Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 14, 2009

Layered, messy, inefficient, randomly revealed (and resilient) reality

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 14, 2009


Tomorrow the President will visit New Orleans. He is scheduled to appear at a reopened school and participate in a town hall meeting-style event. (We ought not confuse these ersatz occasions with the substantive sessions of selectmen and citizens celebrated by Thoreau.)

In August, for Katrina’s anniversary, I started research for what I expected to be a sad post. What I found was complicated, but far from sad.  Out of the midst of true tragedy emerges a redemptive tale of human creativity.  (Read the prior post.)

There is plenty of bad news in the Big Easy. There is also continued cause to worry about a direct hit. Certain realities remain.  But the good news should not be denied nor obscured. 


The President’s visit is causing a fuss.  Some say he has waited too long to come and others complain he is not staying long enough.  He will leave mid-afternoon for California.

Every President is a sort of palimpsest.  No matter how valuable the original text, we are busy scraping away what is there and replacing it with what we want, even — perhaps especially — if we want an adversary. 

Presidents become  projections of our hopes and fears, rather than  human  vessels with particular gifts and frailties.  We may make him into hero or villain, but in either case we try to loot his humanity for our own purpose.


In his recently released epic of New Orleans, poet Dave Brinks, opens with,

stared into
everwhich at everwhat
this slender hour comes forward
barefoot to the sun
if only I had gray green
black brown yellow eyes
or a door I could see
through terribly clearly
slowly the answer
becomes an epitaph
a flip of the coin
juggling apples
tracing hexagrams

(The Caveat Onus)

Everything comes down to juggling or the flip of a coin. We never see clearly enough. No matter how careful and complete our thinking and plans, we may be blithely, randomly upended.

Besides, my thinking is seldom careful.  Are your plans ever complete?


Palimpsests are manuscripts on which more than one text shares the same face of parchment.  A more recent text is typically imposed on the “ghost” of a prior text or texts.  In the example at the head of this post you see 6th Century Armenian homilies underwritten 10th Century Syriac prayers.  Several classical treasures have been recovered from such underwriting.  (See the Archimedes Palimpsest.)

New Orleans is another sort of palimpsest.  The character of layer built upon layer, with prior reality never fully erased, is what makes the French Quarter and other neighborhoods popular tourist destinations. Venice, Rome, London,  New York in it’s own way, are similarly deep-rooted, multi-layered intricate realities.  So are Santa Fe,  Boston and Annapolis, Lexington, Kentucky and Mineral Point, Wisconsin.  So are most places where a stranger may immediately feel at home.

This layering helps explain why the city’s recovery has exceeded most expectations.  New Orleans — for all its many faults —  is a place of intimate relationships: between past and present, natural with modern, and among a wide array of diverse peoples and cultures.  This layered intimacy is a strength that can withstand a great deal, evidently both a Category 3 Hurricane and systemic human failure.


Resilience is not a concept du jour.  Resilience is what happens — what has always happened — when humans live together in a community characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions. (See Resilience and the Commons, from Monday.) 

These resilient layers are formed gradually, requiring time and incremental reinforcement.  They need ongoing and thoughtful investment.  The costs, especially in conversation and experimentation, can be substantial.  But the outcomes enhance current happiness, even while our ability to rebound from disaster is strengthened.


Times-Picayune coverage of President’s visit

Obama greeted by feisty crowd (Boston Globe)

Mistakes after Katrina won’t be repeated (Bloomberg)

President’s remarks at Martin Luther King, Jr. charter school (White House)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

October 14, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

Hoping the President is briefed on the published multiple “Mea Culpas” by USACOE before the visit discussing their contributions to the havoc of Katrina. Published confessions by a bureacracy of over one half a century of conflicts of interest and bad technical advice is quite unusual in my experience. Wasn’t President Bush once asked in a Press Conference if he had made any mistakes? No answer of course. His biggest of course was being on wrong side of the microphones at that Press Conference. I wonder if this President would like to be asked that question and what would his response be?

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 14, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

Thanks for the helpful and reflective metaphor of the palimpsest to describe New Orleans and other vulnerable communities. I agree that the rich, varied, and layered qualities of these communities and their landscape imbues them with a resilient character despite any vulnerabilities they may have acquired through geography or culture.

In fact, it may help explain what one might even describe as a resilience paradox. Despite their experience, those most likely to remain committed to places like New Orleans and those often among the first to make a go at re-establishing these places as vibrant and caring communities are often those we consider the most vulnerable.

A lack of resources may mean a lack of choices, but it doesn’t equate to either a lack of humility or humanity. While we may consider it unwise for people to cling to life in such vulnerable environments or to do so without taking adequate precautions, these people see evidence all around them that the place and its people can and will rebound. Their willingness to accept some share of the responsibility both for their situation and the work required to rebuild their lives and their communities after a disaster gives them the right to hold government accountable.

After Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, SC in 1989, Mayor Riley spoke eloquently for his ravaged community (I’ll have to paraphrase since I don’t have a reference to his remarks at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual meeting there the following year): ‘This is not the worst thing that has ever happened to Charleston. We’ve witnessed and withstood much worse. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and a savage civil war have all sought to destroy our community. We have always come back before, and we will again this time because we know who we are and what’s important to us about this place we call home.’ In my view, the ability of someone or some communities to put such circumstances in perspective and take responsibility for their futures individually and collective is at the heart of what it means to be resilient.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 15, 2009 @ 2:49 am

Just note for the record that Katrina is becoming one of the most widely studied and examined events in US history. Not sure what all the multidiciplinary efforts will ultimately conclude but I do know that most overlook the chain of causation of most of the destruction of property and in some cases lives and I find that interesting in itself. In other words, the studies generally start with the paradigm that Katrina was an “Act of God” and not an act or consequence of decisions of men. Just as Liddell Hart titled one of his books “The Audit of War” someone needs to write a book about Katrina entitled “The Audit of Mother Nature of Man’s Mistakes.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 15, 2009 @ 8:01 am

One of the encouraging aspects of my August research was what seemed to me an emerging consensus that the principal cause of Katrina’s worst effects were decisions made well in advance of Katrina. Many of the links embedded or highlighted in my August post (linked above) make this case. This is especially the conclusion of local researchers who personally recall the sense of having “dodged a bullet” when they went to sleep after Katrina passed, only to awaken to mahem. A few links not in my August post:

Katrina: An Unnatural Disaster

Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

The Unnatural Disaster of Katrina http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2005/10/b1102571.html

Unnatural Disaster: The Nation on Hurricane Katrina (Collected coverage by The Nation)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>