Unbelievable excitement ensues as two Seattleites prepare for a baby!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Baby Blotter

Sophia greets the world.

None of this is especially fresh news, but I figured it might be interesting to get Sophia's first-month timeline written out and published. Besides, I need a lot of text into which I can insert random but important photos of our young daughter. Enjoy the photos, because I doubt anybody will actually read through all of this.

Oct. 2004 - None of Your Business
Nothing to see here. Move along.

Sophia, starting to calm down a tad.

Nov. 26, 2004 - Leigh Finds Out
Prompted by some eyebrow-raising aches and pains, Leigh urinates on a tiny stick and discovers that she is pregnant - which for my money is just a really strange methodology for learning that you're pregnant. Her first order of business is trying to decide whether she should be ecstatic or really freaked out. She settles on both.

After work - during which co-worker and friend Chavi cheerfully regales Leigh with tales about all the bratty kids she dealt with over Thanksgiving - Leigh drives to Yakima to meet up with me and the rest of her family. Inexplicably, she doesn't say a word about it to me, instead allowing my to spend the majority of the night in blissful ignorance playing "Risk" with her brother Bryan and cousin Christofer. I lose badly.

Sophia gets her first bath.

Nov. 27, 2004 - Chris Finds Out
The next morning, Leigh and I work on a puzzle in Linda's kitchen by ourselves while the rest of the family watches television in the family room. Leigh begins to tell me the shocking news by buttering me up.

"I have a secret that needs to be kept, but I'm not sure if I can trust you to keep it," she says sweetly, impressing me with both her need for absolute tight-lipped secrecy and her accurate assessment of my secret-keeping abilities.

Upon receiving my quizzical assent to her demands, she hands me a sweet card that reads, "Times, they are a changin' - congratulations, Daddy!"

Sophia luxuriates in her first bath.

As I look, thunderstruck, from the card to her weakly smiling, mildly freaked-out face, Christofer walks casually into the room and begins making small-talk. With Leigh's demands for absolute secrecy still reverberating in the otherwise empty container of my skull, I immediately stifle all emotion.

An hour later, I am still searching for the opportunity to get Leigh alone to chat - or to show and/or release emotion of any kind - when I get the idea to create that opportunity by heading to the supermarket for groceries. Leigh quickly agrees to come along, when Christofer, seemingly hell-bent on maintaining his sadistic tyranny over any conversation between Leigh and I on this topic, cheerfully volunteers to tag along.

Amazingly, several teeth-gritting hours later, Leigh and I finally get a chance to chat and to share our excitement and fear; hopes and worries; and general levels of emotional decay.

Sophia and Mommy get some quality time.

Nov. 29, 2004 - Confirmation
Leigh visits the doctor, who confirms that she is, indeed, pregnant. Excitement and general freaked-out levels continue to rise.

Mommy and Phia cuddle a little.

Dec. 1, 2004 - Crippling Gas
Leigh begins several consecutive months of "terrible" gas and constipation that wreak havoc with her well-digestive being.

Yes, I ran this past her before publishing. In fact, Leigh insisted I publish this comment, saying she wanted to "raise the brown veil" on the trials of pregnancy.

Sophia gets a little shut-eye.

Dec. 4, 2004 - Lyle Finds Out
Leigh runs into her Dad at Tidefest in Gig Harbor and tells him she's pregnant. Much merriment ensues.

Grandpa Lyle has an excellent rapport with Sophia.

Dec. 5, 2004 - The Hafners Find Out
My father, in town for business, stands in our basement and looks skeptical while, in the middle of conversation, I invent some fictional pretext to get my Mom on the phone. When I finally make the big announcement, my Dad gives the biggest grin I've ever seen. However, on Mom's end, all I hear was screeching, wailing and sobbing, followed by a near-traffic accident. Sister Amy is similarly pleased.

The newest Hafner joins the clan.

Feb. 2005 - Morning Sickness
After escaping her first trimester without any morning sickness, Leigh spends virtually the entire fourth month vomiting.

Mother and baby.

Feb. 17, 2005 - Got the Hives
Leigh begins to break out into a strange rash but avoids going to the doctor, reasoning that if she ignores the problem that it'll go away. Amazingly, this well-reasoned medical approach doesn't work. Leigh winds up getting a full-blown, head-to-toe case of the hives - and a severe talking-to from her doctor.

Bryan bonds with his niece.

Feb. 23, 2005 - It's a Girl!
We go in for the major ultrasound and blood tests, and find that our baby is healthy, evidently enjoys kicking her mother's innards black and blue, and is of the female persuasion. The ultrasound technician confirms this by taking a picture of Sophia's, um, undercarriage and typing "GIRL" next to her, well, parts. Her subtlety was appreciated.

Bryanne gets to know her ... second cousin? Cousin twice removed?

April, 2005 - Gargantuan Baby?
The doctor throws us for a loop by informing us that our baby is not only incredibly large for her age but that she will likely be ready to pop out within a month. All of this proves be thoroughly wrong, and in fact the doctor doesn't remember telling us any of that at the next appointment.

The first bath at home was a little traumatic.

May 15, 2005 - Showering Madness
In a moment of madness, we decide to eschew the idea of a series of traditional baby showers, opting instead to just have a bunch of friends over for barbecue, beer, and a casual good time. Despite a rainy day, more than 80 people show up, thoroughly freak out the cat, and give so generously that Sophia will be vastly better-dressed than her parents during her first three years of life.

Quality time with Mommy.

June 11, 2005 - Chris Gets Old
I turn 29. Hooray.

That hat never stays on.

July 4, 2005 - Birth of the Blog
I get the incredibly sharp idea of building a blog to keep everybody updated on baby and other Hafner happenings. Of course, that gets a little more difficult when I don't regularly update it.

Daddy and Phia regard each other warily.

July 5, 2005 - Birth Imminent?
I write in the blog that "blast-off" might be "imminent." It isn't.


July 6, 2005 - Bags are packed
Feeling that birth is right around the corner, we pack the bags for the hospital and begin readying the car for the drive to the hospital - a drive that would never actually take place.

Sophia gets thoughtful.

July 8, 2005 - Bedrest
After Leigh refuses to see a doctor about her increasingly blotchy right arm ("It'll go away if I ignore it," she said), the doctor notices the arm in a subsequent appointment, diagnoses high blood pressure, and puts Leigh on immediate bedrest. Leigh, of course, subsequently spends very little time resting and even less time in bed.

More ominously, however, the doctor warns Leigh to beware of a "sense of impending doom." Um, OK.

Linda compares outfits with Sophia.

July 9, 2005 - Birthday and visit
Leigh celebrates her 29th birthday with a visit to the Swedish birthing suites. We are told that we will be kept in triage for up to three hours upon admission before we are transferred to a birthing suite. We pout, but in actual point of fact we will wind up sitting in triage for roughly five minutes before being wheeled rapidly into a birthing suite.

Sophia's still not sure about baths.

July 18, 2005 - Dilation Nation
After a doctor's appointment in which Leigh was told she was 1 centimeter dilated and 50 percent effaced, the doctor adds that there is a 30 percent chance Leigh will give birth within days. "We are well and truly in the home stretch now," I write. The home stretch is actually nowhere within sight.

Yo yo yo ... Sophia flashes gang signs.

July 20, 2005 - Be Surprised
I write in the blog, "I would not be surprised if Sophia joined us soon." She does not.

Erica visits with the girls.

July 27, 2005 - Due Date
Due date arrives, and nothing happens - unless you count us bouncing off the walls in anticipation.

Stackson meets the newest member of the family.

July 29, 2005 - Ewww
Leigh blows her mucus plug and winds up with some bloody show. This grotesque sign is supposed to mean that Leigh will be giving birth in the next day or two. "We appear to be close," I write. We are not close.

Sophia likes to suck on Mommy's finger.

July 31, 2005 - Dead Baby Scare 2005
A quiet morning is interrupted when Leigh remarks that she hadn't felt Sophia move in some time. I assure an increasingly panicky Leigh that everything is fine and refer to the baby books for reassurance. After paging through alarming sections regarding stillbirth and mothers who have to carry and deliver long-dead babies, I eventually find the correct section - which recommends we instantly head to the emergency room to receive emergency treatment in the hope that our ailing baby "can still be revived."

The freaking-out begins in earnest and continues until, powered by her mother's surging adrenaline, Sophia resumes her normal schedule of tenderizing her mother's internal organs. Leigh and I collapse into a sweaty, twitching pile of nerves.

Sophia gets squinty.

Aug. 2, 2005 - Still no baby
The endless waiting leaves us numb and a bit loopy - to the point where I publicly compare Sophia to a toy one might purchase with cereal box UPCs.

Grandma Cathy holds Sophia.

Aug. 4, 2005 - Bizarre Cervix
The doctor, puzzled, discovers that Leigh is four centimeters dilated and, thus, past the first stage of labor. In attempting to describe why Leigh is not actually having contractions or, you know, a baby, the doctor posits that Leigh's cervix is "really messed up."

That's the medical term, of course.

Linda and Bryanne say hello.

Aug. 6, 2005 - The Big Moment
At 9 p.m., Leigh and I agree to meet downstairs to watch some TV in an hour. Twenty minutes later, Leigh feels a sharp, stabbing pain that she initially ascribes to gas. Breaking water and the onset of 40-second-long contractions, beginning two minutes apart from one another, quickly give the lie to that theory. In fact, the length, intensity, and frequency of the contractions begin to convince me that we are well beyond the first stage of labor - and that we need to get to the hospital immediately, if not sooner.

Leigh, howling with crippling pain, instructs me to put the salad dressing in the refrigerator, close the windows, finish sending e-mail, and in general to tidy up the place before we go.

Unfortunately, my plans to careen wildly through the city in the "panic drive" to the hospital are soon dashed. Leigh can't stay in the car during her contractions, no matter what we do with the seats. After three tries, we make it to the top of the driveway.

At the top of the driveway, Leigh cries, "I want the drugs!" She doesn't get a chance to get the drugs.

Somebody's sleepy ...

As Leigh's contractions continue to build, and with visions of delivering my child on the front lawn dancing in my head, I call an ambulance ("But we don't know if insurance will cover it," protests Leigh). Instead, firefighters inexplicably arrive - it's not as if we need to hose Leigh down - and they call an ambulance.

As Leigh is screaming and moaning in the back of the ambulance, the paramedics pepper her with questions that she can't answer, while I ride in the front, making small talk with the driver. Leigh tries not to push, since she feels she could give birth at any time.

At the hospital, we are faced with a bemused triage nurse who apparently regards the ambulance drama as just another mother freaking out. Her scornful mien disappears when she gives Leigh a quick check and discovers that where she expected a partially-dilated cervix, there is now a baby's head. The doctor barely arrives in time to catch the baby.

Labor started around 9:45 p.m. at home. We arrived at the hospital at 11:00 p.m., and our darling baby Sophia was born at 11:27. She was 8 pounds, 15 ounces, and 19 inches long - with an adorable purple face with massive fatty jowls.

I still thank God that I didn't have to deliver that baby on the driveway.

Aug. 7, 2005 - Anniversary
Half an hour after birth, we celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. Leigh chose to observe the moment by acting incredibly exhausted, while I simulated excitement. We each got a few hours of sleep before visitors came.

Soon, however, it was time for me to step up to the plate for baby's first diaper change. Unfortunately, I struck out badly.

For those unaware with the inner workings of baby stool - and how sadly ignorant those people are - the first few baby poops after birth are a hellish substance known as meconium. It is a black, tarry substance simply impossible to remove.

Meconium owned me in that first diaper change. The combination of my inexperience, the viscosity of this awful substance, and a wiggly baby conspired to get tarry poop all over baby's clothes, her still-healing belly button, her changing table, and me. I went through a full container of baby wipes finally getting her cleaned up and was a shell of a man when it was all done.

Aug. 8, 2005 - Coming Home
Feeling fairly confident in our abilities to parent, we left the hospital at roughly 5 p.m. ready to being our life at home together. Isn't life grand?

Eight hours later, after escalating screaming, fever, and dehydration - and that just from Leigh and I - we were back in the hospital, in the emergency room.

Kevin and Jessica meet Sophia.

Aug. 9, 2005 - Back in the Hospital
Our depressing hospital stint began with the baby getting formula to assuage her immediate needs, and Leigh getting an uncomfortable cot and a shared room with an edgy family dealing with a heavily jaundiced baby. I was sent home, but Linda, Lyle and I eventually made it back into the hospital to help support a thoroughly exhausted Leigh.. Poor little Sophia got an IV drip, a spinal tap, and a temporary urine catheter.

Many round-the-clock nights of feeding, crying, and diaper changing began - and, again, that's not even taking into account Sophia's needs.

Sophia gets open-mouthed.

Aug. 11, 2005 - Back Home, Redux
We gratefully return home, and this time it sticks. Linda stays for several days, and then my mother arrives to help us out.

Aug. 11 is also remarkable for Sophia's remarkable poop blast.

Lyle gets some good time with the baby.

Aug. 15, 2005 - Sweat Lodge
We had been told by the doctor to keep an eye on Sophia's temperature, so we noted with some alarm a precipitous drop in her temp. Despite sweltering temperatures, we geared her up in several layers of clothes and a hat to keep her core temperature up - but all this did was produce a very sweaty and grumpy baby with a low core temperature.

On Aug. 15, after several days of this, we finally got the bright idea to test the thermometer on me. According to the thermometer, I was more than a degree under temperature - meaning that thanks to a defective thermometer, we'd been sweating our baby out for no particular purpose. Considering our recent hospital stay resulting from baby dehydration, we were .... somewhat frustrated with this revelation.

Aug. 19, 2005 - Growing Girl
Heading back in to see the doctor, we learn that not only had Sophia already regained all of her birth weight, forging into the 9-pound range, but she had grown to 22 inches long.

Aug. 22, 2005 - Home Alone
Our last live-in support leaves, and we begin fending for ourselves. Things go remarkably well.

Aug. 30, 2005 - First Road Trip
We drive to Portland and back - and live to tell the tale.

Sept. 3, 2005 - Four-Week Birthday
Nothing else really happened this day.

Sept. 6, 2005 - One-Month Birthday
... and I finally get this post up, after two weeks of planning.

At the end of her first month, Sophia is stunningly beautiful and surprisingly good-natured, considering what she's been through. In the next week or so (which means sometime in 2008), I'll write a post describing Ms. Phia in detail - her likes, dislikes, her little personality quirks.

Driving with Chris: Cadillac XLR

Cadillac's XLR - quick, refined, and $75,000.

Over the last several years, Cadillac has made a remarkable comeback from near-irrelevance to a position of making cars nearly, but not quite, as good as the stellar offerings from BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Infiniti.

That sounds like damning with faint praise, but of all of General Motors' divisions, Cadillacs are generally better-engineered and better-equipped to go head-to-head with their competition - a feat made even more impressive considering the caliber of that competition. The Cadillac SRX small SUV is arguably the best in its class, and the small sports-sedan CTS and mid-size sports-luxury sedan STS are at least competitive with some of the industry's heaviest hitters.

The XLR two-seat sports convertible is Cadillac's flagship car - its flashiest, most expensive, and most exotic offering, meant to go head-to-head with Mercedes' flagship SL two-seat convertible.
This is a task that was attempted in the 1980s by the Cadillac Allante, but the XLR has better ordinance with which to do the job.

Cadillac's engineers started with the stiff platform and excellent suspension of the previous generation Chevrolet Corvette and dropped in Cadillac's proprietary Northstar V-8 for motivation. In this setting, the smooth and torquey Northstar generates a smooth 320 horsepower.

In practice, the XLR's handling is as precise and immediate as one would expect from a Corvette chassis; the engine, while not as hard-edged as a Corvette, provides a level of power and refinement commensurate with the XLR's more patrician mission. The overall effect is one of calm but ever-present competency - a thoroughbred athleticism that is available when called upon without ever creating a scene.

A power folding hardtop allows the XLR owner to enjoy the delights of top-down motoring without having to compromise foul-weather protection, but the rest of the accomodations aren't quite as nice. The interior trim, switchgear, and navigation and entertainment system look a bit cheap in Cadillac's entry-level CTS sedan; they look dramatically out of place in a $75,000 luxury tourer.

Yes, $75,000 for a Cadillac - and in the end, despite a sweet-mannered vehicle, that price may be too much for skeptical customers to swallow. As a vehicle, the XLR blows away competitors such as the Lexus SC430 and Jaguar XK8, but it also costs more than either. It also costs significantly more than the new, more advanced Corvette or even the Corvette Z06 - a budget supercar that retails for less than the XLR while running with the fastest cars on earth.

The Cadillac undercuts the $91,000 Mercedes-Benz SL500 significantly, and, mechanically, is not embarrassed by the more expensive Teutonic juggernaut. However, it's hard to imagine a Mercedes buyer being swayed by the Cadillac nameplate or the cheap plastic surfaces that abound in the XLR.

The XLR is an excellent car, but like the rest of Cadillac's offerings, it might be lacking just enough to keep it from superstardom.

The XLR's power retractable hardtop provides top-down fun without the hassles of a soft convertible top.

Quick Administrative Note

The Good Ship Hafner Three has received a few automated spam comments in the last few hours, so I've taken the bold step of adding a word verification before you leave a comment.

You can still be anonymous and leave a comment, but first you have to read one of those weird twisted nonsense words and enter the text into a box to verify that you're human and not a comment bot.

And, once again, the terrorists have won.

Baby's First Road Trip

Grandpa Mike introduces Sophia to John Deere - a truly superior brand of heavy construction equipment.

I've come into this parenting experience with a huge variety of erroneous preconceptions, each foolishly misguided in its own inimitable way. Chief among those is my tendency to overrate the importance of physiological factors in a baby's behavior.

You know, like if you feed the baby enough, she must inevitably fall asleep. Or that since most babies enjoy napping on their stomach, Sophia will always enjoy it. Or that since driving around the city in half-hour chunks has always been enough to conk her out, an automobile ride of any length would inevitably leave her knocked out for as long as the drive continued.

Um, no.

Last week I brought Leigh and Sophia along on a business trip to Portland to stay with my parents while I worked, and Sophia took full advantage of her latest opportunity to prove me utterly wrong.

A round trip that normally takes me roughly five hours total ballooned to more than eight hours with the young one aboard. Sophia kicked off the first half of each trip with a cacaphony of crying and caterwauling that led to an inordinate amount of time spent breast-feeding and calming a screaming baby in a variety of locales - outside small-town McDonald's restaurants being eyed by the local youth in their lowered Chevy S-10s; parked in rural gas station parking lots hoping not to be disturbed; or changing Sophia in grimy, institutional rest areas.

Grandma Cathy enjoys some quality time with the newest member of the family.

Truth be told, Sophia did very well considering her youth and the length of each trip; in the second half of each leg, the white noise and motion of the car eventually managed to cajole her to sleep. Still, my dangerously ignorant assumption that (car)+(baby)=(guaranteed sleeping baby) has been forever dispelled.

This is all just in time, of course, for us to repeat the trip next week so that Leigh and Sophia can stay with my folks in the Portland area while I fly to California for my last trip there with Parts & People.

The excellent thing is that both Leigh and Sophia had time to spend some time with my folks; Leigh had the benefit of helping hands more competent than mine, and my folks got to spend some time with the two beautiful women with whom I have the pleasure to live.

Sophia takes advantage of some "tummy time" at Grandma & Grandpa's house.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

New Job!

It is my pleasure to report that as of Sept. 19, I will be the newest fresh-faced employee of e-retailing giant Amazon.com. All hail e-commerce!

My official title is Associate Buyer of Amazon's new Automotive store. My duties there will be varied and myriad, which is a fancy way of saying I'll be doing a lot of stuff but at the moment I'm not entirely sure what specifically those duties will include.

What I do know is that I'm excited to work for an industry leader like Amazon, even more excited to be part of helping a new venture find success, and most excited yet that this new position does not involve the crippling travel and dispiriting sales responsibilities that my Parts & People gig did.

Not that Parts & People wasn't a great place to work. They're great people with a terrific product, and I wish them well. But this is an excellent thing for our family.

The one noticeable impact as far as this blog is concerned is that as of Sept. 16 I will lose access to the new cars that make Driving with Chris possible. Of course, it's not as if I've been writing those consistently anyway, so I suppose that's no huge loss.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Letter from New Orleans

Aid is beginning to trickle into devastated New Orleans, and it appears that perhaps the momentum is beginning to swing in favor of the stranded residents - albeit too slowly for some. More weak and infirm died today from lack of basic necessities - they died in a major urban center, surrounded by other helpless people, nearly a week after the hurricane.

I'm gritting my teeth and doing my level best to avoid lobbing verbal bombs at the vast array of public officials - elected and appointed - who are trying to indulge in self-congratulation and attempting to spin the slow-motion response as something other than a huge failure.

Self-righteous indignation, while fun, isn't flattering on me, so to avoid that and to provide another perspective, I'll publish a letter from a doctor stranded in the French Quarter. It was written Tuesday afternoon and provides an interesting perspective on the coming events.

I received it from a trusted colleague formerly of the Denver Post, and I've seen references to the events described here from independent sources, so I believe this to be a genuine document from the disaster zone.


Thanks to all of you who have sent your notes of concern and your prayers. I am writing this note on Tuesday at 2 p.m. I wanted to update all of you as to the situation here. I don't know how much information you are getting but I am certain it is more than we are getting. Be advised that almost everything I am telling you is from direct observation or rumor from reasonable sources. They are allowing limited internet access, so I hope to send this dispatch today.

Personally, my family and I are fine. My family is safe in Jackson, Miss., and I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carleton Hotel in New Orleans. I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list.

In addition, this hotel is in a very old building on Canal Street that could and did sustain little damage. Many of the other hotels sustained significant loss of windows, and we expect that many of the guests may be evacuated here.

Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today. Overnight the water arrived. Now Canal Street (true to its origins) is indeed a canal. The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater. I have heard that Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water. Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional. However, I spoke with them today and they too are on generator and losing food and water fast.

The city now has no clean water, no sewerage system, no electricity, and no real communications. Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. We are worried about a cholera epidemic. Even the police are without effective communications. We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that is admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement.

This is tough because looting is now rampant. Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and no medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous. We hear gunshots frequently. Most of Canal street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons. We hear gunshots frequently. The looters are using makeshift boats made of pieces of styrofoam to access. We are still waiting for a significant national guard presence.

The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight. Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children. Many other guests have unusual diseases. ... There are (Infectious Disease) physicians in at this hotel attending an HIV confection.

We have commandered the world famous French Quarter Bar to turn into an makeshift clinic. There is a team of about seven doctors and PAs and pharmacists. We anticipate that this will be the major medical facility in the central business district and French Quarter.

Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreens on Canal under police escort. The pharmacy was dark and full of water. We basically scooped the entire drug sets into garbage bags and removed them. All under police excort. The looters had to be held back at gunpoint. After a dose of prophylactic Cipro I hope to be fine.

In all we are faring well. We have set up a hospital in the the French Quarter bar in the hotel, and will start admitting patients today. Many will be from the hotel, but many will not. We are anticipating dealing with multiple medical problems, medications and and acute injuries. Infection and perhaps even cholera are anticipated major problems. Food and water shortages are imminent.

The biggest question to all of us is where is the National Guard. We hear jet fignters and helicopters, but no real armed presence, and hence the rampant looting. There is no Red Cross and no Salvation Army.

In a sort of cliché way, this is an edifying experience. One is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life. It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care phyisican. We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible.

I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear. Despite it all, this is a soul-edifying experience. The greatest pain is to think about the loss. And how long the rebuild will take. And the horror of so many dead people .

PLEASE SEND THIS DISPATCH TO ALL YOU THING MAY BE INTERSTED IN A DISPATCH from the front. I will send more according to your interest. Hopefully their collective prayers will be answered. By the way, suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes will be needed as the Ritz turns into a MASH.


Amazing - and sobering - stuff for those of us safely out of harm's way.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans musings

To interrupt for a moment the tone of snide idiocy I generally propogate on this blog, I wanted to offer a quick thought on the worsening tragedy unfolding in New Orleans. With every hour that passes, it becomes more clear that we are witnessing something more than just a hurricane and its related damage; we are seeing the complete devastation of a major American city and a profound cultural event.

Any storm that can savage the hulking, implacable concrete structure of the Superdome with only wind and water is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and Hurricane Katrina's assault on the Gulf Coast was truly breathtaking in its destructive ferocity.

But perhaps even more terrifying than the violent decimation of the Mississippi coast has been the slow, frighteningly casual unraveling of lives in front of TV cameras in downtown New Orleans.

Today, days after the hurricane swept through, people are still trapped on rooftops awaiting rescue. Some are living on rooftops by choice to escape the savagery of the roving groups of looters and armed gangs. Thousands of people at the Convention Center and elsewhere have gone days without food or water and are slowly dying in full public view. Crowds of people are withering away without the necessities of life and giving up hope for their survival.

The process is heart-breaking and terrifying - families panic as their loved ones slip away from life, and onlookers place blankets over the recently dead. Parents have no way to feed their babies, and the whole scene is unfolding in a public place, in throngs of hundreds or more people, in many cases in front of TV cameras and reporters.

No doubt access to the flooded city is still difficult; but if TV crews can gain access to the scene to bear witness to people withering away with hunger, dehydration, and a lack of needed medication, why haven't aid workers arrived on the scene en masse with pre-packaged food, pallets of bottled water, and insulin? We are now days after the initial crisis, and the needs are known - where are organized caravans of private vehicles to evacuate survivors to an area with the necessary infrastructure? If the government and the non-profits can't help the survivors meet their most basic needs, why hasn't the private sector stepped in to save the day and generate positive buzz? Why hasn't Pizza Hut sent helicopters or trucks with hundreds of pizzas and a crate of Diet Cokes?

I hate to second-guess crisis response, since the scale of the devastation is beyond imagining and it's not an easy thing to organize relief efforts, but it's not as if the thousands of refugees at the Convention Center are a surprise. Over the past few days, the New Orleans mayor has been calling for refugees to meet at the Convention Center for aid. Heck, I knew that was a major aid point. No aid of any kind has since materialized there, and the mayor is now begging for help from the outside world to keep the gathered thousands of remaining citizens in his city alive.

In a stunning example of the short-sighted beaurocratic mentality at its best, over the past four years (since FEMA called a hurricane hitting New Orleans one of the "three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country"), FEMA's focus was reassigned to response and recovery, not preparedness; FEMA denied Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation requests last year; and funding for the New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was cut by $71.2 million this year.*

I'm not trying to make a political statement here, and I think the attempts by some to make partisan points on this topic are tasteless and missing the larger picture. There's only so much you can do when an entire city sits below sea level and a Category 5 hurricane levels the protective levee system.

But the dissipation of the hurricane should have marked the beginning of the difficult recovery, not the deepening of a humanitarian crisis in which we are watching death and despair march increasingly among crowds of people waiting in a public place for help. The TV cameras can get there - why can't food, water and medication?

In the end, the overriding impression is that no matter how far we've come as a species in terms of technology and infrastructure, no matter how secure we are in our hubris, we are still pitiful and helpless when confronted with truly epic forces and events.

For the best, though heart-breaking, coverage of the crisis, check out the New Orleans Picayune, which is still publishing reports online.

* I read this on the Internet, so it must be true.