A cold fall night. Maybe Rain. Thanksgiving draws closer and Why Not is good enough. Uptown just off of Magazine.
They stand outside smoking and listening to the wind through the dead leaves and thinking about the water that may fall on their heads.
S is baffled that trees lose their leaves Down Here. It's a twelve month growing season. He just assumed that, you know, nothing died below the Mason-Dixon Line. And yet, there it Is – piles of wet debris in the gutters, on the sidewalk, matting the grass, leaving bare, skeletal oak arms up above whose only garment now is Mardi Gras beads.
There are three of them – and an occasional loud party-goer wanders out to chat, smoke – but then returns to the party. E introduces S to the Other Guy: D. E says, "D and I are old friends. He's a civil engineer. He works on the levees."
"Oh," says S. He's holding a tumbler of whiskey. While everyone else went to the fridge for beer, he ferreted out the liquor cabinet and, since no one stopped him, took generously.
"That's the reaction I usually get," says D.
"Yeah," says E. He's nursing a beer. "D is our go-to guy when we want to know How Bad It's Going to Get. During Gustav we called D up and asked him if we should leave and he said 'Get the hell out of town.'"
"Yeah," says D. "We were lucky that time. But it could have been a lot worse."
"So you must know--" S begins.
"Yes," D says and lights a cigarette, seemingly in preparation for the following conversation. "You want to know What Went Wrong, right?"
"Yes," S says.
"New Orleans is a bowl," D begins. He cups his hands, smoke rising between his fingers creating a smoldering crater. "And the way you’re Supposed to build a levee system is with a lot of spill ways back-up levee barriers, and so on. It's so that when a storm hits and there's a surge there's somewhere for the water to go. If the pressure gets too great, you open up a spill way and relieve pressure on the system.
"What we have in New Orleans is just one Gigantic Wall. You know what happens when a hurricane hits? They have all these gates surrounding the city and when a storm comes they close them and seal off the city. Any pressure or surge affects the whole system. If the pressure gets too great then the whole system fails. Well, there's nowhere for the water to go and no way to relieve the system. What happens then? Catastrophic Failure. You lose a three hundred year old city."
"What about the system now? I thought the Army Corps was rebuilding it," says S.
D laughs and shakes his head. "It's no better. Their solution to the Failure was just build a Bigger Fucking Wall. Very American – just build it bigger. It's supposed to stop a Category 3, but..."
"Just a Category 3?" S asks. "What happens if a Category 5 hits?"
D shakes his head. "There's nothing you can build that could stop a Category 5."
D's cigarette falls to the cement and his shoe rubs it out.
Tornadoes. That's what S remembers. The raw force of wind that can twist and pull entire towns off the face of the earth. No such thing as Tornado-Proof.
And it starts to rain.