else saw it coming. My newspaper last Sunday was illustrated with cross-sections what kind of flooding would happen in New Orleans with the expected storm surge. Chicago’s Mayor saw that and offered extensive help to FEMA, which was turned down during Day 1 of the weeklong federal bungle. Turns out FEMA is now run by people with no experience in emergency management. On top of bad management, various government muckety-mucks and their mothers have added fabulous insults to the injuries, treating other people as if they were somehow categorically different. Always a mistake. Today Bangladesh offered help.

We still don’t know how much is lost – the French Quarter, the nation’s second historic district protected in 1937, seems relatively unscathed. The Garden District is some distance from the levee breaks, but the Ninth Ward took the brunt of it, an area of preservation outreach in recent years. See for ways to help. Along the Gulf Coast, historic homes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where Louis Sullivan had his vacation escape, are likely gone. Biloxi. Many places seemingly gone forever.

The magnitude is almost unimaginable, except it was imagined, by FEMA before it had its knees cut off, by New Orleans when it tried to build levees, by everybody’s newspaper last Sunday before the thing even hit.

We live in such an instantaneous society with so little memory that the feeble excuses from Washington seem plausible only if you can’t remember the news you read a week ago. Then again, they encourage you to forget – replace this memory with that one – thanks to spin, which is the same as marketing or propaganda. Fortunately, the debacle now is so big and so visible and graphic that even Rovian spinsters can’t put Humpty back together.

Will New Orleans get put back together? Yes, because there is the historic place, and it seems much of its historic core, and by far more importantly, that strange hybrid culture that simply does not exist elsewhere –a place that fostered the sort of individuality that resulted in stranding and death and looting but also a place that recognizes that society and culture are needed, desperately needed, if any of us are to experience our individuality. They had a parade yesterday. New Orleans won’t be a theme park as some pundit suggested this morning, because the same culture that is freaking out Baton Rouge right now will need a place to go and a place to build. Of course it won’t be the same – nothing ever is. Even for a minute. But it will be New Orleans.

One more note on Dennis Hastert’s ill-advised remarks about bulldozing a city built in a terrible location. All cities are built in terrible locations. Amsterdam? Underwater. Venice? Eternally submerging. Mexico City and Chicago built on swamps and landfill, San Francisco and Los Angeles on fault lines. Cities grow where they are needed based on commerce and transportation, which for most of human history meant as close to the damn water as possible. The fact that the ocean and the river were so close meant that New Orleans had to be there.

Still does.