August 31, 2005

What Happens When a City Dies?

It's hard to write a powerful personal essay about the localized apocalypse in New Orleans without having personally experienced it, but Karrie Higgins pulled it off.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:52 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Unbearable Flatness

I live only an hour or so from the Pacific Ocean, but a mountain range stands between me and it. Storm surges and tsunamis aren't an issue at all. Some Oregon coastal towns are built right next to water, but many are built on top of large or small cliffs.

It's not like that at all on the Gulf Coast. Here is Marc Cooper, who was down there recently.

Just a few months ago I spent five days in Biloxi and Gulfport. As I drove the coastal highway I was jarred by the flatness of it all.

Here in Southern California the Pacific Coast Highway is almost always elevated from from the beach. Much of the coast is lined with sloping rises and even palisades that offer at least the illusion of protection.

But as I drove up and down that Mississippi strip of road the flat, gulf waters on one side of the car looked to be absolutely level with the city on the other. Only a small sliver of beach stood in between. I wondered what could keep an elevated tide from simply flooding everything and everyone in its path.

The answer, apparently, was nothing.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:51 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 30, 2005

American Refugee

Bill (Pundit Guy) points to a blog by a woman named Laurel who started her site just two days ago. It is called, simply, Hurricane Katrina Refugee. Hopefully she can shut it down soon.

Our road trip was eerie. When we pulled away from the house, I really thought we'd be back in a couple of days. As we pulled out of our neighborhood subdivision onto the main road, there were cars backed up for over a mile waiting to get onto Interstate-10. We would have been there for over an hour. We definitely wanted to put some distance between us and the approaching storm quickly, so we took some back roads for about 8 miles and got on the interstate at the next exit.

Traffic was not to bad at first, but it slowed down to 15 mph on and off for the first 3 hours. The strangest part was seeing the "contraflow" in action. Both sides of the interstate were leading outbound. Watching cars all going the same direction on both sides of the interstate was like watching some Hollywood disaster movie, only worse, because I was in it.

That's when I really lost it. Tears started flowing silently down my face and it all became so real. This time those hyper media fanatics really meant what they said.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Lake New Orleans

God, it just keeps getting worse. Downtown New Orleans is flooded, houses are breaking off their foundations and floating away, and some neighborhoods are completely underwater. The governor just ordered everyone - including those in the Superdome - to evacuate.

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The WWL TV station is live-blogging updates as they come in. Keep checking that link because more are added every couple of minutes. Below are some of today’s highlights.
10:15 A.M. A spokeswoman describes Jefferson Parish as a "very dangerous" place. Jackie Bauer says there's gas leaks everywhere, water needs to be boiled, there's no commercial power, no pumping stations and the water's toxic.

And there's still some deep water in some neighborhoods. Bauer says there are other dangers -- snakes in the water, other vermin, loose dogs and cats everywhere. She says -- quoting now -- "We kind of have to fight for survival with them."

10:35 A.M. Governor Blanco - "Worse than our worst fears."

11:13 A.M. - Plaquemines Parish...if you are found on the street...will be arrested. Marshall law in effect.

11:35 A.M. - (AP) Downtown streets that were relatively clear in the hours after the storm were filled with 1 to 1 1/2 feet of water Tuesday morning. Water was knee-deep around the Superdome. Canal Street was literally a canal. Water lapped at the edge of the French Quarter. Clumps of red ants floated in the gasoline-fouled waters downtown.

11:43 A.M. - Councilman Byron Lee of Jefferson Parish, "This is not life as it used to be. It's like a war zone."

12:41 P.M. - Rescue efforts a priority. Clearing infrastructure to hospitals. Most streets blocked by pine trees. Slidell - A Hampton Inn on Old Spanish Trail with 20 feet. Fifteen feet of water downtown.

1:30 P.M. - --The American Red Cross says it has thousands of volunteers mobilized for the hurricane. Spokesman Bradley Hague said it's the "largest single mobilization that we've done for any single natural disaster." The organization has set up operational headquarters in Baton Rouge.

2:00 P.M. - Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi says "this is going to be the most expensive natural disaster that's hit the United States in history."

2:42 P.M. (AP) -- The question is not whether Congress will pass legislation to speed disaster relief to communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but how soon and how much. The answers: real soon and a lot.

3:12 P.M. - Senator Landrieu - Scenes are similar to what she saw after the Tsunami.

3:43 P.M. - Senator Vitter: New Orleans will "absolutely" be rebuilt.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:02 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 29, 2005

What Katrina Wrought

Thank God New Orleans is still standing. The city is in absolutely horrid shape, probably the worst in its history. But it’s there. I was stunned numb when I heard meteorologists say there was a chance it could be destroyed. Cities aren’t supposed to be destroyed anymore. What is this, the Middle Ages?

There is no city in America I want to visit more than I want to visit New Orleans. I’ve been talking about how I need to go there for years, but I keep putting it off for no particular reason. It never would have occurred to me that I need to see that city (or any other city) before it gets wiped off the map. That’s supposed to be the stuff of bad Hollywood movies, not the Weather Channel.

Looks like it could be quite a while before I get down there. And it looks like some people can never go home there again.

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UPDATE: It ain't over yet. Lake Pontchartrain is now spilling into New Orleans through a huge breach in the levee.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:13 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 28, 2005

The Storm From Hell

Category Five Hurricane Katrina will most likely slam into New Orleans before I wake up Monday morning.

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This three year-old article highlighted by Glenn Reynolds does not make for encouraging reading.

And there's another reason why scientists worry more about hurricanes every single year. There's always been a huge natural buffer that helps protect New Orleans from storms. There are miles of wetlands between here and the Gulf of Mexico: they slow hurricanes down as they blow in from the sea. But that buffer is disappearing. Every year, a chunk of wetlands the size of Manhattan crumbles and turns into open water.

Joe Suhayda explains, "So the hurricane can move closer to the city before it starts to decrease. So in effect, the city is moving closer to the Gulf as each year goes by."

And he says, it's partly because of those levees along the Mississippi River. When they stopped the river from flooding, they also prevented the wetlands from getting the regular doses of floodwater and mud that they need to survive. Studies show that if the wetlands keep vanishing over the next few decades, then you won't need a giant storm to devastate New Orleans — a much weaker, more common kind of hurricane could destroy the city too.

Here’s another worrisome article that is also almost three years old - therefore it is not part of any Katrina-related hype.
Why is New Orleans so vulnerable? Try these three main reasons:

* Sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, most of the city lies below sea level. A flood that gushes over shielding levees (earthen walls built in the late 1800s to protect against river overflow) would submerge New Orleans underwater.

* Marshes, fresh and saltwater swamps of mud and diverse plant life, divide New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. They once acted as barriers from storm surges--high water accompanying storms. Now marshes are quickly eroding, or wearing away. This is partly because levees block and reroute the Mississippi's periodic flooding cycles, which spread mud and sediment (rock particles) that shore up marshes. In some places, the gulf has receded 32 to 48 kilometers (20 to 30 miles) closer to New Orleans.

* The number and intensity of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes tend to increase in cycles every few decades, experts say. "We've just entered a more active phase," says Willoughby (see "How Hurricanes Form," p. 24).

I heard broadcasters on the radio this evening say that tens of thousands could die, that New Orleans skyscrapers could topple, that much of the city could be completely destroyed and lost forever. God I hope they’re wrong.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:21 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

An American in Iraq

Kerry Dupont is travel blogging in Iraq. She has guts. Go read.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:38 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 26, 2005

No Mourning for Greater Israel

I briefly felt sympathy for the Israeli settlers forced to evacuate Gaza and some of the northern West Bank settlements. But it didn’t last long. They should never, ever, have moved there in the first place. Anyone with sense should have known the Palestinians who lived there already would need to be made citizens of equal standing in a new larger Israel if Israelis would not eventually withdraw from the territories acquired in the war of ’67.

The Greater Israel movement in no way excuses the Greater Palestine movement to abolish the state of Israel “from the river to the sea.” Likewise, the Greater Palestine movement can not excuse Greater Israel. I am not playing a moral equivalency game here. Far better to build a house where it does not belong than blow up a cafe or a bus. But it is not necessary for the Israeli settler movement to be as morally bad as Hamas or Islamic Jihad for the movement to still be morally bad.

In a perfect world, both “greater” movement would be defeated simultaneously. But the world is far from perfect, as it always has been, and Palestinian society is more dysfunctional and corrupt than Israeli society. So the Greater Israel movement is being defeated before the Greater Palestine movement, if only because the intifada has been largely walled off from Israel proper. (Critics of Israel’s security fence should acknowledge that it is the very thing that makes Israeli withdrawal even possible.)

Leon Weiseltier in the New Republic says those who support Israel’s right to exist and it’s right to defend itself should not shed any tears.

Even faced with the idea of Greater Palestine, it is impossible not to rejoice in the defeat of the idea of Greater Israel. It was always a foul idea, morally and strategically. It promoted the immediate ecstasy of the few above the eventual safety of the many; it introduced the toxins of messianism and mysticism into the politics of a great modern democracy; it preferred chosenness to human rights; it subordinated laws to visions, and the Jewish state to the Jewish millennium; it worshiped soil in a primitive, almost un-Jewish way. The settlers of the West Bank and Gaza are not a Jewish vanguard, they are a Jewish sect; and in their insistence that the destiny of their state and their society should be held hostage to the fulfillment of their metaphysical and historical conceptions, they have always displayed a sectarian self-love.

In the settlement of Netzarim earlier this year, the settlers published a book whose title might be translated as Super-Natural Living: Tales of Life in Gush Katif, a collection of testimonies about the idyll of Jewish existence in Gaza. It is chilling to read, because of its unreality. "The Arabs say to each other, and to their Jewish neighbors, that until the Jews arrived to settle in this region, there was almost no rain. It was impossible to grow anything in the sands. But since we returned here, the rains have started to fall, and the land generously produces its bounty. ... This is without a doubt the fulfillment of the prophecy [in Ezekiel] about the redemption of Israel: 'But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel.'" There are no mountains in Gaza, but never mind. The settlers in Gaza created a magical world for themselves, an introverted universe of endless miracles. They were indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the decidedly unmagical and unmiraculous effects of their enterprise in the bitter world beyond.

For this reason, when I behold the photographs of the settlers in Gaza uprooted by Israeli soldiers, empathy almost completely deserts me. I seem to have a heart of stone, and I am not entirely embarrassed by it. More precisely, I regard the eviction of the settlers as the appropriate reward for their own hearts of stone. For many other Jews gave their lives and their limbs so that these Jews could grow their holy tomatoes and study their holy texts in this desert. In order to satisfy their individual and collective aspirations, the Israeli civilians who lived in Gaza required the sacrifice of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In the years of Jewish settlement in Gaza, 230 Israelis were killed there. A substantial number of them were soldiers. Why is the life of a Jew in a uniform worth less than the life of a Jew in a greenhouse? That is stone-heartedness. And yet one hears mainly about the sacrifices of the settlers. Surely the same stirring revival of Zionist agronomy could have been accomplished in the equally arid zones a few miles to the north or the east, in a place called Israel…

These settlers were not pioneers, they were pawns--the eager and fervid pawns of various Israeli governments acting on a grandiose geopolitical scheme whose futility has finally become apparent to a majority of the citizens of Israel. For a few decades the settlers seemed to be winning, and now, at least in Gaza, they have lost. That is all. It is a tragedy for their movement, but it is not a tragedy for their nation. "As Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza," wrote a prominent rabbi in New York, "it is not only natural but also proper that we experience a keen sense of mourning over our loss." But the disengagement from Gaza is not our loss. If our interest is in the delineation of defensible borders for Israel, it is our gain. The withdrawal is an act of historical wisdom. I will not squander my powers of sorrow over these dangerous and delirious places. In the years in which 230 Israelis were killed in Gaza, moreover, 2,600 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Many of those deaths are plainly attributable to internecine Palestine violence, and more generally to the virulently rejectionist character of Palestinian nationalism; but Palestinian costs are human costs, too. Empathy is not a tribal faculty, it is a universal faculty, and such universalism is also a teaching of the Jewish tradition. The suffering in Gaza has been everywhere too great.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:16 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

August 25, 2005

Swapping Bullets for Ballots

Iraq’s draft constitution is absurdly contradictory. Just look at the following two sentences which appear right next to each other.

a. No law may contradict Islamic standards.

b. No law may contradict democratic standards.

Now, surely there are individual laws which contradict neither. But there is also no shortage of laws in the 21st century which are bound to contradict one or the other.

I suppose this sort of deadlock is a small-government libertarian’s dream scenario. And whatever the drawbacks of small-government libertarianism, it’s obviously preferable to Saddam Hussein’s full-bore totalitarianism.

In the real world, though, Iraq isn’t at all likely to become a libertarian’s paradise now or ever. Liberal secular democrats and conservative Islamists will just have to learn to accommodate each other within this legal framework if the Iraqi state is going to do anything but melt down or fly apart into pieces. Neither secularism nor Islamism at gun point are workable, acceptable, or defensible in the long run. So while most Westerners (not to mention many Iraqis) are unhappy with the Islamist line in Iraq’s constitution, it’s most likely an inevitable part of any workable package.

Anne-Marie Slaughter put it this way at TPM Café.

I never thought I would take this position, particularly given what could be at stake for the women of Iraq, but I’m going to come down on the getting it done side. Let’s just remember, the compromises that our founding fathers made to get to a constitution – mediating between slave states and free states – included one that left slavery intact and defined each slave as worth only 3/5 of a person. Fred Kaplan has pointed to the many differences between the 18th century U.S. process and the 21st century Iraqi process, but a stark similarity remains: by agreeing on a set of principles as the ground rules for a national political process you give everyone involved a stake in trying to advance their interests through that process rather than through violence or secession. That is precisely what ordinary Iraqis, of any religion or tribe, have not had. And the sudden claim of the insurgents that the "jihad of word" is akin to "jihad by sword" and thus that their supporters should vote in the October referendum means that they are beginning to recognize that there is another field to play on that they cannot afford ignore.

She’s right. Islamists do not need to be defeated utterly. They need to be brought into a democratic mainstream. They’re not our cup of tea, so to speak, and they never will be. But if they can be persuaded to swap bullets for ballots everyone wins.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:10 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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