Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Disaster has its way

A man hands a child over a fence Tuesday as a group of residents moved to get to Interstate 10, which was one of the places where people could reach high ground in New Orleans on Tuesday. Times Picayune photo, by Kathy Anderson

By chance, in this week when the city of New Orleans was reduced to a shallow toxic soup and some million or so residents of Louisiana found themselves homeless refugees, I've been reading Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. Mike Davis' strange, baroque tour through the natural and human disasters that have shaped and are themselves reshaped by Southern California's real and imagined environment. The book offers an apocalyptic vision perhaps almost equal to Katrina's horrors, as we are now seeing them in photos and on video.

Maybe it needed an Angeleno to find a spokesman for the New Orleans disaster. Kevin Sack in the LA Times tells the story:

In 1718, French colonist Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville ignored his engineers' warnings about the hazards of flooding and mapped a settlement in a pinch of swampland between the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and a massive lake to the north. . . .

But when the rainfall brought by Katrina breached levees and overwhelmed the city's pumping stations, the catastrophic consequences of Bienville's miscalculation could no longer be ignored.

. . .

"The river gives and the river basically takes away," said novelist Richard Ford, who lived in New Orleans until last year. "There really isn't a vocabulary that I have access to that describes this. And as always, it's the least able to recover from this disaster who will suffer most intensely." . . . "If you live in New Orleans," he said, "you've decided that whatever it is about that city that you like is more important than whatever anxiety you feel.". . .

"That's the structure of living in New Orleans," he said. "People feel that the place is doomed at some point, but they're going to stay. It's just a way of dealing with the end that's different from other ways of dealing with the end."
Mike Davis also aims to describe how a society built in a violent, disaster-prone land evolves its own sometimes venal, sometimes merely delusional, approach to survival. From earthquakes to human sprawl, from fire to tornados, from encroaching "wildlife" to rioting human life, Los Angeles sells Eden-like paradise in the midst of real and imagined looming threats.

The results are often tragic as when wild fires periodically sweep through luxurious hillside homes in Malibu Canyon and urban fires destroy cheaply built tenement buildings in Downtown; in neither case are fire prevention authorities able to enforce rational precautions. In the former, restricting building in dangerous chaparral prone to Santa Ana winds would reduce the profits of developers; in Downtown, enforcing building codes would lighten the pockets of landlords. Neither happens and residents of both ecologies continue to face frequent killer fires. As in New Orleans, "those least able to recover will suffer the most intensely." In Los Angeles these days, the sufferers are likely to be new Mexican and Central American immigrants -- in New Orleans, they appear to be largely poor African Americans.

In a catalogue of disasters, you have to take what humor you can amidst the pain; Davis manages to make the history of Southern Californian tornados downright funny in a chapter called "Our Secret Kansas." Los Angeles is a "tornado hotspot," hit by a twister on average every 2.2 years. But since the 1920s when the city was heavily sold to migrants from the Oklahoma and Arkansas escaping funnel clouds, local media, to this day, almost never refer to these wind events as "tornados." They are "baby cyclones," "waterspouts," "freak winds," etc. If the T-word becomes unavoidable, the event is "the first ever tornado" or "a California twister . . .strong and fearsome, but lacking the awesome destructive power of similar phenomena frequent in other parts of the country."

New Orleans is too close to Katrina for the brutal quirky humor of disaster to have much poked its head up. The Times-Picayune soldiering on with its mission to record "Everything New Orleans", made a weak try at the light touch:

Ms. Mae's Bar has been open around the clock at Napoleon and Magazine streets for 11 years. The bar stayed open during Hurricane Katrina, but owner Mae Brigham decided to shut down Tuesday at 1 a.m.

"Everybody was just worn out," she said.

But Brigham reopened about 9 a.m. later that morning, partly as a defense against looters. The bar is located across from a police station, and Brigham figured looters would be unlikely to attack a busy bar, especially since some of the patrons might be police officers.

Probably it is too early to celebrate local fortitude as helicopters buzz overhead making rooftop rescues -- but they try. For immediate and harrowing news from New Orleans, try the TP Newslogs.

To give private donations for relief, the standard charity is the Red Cross. Of course what devastated New Orleans really needs is genuine public aid: a new government that uses the wealth of the nation to build infrastructure like levees and its police powers to assist disaster victims, not invade other countries. But getting that is going to take even more than succoring those whose lives have been torn up by the hurricane.

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