Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 30, 2012

Three riffs on resilience: “rolling between & through itself”

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on August 30, 2012

From Wednesday’s  New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial page:

Not that anybody here in August 2005 could forget, but Isaac’s approach near the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a sobering reminder of our city and region’s near destruction and of the deaths and displacement of so many of our friends and loved ones.

Katrina was not New Orleans’ introduction to trouble. The city has known perils its entire existence.

But there may have been no more perilous time than that of Katrina and its watery aftermath. At what other point was the continuing existence of the city in such doubt?

We don’t hurt today like we did during Katrina’s first anniversary, and certainly not like we hurt during the crisis itself. But the pain is still real, and it’s likely to be with us even after ongoing recovery is completed.

It’s important to note that this community still has its joie de vivre.

Not even the billions of gallons of water that flowed over and through our levees could extinguish that. In fact, for some of us the near-death experience of Katrina may have intensified that trademark joy of life. We take nothing for granted now, least of all the company of friends and family. So many died. So many are gone for good.

Consequently, our interactions with those who are here have with them an added measure of appreciation.

Even so, our world-renowned joyful spirit remains tempered with a sadness for the things that were lost and an anxiety that another disaster could upend our lives once again…

New Orleans, to quote Louisiana poet Yusef Komunyakaa, is a “testament to how men dreamt land out of water.” The engineering failures made plain by Hurricane Katrina made it appear that the water had reclaimed that land and that our dream existence had morphed into a nightmare.

But seven years later, we remain attached to the place and to the people who make the hard times worth it, displaying a spirit that’s not just joyous but might also be called indomitable.

So… just for the purposes of this blog, let’s decide that in this text the T-P editors have ascended to that perfect crystallization of Truth to which every editorial writer (and blogger) aspires:  Resilience is a function of prior experience with peril (multiplied by occurrence) + prior experience with recovery (multiplied or divided by a defined quality metric) the total of which is multiplied by the number of near-death experiences = joy of life (also known as resilience).

Any questions?

From another page in the Times-Picayune:

If New Orleans must suffer a hurricane, it won’t do so on an empty stomach. Around town, the menus for Hurricane Isaac were taking shape this morning: apple cinnamon pancakes for breakfast in Lakeview, pulled pork sandwiches for lunch on Oak Street, deep-dish pizza on Freret Street, and plenty of cold beer and chilled wine to wash away the worry.

More than a handful of New Orleans restaurants are feeding patrons hungry for something a little more exciting than their storm-kit’s potted meat…

Maybe resilience is not a matter of algorithms but a recipe, a sort of spicy gumbo adaptable to what is in season, each fixing a little different but always recognizable as mama’s or nana’s and “just like I remember”, even when it ain’t necessarily so.

Here’s the full poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, quoted above in the Times-Picayune:


when the strong unholy high winds
whiplashed over the sold-off marshlands
eaten back to a sigh of saltwater,
the Crescent City was already shook down to her pilings,
her floating ribs, her spleen & backbone,
left trembling in her Old World facades
& postmodern lethargy, lost to waterlogged
memories & quitclaim deeds,
exposed for all eyes, damnable
gaze & lamentation—plumb line
& heartthrob, ballast & watertable—
already the last ghost song
of the Choctaw & the Chickasaw
was long gone, no more than a drunken curse
among the oak & sweet gum leaves, a tally
of broken treaties & absences echoing
cries of birds over the barrier islands
inherited by the remittance man, scalawag,
& King Cotton, & already the sky was falling in on itself,
calling like a cloud of seagulls
gone ravenous as the Gulf
reclaiming its ebb & flowchart
while the wind banged on shutters
& unhinged doors from their frames
& unshingled the low-ridged roofs
while the believers hummed
“Precious Lord” & “Deep River”
as the horse-hair plaster walls
galloped along with the surge,
already folklore began to rise up
from the buried lallygag & sluice
pulsing beneath the Big Easy
rolling between & through itself,
caught in some downward tug
& turn, like a world of love affairs
backed up in a stalled inlet,
a knelt-down army of cypress,
a testament to how men dreamt land
out of water, where bedrock
was only the heart’s bump
& grind, its deep, dark churn
& acceleration, blowzy down
to those unmoored timbers,
already nothing but water
mumbling as the great turbulent eye
lingered on a primordial question,
then turned—the gauzy genitalia of Bacchus
& Zulu left dangling from magnolias & raintrees,

published in Callaloo 31.2 (2008)

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 30, 2012 @ 4:56 am

Some related links:

1500 forced from homes by rising water (WDSU News)

Map of levee breaches (The Guardian)

How to Weather a Hurricane (New York Times)

Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery by Daniel P. Aldrich

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

August 30, 2012 @ 11:20 am

Somehow planning the next meal and contemplating poetry do not make it. With 3 national disaster declarations in 10 years, many of the residents in the low lying areas should be planning their relocation.

Just because the area did not flood during Katrina does not mean it cannot happen. Thousands of people who ignored the official mandatory evacuation order are now at risk, as are the public safety officials helping them.

What I see is some underestimating risk and exposure while overestimating resilience. Time to move!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 30, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

Claire, To further make your point, here’s an excerpt from this morning’s Time-Picayune:

Dozens of residents on Plaquemines Parish’s east bank had to be rescued from high water. The parish’s levee, which is not part of the federal system and does not meet 100-year standards, was overtopped.

Although the parish ordered an evacuation before Isaac’s arrival, not everyone complied. That led to some harrowing hours for stranded residents and a complicated rescue mission for first-responders.

By early Wednesday morning, a father and son team had used their own boats to ferry roughly two dozen people out of danger, including a mother with a 5-month-old baby who was plucked from a roof. Those men, Jesse Schaffer Sr. and his son, Jesse, deserve great thanks.

They were running rescue missions very early. “He lives here, he knows the area,” Parish President Billy Nungesser said.

Even so, it showed courage to take to the waters with the hurricane still pounding the coast.

Several dozen more people were stranded by floodwaters, which reached at least nine feet in some areas. And National Guard troops worked through the day helping rescue efforts.

It appeared that fewer South Plaquemines residents evacuated this time than did as Katrina was bearing down on the parish. It’s unclear why – perhaps some mistaken belief that the less intense storm wouldn’t put them at risk.

My references to recipes and poetry were intended as — perhaps lame — efforts to answer the question why.

I am a champion of resilience. But resilience is NOT always helpful.

Resilience is certainly evidenced by the courage and commitment of Jesse Sr. and Jr. (above). They evidently also stayed behind and because they did and due to their keen sense of relationship with their neighbors a bad situation was kept from becoming an even worse situation.

The stubborn independence and confident self-reliance that is admirable in many contexts can be deadly in other (especially novel) contexts. Whether those who stayed behind in Plaquemines were stubborn or stupid or something else is not yet clear. They are survivors because others were ready to put their own lives at risk.

The bounce-back-potential of resilience is very helpful when the goal is to maintain the status-quo (or something close). When something fundamentally new and different is underway resilience can impede effective movement to a needed new normal.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

August 30, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

There are issues of trust and safety — when citizens do not heed the request by public officials because they are stubborn, think they know better, and refuse to acknowledge the objective truth of the scientists the results are not good.

I agree that resilience and resistance to change or even temporary mobility)may in fact impede response and recovery.


Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

NOLA faces flooding threats from five different causes. This one the STORM (meterologivcal not hydrologic) and internal drainage. How did the PUMPS for example perform?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 4, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

Can you name the Louisian Parish that extends 200 miles out into GOM?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 5, 2012 @ 1:20 am

HINT: Starts with a “P”!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 5, 2012 @ 4:43 am

Bill, Sorry I thought it was a rhetorical question.

Plaquemines Parish is home to about 23,000 residents. The website for parish government is at http://www.plaqueminesparish.com/

The Google map of the parish confirms your point.

Comment by ED Treatment

March 14, 2016 @ 9:02 am

Hey Katrina was not New Orleans’ introduction to trouble. The city has known perils its entire existence.

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