New Orleans: The Joy and the Dread

NEW ORLEANS -- Mid-Saturday morning, storm clouds are motorcycling across the sky. We're seeing, and feeling, the winds we've been hearing about for two days, the winds whipping the BP oil slick closer and closer to the shore of the coastal wetlands. And, after two or three months in which it seemed this city was virtually levitating (the Saints' victory in the Super Bowl, the forthcoming end of the Ray Nagin era), that sinking feeling is back, just at the time the city is reaching the climax of JazzFest. So, the talk among the locals is the dread that the regional economy and ecology is about to take another disastrous hit at the hands of outsiders, while the visitors are enjoying the music, the food, and the crafts that flow from the culture formed by that ecology. And there are reports of locals lining up for what many expect may be their last taste of raw Louisiana oysters for a long, long time. Frozen Chinese seafood, anyone?

And, as more details of the BP spill incident emerge, one spies a familiar pattern: BP wasted days minimizing the amount of oil flowing from the well, freezing the feds until NOAA came out with the bad news. And BP executives reportedly minimized the danger of a spill.

Sound familiar? It should. Information I've collected for my forthcoming documentary film on the 2005 flooding of New Orleans, The Big Uneasy, show that the US Army Corps of Engineers, as far back as 1974, minimized chances that any storm larger than the "Standard Project Hurricane," which served as their design spec, could endanger the area, and as recently as 2005 it minimized chances that its still-uncompleted Hurricane Protection System could breach. Thomas Ricks' excellent book on the Iraq war, Fiasco, is rife with evidence that Pentagon planners routinely embraced best-case scenarios, refusing to engage in worst-case planning.

In other words, despite all the divisions we're supposed to believe are important -- left/right, public/private -- major projects in modern America seem to be rife with wishful thinking and short-term economics. Because it's cheaper to believe in best cases. Until the worst case happens.