The Katrina Curse

As governors and mayors scramble to keep their constituents safe from Hurricane Irene, they owe George Bush and Ray Nagin a debt. Michael Tomasky on how New Orleans changed the hurricane-relief game.

08.27.11 10:11 PM ET

You may have missed it—I confess I did—but new book releases from the month of June included Katrina’s Secrets by one C. Ray Nagin. This 340-page, self-published work—volume one, if you can imagine it—purportedly takes the reader deep inside the Katrina disaster and is (ready?) “at once stirringly elegiac and disarmingly candid,” according to the “Product Description” on the book’s Amazon page. A news story in the Times-Picayune relates that Nagin acknowledges having botched some things but pinpointing the bulk of the blame on George W. Bush, FEMA chief Michael Brown, and then-governor Kathleen Blanco. Nagin, according to this account, suspected that the federal government was trying to poison him. Can’t wait for volume two!

Thoughts turn to Nagin on this day on the East Coast, of course, because we know that every governor, mayor, county executive, and city manager up and down the coast is telling him or herself just two things today. The first is don’t come out of this looking like Ray Nagin. The second is don’t come out of this looking like George Bush. These are admittedly low bars. But it is vital that they be cleared, and the pair remain the silver and gold standard (and heck, give Blanco the bronze) of environmental incompetence.

At the other end of the scale, let us tip our Gore-Tex hats to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron out of Biloxi, Miss., which, the website of the National Hurricane Center informs me, is “the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes–since 1944.” Then there’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center, based in Tampa, whose aircraft “are flown in support of NOAA's mission to promote global environmental assessment, prediction and stewardship of the Earth's environment.” No matter who’s in the Oval Office, or who’s the mayor of Ocean City, Md., these fine men and women are on the job.

I mention Ocean City because it will be worth monitoring this weekend, and because I know the place exceedingly well. It’s the Eastern Seaboard’s greatest kitsch playground, with more funnel cake served and skeeball played per square mile than any other city in America. The population swells to 300,000 during late August, but a full evacuation has been ordered. A few hearties have stayed behind, as a few inevitably do, but it seems that Mayor Rick Meehan has done his job and will not be this year’s Nagin.

One always suspects the media are making far too much of these things. Yes, there will be tragedy here and there, and I obviously send every best wish to my cousin who lives on the Outer Banks. But hour after hour of breathy and uninterrupted coverage inevitably creates, shall we say, its own kind of atmospheric pressure. With Katrina and couple of other exceptions, it’s never as bad as they say.

The threat to be concerned about is losing electricity. If this has never happened to you, you can’t really understand how total the feelings of isolation and immiseration are. I lived in New York City for nearly 20 years, and it happened once for about 18 hours. Then I moved to Washington, where (if you live in the areas where the power lines snake through the stately oak trees) it happens three or four times a year. When we moved to Washington in late August 2003, we lost power a couple of days after moving in—for six days.

There are the obvious things—no Internet and television. There are the less obvious things: you finally think in exasperation, well, at least I’ll boil some water (the stove is gas, after all) and have a plate of pasta or a cup of tea. But then, lo and behold, any gas stove’s ignition mechanism is electrical. So that’s out. You can probably fit in two hot showers—the amount of water in your hot-water tank, on which the pilot light has gone out—but no more. But most imprisoning is coming to terms with the lack of light: with having to adjust one’s biological rhythms to nature. Think of all those generations, until quite recently in fact, that humans got up when the sun rose and retired when it went down. It’s how the cavemen lived, and a caveman is about what you feel like.

Here in suburban Washington, Pepco’s name is accursed, and in some ways deservedly so. But the fact is that there really aren’t many solutions. They can bury the lines, which costs a fortune. And ... that’s about it. When 70,000 or so households lose power, you just have to hope that the source of your problem is shared by hundreds of others, which probably means they’ll get to it faster. Me, I unapologetically decamp for a hotel. My basement will flood, but as long as I’m dry, I’m with Chesterton, who wrote: “I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”