If Hurricane Katrina were a superhero, in LA right now, she'd be The Quantifier. This Station Fire is as big a disaster as Katrina... That's one way to do it. Or, as I heard today on Patt Morrison's show, about evacuating animals: We learned our lesson during Katrina... If that last one were true, that would be great. But this isn't a quiz on one chapter. Maybe there's more than one lesson to learn.
Covering the Station Fire is a natural transition from thinking about Katrinaversary, which passed on Saturday, the day after I finished reporting on problems with hydraulic pumps at canals in New Orleans' hurricane protection system. Naturally, we're paying attention to the environmental hazard in our backyard. Maybe a little unnaturally, we don't think about the risk it presents in the same terms we think about other environmental hazards in other places. Because this year, I got the sense from news coverage or the lack thereof that we're "over" hurricane Katrina. And now, again, we're suffering loss from an environmental hazard - just in a different state.
In reporting this story I heard a lot about reputation. The reputation of the Army Corps, different in different regions. Reputation of an engineering firm, an architecture and design firm. Reputation of Caterpillar, Hydraflo, all the manufacturers of different parts - and that of Moving Water Industries, the company that won this contract. Finally, of course, the reputation of the whistleblower herself.
It's the last two I want to focus on.
To defend its reputation in 2007, after the Army Corps publicly released an investigation of the problems, the company MWI sent to Brigadier General Crear a 140+ page document. In response to my questions this year, I received this document; the company also refused an interview. I used the document in my reporting. We posted it briefly on our website. I'm not so sure that was the right thing to do.
The best thing about it, for the non-engineers and poets among us, is that it rhymes.
A less fanciful pursuit today: Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. When I was in the thick of asking questions about whether the pumps worked, last fall, we had some hurricanes in the Gulf. It occurred to me that they had cameras on the canals; peeling that video would have cost me 10 thousand dollars, they said, in man hours and costs. So I tried for the SCADA data. And got it.
Clearly, you've noticed by now that I'm not an engineer. But when I got the data I could see where the zeros were.To quote Doogie Howser, M.D. for a minute, it doesn't take a genius to see some of SCADA's story. But my aspirations to do something complete in plotting data got dashed pretty quickly.
Nevertheless, engineering is more science than art, after all, and engineers best understand what engineering data does. Maria Garzino also obtained SCADA, and discussed it with the Apariq consultant, Gil Lucas. She spent over a month making calculations from that. I make of that two things: first, that she's still doing everything she believes is necessary to figure out what's happening. And second, that she doesn't sleep much.
New Orleans specializes in muddy waters.
I was living there, covering a “Night Out Against Crime” for my peeps at the brilliant, beautiful, and sadly deceased Day to Day when I met Matt McBride. He was at the Broadmoor night out. Matt is an engineer, a husband, a devoted dog dad, and a tireless advocate for his former neighborhood. He pointed out that sometimes, all I had to do was ask for the information I wanted.
One of the reasons I really understood that I could ask for information comes from what is also one of my favorite ancient concepts of law: the public trust doctrine. I was raised in California law; when I was small, my dad and my grandfather explained it to me, I recall very clearly, in a blue dining room in St. Francis Wood in San Francisco, behind lace curtains like a good Irish house should have. My grandfather said it came from Justinian. I was about 7; I think I found one of his cases in his law reporters a dozen years before I actually learned anything else about who Justinian was.
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.