August 31, 2005

Governor: Everyone Must Leave New Orleans

The official statement is chilling in its simplicity and directness: "Everyone must leave New Orleans."

I tend not to write directly about the day's headlines, but this one is really on my mind. New Orleans is being completely evacuated in the aftermath of Katrina, and the scale of the devastation is just mind-boggling. At least hundreds dead. At least a million without power or clean water, with many being evacuated to the Astrodome. (?!)

And of course we don't even have a final tally of deaths and losses, or a clear idea of what the cleanup and restoration problems will be. The scope of the suffering is staggering.

In 1718, French colonist Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville ignored his engineers' warnings about the hazards of flooding and mapped a settlement in a pinch of swampland between the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and a massive lake to the north.

Ever since, the water has sustained New Orleans and perpetually threatened it. Somehow, until this week, the mystique of the water had always washed away the foreboding of disaster, as if carrying the city's worries downstream. That was true even early Tuesday morning, when Hurricane Katrina's last-minute veer to the east convinced many residents they had once again eluded the Fates.

But when the rainfall brought by Katrina breached levees and overwhelmed the city's pumping stations, the catastrophic consequences of Bienville's miscalculation could no longer be ignored.

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