Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It becomes clear to me every day, when I see the latest newspaper headlines here, that this city I love will live and die by the numbers. It's a hazard of the information age in which we live.

Whatever do I mean? Yesterday's Times-Picayune headline stated that "Frustrated Homeowners Look to New FEMA Flood Maps for Answers, But There's No Guarantee The Advisories Won't Pose Even More Questions." A colorful map of the New Orleans area denotes the properties that filed repetitive flood claims with FEMA before the 2005 hurricane season. Parts of the city that showed up as having the most claims weren't surprising, as they were also the ones that fared worst in the storms and flooding over six months ago: Broadmoor, Lakeview, the Bywater, chunks of New Orleans East.

There is a caveat to this map, however, a big one: only the insured could file claims. The areas that also fared badly in Katrina and its aftermath, such as the Ninth Ward and Gentilly, didn't show up on the paper's map as having registered many claims with FEMA. Those two neighborhoods I just mentioned are two of the largest areas of this city that are completely wiped out by flooding and storm damage.

Any questions?

This is why, when the baseball players' union gained more power over its own destiny, sabermetricians - baseball statisticians, for those not in the know - such as Bill James rose to prominence. Used for ages by team owners to help deny players salary raises and the rights to negotiate a better working position for themselves, sabermetricians' numbers have become another weapon in a player's arsenal, with the help of yet another player in the negotiation equation - the player agent. Lies, damned lies, and statistics - numbers are ironclad until interpreted by others. Compare and contrast with other players in the game, past and present, and an average pitcher can vie with Sandy Koufax in some way...and it can get him more money.
What the New Orleanians need here, the ones who want to come back, the ones who are fighting with the city, the state, and the federal governments to rebuild, are equivalents of the sports agents. The almighty numbers and stats will otherwise bring them down.

Not that the financing for rebuilding isn't there - it just needs to be directed accordingly, in the ways that will help maintain and strengthen this region. If all this mess had happened in the nineteenth century, or even the early twentieth century, there probably wouldn't be as much number wrestling as there is now. Think Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. Think of the great Chicago fire. Think of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Think of the quakes that have hit metropolitan centers in Japan.

The issue at stake is how important this area is in the grand scheme of things. Is the port of New Orleans important enough for this city to live? Does such a unique place as this deserve to wash away into the sea? In 1927, the New Orleans business elite thought enough of saving this city that they arranged to dynamite the levees further downriver from this city to offset the major amounts of water coming down from torrential rains that would surely overwhelm the area, the thinking went at the time. After evacuating Plaquemines parish, the dynamiting drowned the area downriver in many feet of water, saving the city of New Orleans in what turned out to be an unnecessary act.

I guess the difference between then and now is that we don't have all the answers with our dealings with Mother Nature anymore; our supposed superiority over the elements has been in question for a long time now. In fact, the more answers we are given by the sciences and by numbers, the more questions there are. The world becomes more uncertain, the costs become greater, the loopholes multiply - and places such as New Orleans are slowly abandoned. All that is left is the will of people who care and who have a stake in things here. Even the will of the poor, who more than likely could not afford to pick up flood insurance, and have thus skewed the numbers on the latest FEMA maps, counts for something...right?

My husband took some actuarial exams around the time I first got to know him, and he explained one of them to me and laughed at the expression on my face. "Don't think about it too hard or anything!" he said. Good words of advice now that we are being bombarded with numbers every day in one way or another.

This past weekend gave me two opportunities to celebrate some occasions that had very little to do with the almighty number. The first was the installation of the rabbi at my synagogue here, which in this case was a true formality, since he became the rabbi of the congregation shortly before Katrina hit, and he and his family counseled so many people through these times that the past few months has merely cemented the link between the congregation and himself. The sanctuary, which holds almost 900 people, was about half-full that night, a real statement of commitment by a segment of this city's population. Okay, so I guess I have mentioned some numbers again. Pardon me.

The second was the Dog Day Afternoon at Audubon Park, sponsored by the Louisiana SPCA, the facilities of which were flooded out, but reopened soon after on the West Bank of the Mississippi in Algiers Point. Many animal rescues happened because of the devotion of SPCA folks and volunteers who stayed behind and went house to house to check on animals. Adoptions of abandoned Katrina animals are still happening thanks to these folks' efforts, and the park was packed with people dogs, and even a couple of miniature ponies! It's events such as these that show that this is quite a pet-loving town.

If anyone can quantify the events mentioned above in some way, please let me know. Maybe I can present it to New Orleans rebuilders as arguments and numbers that will aid in the fight to help others stay and rebuild.

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