ABCs of crisis could have saved lives

‘They say New Orleans is built over water," my mama used to tell me when I was growing up in Louisiana, explaining why the right hurricane could flood the city.

How could they build a city over water?" "I don’t know." "How could the poles be long and strong enough to hold up a city without it sinking?"

"I don’t know," she would answer. "I just know that’s what they say."

Everybody knows now. They know that the city sits in a bowl between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, that much of it was built on swampland that was drained, and that it was protected by levees.

Despite all the studies from government agencies, and all the talk you always heard from everyday people, who would ever have thought this could be real? That’s the problem. The ABCs of this possibility should have been shouted from coast to coast until somebody paid attention. Just saying that New Orleans lies below sea level wasn’t enough. People needed to understand that the city survived only because of A) the levees and B) a series of huge pumps that took away rainwater because there was no natural drainage. People needed to know that C) if this fragile system failed, thousands would die. Something should have been done before a tragedy of this scale was allowed to happen.

This ABC concept would have painted a vivid picture for even a child. I have aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who lived there. I know that some were able to leave, but others stayed.

I wondered about my 38-year-old first cousin who’s been in a semi-coma for about 15 years after suffering a stroke. I called home to Montpelier, La., constantly. For days, we waited to hear from those who were caught up in the tragedy. I wondered, what would have become of my immediate family if daddy hadn’t moved his wife and children to Amite and then to Montpelier 80 miles west of New Orleans? What if we were in that situation, facing rising waters?

By Wednesday, we received a call that one of my cousins was safe in Greensburg, La., with three of her children. Her daughter was still missing, along with her niece and nephew, and a neighbor with whom she was forced to leave them.

By Friday, we knew the children were safe in Greensburg.

By Monday, we learned that the others were airlifted to safety, including my bed-ridden cousin and aunt. The happiness flowed. But the sadness remains. Hundreds are dead. The city remains under water, awaiting rebirth.

It has to happen. But it has to be built better, safer, free from the possibility of another devastating flood. To much history is at stake for the city not to be rebuilt.

Too many people depend on the city that I have watched endure the disaster that nobody wanted to believe was really possible. Except my mama. She always said it could happen.


Lisa Gibson, a former Gramblinite editor, is a Detroit Free Press copy editor.  She can be reached at gibson@freepress.com.  Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press.  Copyright c 2005 Detroit Free Press inc.