September 7, 2005

State of Nature and the Nature of the State

In Katrina's wake, Gelf recommends some background reading to get up to speed on Man v. Nature.

Aaron Zamost

While many turn to Dan Brown for insight into political events (including folks at Fox News), Gelf turns to real literature first. Every week or so, Aaron Zamost will present readers with two books relevant to current events: one for people who enjoy reading Tom Robbins—and another for those who like Tony Robbins.

Oh, we still read schlock—but we read it second.


Is there any point in reprinting here President Bush's now infamous denial of responsibility for the post-Katrina floods in New Orleans? You've heard it, I've heard it, and the newly fired-up media won't let you forget it.

I'll run it, anyway: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Setting the land speed record for quickest discrediting of a Bush administration claim, everyone everywhere tore the president's remark a new crevasse last week, referring the president to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service, and countless others.

And those are just the most recent predictions of a New Orleans disaster, to say nothing of the well-documented history of Southeast Louisiana. Feel free to go all the way back to the French settlement in 1718 and start counting: The levees failed in floods in 1735, 1785, 1862, 1866, 1867, and in the most destructive flood of the 19th century, the 1882 disaster in which the levees broke in 285 different places. This does not even begin to address major floods of the 20th century, including near disasters in 1973 and 1983, and the destruction caused by Hurricane Camille in 1969, which at that point was the worst hurricane on record to hit the mainland United States.

Unless you're a hapless arroyo toad (San Francisco Chronicle), the natural world tends to put up a pretty good fight in its battle with humans, even in America—see the St. Francis dam break in 1928, the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Camille in 1969, and the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Even in the 21st century, Big Weather is like Michael Vick—you can't stop it, you can only hope to contain it.

All Bush (or Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, or Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Mike Brown) had to do was read anything remotely related to New Orleans: an environmental report on Southeast Louisiana generated by its own administration, or a "catastrophic disaster" report FEMA produced in 2001 (that skyrocketed in importance after Sept. 11), or the Times-Picayune's 2002 report vaguely titled "Last line of defense: Hoping the levees hold." Perhaps they'd have been better prepared for a Man v. Nature relief effort knowing that the need for a federal response of serious magnitude was inevitable.

Of course, they also could have read one of the following.

The Control of Nature, by John McPhee

If the above list of floods in Southeast Louisiana seems boring, it's only because I am nowhere near as engaging a writer as McPhee, who even manages to liven up accounts of the protocol for towboat river movement. In Control of Nature, McPhee details three places in the world "where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature." Perhaps "nature" should have been given a capital "N"; McPhee's three examples include 30-foot walls that frame the Atchafalaya swamp and contain the Mississippi river, hose-and-pump systems that catch massive lava jets in Iceland, and huge basins that draw off boulder-filled debris flows in the mountains near Los Angeles.

Although McPhee's book is basically three books in one, the most relevant section, of course, is the first one, in which McPhee explains the history of America's artificial confinement of the Mississippi River and the local community's stubborn defiance in the face of seasonal flooding and a constantly sinking terrain. The leader of La Resistance is the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal group charged with providing engineering services to the United States, including the formation of associated structures to control the movement of the Mississippi.

Note to the president: For quite some time the Army Corps of Engineers has known that its "Hold by levees" strategy was not a good one. The levees "were helping to aggravate the problem they were meant to solve—with walls alone, one could only build an absurdly elevated aqueduct." Even in 1989 (when the book was published), it was clear that "among the five hundred miles of levee deficiencies now calling for attention along the Mississippi River, the most serious happen to be in New Orleans."

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's an enlightening read. McPhee's writing is elegant but simple. The Control of Nature's otherwise unexciting references to watercourse maps and navigation locks are actually enjoyable, fascinating, and easy to read. It's no surprise that McPhee contributes to the New Yorker—he can make 80 pages on San Gabriel pumice-grit feel like two.

The Control of Nature is like The Way Things Work, but for grown-ups. It's not as dry as Marc Reisner's more famous Cadillac Desert, although it covers some of the same ground, and it's more intelligent than the Darwin Awards, although McPhee is equally willing to ridicule the stupid humans in his own book. Maybe someday McPhee will write about how stupid I am to live in a city that lies on a faultline. As a catastrophic San Francisco earthquake is the only one of FEMA's top three US disasters that hasn't happened since the report's publication, warning the president ahead of time is probably the least McPhee can do.

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

Ah, Jurassic Park—one of the best pop fiction novels ever written and probably the only book about man's struggle with nature that President Bush has actually read. Let's remember, this is a guy who enjoyed I Am Charlotte Simmons, the winner of last year's Literary Review Bad Sex Award.

Like The Control of Nature, the principal lesson of Jurassic Park is obvious: Advances in science and technology are always thwarted by man's sense of superiority over Mother Nature. If the administration won't read boring disaster reports—or even McPhee's book—Bush still can learn a great deal about man's uphill battle against nature in what is far and away Michael Crichton's best novel. I have included page numbers to alert the president to the book's most relevant passages.

1. Billionaire John Hammond underfunds storm barriers that would protect the pier at Jurassic Park. (153)

2. Jurassic Park officials are informed of approaching hurricane; instead of authorizing early departures and damage preparation, Hammond asks that harbor workers continue as usual. (153)

3. Dinosaurs roam free on the island. Hammond says, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the cages."

4. Hammond's statement is refuted by chaotician Ian Malcom: "I gave all this information to Hammond long before he broke ground on this place. You're going to engineer a bunch of prehistoric animals and set them on an island? Fine. A lovely dream. Charming. But it won't go as planned. It is inherently unpredictable, just as the weather is." (159)

5. Jurassic Park personnel bungle the rescue effort. (212)

6. Hammond announces that Ed Regis, head of Jurassic Park emergency management, is doing "a heck of a job." Regis is killed by a tyrannosaur. (217)

7. Hammond tells Dr. Ellie Sattler that he vows to rebuild. "We got a lot of rebuilding to do. The good news is, and it's hard for some to see it now, but out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic new Jurassic Park. Out of the rubbles of the Visitor Center, there's going to be fantastic Cretaceous Resort and Spa. And I look forward to sitting on the porch."

8. Hammond is eaten by a herd of tiny dinosaurs. (393)

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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