Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chernobyl on the Bayou

The anniversary of the Chernobyl has spawned a slew of stories about the disastrous failure of engineering that took thousands of lives and destroyed a region. I think its important in this context to remember that the inundation of New Orleans was not an act of capricious nature, but an engineering failure compounded by government incompetence.

The Reuters story When home is a blighted land: tales form Chernobyll contains lines eerily familiar to New Orleanians:

"It was a long time ago, but it is hard to forget. It was worse than a war. We were told so many lies," [Chernobyl survivor Olga] Rudchenko, 71, says, outside a small, shabby house in need of a coat of paint.

"They took us away in buses and said we were leaving for three days. We came back eight years later. I cried every night. I wanted to go home..."
It would be easy to imagine these words spoken in a similar story recounting the failure of the federal levees that inundated New Orleans, and the failure of the government to deal with the resulting catastrophe.

Some will scoff at the comparison, but it is apt. Katrina was more akin to Bhopal or Chernobyl than to the natural catastrophe of Katrina on the Gulf Coast, or Rita in southwest Louisiana, or the storms of 2004 that hammered Florida.

Recall how, on Monday, Aug. 29, the media announced that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet", the storm weakened and only struck the city a glancing blow. Then came the water, and be Wednesday the photograph nailed to the front of MSNBC was of the onrush of water from the Industrial Canal into the Ninth Ward.

New Orleans was a failure of engineering, defects in the levees apparent to every outside engineering agency, but only lately admitted by the Corps of Engineers. Even then, the Corps argues the defects were not visible, the failure not predictable.

"We were told so many lies" the aged Ukrainian reminds us. And so it goes, this time in New Orleans.

You may scoff at the comparison if you wish, but only by ignoring the well established facts of the two cases. Both were failures of government engineering compounded by government ineptitude in the response, failures that ruined vast areas and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands. Both events featured prominently the heroics of those who rushed in to save others. And as the Olga story of a return to life in the forbidden zone, both include the determination of people to return to their home.

It only remains to be seen if the United States can do better by the people of Katrina than the U.S.S.R did for the people of Chernobyl, whether the glowing stories of American superiority I learned in the "comparative" civics class I was taught in late Cold War Catholic school were simply another set of fables not much different than those offered in the catechism.

I am chairing a conference in Kiev at the end of June. I'll do an up-close and guess is that the Soviet federal government did a hell of a lot more for Chernobyl than the US federal government did for NOLA.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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