Friday, October 15, 2010

Thank you, Mr. Coleridge

You've seen it before, but it is an incredible shot.
©2005 Sidney Smith

Today's Blog Action topic is water. Water, the most abundant substance on the planet, is a topic with which all of New Orleans is well aware. After all, the Louisiana Purchase document in 1803 ceded all of the lands owned by France to the United States except for the "Isle of Orleans." We are surrounded by a graceful bend in the Mississippi River to our western, southern and eastern borders and Lake Pontchartrain, the fifth largest U.S. inland lake (not counting the Great Lakes) to our north. Much of the land used for development in the most recent century was reclaimed from former swamp lands. Pumping out water is a big deal here, since much, but not all of the area is beneath sea level. The Mississippi River, which drains 40% of the continental United States, is the main drinking water source for the city. By the time water from the Mississippi River reaches the intake valves for the New Orleans city water supply, it has been used at least 17 times before. As it makes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River also carries with it 1.5 million tons of nitrogen pollutants. Once they reach the Gulf, they contribute to oxygen-robbed "dead zones" in the waters there, killing scores of fish in the process. Yes, we know water very well here. Perhaps too well. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been charged with the protection of the city from water incursion and has constructed and maintained a series of levees designed to keep the water that surrounds the city away from the bowl of the city. Yet, when those levees were breached due to faulty construction in the hours before and after Hurricane Katrina, the same Corps of Engineers enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Besides, they were too busy building new levees and shoring up the old ones to worry about defending themselves in court. Recently, the British Petroleum oil spill focused the attention of millions of citizens on the waters in the Gulf of Mexico as they watched the deep brown crude ooze out from the blowout preventer on live TV or as streaming video over the Internet. Thankfully, that water is now clear, but there are indications that some areas have been adversely affected and may not recover for decades to come. It is hard to believe that in some areas of Africa and Asia there is no potable water available for human consumption because we have so much water here. As to rainfall, we have much more than we need usually. If one has ever been privileged to behold a tropical downfall of the New Orleans variety, he does not find it easy to circumvent or forgettable. Perhaps the most iconic vision I have of water is the image snapped by my cousin, photographer Sidney Smith, four days after Hurricane Katrina. The photo shows my home with water nearly lapping up to the second floor of my residence. Since I was not there, I can only imagine what it would have been like to have been in the middle of the quiet as the toxic waste and polluted water rose above the cars and lawns of my neighbors. I can't but recall the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and the apropos phrase that residents here would have chosen to utter, to wit, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

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