Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

For want of a nail

The day Maria Garzino left Florida for New Orleans, in early May of 2006, I was in New Orleans, interviewing Jurjen Battjes: he first launched me down this river. In person, he’s sort of like if you combined the elongated ovularity of Bert with the glasses of Beaker, and just a pinch of Ernie in his grin. Like a lot of scientists and engineers I’ve met, his affection for what he studies was infectious. We met at the 17th street canal: that canal, and its breach, gets the most attention. But he also took me to the spot at the south end of the Orleans canal where water flooded through a hole left on purpose between the end of the outfall canal and the historic water pumping station, whose brick walls wouldn’t support water of any height either. And to one of the two holes in London Avenue’s canal. All of the canals have houses that back up close to them. For a long time, decisions about the city’s protection have been made piece by piece, pile of money by pile of money. Dr. Battjes said, engineering often can get decided that way; but rarely is it decided well that way.

Another thing we talked about was a proverb: for want to a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider, the battle was lost; for want of the battle, the war was lost, and all for want of a horseshoe nail. I remember it from A Wrinkle in Time; apparently, it’s big in Europe, too (and probably first). After Katrina, the Army Corps asked where the horseshoe nails were lost. It made an Interagency Performance Evaluation Team, to ask big questions about risk and reliability. It signed up scientists like Jurjen Battjes for an External Review Panel, to ask how it was asking those questions. Independent teams – UCBerkeley/National Science Foundation, LSU Hurricane Center, the National Academies – asked questions and came to their own conclusions. Plenty of nails got found. But maybe some didn’t.

A few days before Maria Garzino sat down to write a 72 page memo "up her chain of command," as she might say, I was focused on less scholarly pursuits. Specifically, I was figuring out how to stash my radio gear quick at the house of my friends Katie and Andy so that I could make it to the Fairgrounds Racetrack fast enough to have time for some red beans or a crawfish enchilada before Bruce Springsteen started to play. A dedicated New Orleanian and Boss fan gave me a bootleg of the show; I was listening to it the other day, as I was writing this story. At the time, I said, and said often, that Springsteen killed it. One of the last songs he played was one he had written for his Asbury Park, called "My City of Ruins." The verses are monumentally depressing, but in that crowd, I felt, then, something happened to thousands of people, together, with their hands in the air. Come on, rise up. Come on, rise up. We were in it together. Right? Right. (We? Or they? Was I covering it or living it? Another time.) Hope was palpable; change, too. We could rebuild, and be ready, for next time.

This time, listening to that moment, that show, I remembered how fragile that emotion is, whatever that emotion is. I always worry that I won’t know when the horseshoe nail is gone, even though it's not 'till afterward that anyone thinks to look for it. Maybe that’s why I’ve got this job.