Birthdays and Hurricanes

A cow that escaped its trailer in my sister’s neighborhood

My birthday was yesterday. It was a little hard to savor the start of another year on planet Earth, due to some personal reasons. All reasons entirely outside my control, and most having to do with said planet and its climate. But having no one person or thing to blame really doesn’t lessen the emotional impact.

Blaming Harvey and what he’s done to Houston won’t accomplish much, because, in the end, he’s just weather. Really horrible, destructive, biblical-type weather, but weather just the same. He might have forced my cousin to evacuate her home south of Houston in an airboat, but it wasn’t weather that came to her rescue. It was the good will and good intentions of human first responders.

My sister, west of downtown Houston, is sheltered in place and waiting to see what effect the release of the Addicks reservoir will have on her home and neighborhood.

And completely separate from the weather and half a world away, there was the loss of a very good chap. On Sunday, Tim and I discovered that one of our good friends had died while on vacation, visiting family in the U.K.

I’m used to forgoing birthday celebrations for things far outside my control. When your birthday falls at the height of the hurricane season, you get used to altering plans.

While watching everything unfold in Texas, it’s hard not to recall what happened in New Orleans, on my birthday, twelve years ago. Tim and I were in Shreveport, Louisiana, with a sizeable chunk of his family at Sam’s Town Casino. (That’s where we had evacuated to.)

Just as we’ve done this week, we watched from afar as the catastrophe unleashed. I distinctly remember watching the news on Monday, August 29, 2005, after Katrina had come ashore, and thinking that New Orleans might have escaped the worst of it. It was either that night or the next morning that we received the news of the levee breaches.

I can’t remember precisely what my immediate plans were supposed to be back then. Tim and I had anticipated being back in New Orleans in about three days time, I remember that much. And returning to the normal routine of our lives. Instead, we made it back very slowly, spending the first week of September in Baton Rouge, then the rest of the month outside New Orleans in Metairie, the suburb where we were both raised.

We were back into our 2nd floor apartment across from City Park in early October, as I recall. (Miraculously, the apartment building was like an island in a vast sea, and never flooded).

I didn’t mean for this post to turn into “Katrina memory time.” And I by no means intend to play compare and contrast. My thoughts and prayers and heart go out to all the people in Houston, my family included, plain and simple. I hope they will accept whatever service I can offer, that would be most useful to them.

The lesson that was so forcefully delivered to me on my birthday twelve years ago was to not take anything in this life for granted. It’s a lesson I hold close, and it’s a lesson that the losses of these past few days have highlighted in garish colors.

Another year on: Twenty years’ prescience

What follows is a very early posting on this blog, from one year ago:

I am a New Orleans native, and a New Orleans-based writer. I had been back here (from Los Angeles) just shy of two years when Katrina hit ten years ago. I wasn’t writing much, back then.

It feels a bit obligatory to do a Katrina post marking the tenth anniversary. And as my second post ever. But if I had started this blog back in June, then maybe this would have been the tenth post. The truth of the matter is, I stumbled across what I’m about to share in April. Sharing it now (as opposed to then) feels more timely.

My dad died fifteen years ago, in October of 2000. Five years before Katrina. Mom just died, nine months ago. My siblings and I have been going through their house in Metairie. Back in April, my sister Julie and I spent a long weekend going through the office (a former bedroom converted into an office).

Dad, circa 1950
Dad, circa 1950

This one filing cabinet in that room had reams of my father’s stuff still in it. Drafts of the book he wrote about his advocacy efforts on behalf of my brother Stephen, who has autism. Articles and references of his military service. Pre-World War 1 flight logs belonging to my grandfather. And this: a letter he wrote after finishing a tour of duty with the New Orleans Office of Emergency Management. My dad was, among many other things, a Colonel in the Louisiana National Guard.

We found this letter in a folder with a hand-written label, “1987 Hurricane Exercise.” I suspect he saved it, thinking that a Katrina-like storm was an eventuality, not a remote possibility. I remember Mom saying, in the fall of 2005, that she was glad Dad was spared being witness to it all.

So, here’s the letter. (Thank you, niece Cece, for making it digital.) The bold formatting is my doing, in case you want to skim through to the really salient bits.

May 4, 1987

CAO | Room 9E01, City Hall | New Orleans, Louisiana 70112

Dear              :

My tour of duty as an Army Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the city’s Office of Emergency Management ended on April 19. On that day, I was transferred to the Retired Reserve.

However, I cannot leave my assignment in good conscience without sharing with you some of my thoughts and recommendations. These are generally based on my observations during the past three years and specifically on the recently completed hurricane exercise.

  1. Our citizens are woefully unprepared for the devastation of a major disaster. We can greatly assist them by coordinating a city sponsored education program to teach them to make personal preparation and/or evacuation plans. This could be done with minimal expense using city prepared public service announcements, interviews, news releases, appearances on radio and television talk shows, providing speakers at civic club meetings (Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, etc.), neighborhood organizations, and schools. The potential is limitless for educating the public and personal preparedness is the key to survival in an emergency. We can do much in this area.
  2. I was shocked to learn that not all the Sewerage and Water Board’s pumping stations have 100% independent back up electrical power. I urge the city to use whatever persuasion it has over the agency to encourage S & WB to include failsafe back up power for all its facilities in its capital budget as soon as possible.
  3. During these past three years, I have observed both examples of outstanding cooperation and appalling disinterest on the part of city agencies during actual emergencies and exercises. The lack of full participation by the New Orleans Police Department during the recent exercise is symptomatic of what I perceive as a longstanding attitude of that organization.

It is my opinion that the Police Department wants to “do its own thing.” However, it is the responsibility of OEM to coordinate the activities of the many and varied municipal and non-city organizations during an emergency, including the Police Department. Any organization acting on its own is a waste of resources and counterproductive. The Police Department is a major player in any emergency; it is imperative that they join the city’s team.

  1. The recent exercise demonstrated how vulnerable the city is if we rely solely on telephone communication. A state of the art radio communication center with the capability to network with all city, state, and nine parishes is essential.
  1. The Office of Emergency Management is woefully understaffed. To function at an acceptable level, at least two additional staff members are needed – a communications specialist and a planner. I have pointed out the need for communication equipment in the preceding paragraph. The same need applies to personnel.

A planner is essential to write, revise, review, update, and coordinate the emergency plans of all city agencies and other, as well as the integration of plans within the nine parish area.

I want to thank you and the city for the opportunity to have been of service in Emergency Management. As a native of the city, I consider it a privilege to have helped in some small way. Emergency Management has made progress and I am proud to have been a part of it.

Respectfully yours,

Signature

Gerard J. Mialaret

It was very much like my father, to not go quietly into retirement and remain silent. And to be the gadfly in this manner, via a letter. And save it in a folder to be unearthed during the archaeological digs his children would conduct once he was gone.

He received a reply within a week, from the City’s Chief Administrative Officer. It was short, a few paragraphs. This one paragraph captures the gist of it:

“I appreciate you sharing your concerns with me. I have shared your communication with many other individuals in City Hall and have requested their careful review of the matters that you have called to our attention.”

History bears out that their “careful review,” and whatever action it spurred, was inadequate. And Dad picked his battles. If he didn’t have other, bigger items on his agenda, he might not have let this rest with one letter.

But the lesson I take from this, really the way of being I learned from my father, is don’t be silent. Especially when you can see the potential harm in doing nothing. The world needs gadflies.