I don’t know what has gotten into me. This week, yet again, I find myself posting positive news on Dirty South Bureau.
I have an innate aversion to this. Perhaps because there is so much misery and pain that people don’t want to talk about but that needs to be learned from, I have taken it on as my personal role to work in such territory. Or maybe it is a deep revulsion to the sunny voices that dominate certain types of media, such as many shows produced by NPR affiliates. For the stories I produced for such venues when I was a radio reporter, I recall the premium placed on resolution of the crisis in the story, which contrasted with the absence of easy resolution in post-Katrina New Orleans. Either way, I tend to avoid overly cheery accounts; after all Sheila Stroup might get testy if I start to tread on her emotional market share.
And yet there is no other way to express my experience yesterday of attending a ceremony to mark progress on the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).
For those of you not living in this region, Mr. Go, as we like to call it, is a 76-mile shipping channel leading from the Gulf of Mexico into the Intercoastal Waterway, a few miles before the Interharbor Navigational Canal (AKA the Industrial Canal), which cuts through the 9th Ward and divides New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward from the main part of the city. It is also the “hurricane superhighway” that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, carried a brutal storm surge into the Intercoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal, where it destroyed levee walls on both sides, flooding the 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward and large swaths of St. Bernard Parish, particularly the parts where most people live.
Of course, there were other factors: the loose barge left in the industrial canal that went through the flood wall into the Lower 9th, not to mention the poor design, construction and maintenance of levees, much of which was revealed in a forensic investigation by a UC Berkeley team in the summer of 2006. Even with these qualifications, Mr. Go is not a popular waterway for many here.
The boat launch was at 8 a.m., and, needless to say, my companion and I arrived late. This was in part due to the fact that we had never been to Yscloskey, Louisiana, before. I believe that by the time we found Yscloskey we had seen much of rural St. Bernard Parish, which is a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I was reminded of how Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s describes the bogs in Jutland – wild, desolate, utterly empty areas of grassland and swamp, broken in areas by stands of trees, many of them dead.
Our timing turned out to be good luck. Immediately upon finding the Yscloskey Marina we encountered a lost Argentinian photographer, in a very Down By Law moment. With his help we flagged down a passing motorboat, containing not one but two councilmen from St. Bernard Parish, Wayne Landry and George Cavignac, who were kind enough to give us a personal tour of the Mr. Go closure.
Mr. Go is a very impressive waterway. During the high-speed boat ride (we were advised to close our teeth) Landry and Cavignac patiently and cheerfully explained the ins and outs of the waterway, as we passed barge-loads of large rocks and earth-moving equipment. Originally built to be around 500 feet wide, Mr. Go is now between 1,000 and 2,000 feet wide, enough for many cargo vessels to pass each other, ships that now have to use the Mississippi River as they did for the first 250 years of this city, and as many did anyway afterwards.
The rock wall that we reached was not particularly impressive, despite the crane atop it. It spanned only part of the waterway, and to our disappointment it appeared that no heavy work was being done that morning. Are we being overly impatient? It should be noted that the entire industrial canal took only nine years from legislative approval (1956) to completion (1965). As a nation, we can accomplish incredible feats of engineering (particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers) when, and only when, there is the political will. How about our white flight superhighway, the 24-mile causeway spanning Lake Ponchartrain, that we built to allow middle-class and affluent whites to escape the city and still commute in the 50′s and 60′s? It is now three and a half years after Katrina. How long will it take to build a rock wall across a mere 1,500 feet of canal?
Some say that a rock wall is not enough – that Mr. Go should be filled. I am in no position to evaluate such proposals, but Cavignac and Landry indicated that a rock wall, while it won’t entirely stop a storm surge, would at least act as a brake on the speed and intensity of any storm surges traveling up the waterway.
But the important part to all of us is that it is there, and that it is being built. It meant something to me. As absurd as it may sound, I saw hope in that pile of rocks.
It was also a lovely day, just cool enough to be invigorating, with pelicans and hawks passing overhead and dolphins swimming in the waters. All of that is enough to make us forget, temporarily, that New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are ground zero for the impacts of global warming. Sea level rise due to the melting of polar ice adds to other factors that cause the wetlands that protect this city to increasingly disappear. And of course, there is the link between global warming and more severe hurricanes. In the end, the levee walls constructed after Katrina and severely tested during Hurricane Gustav (anyone else remember watching Geraldo Rivera narrate water splashing over the top of levee walls on a television in a distant city?), may not hold back the next major Hurricane to hit this region. We are all guinea pigs here.
I am reminded of the end of the movie Blade Runner, when the Harrison Ford character, escaping the city to the north, explains that he doesn’t know how much time he and his genetically manufactured girlfriend have before her internal clock stops ticking. “But who does?” he asks. New Orleans is in deep shit for a lot of reasons, and may not survive this century. But many of us, who choose to live here because we love this city, don’t need forever. We just need some reasonable assurances of short-to-medium term viability, including some effort by the feds to fix any infrastructure problems that threaten us with total annihilation. It’s just not too much to ask for a medium-sized American city.
Coming back in the motorboat to the safety of the launch, past the enormous piles of rock fill, I was given just enough of that assurance.
(Big thanks to St. Bernard Councilmen Wayne Landry and George Cavignac for their superb hospitality.)