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The Tentacle


October 7, 2005

Come on, Tammy

Roy Meachum

At this writing, the weather gurus are predicting a good soaking rain by the time you read my thoughts, courtesy of one of those tropical storms that blow up frequently in this season; this one's called Tammy. They're all we had during my growing-up years in New Orleans.

Hurricanes happened someplace else. Frequent and heavy rains came; occasionally winds would flap the palm trees. We knew enough to shut the shutters that adorned every house when I was young. But possible evacuation wasn't even mentioned.

Floods were our greatest worry, especially after the Mississippi ran amok in 1927, breeching levees up and down the river, leaving some 700,000 homeless. It was after that disaster that state and local governments eagerly relinquished control to Washington; they accepted the reality that avoiding catastrophe along America's greatest river was beyond their capabilities, especially since few natural disasters hit a single jurisdiction.

In the decade before World War II, the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers designed and constructed what was generally considered a magnificent system, consisting primarily of the earthen berms, some over 30 feet high, that kept the flood plains in Louisiana and Mississippi dry. These are levees; they all held during the recent hurricanes, in part because of the spillway built out of 1927's lessons, to lower the river's pressure and height.

Two words' constant misuse by the media over the past month has struck my soul like chalk screeching on a blackboard.

Nothing about New Orleans is Cajun. My great-great grandmother Brignac's family fled persecution by the British in Canada; I am Cajun through her. But the city is not. I was brought up in a culture properly called Creole, which means a blending of European colonial with native strains.

Cajuns lived, worked and cooked in the country, around Lafayette and Lake Charles. They brought their spices and pots and pans into the city only after their cuisine became a big hit nationally.

Far more egregious in my view was the widespread and mistaken impression that levees collapsed; they did not. New Orleans drowned primarily because of floodwalls; the deluge came almost entirely from Lake Pontchartrain, not the river. It was caused by the irreparable political manipulation of the Corps of Engineers. Let's take one example.

The full fury of Katrina stormed up from the Gulf of Mexico because of seldom-used "straightening" channel meant to make the Mississippi River more accommodating to super freighters. That's how normally flat and flaccid Pontchartrain is.

The Corps long ago suggested the super-size channel be closed down and barriers replaced. Louisiana politicians wouldn't let it go because port authorities wanted to preserve the option, just in case. The Army engineers totally rely on congressional grants so nothing happened.

At the same time the canals that scattered harbor access were subject to more political manipulation. Great gobs of money went to pet projects, at the expense of flood control, as we learned because of Katrina.

Further aggravating the decision, as I found out in a phone call this week, a barge left for its safety in the 17th street canal, became a battering ram and was at least partly responsible for the devastation from the lake.

Contractors, working under Corps supervision, however, failed to meet basic specifications; one segment of the floodwall was not hooked onto the adjoining sections, as Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center reported.

A Holy Cross classmate called. He and his family fled to Lafayette where they safely weathered Rita. He thinks his home on the lake's south shore was flooded out, but who can tell? I haven't heard of the flood topping six feet up there or in the city. Even my school, which sits on the "wrong" side of the Industrial Canal, suffered the same level. Nearby St. Bernard Parish is another story, of course.

The greatest danger on the immediate horizon is the threat of more rain. The irony should not be ignored. Everyone in this area prays for Tropical Storm Tammy to break a drought that turned serious almost exactly the same time that New Orleans went under water.

Pushkin and I have conferred about the possible problem that will come to his daily promenade. English pointers are famous for their skills as hunters, going after birds, and that means water. But not this guy. He hates rain.

On my part, I'm willing to put up with my best friend's sour mood if that means enough watering to keep the outside plants alive for the few weeks before they make my garden room bloom.

Come on, Tammy!



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