Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

As most of you know, I grew in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Many of my extended family and friends were seriously affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I have been down to Louisiana twice since the hurricane and have reported to you about the utter devastation that we saw while driving through New Orleans and its neighbors.

You would think that I have had enough of it by now. But I am now in the midst of reading Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. If that wasn’t enough, Tuesday night I finished watching the four chapters of Spike Lee’s epic documentary on Katrina on HBO.

In many ways, Lee’s film is a graphic depiction of Douglas Brinkley’s book.

The Great Deluge tells the personal stories of many of the storm’s victims; the emergency responders; the state, local, and political leaders; and the newsmen and women who went to heroic efforts to cover the storm and its aftermath. It limits itself to six days between August 27 and September 3 (the day of my son’s wedding to a New Orleans girl, you will recall).

The stories are stunning. We read of the utter horror of the storm and its aftermath as it ripped apart the lives of its victims. We are told stories of remarkable sacrifice and heroic efforts. We shudder at the gross incompetence of public officials at all levels – or, to be more kind – the inability of most of them to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. And we admire those officials and relief workers who did exceptionally well. Yes, there were those, too.

Lee’s excellent film let us see, hear and feel all of this. It is full of extremely graphic images of the destruction and the dead and dying. And it, as the book, is merciless in excoriating the incompetence of federal, state, and local officials as they grappled with the incomprehensible.

I am sure that many of us, while sympathizing with those whose lives were inalterably shredded by the disaster, rested comfortably with the assumption that it couldn’t happen here. Guess what? Apparently it can happen here, and probably will one of these days.

Sunday’s Washington Post had a sobering piece by Mike Tidwell with the headline “We’re All New Orleanians Now.”

“Barring a rapid change in our nation’s relationship to fossil fuels, every American within shouting distance of an ocean — including all of us in the nation’s capital — will become de facto New Orleanians,” Tidwell wrote.

Few of us are fully aware of the fact that the mall, lower Georgetown, the Arlington riverfront, Reagan national airport, and the lower reaches of Alexandria are below sea level. With the rising ocean levels caused by global warning, the possibility of a major storm pushing a twenty to thirty foot tidal surge through the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac to inundate a substantial part of our metropolitan area becomes even greater. Just a three foot rise in the ocean levels would inundate most of Southern Maryland, Alexandria, and the outer suburbs of both Washington and Baltimore.

The article suggests that it might be prudent to take major steps such as building a major floodgate across the Potomac just above Mount Vernon. Even that might just be a mere stopgap in an era of constantly rising water levels.

 A sobering thought. We are not so far from New Orleans after all.