Curtain Raiser

The Earth Moves; We Hurt, Colltalers

The mega earthquake that hit Nepal Saturday has already triggered a familiar set of obvious realizations, callous statements, and the usual few insights that could potentially make a difference going forward, but most likely will soon be ignored by all.
We’re sure that those who can help, will, and in fact, we wish to express our sadness and solidarity with the ones having their time of reckoning. But we can’t help it but see a worn out sequence of reactions about to play out as it has many times before.
As aftershocks and the search for victims continue, news coverage will be centered on the devastation and on calls for international aid in the weeks ahead, with the occasional proverbial digression about the unpredictability of natural disasters.
Not to be flippant, but one can be sure that there’ll be wall-to-wall reporting, dramatic rescue footage, and the customary show of human solidarity, which is authentic but fits a bit too snugly into the calculated media approach to this kind of tragedy.
And just as predictably, a few weeks down the road, news organizations are bound to switch gears, and divert our attention elsewhere – in all likelihood, to something tragic as well. For all but those directly affected by the quake, it’ll be a new morning.
For the Nepalese, of course, this darkest of the nights will remain just as bleak and insufferable for months and possibly years. Just as it happened in 1934, when the slightly more powerful Nepal-Bihar earthquake killed an estimated 17,000 people.
Casualties may be higher this time around. While it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, just as it was in the 1930s, Nepal’s population has swelled to 28-million people, almost six times what it was then, in a mostly chaotic and inordinate growth.
If there’s a parallel to Nepal’s quagmire it is, unfortunately, equally impoverished Haiti. The 2010 quake killed 200 thousand of its 10 million population, despite being less powerful than the one in Asia, and five years later, some parts of the country still look as if it it all happened yesterday. $10 billion in international aid has seemingly sunk in the open sewages of capital Port-au-Prince.
We’ll purposely skip over the aforementioned grandstanding we’re condemned to witness in times of grief and human misery, but let’s see what kind of non-obvious insights we can gather, without pontificating too much on someone else’s worst nightmare.
First, there’s the glaring irony that Mount Everest and the Himalayas, de facto drivers of Nepal’s economy, are also where a major earthquake seems to take place every 80 years or so. The giant mountains grow four millimeters annually exactly because of the unbelievable pressure between two tectonic plates under the Kathmandu Valley rubbing against each other for millions of years.
But that’s the inevitable part of the equation. Overpopulation, poor construction standards, and simply lack of urban planning, on the other hand, are at least technically, not as inevitable. Then again, considering the world’s current income distribution, Continue reading

New Orleans Reborn

The Pain Is Still Big &
It Hasn’t Got Any Easier

It’s been five years since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Louisiana coast, drowning New Orleans, killing over 1,800 and leaving more than $80 billion worth of damage on its wake. It was one of the darkest hours among so many dark hours of the Bush administration.
Before any help was at hand, wave after wave pummeled the Big Easy and leveled some of its poorest neighborhoods. Entire city blocks were destroyed beyond recognition and remain covered in debris. A lot of what’s been known about the place may have disappeared for good.
Residents who could not flee the city in time sough refuge in the ill-prepared Superdome and Convention Center, where soon enough they ran out of food, water and minimal hygiene. In fact, conditions were so unsanitary that the corpses of many who died there remained for days side by side with the barely living.
The reputation of federal agencies such as FEMA, which up to then had a clean record of efficiency, was ruined under the president’s personal friend Michael Brown, whose only prior professional credential was his past as a rodeo booker, and who’s still to take full responsibility for his omissions and mismanagement during the disaster.
The Coast and the National Guard, other government agencies, and countless anonymous volunteers, all put up heroic efforts but lacked crucial resources needed in the aftermath of the storm. Bureaucracy and a misplaced sense of pride prevented equipment and tools, such as portable toilets and water treatment systems, sent by other states and foreign nations, from ever reaching the victims.
And so on and so forth. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was more a consequence of insensitiveness of a president who refused to cut short his vacation time to show up at the scene of the devastation and lead the efforts, than any amount of rain which wound up drenching New Orleans.
48 hours before landfall, every meteorologist and weather expert in the U.S. suspected the city’s floodwalls and water levees would be under too much stress and risked being breached; evacuation of the Lower Ninth Ward should’ve started then, not two days after the storm was already upon the city.
Today, thanks mostly to independent efforts, New Orleans seems to be experiencing a qualified recovery. The noble resilience of its communities, driven by the cultural vibrancy their city was always known for, are the main factors in the commendable accomplishments achieved. But it’s still far from what it once was, and let’s face it: the Big Easy was already being plagued by poverty and indifference from federal authorities even before Katrina.
Whole lower-income housing projects, which were evacuated during the storm and whose management prevented its residents back years after that, were quietly demolished to give away to big speculative real estate developments that are sitting mostly idly.
This time, the collapse of the U.S. housing market was the culprit du jour to justify thousands of square feet funded and built in part by public money, but still unoccupied.
It also remains to be seen whether the rebuilt levees are capable to withstand another surge similar to Katrina’s. Many studies point to vulnerabilities in the Army Corps’ approach at fixing the broken walls and the new floodgates that were just installed around the city, as Harry Shearer’s documentary “The Big Uneasy,” for example, seems to show.
Whether the Obama administration will make good on its promises to help New Orleans come back economically remains to be seen. But the city also needs help preserving its cultural diversity, supporting its aging and poorest neighborhoods, and restoring its status as one of the most original and unique cities in the U.S. and the world.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
I miss it both night and day.
I know that it’s wrong… this feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The longer I stay away.