Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.


The Best Laid Plans

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

Big Timber, Montana   It’s not because we weren’t up early. We had to pick up a spare tire for the trailer at 730, and I had a radio taping at 8:30, so we were hoofing it.

The signs for trouble were all there though. The tire was ready, but they had not been able to find a wheel, but what can you do. Then finding a place to park the truck and trailer in downtown Missoula was a challenge. We ended up on the other side of the railroad tracks, just a couple of blocks from the “Break,” our headquarters when we’re in town. But, that’s a couple of blocks as the crow files before the rail yard, no doubt wisely, fenced it all in, so we had to trudge our way to a crossover, up three flights and down the same, and then across the bridge and over in order to make it to the Break by 825 am to find the electricity and therefore the internet were down. The place was full of people sitting in the dark. Chaco’s phone worked so we got the interview in the nick of time, and the lights came on. We Uber-ed back to the truck and my phone worked well enough to handle the Skype call with our interns in Bengaluru, so maybe our luck was changing.

Not really. Thirty miles out of town and just four miles from the Rock Creek Road turnoff, our old standby, the truck suddenly seem to be straining and losing power. A motorcyclist drove by and pointed at the back of the trailer. Sure enough, the radials on the suspect tire had unraveled. That began a 3 ½ hour hurt dance extravaganza. We loosened the tire lugs, then backed the trailer over a small piece of 2×6 to lift it up enough to take the tire off. Then we went through the routine of jacking up the hitch as a trailer stand and unhitching and blocking the tires. No repair in Drummond, so we ended up in Deer Lodge 50 miles away. Long story short, we were lucky to make it to Big Timber by 6pm after crawling over the Continental Divide outside of Butte and then Bozeman’s Pass, but by then we knew Wyoming was another day.

There’s a lesson here. The other day we were talking with Tom France and Meg Haen, old friends and colleagues, now with the National Wildlife Federation. We were talking about conservation programs that had worked with the grizzly bears, long a Tom specialty, and his argument, gaining increasing traction from his organization and others, that they are best safeguarded by taking them off the federal endangered list and devolving them to state protections, which he argues are actually superior in most states in the West. The more difficult problem where he has had to shift emphasis recently is protecting the salmon run in Washington State blocked by the dams and powerful political coalitions of conservative rural local, state, and federal forces and Democrats interested in protecting the dam building legacy of former office holders like Senator Scoop Jackson and others that advocated for them strongly along with cheaper power.

A political advertisement was running on CNN in the break area in Big Timer that was a message to Interior Secretary Zinke here in the heart of his former Montana base. The ad was from sportsmen and backcountry outfitters and campers claiming he was reneging on his promise to protect the land in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt with his review and opposition to monument designated and protected lands. It would be a mistake to think everyone out here in the West is part of the 36% of classic right base that Trump is currying so assiduously.

We adapted our journey to the environment and tools at hand in another lesson of what happens to “best laid plans.” Seems like Washington DC and Washington State might need to take a look at the lessons we were relearning yesterday as well.