One-Hundred-Year Storm

photo of house with flag over fence
A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

With another hurricane approaching the Louisiana coast this weekend (Delta? does that mean they ran out names for this year? Yes, yes it does), the NYRB reviews a new book about New Orleans – Katrina: A History, 1915-2015:

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

It’s all one story – the land development, the discovery of oil, the expansive canal digging, the sinking, the demolished wetlands, the unprotected infrastructure at risk from large storms exacerbated the very activity of said infrastructure – that bleeds out into a completely understandable loss of civic faith. A few get rich, many suffer, told and re-told over and over again, from slave markets to oil refineries. Katrina, a long time in the making, can but remind us of other slow-motion catastrophes coming due just now.

Living on Ruskin Time

John Ruskin, 19th century man about Britain, is a writer introduced here previously. The following is from Letter LXXXVII of  his Fors Clavigera.

By my promise that, in the text of this series of Fors, there shall be “no syllable of complaint, or of scorn,” I pray the reader to understand that I in no wise intimate any change of feeling on my own part. I never felt more difficulty in my life than I do, at this instant, in not lamenting certain things with more than common lament, and in not speaking of certain people with more than common scorn.

Nor is it possible to fulfil these rightly warning functions of Fors without implying some measure of scorn. For instance, in the matter of choice of books, it is impossible to warn my scholars against a book, without implying a certain kind of contempt for it. For I never would warn them against any writer whom I had complete respect for,— however adverse to me, or my work. There are few stronger adversaries to St. George than Voltaire. But my scholars are welcome to read as much of Voltaire as they like. His voice is mighty among the ages. Whereas they are entirely forbidden Miss Martineau,— not beeause she is an infidel, but because she is a vulgar and foolish one.*

Do not say, or think, I am breaking my word in asserting, once for all, with reference to example, this necessary principle. This very vow and law that I have set myself, must be honoured sometimes in the breach of it, so only that the transgression be visibly not wanton or incontinent….

. . .

It can’t be the end of this Fors however, I find, (15th February, half-past seven morning,) for I have forgotten twenty things I meant to say; and this instant, in my morning’s reading, opened and read, being in a dreamy state, and not knowing well what I was doing,— of all things to find a new message!— in the first chapter of Proverbs.

I was in a dreamy state, because I had got a letter about the Thirlmere debate, which was to me, in my proposed quietness, like one of the voices on the hill behind the Princess Pairzael. And she could not hold, without cotton in her ears, dear wise sweet thing. But luckily for me, I have just had help from the Beata Vigri at Venice, who sent me her own picture and St. Catherine’s, yesterday, for a Valentine; and so I can hold on:— only just read this first of Proverbs with me, please.

“The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel.

“To know wisdom and instruction.”

(Not to ‘opine’ them.)

“To perceive the words of understanding.”

(He that hath eyes, let him read he that hath ears, hear. And for the Blind and the Deaf,— if patient and silent by the right road-side,— there may also be some one to say ‘He is coming.’)

“To receive the instruction of WISDOM, JUSTICE, and JUDGMENT, and EQUITY.”

Four things,— oh friends,— which you have not only to perceive, but to receive. And the species of these four things, and the origin of their species,— you know them, doubtless, well,— in these scientific days?

“To give subtlety to the simple; to the young man, knowledge and discretion.”

(Did ever one hear, lately, of a young man’s wanting either? Or of a simple person who wished to be subtle? Are not we all subtle even to the total defeat of our hated antagonists, the Prooshians and Rooshians?)

“A wise man will hear and will increase learning.”

(e.g. “A stormy meeting took place in the Birmingham Town Hall last night. It was convened by the Conservative Association for the purpose of passing a vote of confidence in the Government; but the Liberal Association also issued placards calling upon Liberals to attend. The chair was taken by Mr. Stone, the President of the Conservative Association, but the greater part of his speech was inaudible even upon the platform, owing to the frequent bursts of applause, groans, and Kentish fire, intermingled with comic songs. Flags bearing the words ‘Vote for Bright’ and ‘Vote for Gladstone’ were hoisted, and were torn to pieces by the supporters of the Government. Dr. Sebastian Evans moved, and Alderman Brinsley seconded, a resolution expressing confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. Mr. J. S. Wright moved, and Mr. E. W. Dale seconded, an amendment, but neither speaker could make himself heard; and on the resolution being put to the meeting it was declared carried, but the Liberal speakers disputed the decision of the chairman, and asserted that two-thirds of the meeting were against the resolution.”— Pall Mall Gazette, February 13th, 1878.)

“And a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.”

(Yes, in due time; but oh me — over what burning marle, and by what sifting of wheat!)

“To understand a proverb, and the interpretation.” (Yes, truly — all this chapter I have known from my mother’s knee — and never understood it till this very hour.)

“The words of the wise and their dark sayings.”

(Behold, this dreamer cometh,— and this is his dream.)

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

(e.g. “Herr ——, one of the Socialist leaders, declaring that he and his friends, since they do not fear earthly Powers, are not likely to be afraid of Powers of any other kind.”— Pall Mall Gazette, same date.**)

“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”

The father is to teach the boy’s reason; and the mother, his will. He is to take his father’s word, and to obey his mother’s — look, even to the death.

(Therefore it is that all laws of holy life are called ‘mother-laws’ in Venice. — Fors, 1877, page 26.)

“For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head.”

Alas, yes!— once men were crowned in youth with the gold of their father’s glory; when the hoary head was crowned also in the way of righteousness.

And so they went their way to prison, and to death.

But now, by divine liberty, and general indication, even Solomon’s own head is not crowned by any means. — Fors, 1877, p. 92.

“And chains about thy neck”— (yes, collar of the knightliest. Let not thy mother’s Mercy and Truth forsake thee) bind them about thy neck, write them upon the tables of thine heart. She may forget: yet will not I forget thee.

(Therefore they say — of the sweet mother laws of their loving God and lowly Christ — ‘Disrumpamus vincula eorum et projiciamus a nobis, jugum ipsorum.’)

Nay — nay, but if they say thus then?

“Let us swallow them up alive, as the grave.”

(Other murderers kill, before they bury;— but YOU, you observe, are invited to bury before you kill. All these things, when once yon know their meaning, have their physical symbol quite accurately beside them. Read the story of the last explosion in Yorkshire — where a woman’s husband and her seven sons fell — all seven — all eight — together: about the beginning of barley harvest it was, I think.)

“And whole as those that go down into the pit.”

(Other murderers kill the body only, but YOU are invited to kill ‘whole’— body and soul. Yea — and to kill with such wholeness that the creatures shall not even know they ever had a soul, any more than a frog of Egypt. You will not, think you. Ah, but hear yet — for second thoughts are best.)

“We shall find all precious substance. We shall fill our houses with spoil.”

(ALL precious substance. Is there anything in those houses round the park that could possibly be suggested as wanting? — And spoil,— all taken from the killed people. Have they not sped — have they not divided the spoil — to every man a damsel or two. Not one bit of it all worked for with your own hand,— even so, mother of Sisera.)

“Cast in thy lot among us.”— (The Company is limited.)

“Let us all have one”— (heart? no, for none of us have that;— mind? no, for none of us have that;— but let us all have one —) “purse.” And now — that you know the meaning of it — I write to the end my morning’s reading.

My son, walk not thou in the way with them.

They lurk privily for their own lives.

Refrain thy foot from their path. For their feet run to evil, and hasten to shed blood.

Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.

And they lay wait for their own blood.