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The Ol' Boys of Braithwaite

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Like much of America, our eyes were glued to the TV this past weekend and most of Monday. Unlike much of America -- and the media covering Gustav, in particular -- I am familiar with Braithwaite, Louisiana. That town well downriver from New Orleans was the only place really threatened by levee breaks and floodwaters. Its citizens, in working together to respond to that crisis, helped ease our trauma and give us back a little peace of mind.

Because I am from New Orleans and own a home in the "sliver by the river," perhaps our attention was a bit more intense. But we were all traumatized by the events of three years ago. Competing over who was more traumatized is not the point. Trauma psychologists explain that while trauma events and effects range across a wide spectrum, they have basic features in common. The extraordinary intrudes into everyday life, surprising us and overwhelming our sense of control, connection, and meaning. Trauma victims are ever after hyper-alert to the least hint of another possible surprise. Surprise me once, shame on you, surprise me twice, shame on me.

That nature fueled now by global warming could be that brutal and our leaders that incompetent and feckless were surprises we were not prepared for. What surprises would Gustav now bring?

Then Monday morning we breathed a sigh of relief. New Orleans had dodged the bullet. Only, there was this: we had breathed the same sigh and indulged in the same cliché on an all-too-similar Monday morning three years before.

It was this confluence of events that made the televised images of the levee's overtopping in Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish so overpowering. Was Braithwaite the next Lower Ninth Ward? Was this the return of our worst nightmare? Would New Orleans and our lives soon be spinning once again out of control?

I didn't need the newscasters' explanation that Braithwaite was not New Orleans. My mother was born in Plaquemines Parish so I knew the population figure they offered was deceptive. There were 35,000 people in Plaquemines but most of them lived on the other side of the river not threatened by this event. Though the number of homes -- 250 -- put at risk might be nearly the number of homes lost in the Lower Nine, I knew, after all, that Katrina's destruction was not limited to one neighborhood. Instead, the catastrophe of three years ago inundated 80 per cent of the city I loved -- not a few acres, but the equivalent of seven Manhattans.

The degree of ignorance displayed by the newscasters over the weekend regarding New Orleans and hurricanes and levees had been flabbergasting. Even to Anderson Cooper, whose time in New Orleans should have taught him better, the Lower Nine continued to be the facile symbol for the destruction that had touched New Orleanians of every color and class. Frightening images showed water cresting over the concrete walls lining the Industrial Canal -- the wall opposite the very canal whose failure had flooded the Lower Nine so tragically following Hurricane Katrina. But newscasters never made the distinction in danger level between water overtopping earthen levees and that surging over concrete walls. Earthen berms, unlike concrete, are expected to erode when overtopped. Fifteen miles away in rural Braithwaite, the levee was earthen.

The CNN newsreader was befuddled that the Braithwaite levee was "private" rather than federal, and was in the highest possible dudgeon that it had not been reinforced by the Corps of Engineers post-Katrina -- suggesting the Corps had done a good job on the rest of our levees. They haven't.

But I knew at least part of the back-story in Braithwaite. The threatened levees were not part of the system meant to protect us from the water that encircles us. Rather they surrounded a "diversion" canal that takes a bit of the water from the Mississippi River, shortly before it enters the Gulf, and sends it into the wetlands to feed this starving marsh with soil and nutrients flowing from mid-America. Like the one at the Caernarvon Fresh Water Diversion Project just upriver, this canal was part of the so-far half-hearted but crucial effort to revive our wetlands that protect against storm surge.

Today, the rich national resource that is the Mississippi delta loses the equivalent of a football field of wetlands every 50 minutes. Every two to three miles of wetlands cuts a hurricane's storm surge by a foot. Our wetlands erosion and subsidence has been occurring for much of the 20th century, hastened by our well-meant efforts to control the Mississippi River floods with an unintended consequence of starving the wetlands of the nutrients those floods deliver. Perhaps even more harmful to the wetlands are the many canals the petroleum industry has dug to facilitate getting personnel and equipment to the rigs in the Gulf and the oil back to the refineries.

The wetlands provide 25% of the seafood America eats and the petroleum industry 25% of our domestic oil supply. The Braithwaite and Caernarvon diversion canals are an ongoing test that has proven successful. If we want to save one of America's most important ports and cultural icons, if we want to eat seafood and drive cars, we need to get the Corps of Engineers and Congress to take Mississippi River diversions very very seriously, very very soon.

When the ol' boys of Braithwaite figured out a way to use the canal lock "ass-backwards," as they might put it, to drain the waters pressing on the levee not from but into the Mississippi, they did more than save the 250 homes of Braithwaite (and arguably the best oranges in America that are grown there). They gave us all a little desperately needed reassurance.

Harvard psychologist Judith Herman explains that "The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections."

Gustav in general and the Braithwaite drama in particular enacted what we all needed. Where Katrina tore apart our feelings of safety, Gustav helped us feel that perhaps safety is not impossible. Sometimes nature spares us. Sometimes those on whom we rely to deploy expertise, intelligence, and care deliver. The Corps of Engineers has a lot of work ahead of them still, but the experience of Gustav helped us trust them a little more. Like the levees, FEMA, though not fully tested, this time was prepared for what Gustav threw at us.
But in the tensest drama of that long weekend, those ol' boys of Braithwaite began the knitting together that our community sorely needs. The "heck of a job" they truly did helps explain the deep relief we felt Monday night as we gathered together as families, safe again at our Labor Day tables.

Randy Fertel is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at New School for Social Research. He is the co-founder of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling, which celebrate the legacy of Ron Ridenhour who blew the whistle on My Lai in the Vietnam War, then became a George Polk award-winning investigative journalist. The first Ridenhour Prizes in 2003 went to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and Daniel Ellsberg. See ridenhour.org.