For Those in Disaster-Prone Areas, a Willful Denial

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans faces several questions about how — and how much — to rebuild. Commentator Patt Morrison lives in Southern California, and she knows something about facing the dangers that nature poses.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Patt Morrison lives across the country from New Orleans, in Southern California, but she knows something about facing the dangers that nature poses.

PATT MORRISON:

If there's any truth to that pop definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, than we Americans can be pretty crazy. We'll put that theory to the test in the months to come, when we find out what, if anything, will be new in New Orleans.

After each fresh disaster--hurricane, tsunami, earthquake--humans keep rebuilding in the same places in much the same way and hoping that this time it'll be all right. We Californians choose to live on one of the world's most kinetic landscapes, where neighborhoods burn and shake and slide and slip away. Yet all that shaking and slipping haven't scared us off and, if the hazards do drive one of us away, someone is always waiting to take our place.

Two years ago, fires in Southern California burned more than a quarter million acres, destroyed more than 3,000 houses and killed 20 people. This fire season, many residents are already rebuilding on sites that burned in September. During last winter's millennial rains in the ramshackle working-class seaside town of La Conchita, a cliff face that had been sliding away since the Neolithic era came crashing down for the second time in a scant 10 years. Nearly a half million tons of mud buried part of the town and killed 10 people. And still, within days, people were house hunting in La Conchita, figuring this might be the only time they could afford a little piece of blue-collar coastal paradise. One resident who had found affordable rents there after the big slide in 1995 decided that right after the second killer slide was the moment he could finally buy, even though, as he told the LA Times, `Those were friends of mine who lost their lives.'

It's as if nature is a good-looking but abusive spouse and we tell ourselves after every pummeling, `Oh, he's really sorry and I'm sure he won't do it again.' We calculate the risk, the daily pleasures of living on a hillside, in a forest, at the ocean's edge vs. the once in five- or 10- or 20-year possibility of disaster. The people crowding into those Gulf Coast casinos weren't the only gamblers in those parts.

By now, Americans know almost as much about New Orleans topography as they do about their own towns. And they can check off the list of pluses and minuses for themselves: a Gulf Coast climate, an affable city with fabulous food and music vs. living below sea level in a city kept dry by pumps and levees built right at the edge of a gulf that churns with hurricanes like a smoothie in a blender. Almost all of us who live on risky terrain practice a kind of willful denial. I, too, live on one of those kinetic hillsides and outside my house, men are at work putting in expensive retaining walls to keep my hillside from doing what hillsides do naturally, meaning that I, too, am defying nature in order to live in the midst of it.

INSKEEP: Patt Morrison, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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