On Shifting Soil
The Apron Front Sink
I was in the paint store last week and the owner, Ms. Sophia, who has tracked the progress of our home repairs in gallons of paint sold, was filling me in on her own rebuild. She showed me a picture of a good looking modern home, painted a muted gold with big picture windows and a pool out back. She and her husband had bought the house cheap after it flooded post-Katrina. It was in Gentilly, a neighborhood that sits lower than most, and the house was built on a slab--no piers to give them a boost should the waters rise. I wondered how to respond. I couldn't come out and say that their investment in the house was ill-advised, but at the same time, the natural question begged to be asked. Perhaps, I thought, they lived on the Gentilly Ridge, a term that might cause mountain dwellers to scoff, but that to New Orleanians implies a few crucial feet of extra elevation.
Out of a mixture of curiosity and compunction, I made an oblique mention of her home's flood potential, along the lines of "is your home on a ridge and out of harm's way should there be another flood?" Her reply: "We sure hope so." Then she returned to her original point, which was that the countertop people wanted her to provide a template of how her apron front sink was supposed to fit into the larger cabinet scheme. And she couldn't find said template anywhere on the web. And her husband was going to ask her how much all this was going to cost, and she didn't want to lie, but at the same time she was sure to be having a painful conversation with him in a few hours.
A psychiatrist I spoke with did not entirely condemn this hope mode. Denial, she said, is an important mechanism that allows people to go on living where they have to without being derailed by fear and despair. The trick, of course, is not carrying it so far that we block out urgent feelings and practical realities that must be given their due. Outsiders can make facile judgments about what makes sense for others. But from inside a life it is more difficult to know when we have crossed the line from stalwart to stupid, as anyone who lends a teenager the family car can attest. Which decision supports a true and living current, and which caves in to fearful habit? The bold choice isn't always the bravest, and sometimes we just have to smell our way along the trail.
All the same, I wondered what kind of conversation Ms. Sophia was going to be having with her husband should their lovely house flood. For that matter, what would my husband and I say to each other if a storm turned our home inside out a second time? There probably wouldn't be all that much to discuss really. We knew the risks and chose to stay because the integrity of our lives pointed in that direction. When the jig is up, there's nothing to do but mourn and move on.
The Purple Mailbox
This spring the river came up to flood stage. I went to see it, and the river's bank-- usually a dry 20 foot slope where rip rap covers gravel stones and rats play hide and seek--was completed covered. I sat by the edge, my feet dangling only inches above the oily water, and watched the barges go by. The river looked a mile wide and effortlessly fast. The water had risen so high that the upriver spillway into Lake Pontchartrain had been opened to relieve pressure on the levees surrounding the city. Going to Baton Rouge one day, I drove past the spillway and the allotted bays were spewing river water like a giant lineup of uncapped fire hydrants. I quailed to think that this display was only a fraction of the river water curling around the city. Should the river levees go, our home would be swept away in a heartbeat. All the planning and sweaty work, the mailbox we painted purple to match the house, gone.
The purple mailbox seemed like such a good idea on a chilly day last fall, but a flood would render it a totem for human folly, a poignant joke on a mud heap. So what's a fussy homeowner to do? Both tranquility and ruin having been proven possible, it makes sense to leave room for both. Indulge in the grace notes if necessary but be prepared to have them snatched away.
An ageless challenge, dealing with human vulnerability, and for a middle class American in these early years of global warming, one couched in terms of home décor not lives at stake. Still, it's not often in U.S. culture that we admit to being powerless over natural forces. The financial buffer protecting fortunate New Orleanians from dire circumstances also affords time to ponder a fundamental question: how do we keep our balance when the soil keeps shifting, whether we like it or not?
Some people plant a flag in one camp, like the annoyingly insouciant trippers down the lane or their equally irritating opposites-- the one note doom sayers. New Orleanians are understandably a bit soured on the wonders of technology, particularly as administered by the Corps of Engineers, so we can't really take comfort in the power of concrete. But in other places, where people have not lost their infrastructural virginity, there is faith in the power of regulation and civil engineering. At dinner in downtown San Francisco, where party talk often includes a ritual mention of the ten stories of glass that will tumble into Market Street when the big quake comes, I've had sober minded citizens assure me that a Katrina-scale tragedy could never happen in that city--their prudent building codes would prevent such an outcome no matter how powerful the tremors. I nodded, more out of respect for their wish to cope with uncertainty than for my belief in their codes' ability to stand up against planetary energy.
Regardless, strong building codes are a good idea if you are going to build a city on a fault line. Such clear eyed action also makes sense in places where catastrophes are not so likely. Even communities built high and strong may find that though they are watching disasters from the sidelines today, tomorrow they may be swept up in a fandango of fire or rain. In this situation it can't hurt to have the civicly induced equivalent of sensible shoes, properly laced. Although an argument could also be made that a shapely D'orsay pump--in black satin with pearl piping, say--could provide the sass needed to keep spirits afloat through any number of jolts.
In New Orleans, D'orsay pumps have more fans than do saddle oxfords. Our Carnival season is one long, expensive tribute to the "live now for tomorrow you may die" mentality, to the point where funds and communal will that could be spent building good schools and zoning plans are spent instead on massive parades and wax masks made in Paris. Like any world view, this one is self-reinforcing; the less attention we pay to practical matters, the more likely it is that a run of the mill disaster turns into a cataclysm, and so we have every reason to live it up before the ax falls. Would we do well with better city services and less fun? Some say we should have both, and that is undoubtedly a goal worth working toward. But the trajectory of our city heads in one direction, and that has a way of concentrating energy along certain lines, for good and ill.
Our tradition of passion and pageantry extends to the Mass of Thanksgiving held by the Ursuline nuns at the Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. The mass has been said every January since 1815 when Andrew Jackson's ragtag army defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. With the threat of invasion removed, the nuns began lifting their prayers for the welfare of a city that has since weathered floods, fires, and epidemics. These days people say, not always with a smirk, that the nuns' mass helps keep the city safe from hurricanes.
As my family drove out of town the day before Katrina hit, we were listening to announcements on WWL, a local AM station with a broad geographic reach. I pricked up my ears when Archbishop Hannan took the microphone and began praying. He began with a traditional opening line: "Oh Lady of Prompt Succor--Hasten to Help Us!" and continued in that vein, asking for safety from harm as the storm came ashore but also for mercy and aid in what would surely be the hard days to come. There was no fooling around; this was a message for heaven broadcast on New Orleans's 50,000 watt clear channel giant. We had just gone over the Huey Long Bridge in bright sun, traffic was flowing, and until he spoke I could persuade myself that this evacuation was a false alarm. But the archbishop's prayer broke the spell. Tears came to my eyes, and I knew it was going to be bad.
Perhaps the nuns' prayers that January had some effect. Hurricane Katrina did swerve away from the city at the last moment, as so many have in the past, hitting Mississippi instead. Our catastrophic flooding was due to faulty levees, not forces of nature. In one stroke the storm both validated the appeal to Our Lady and excoriated our reliance on prayers at the expense of good government.
It makes me wonder about the power of building code enforcers and nuns' voices raised in gratitude. By getting busy in the face of disaster, these men and women aren't deludedly dodging, they're determinedly weaving ribbons in hues from dun to magenta, to be whirled on the maypole that speeds us inexplicably through space. Their party may not be the only game in town, but it has a way of carrying the day. So, as disaster zones proliferate--from floods in Iowa City to tornadoes in Tennessee--it seems only sensible that the rest of us don our footwear of choice and join the jamboree