Gustav

Katrina will forever be linked to New Orleans. Rita walloped the state’s west-central side. But Gustav was a Louisiana event. If ever a state could claim a hurricane, Gustav was it. Totally spoiling a Labor Day weekend, the storm forced surges across the coastline and then climbed up the state’s center, knocking out Baton Rouge on the way to drenching most of upstate Louisiana.

Even the fields of Northeast Louisiana, though not touched by the winds, were a worry for farmers.  Nineteen inches of rain and drainage systems too full to provide immediate relief threatened the corn, cotton, soybeans, grain sorghum, rice and sweet potato patches in Tensas and Franklin parishes. At least the farmers had a home to go to; not so the fishermen of Terrebonne, Lafourche and lower Jefferson parishes.

Along Nicholson Drive in Baton Rouge, utility poles leaned dangerously as though lasered by a passing UFO. No one in the Capitol had a harder job than the person responsible for signing to the hearing-impaired whenever Gov. Bobby Jindal held one of his frequent press sessions. Always a fast talker, the young governor spurted out information at a Category 5 velocity. His recitations were sometimes difficult to follow but nonetheless impressive. He seemed in charge; the official apparatus of state government seemed organized.

New Orleans has given the world two great gifts: jazz and disaster recovery. This time officialdom from parish presidents, facing the possibility of seeing their constituencies wiped out, to feds, facing the hopes of having their reputations improved, stood together.

“God, grant me the courage to accept the things I cannot change,” so the prayer goes. “Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” To the credit of emergency planners, most of the bad experiences from Katrina were judged to be changeable. It would have taken courage not to do anything. With enough planning and funding, most things might be fixable. The wisdom is in selecting the right course.

“Contraflow” is a relatively new term in the language of Louisiana and one that gives me the creeps. It is the language of evacuation — taking to the road and not knowing if the home you left will be there when you return. “Better to err on the side of caution,” those who order evacuations will always say. True, but not that much better. The emotional toll of evacuations is enormous and runs against the instincts of non-nomadic humans to want to be home and to protect their property.

Gustav left us with some encouraging news and a serious challenge. The former is that we are building better levees and that we have improved emergency preparation, but the latter reveals that we can hardly expect to grow as a state, attract new industry and keep many of our own people if there is an annual evacuation or two. Louisiana is unparalleled as a wonderfully charming state, and I will never live anywhere else, but after one too many contraflows, Arkansas starts looking better.

We cannot prevent hurricanes, but we can build even better levees, buffer the wetlands, require that buildings be built stronger and make the electrical grid systems less breakable.

Congratulations, Louisiana, for having survived Gustav. And may I be the first to sincerely wish you a very merry Labor Day 2009. We deserve it.

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