Saving a place

Oct. 1, 2005

A tiny sliver of what happened in New Orleans looked a lot more manageable in my kitchen sink.

A tiny sliver of what happened in New Orleans looked a lot more manageable in my kitchen sink.

Four days after Hurricane Katrina sunk the Gulf Coast, I discovered some form of black sludge floating around in my kitchen. It was a sewage backup, an event that tends to visit as often as the in-laws in homes over 100 years old. It seems a generation’s worth of settlement caused some sections of my pipe to move into a horizontal position. And then there is the corrosive nature of galvanized steel pipe. Rust tends to catch anything flowing through, and even likes to crumple it all up into a neat, hard ball covering the entire radius of the plumbing. I’m proud to say it was the meanest obstruction my plumber had ever faced during his early years in the industry. It took him about five hours, including a solid 60 minutes trying to ram past one of those well-assembled balls, but the sink was clear by the end of the day. Unfortunately, my wallet was free of dollar blockage, too.

My minor overflow was nothing compared with the water engulfment 1,000 miles south, and while my hired help was rodding through my pipes I got my first clear-cut look at the devastation in the city of New Orleans. CNN was showing an abomination of video, but for some reason the image that plastered itself in my mind was of one elderly woman sitting outside the New Orleans convention center. She just had a look of complete distraughtness and helplessness. Despite all the problems with the levee system, it was hard to believe a major metropolitan area did not have the transportation capacity to evacuate everybody.

Some news journalists during the Thursday coverage were already burying the city for good. Despite all the chaos and destruction, it was harder to believe that people were counting out the spirit of this great nation. I believe New Orleans has an unlimited supply of jazz and Mardi Gras left in it, and I’m reserving a spot on the Roads & Bridges Top 10 list to celebrate another miraculous moment of human resolve.

Watch for the widening of I-10 to be among the elite in two or three years. It had a place on this year’s plaque before Katrina hit. The city was prepping for the fifth and most expensive of the eight contracts—worth a total of $289 million—to launch sometime this month. The expansion was expected to cover the I-10 corridor east of Causeway Boulevard to the 17th Street Canal and included the construction of a flyover ramp, sound barriers and, coincidentally, the improvement of drainage in the area. Officials claimed it was one of the largest highway construction bids in state history. Tons of fresh asphalt were waiting to be hauled and placed. The worries were much different then.

“The asphalt is in such bad shape that it couldn’t handle traffic for another three years without it,” Brian Buckel, chief project engineer for the state Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) in New Orleans, told The Times-Picayune.

Buckel and his crew will be back to see this major project through, as will thousands of others with buildings to build and homes to revitalize. And the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, which had entire segments washed away by the brutality of Katrina, will serve as the major crossing leading into New Orleans soon enough. Florida was smashed with four consecutive hurricanes last year, yet there wasn’t a hint of permanent retreat. Instead, engineers and crews repaired vital infrastructure in record time.

The LaDOTD was on the verge of looking for new revenue options as an answer to an $11 billion backlog of highway construction and improvement projects in the state. The usual fiscal boosters—gas tax increase, permit fees for highway use and tolls on bridges and ferries—were being analyzed. It’s hard to imagine what the cost will be once the damage of Katrina is revealed, but to even suggest the death of New Orleans is absurd. Bridges will stand stronger, roads will open wider and levees will resist more. Why? Because the human spirit never rests. Before it’s all said and done I’m willing to bet New Orleans will top a lot of lists.

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