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A Tale of Two Hurricanes October 28, 2005 by RedStar2000


I must explain my absence from this site for the last two months...even though there's really "not much" in the way of theory in what follows.

I do think that what I've written here does offer a few insights into what we might expect of capitalism "in crisis"...though I am uncertain at this point about the best conclusions we might draw from that.

What does seem clear to me is that a lot of people are going to die. Human life is not a priority for capitalism.

If anyone finds that "shocking", I'm sorry.


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I live in the path of Hurricane Katrina...so that almost certainly means I will be offline for a while...at least until power is restored.

If you don't hear from me again...assume the worst.

Goodbye & thanks for all the fish.
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First posted at RevLeft on August 28, 2005
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There is so much to say about what it's like to actually experience two category 4 hurricanes that I'm sure I will leave out a lot of things inspite of my best intentions.

Winds of 140 miles per hour are very noisy...they roar at a level which actually hurts to listen to. Earplugs proved very useful in this regard.

I was in a position to actually see Hurricane Katrina...a location protected by concrete block walls. I saw trees almost bent double, boards ripped from the sides of old frame houses, etc. Half way down my block, I saw the side of a frame apartment house ripped off by the wind...the entire interior was exposed. If you saw a picture, you wouldn't think hurricane, you'd think earthquake. As you may have seen on the dummyvision, hundreds of windows in office buildings and hotels were blown out...chunks of plate glass were at times flying through the air at deadly speed.

Of course I was nowhere near the areas south of New Orleans or over near the Mississippi gulf coast where the storm surge was much more catastrophic. Those places were utterly destroyed and may never be rebuilt. The eyewall of Hurricane Katrina passed about 20 miles to the west of my location.

Hurricane Rita passed about 20 miles to the east of a small Louisiana town near Lake Charles where I ended up after fleeing New Orleans. I was in a weaker building and when a portion of the roof was ripped off, the bedroom ceiling collapsed on me (!!!) and a heavy chunk of sheetrock missed my head by a foot or two. Rita also completely destroyed the sparsely inhabited gulf coast parish of Cameron...but did not hurt the Lake Charles area all that much. There was flooding here, but unlike New Orleans, the water drained away relatively quickly.

It's a common delusion that those who govern us are "looking out for our best interests" -- but two major hurricanes should have shown everyone in the U.S. just how delusional that idea really is. The "emergency preparedness plan" everywhere here simply consisted of a loud shout: Run for your life!

Those who were unable to run were essentially abandoned to their fates!

Everyone is aware now, I think, that the idea of the "Superdome" as a "shelter of last resort" was a load of crap. The roof of the dome started breaking up under Katrina's winds and water poured into the building, ruining the emergency generators. By the time the storm had moved out of the area, the dome had become a hell-hole of human misery. People died there of heat-stroke, dehydration, and simple malnutrition. It's said that there were suicides and murders there as well.

I was in New Orleans for two days after Katrina...and what happened can only be described as complete collapse. Food stores were looted within a few hours; there was no longer any place to go to get food or water. The city water system was shut down...meaning no fire protection at all. An unknown but large number of New Orleans police simply fled the city altogether; in the far distant motel parking lot where I ended up as a refugee myself, I saw with my own eyes a police squad car from New Orleans...they weren't there to buy donuts.

Leaving -- or rather fleeing -- New Orleans was an ominous experience. I saw dozens of small groups of refugees walking across the bridge that crosses the Mississippi River there...hoping that someone would help them when they got to the other side. Possibly those who managed to survive four or five days of deprivation were helped. On the road to Baton Rouge, I saw abandoned cars almost every fifty yards or so...people who had run out of gas or whose engines had overheated during the mass evacuation.

And then there was what happened to the people who fled the flood waters and took shelter at or near the New Orleans Convention Center...tales of unbelievable horror.

In every way it was obvious that the authorities in Louisiana were completely unprepared for what happened there. For example, their emergency communications system collapsed immediately. There was no one to operate the pumps that could have saved the city from much of the flood damage. City buses and city school board buses which could have been used to evacuate people were simply left in parking lots to be flooded and destroyed. When Amtrak offered an empty train (capacity of 1,000 people) to evacuate hospital patients prior to the storm, the city's emergency manager declined the idea.

The crushing blow to New Orleans came from the failures in the levee system...something that had been predicted since the 1950s. About 80% of the city was effectively destroyed by flood...and the "quick fixes" by the Army Corps of Engineers will not tolerate even a tropical storm now.

There are plans afoot to build a new levee system altogether...one up to four times as strong and elaborate as the one which failed. If it materializes, it's expected to cost $4,000,000,000 -- a tiny fraction of the damage to New Orleans.

And it may not materialize...not all that many people want to "save New Orleans". Most of the people who left do not want to return to a life-threatening situation. There has been a wave of evictions there and undamaged apartments are now renting for two or three times as much as they did before the hurricane.

Most of New Orleans is still without electricity or water that is safe to drink. I have not heard that there are any regular grocery stores open. There's no public transportation and gasoline is still hard to find. There's not even one functioning hospital.

It's a city "without children"...the public school system has been abandoned by both teachers and students.

It has become a "city of the dead" and I think it unlikely that it will ever recover.

Things are better over here in southwestern Louisiana; the power is back on, the stores are open, building repair and debris clearing is going on everywhere. There wasn't much here to destroy, so repair is "easy".

Nevertheless, Rita was a forceful reminder of the folly of living within 350 miles of the American gulf coast. I certainly intend to relocate again if it becomes financially possible.

Our "civilization" (such as it is!) is very fragile...deprived of its material base, it comes apart very readily and people understandably descend into savagery. People helped each other a lot for the first few days after the storm...but I could see attitudes changing as shortages grew pressing. When the National Guard arrived, I think New Orleans was very close to cannibalism. I certainly think that there were murders over a jug of drinkable water.

On the other hand, where our "civilization" was undamaged, many New Orleans refugees noticed (as I did) how incredibly sympathetic people were to our plight. Every time I mentioned to someone that I was a Katrina refugee, people went out of their way to be especially helpful. True, I did hear that a few assholes were resentful of our presence (some racism there!). But mostly we were welcome all over the country.

That surprised me.

Some of you may have heard of FEMA and the emergency assistance grants that hurricane victims have received. Let me tell you that it was and is a lottery...many eligible people are still waiting for those grants.

I, for example, have not received a dime!

Naturally, I think this is most unfair...considering the generally hellish nature of the refugee experience. But there are those who suffered far more than me who've also received nothing.

No surprise here.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 14, 2005
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quote:

No one should ever have to go through any of what you've described, let alone in a society perfectly capable economically and technologically to soften these blows as much as the US could.


Well said! It occurred to me frequently that a civilized country would consider phenomena like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to be national emergencies...not simply "regional problems". Suppose there had been a national response as soon as Katrina entered the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened. That would mean that business and pleasure travel would have been suspended...freeing up tens of thousands of hotel and motel rooms for evacuees. Hundreds of airplanes and fleets of buses would be diverted to the target areas to get people out before the storm...and emergency personnel and supplies could be in the area immediately after the storm passed. The National Guard would have been in New Orleans before Katrina arrived.

Did you know that there are electricity generators manufactured that run on natural gas? Why isn't every apartment complex in the "hurricane zone" legally required to install and maintain such an emergency power source? Here in southwestern Louisiana it's "every man for himself" -- gasoline-powered generators were as common as downed trees...at an operating cost of about $20/day.

In New Orleans, even those few places with backup generators in place ran out of gasoline in 24-36 hours!

An incident here (near Lake Charles). Another tenant in my building was & is on dialysis treatment. He missed his Friday appointment because the personnel at the clinic had evacuated. By Sunday after Rita, he was showing signs of going into shock and another neighbor had to actually walk to the local police station and make a pest of himself before the police would get an ambulance to evacuate this guy to a town with an operating dialysis clinic. The ambulance guys told us that the man was about 4 hours from dying when they arrived.

I'm sure that any dialysis patients in New Orleans did die...because there were simply no ambulances available.

Insulin-dependent diabetics also probably died...as insulin must be refrigerated. No power = no refrigeration.

You saw pictures on the dummyvision of people walking through the floodwaters in New Orleans -- and it's now admitted that at least four deaths there resulted from cholera (caused by coming into contact with water contaminated with human shit).

quote:

]It must have been hell.


Indeed. The worst thing about the refugee experience is the sense that you have lost all control over your life. Everything that happens happens to you. You begin to feel that whatever happens is a matter of luck -- I was lucky to live in a part of New Orleans that wasn't flooded, so I had the chance to escape "on my own terms". But I was hungry and exhausted, so I stopped in the first little town where I could find a motel room that I could afford...and ended up renting an apartment here simply because I couldn't afford to go further west -- thus being unlucky enough to land right in the path of another hurricane.

Some people in the flooded parts of New Orleans were lucky enough to be rescued by helicopter; others died on their roofs waiting for rescue that never came.

Most of the dead were elderly, infants, and those in general poor health. For these people, it was really hell.

quote:

I'm just delighted to know you're alive, man! Hope you had plenty of cigarettes


I feel somewhat amazed finding that I am still alive...it's like I've been through what should have killed me. (!)

Of course, I did smoke a ton of cigarettes...as there was so much time when there was nothing else to do.

quote:

As for the rebuilding of New Orleans... won't they inevitably have to rebuild the port, one of the biggest in the world and easily the most important in the United States?


Not necessarily. Houston has more advanced facilities and could probably take up a lot of the "slack".

The port facilities were relatively undamaged by Katrina...but not that many people actually worked there.

What I really meant to suggest is that there may still be a place called "New Orleans" on the map...but it probably won't be a city any more. Perhaps 100,000 people might be able to live and work there...but it will never again be what it was.

It was a city where poor people could live in relative dignity...something very rare in the United States. (That was why I chose to live there in the first place.)

That's gone! Some of the local "business leaders" have been quite blunt on the subject...with not-so-subtle public references to the "demographic change" in the future "city" of New Orleans. The people who fled New Orleans are "not welcome to return". The flooded areas where they lived will not be rebuilt in their lifetimes.

One Katrina refugee suggested to me that the Disney Corporation will purchase the French Quarter and call it "The New Orleans Experience".

quote:

And who do you think fucked up more? The Federal government or the local government??


That's a contest that's "too close to call".

The only people who've come out of all this with any "glory" is the American Red Cross...they were the only people I saw who actually came through with some timely assistance.

quote:

Do you think the federal government is guilty of racism (of course they are, but specifically) in responding to the disaster?


Absolutely!

It took five days for Bush to respond to Katrina. After Rita hit southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas (nearly 100% white), the National Guard was here handing out water, ice, and meals within 12 hours!

Indeed, the capitalist media probably deserves the credit for getting Bush to do anything to help New Orleans. The numerous pictures of people trapped on rooftops and showing the abandoned corpses on the streets became a public relations nightmare for our imperial president.

quote:

Good to hear your personal account. I'm just so thankful you are here to tell it. It took 14 days before I heard from my family in Ponchetoula. There were no phones! And we were getting some really scary reports from the evacuees that came here, which didn't help.


Yeah...the cell-phone systems in southern Louisiana and Mississippi totally collapsed and many land-lines also went out of service.

Once again demonstrating the reality of "emergency planning".

There were many "scary stories"...some true, some just exaggerations, and some not true at all. One of the byproducts of "total collapse" is that no one has any chance of finding out what is really happening. We were all reduced to the level of serfs...knowing nothing beyond what was happening in the small area in which we were trying to survive.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 16, 2004
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quote:

As noted, some people have supposedly purchased 500 dollar pairs of shoes and other expensive things with the fema cards, what's your opinion on that?


That people subjected to irrational conditions have a marked tendency to behave irrationally. You cannot tell how you will respond to the total destruction of the fabric of your existence until you actually experience it. Some folks "keep their cool" and others panic or do "crazy things" simply to psychologically reinforce a sense of their own self-value. Some people in New Orleans have never seen $2,000 in a lump sum! They momentarily feel "emotionally rich" even though they aren't, of course.

quote:

How did you flee the city, redstar?


In my neighbor's pickup truck. He had a truck with half a tank of gas and I had the cash to buy more gas and pay for motel rooms for us. We drove all of Wednesday night and into the Thursday morning dawn before we found a motel with vacancies.

He's a construction worker and actually expects to make a lot of money in southwestern Louisiana during the reconstruction. But I find this area a sinkhole of peasant reaction. There is, literally, a church on every block and the godbabble on the local media outlets pollutes the broadcast waves so badly that you would have to hear it to believe it.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 17, 2005
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quote:

I'd be interested in any more details on how people reacted to this situation.


In the first 36 hours after Katrina, people helped each other with food, water, and cigarettes...expressing a rather astonishing amount of generosity between total strangers. One young fellow in my building looted the neighborhood Winn-Dixie of a shopping cart full of cigarettes...and then went door to door in the neighborhood giving them away! On Tuesday afternoon, a whole bunch of people in my building cooked up all our food that was about to spoil and distributed it to everyone...kind of a "last meal".

But it was not a "happy meal". Some expressed a kind of "what will we do in a few days" attitude. Others expressed a blunt willingness to die. (!)

I've been told that the media "went crazy" with "atrocity stories" from New Orleans. I have no personal knowledge of any "mobs" present. Indeed, conditions there made any sort of large group activity impossible. There probably was some wide-spread looting of downtown stores...the opportunity for a little wealth redistribution was not one to be passed by lightly.

But you can't eat dummyvision sets or drink jewelry. Expressions of "moral outrage" from the capitalist media on this subject are utterly reprehensible...considering that they've been arguing that the meaning of life is found in infinite accumulation for the last two centuries.

99% of the people in New Orleans were concerned with survival.

quote:

And why did the welcome and help for evacuees surprise you?


Because the prevailing idea in America is that misfortune is your own fault. You hear this expressed constantly in hundreds of ways. I was surprised that this essential capitalist idea has failed to "take root" to the extent that I thought it had.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 19, 2005
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Here is a revealing story on Federal response to Hurricane Katrine...

http://www.nola.com/newslogs/breakingtp/in..._20.html#088670
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First posted at RevLeft on October 20, 2005
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This is a subject that "resonates" with me in my particular recent circumstances. As a victim of both Katrina and Rita, I had considerable time to recall a few scraps of scientific history.

Back in the 1950s, there was proposed an idea to weaken and possibly even dissipate hurricanes before they had a chance to make landfall. The idea was to have a fleet of large bombers drop tons of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) into the eyewall...cooling it drastically and thus depriving it of energy. I believe a few small experiments were actually carried out on small storms with small but measurable success.

What happened to that idea? Well, it seems that someone in a federal agency became worried about liability...suppose a hurricane strengthened after an unsuccessful attempt to weaken it? Would the government be sued by the hurricane victims?

Thus the constraints of private property have taken precedence over human welfare. The victims of Katrina and Rita suffered because of something that was never done. We were not simply "victims of nature"...but of the social system under which we lived.

Some suggest that the idea of humans "dominating nature" is "hubristic" or "arrogant". I have seen with my own eyes what happens when nature dominates humanity.

It's pretty damn ugly!
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First posted at RevLeft on October 21, 2005
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quote:

All the bullshit about man dominating nature, is that bullshit! Sure we could stop the hurricanes, we could make it shine all day if we wanted. But do you want a globe without coral reefs? Do you like having (relatively) clean air to breath when you go to the country? Or do you like and want a fucked up planet?

As soon as humans try and dominate the planet, they will either fuck it up, or be fucked up. Bigger hurricanes, bigger floods, longer droughts. I think what we have now (in terms of climate) is better.


This planet is fucked up! Which is to say that it was not "designed" for our comfort, convenience, or even safety. If we want to live on a planet that is both safe and pleasant to live on, we shall ultimately have to make one (or more).

Since such a task far exceeds our present capabilities, the only recourse we presently have is to modify the planet we currently inhabit in such directions as make it safer and more pleasant for us to live on.

To dominate nature instead of being dominated by it.

You believe, of course, that such a course will only "make things worse"...that humans are incurable fuckups who will "never get it right". That strikes me as a rather peculiar form of pessimism...it almost sounds like "original sin".

Some have argued that humans are "conservative" by nature -- inherently opposed to substantive change. Anything "new" is "scary".

I think that's true about some humans...like yourself, for example. But in my own case (and that of others!), I've "come a long way baby" from the days when my ancestors lived in trees and gathered ripe fruit for a living. I am not content with "things as they are" and refuse, insofar as I am able, to submit to them.

Indeed, what even I sometimes find astonishing is how much things need to be changed.

quote:

But, people who complain of earthquakes and build brick/concrete houses (when they have the choice, unlike in Pakistan) should not complain when their houses fall down.


Few of us have any choice in building materials no matter where we live. These decisions are presently made by the capitalist class in their own interests...not ours.

It's been known for a long time that wooden frame buildings are most resistant to earthquakes while masonry buildings are most resistant to hurricanes. There are known techniques for strengthening both kinds of structures against the dangers which are most threatening to them.

But as long as decision-making is confined to a wealthy elite, those decisions will be made from economic (profit-maximizing) motives.

Safety is a secondary consideration under capitalism. Do you think the ruling class cries itself to sleep every night over the more than 1,000 Katrina deaths?
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First posted at RevLeft on October 22, 2005
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I was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and for about 48 hours after the storm passed through. I cannot tell you "what really happened" in the Superdome or in and around the Convention Center.

I can tell you that in the working class neighborhood where I lived, the supermarket was looted of food, bottled water, cigarettes, and alcoholic beverages before the winds died down...and that much of the "loot" was freely shared by the "looters" and other neighborhood residents. We knew things were going to be bad...but we had no idea how bad it was going to get.

I did not "evacuate", I fled. As far as my neighborhood was concerned, all public services collapsed. There was no food to be had anywhere. The city water supply was shut down...meaning no fire protection. An unknown number of police simply abandoned the city -- I saw with my own eyes a New Orleans police car parked in a motel parking lot 180 miles west of New Orleans.

I can tell you that there were people in my building who depended on dialysis treatments or insulin...and who were prepared to die -- knowing that nothing would be done for them. The city's hospitals ran out of gasoline to power their generators about 36 hours after the storm. The "911" emergency telephone system went down. There were no ambulances available.

I can tell you what I saw while crossing the bridge across the Mississippi River to leave New Orleans...hundreds of small groups of people walking across the bridge, abandoning the dying city.

It has since been reported that most of the people who died in New Orleans were elderly...the heat, the lack of food and water, etc. was "too much" for them to handle. I could very well have been among them.

I do give the bourgeois media the credit for obtaining assistance for New Orleans. The constant pictures of corpses in the streets or floating in the flood waters became a public-relations nightmare for the Bush administration.

I do not know and don't much care if any of the "atrocity stories" were true or not. The real atrocity was the complete and abysmal failure of local, state, and federal authorities to prepare for or effectively respond to the hurricane. Some of the blunders have already become public and probably many more will come to light.

Remedies will be costly...so if I know capitalism, nothing effective will be done.

Until capitalism is history in North America, I consider it unnecessarily reckless to live within 350 miles of the U.S. gulf coast. Believe me, nothing will be done to help you if you are a storm victim.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 25, 2005
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quote:

You're an intelligent person so you must have not underestimated the storms capacity? With your days of warning why didn't you get out of there? Even if it meant walking with a rucksack on your back and camping on some high ground further away you'd of ended up much better placed.


I have been through a fair number of tropical storms and category 1 hurricanes in the course of my life...and it was "no big deal". I was living in a building constructed of concrete blocks...so I did not fear wind damage. And I was living only a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River -- on the "rim" of the New Orleans "bowl"...so flooding was not something to worry about unless the really massive Mississippi River levees broke.

It never occurred to me that this storm would result in the massive failure of the levee system throughout New Orleans...resulting in the destruction of 80% of the city and the total collapse of organized society.

I have learned a few things from this experience, of course. One should plan to evacuate, if at all practical, as soon as a hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico. Fill up the tank with gas; move your valuables into your vehicle, gather all the papers that you'll need; etc. There is a possibility that you may never be able to return...so don't leave anything behind that you really want to keep. Your plan should be to leave before any sort of official call for evacuation is issued. Your goal is any kind of sizable town at least 350 miles northwest of the likely hurricane landfall.

You will need enough cash to spend at least three weeks in a motel; look for one with kitchenettes. The American Red Cross paid motel bills for hundreds of thousands of refugees from Katrina and Rita...but don't count on them for picking up your tab.

A very large number of refugees received emergency assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but don't count on that money! Many tens of thousands of bona fide victims of Katrina and Rita are still waiting for that money.

I think you'll better understand the mind-set of at least 100,000 or so people in New Orleans who did not evacuate before the storm now; we did not have the resources to leave nor did we realize that everything was going to completely collapse. We anticipated a week or so without electricity and perhaps having to live on peanut butter and crackers and bottled water until the stores re-opened. We regarded hurricanes as an "annoyance"...not a city-destroying disaster.

One neighborhood meeting in New Orleans a few days ago was informed that it would be eight months before power would be restored. In addition to which, each one of the flooded homes and apartment buildings must be completely re-wired by law before the power is turned on to that particular building.

In my opinion, half or more of the people that used to live in New Orleans will never return. There's nothing to go back to.

It's said that about 160,000 homes and apartments were destroyed. The rents on habitable apartments there have doubled and will probably double again. Only workers under contract to government agencies (who pay the rents) will be able to afford to live in New Orleans for a long time to come.

The suggestion that elderly and infirm people should walk out of a city in the path of a hurricane is unrealistic. Not only do their physical limitations make that quite impossible, but you do not want to be outdoors during a major hurricane -- the flying debris makes that an especially hazardous position to be in.

Most structures will withstand a major hurricane without serious damage. It's what happens after the storm that causes the real problems. Our "civilization" (such as it is) is very fragile. Deprived of electricity (its material base), it starts to "come apart" in a fairly short period of time.

Every American city is about one week from what happened in New Orleans or worse -- a week without power plunges us back into barbarism or something very close to that.

Which makes me wonder. How is it that we are still generating and distributing power "late-19th century style"? You know, string a wire on a pole and hope that a high wind will "never" knock it down. I am not an engineer and have never run across any reference to a more durable and reliable technology for distributing electricity to modern cities. I do not understand why transformers are still built in such a way as to resemble the performance of Russian television sets -- you know, they just blow up at random. I cannot understand why electrical substations in hurricane vulnerable areas are not fully protected against possible storm-damage.

But my "best guess" is that these short-comings have something to do with profit and loss statements...in other words, capitalism. High quality engineering costs money...and might even pose a threat to "executive compensation".

And we can't have that, can we?
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First posted at RevLeft on October 26, 2005
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quote:

I suppose you don't have places with cables going underground along with gas and water?


A few parts of New Orleans have underground power lines...but there are problems.

One is that the water table in New Orleans is only a couple of feet below ground in most of the city...so lines would have to be protected against water with 100% efficiency.

Another is that when a hurricane blows over one of the massive oak trees found throughout New Orleans, the roots rip up gas lines, water pipes, and power lines.

What might work would be a massive network of "utility tunnels" constructed 20 feet or more below the surface -- it would contain all power lines, natural gas lines, electrical lines, telephone lines, cable lines.

But even if such a network of "utility tunnels" existed, something would still need to be done about the problem of electrical sub-stations being left vulnerable to hurricane or flood damage...or the seemingly rampant unreliability of transformers.

And there is a more "radical" solution that has been mentioned. Don't build cities in areas prone to catastrophic disasters. Treat the American gulf coast the same way we treat the Alaska north coast. The only people who live there are the people who need to live there for occupational reasons.

Sure, the gulf coast is a remarkably pleasant climate to live in most of the time. The harsh winters characteristic of more elevated latitudes are barely felt at all -- one sees perhaps a half-inch of snow in New Orleans once every ten years. Summers are hot and humid...but air conditioning is universal even in the poorest neighborhoods.

Yet all it takes to turn this pleasant locale into "hell" is about 12 hours of hurricane force winds. It would take a massive effort to change that...and I am skeptical that American capitalism has the will to undertake a project on that scale.

Indeed, I've read recently that Louisiana politicians are complaining that most of the federal funds appropriated for rebuilding have gone unspent. It's at least questionable at this point if New Orleans and the small towns in its vicinity will ever be rebuilt.
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First posted at RevLeft on October 30, 2005
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It's a common delusion that those who govern us are "looking out for our best interests" -- but two major hurricanes should have shown everyone in the U.S. just how delusional that idea really is. The "emergency preparedness plan" everywhere here [in the path of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita] simply consisted of a loud shout: Run for your life!  
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