Thursday, May 18, 2006

When Levees Hold

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Pat Robertson, America's evangelist of apocalyptic angst is at it again in the doom and gloom business regarding the weather. Although he identifies no villain for the pending disasters, Roberts has said several times on his 700 Club program that God spoke to him during a personal prayer retreat back in January about plague-scale bad weather, due to hit the U.S. this year.

"If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms," Robertson first said on May 8. "There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest," he added two days later.

Meteorologists have already begun predicting a hurricane season as bad or worse than last year's for the Gulf Coast and earthquakes periodically occur along the Pacific Coast that might trigger massive waves, so Robertson's epiphanies seem ...more »safe enough. But it appears they have already begun in a less-expected location – New England.

Four days of driving rains that began last weekend dumped more than a foot of rain across New Hampshire, Massachusetts and southern Maine, with up to seventeen inches in some places. There was widespread flooding, with many people driven from their homes and dangers such as sinkholes, washed-out roads, and dam breaks.

Yet compared to the aftermath and response to the flooding in New Orleans last summer that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, none of the same debacles seem to occur, even on a limited basis. And this despite the fact that Gulf Coasts residents are quite used to the threat of storms while this was the most violent rain and flooding seen by New Englanders since the 1930s.

There are no reports of widespread looting. No roaming gangs taking potshots are rescue workers. Emergency shelters were clean, adequately provisioned/staffed, and orderly. Nobody was left stranded on rooftops without a quick rescue. Injuries were minimal and only two deaths were reported.

Why the big difference?

It may be that the tragedy of Katrina and the New Orleans flood has taught local, state, and federal officials some important lessons that they put into play this time. Maybe it taught similar lessons to the populace (potentially) impacted by flooding as well. That would be an optimistic sliver lining to Katrina's generally darkened cloud.

Maybe it is related to differences in the education, poverty level, and general quality of life of those affected in New England as compared to their Gulf Coast counterparts. Maybe it is just the difference between Southern fatalism and Yankee roll-up-your-sleeves pragmatism.

Maybe it was the fact that this threat was sudden and unusual in New England that gave it a true sense of emergency. After all, predictions of bursting levees have been going on for so long down in New Orleans with the approach of every hurricane, they have kind of become status quo and familiarity does breed contempt. Yet the fact is that much of New England is a maze of rivers and tributaries, many of them built up by the mills and other factories of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century industrialization. People there are no less aware of their constant dependence on the solidity of dams and levees.

Maybe the difference came because, instead of waffling with indecision over what to do, Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire, Governor John Baldacci of Maine, and Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts all declared states of emergency by early in the morning on the second day of rain. Maybe it is because National Guard troops were activated and reporting to flooded areas just as quickly. Maybe because state emergency operations center were plentiful and opened for business in the same timeframe.

Maybe it is because, instead of announcing to citizens they had been previously warned they would be "on their own," authorities went door-to-door warning of the need for evacuation when the National Weather Service reported the earthen portions of the Milton Pond Dam near West Lebanon Maine were eroding. Maybe it is because New Hampshire had sent twenty thousand sandbags to various communities by the morning of the third day of rain and were gathering another thirty thousand. Maybe it is because a granite dam in Methuen Massachusetts was quickly reinforced with five thousand sandbags when it showed signs of collapse.

Maybe it is because, instead of scratching their heads and asking "what do we do next?" the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency coordinated its disaster responses a little more efficiently because it and the Department of Conservation and Recreation have been devising a list of priorities for flood prevention over the past couple of years. Maybe it is because the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Management is ready to meet FEMA with a list of problems they believe may come to light as water levels continue receding.

Maybe it is because, instead of going on television and radio to denounce others for not helping them out, Governor Lynch was too busy heading off to the town of Hooksett, where a dam was reportedly cracking. Maybe because Governor Romney was on the scene watching rescuers evacuate two hundred and fifty sick and elderly residents from a badly flooded nursing home in the city of Lawrence. Maybe because Governor Baldacci was hugging a woman in York as she cried and surveyed the wreckage of her candy store and told her, "you'll make it."

Maybe its because, instead of calling for handouts because his city was entitled to exist, Mayor Michael Bonfanti of Peabody Massachusetts – whose downtown was underwater at the time – was on the phone trying to raise money as part of long-standing, ongoing efforts by locals there to preserve historic tanning factories so they can be reused for other purposes and revitalize the local economy.

There is a type of fatalism that begins and ends by noting that bad things happening are unavoidable. Then there is another that goes on challenge us as to what each of us will do about it. How will we turn tragedy into the strength to continue? It is about taking responsibility instead of placing blame. It really is about rolling up your shirtsleeves instead of waiting for epiphanies. It was a mindset sorely lacking at all levels of government in the aftermath of Katrina and New Orleans.

Yet it is a mindset that I now know countless mayors and three New England governors understand very well and that they further understand that is it catalyzed, driven, and inspired by leadership. We fail when we refuse to confront our shortcomings as a nation openly and honestly, so we can learn from them. But we would do a similar disservice if we fail to acknowledge when we do things right. Some levees more important and basic than earthen dams and sandbags held this week. I tip my cap to New England.

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