Defying Gravity, and Odds, in New Orleans

In a great disaster, victims are first concerned with their basic needs: food - clothing — shelter — medical care. Those are the essential things necessary for human life. But commentator Aaron Freeman says the flood in New Orleans shows a more essential force is at work.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In a great disaster like this one, victims are first concerned with their basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, medical care. Those are the essential things necessary for human life. But in this disaster in New Orleans, says commentator Aaron Freeman, an even more essential force is at work.

AARON FREEMAN:

It is the best of forces. It is the worst of forces. Gravity attracts everything on Earth toward the planet's center. Yes, Louisiana tempted nature by building a great city below Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans lies between the lake's water and the Earth's center where gravity wants that water to go. But engineers understand gravity. They constructed levees that, in all but the most extreme circumstances, overcame gravity's force and held back hundreds of millions of tons of water that would otherwise seek a route to the Earth's core via New Orleans. Those gravity-defying levees, along with pumping stations designed to move water away from the center of the Earth, kept the city pretty darn dry.

But Hurricane Katrina produced forces that overcame the levees and unleashed gravity's power upon Pontchartrain's water. The center of the Earth called and water answered. It galloped toward the planet's core, accelerating at gravity's constant 32 feet per second per second. Gravity pulled the water into New Orleans streets and kept it diving into basements and subbasements, stopping only when it reached the most solid rock at the lowest levels beneath the city.

As images and stories put us in awe of nature's destructive power, it may be worth a moment to marvel at the force of gravity that governs the behavior of all matter, from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to light. Gravity is wholly indifferent to human needs and desires. Gravity is as willing to help as to harm. When the Apollo 13 spaceship blew up 200,000 miles from Earth, astronauts used the moon's gravity to slingshot the capsule back home. When we wage war we use gravity to deliver bombs to enemies.

Storms come and go, lake levels rise and fall, but all obey lord gravity. She is sometimes helpful, sometimes deadly but always present and impossible to ignore. Gravity attracts all matter on Earth toward the planet's center. Perhaps it is, in some measure, a defiance of that power that New Orleans bury their dead above ground.

SIEGEL: Aaron Freeman is very grateful to live in Chicago.

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SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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