Chances are, he stayed back
Biloxi, Mississipi, a city on the Gulf Coast, has often been brought to life by novelist John Grisham; his readers would recall a series of courtroom dramas set in the district courts around there. In Grisham’s world of big litigation, `wild-eyed locals’ would typically make the trip from New Orleans (Louisiana), Jackson & Mobile to watch the proceedings.
All these streets and neighbourhoods came to life over the weekend, somewhat graphically but not quite in the idyllic and quaint fashion that Grisham has often described them. They came alive on CNN, as localities wrecked beyond recognition, with homes and cars lying atop each other and snapped power lines. Cataloguing the destruction would have been a challenge, even for Grisham.
More people have died in the demure sounding Hurricane Katrina that hit the states of Louisiana, Alabama & Mississipi than the menacing Al-Qaeeda triggered 9/11 attacks. In contrast, Mumbai’s Terrible Tuesday was tame.
Mithi & Mississipi
Inevitable comparisons are being drawn between Terrible Tuesday and Katrina, notably Mumbai’s solid spirit in recovery as opposed to the looting and mayhem that descended on New Orleans, Louisiana. There are a few similarities between New Orleans and Mumbai, but the dissimilarities are starker and outweigh the similarities. First, the similarities:
New Orleans had its own `Mithi River’, the city lies between the Mississipi river and Lake Pontchartrain – the lake overflowed after the dykes or levees that held back the water collapsed. Powerful pumps that could have pumped out the water also stopped working. Estimates say it would take weeks if not months to pump out all the water.
New Orleans is largely below sea level and most of it was once swamp land. It now appears that there were adequate warnings over the height of the levees as also the over the dangers of taming the mighty Mississippi.
The rising waters not only flooded homes and forced people out of them but have now set the stage for disease or even the outbreak of an epidemic. Like Mumbai, New Orleans residents face the prospects of E-Coli and a host of water borne diseases. Still water breeds mosquitoes which in turn spread disease. A flood has converted a first world tourist destination into a third world disaster.
Clueless in Mumbai
The similarities end just about there. Unlike Mumbai, when no one had a clue which way the wind was blowing, New Orleans had no paucity of warnings on the oncoming hurricane. It was the flood-control mechanism which failed.
Reports say New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin urged people to leave town on Saturay and gave an evacuation order on Sunday when it looked like a Category 5 storm, with winds as high as 175 miles an hour would hit New Orleans.
Yet, evacuations were on in earnest even as the Hurricane hit the eastern coast of Florida, went back into the Gulf of Mexico and returned with greater fury, tearing west towards New Orleans. Many of the 1.3 million people (source NYT) living in the metropolitan area drove away. The people affected the most were the poor, did not have cars, who lived in the inner city and, in many cases, refused to budge.
In comparison, Terrible Tuesday was a truly democratic catastrophe. It brought everyone to their feet, knees and on the streets, forcing rich and poor to wade through filthy water. It leveled BMWs and Maruti 800s as it flooded hutments and basements of rich filmstars in Juhu (north Mumbai).
The State Fails To Deliver
Unlike Mumbai, Louisiana state officials seemed to have responded to the crisis. Federal authorities have been accused of neglect, while, interestingly in Mumbai, central government services in the form of assistance from the Navy and Air Force were available and willing but not asked for, not until it was too late.
Those on ground know best who failed and who delivered. Thousands of miles away,it is perhaps apt to focus on the few learnings that come of out such disasters. Its difficult to say whether New Orleans was a failure of leadership but it was interesting to watch President George Bush visiting the American Red Cross and attempting to say the right things, surrounded by workers, many of whom continued with their tasks and not by sten-gun toting bodyguards like Indian politicians.
Evacuation May Be A Bigger Disaster
Sitting in Mumbai, a pertinent question one must however ask is: if there were warnings of an imminent cyclone or some other natural disaster, calling for evacuation, how would the city react ?
My sense is, disasterously. At 18 million or thereabouts, the city carries five or six times the population it should, for its size and available infrastructure. An article in the Economic Times (on traffic congestion) today points to the sheer number of vehicles that emerge on the roads every day.
It says that every day around 1.1 million vehicles cross 1,225 junctions on a road length of 1,900 km with only 0.7 policemen per junction. It points to monstrous traffic jams - which incidentally are best experienced in north Mumbai where a small crossing will see several vehicles fighting with each other for right of way resulting in a jam for all.
Given that there are only three narrow roads, masquerading as highways, that leave the city, an attempt at evacuation would hit a hurdle at any number of points the highways connect with the local roads. Note, once again, that these are free for all roads that just happen to be a little wider.
Sit Back & Pray
If the trains work, then its fine, if they don’t then there is a bigger catastrophe that awaits. But trains already work on super crush capacities ie, people travel like cockroaches, cattle it is believed, travel in better conditions. The lucky few will fly out, if that’s feasible and if they reach the airports. Sailing out seems implausible too. Mumbai lost its maritime culture decades ago.
In a situation like this, desperation may give way to rage and serious law and order problems could arise. After the floods, angry commuters have been blocking and stoning suburban trains in north Mumbai (Thane & beyond) for not working. The fury is there, it just bubbles up some times, in some places. Elsewhere, it remains bottled. A sudden evacuation might blow off the cap.
In conclusion, were, god forbid, a similar disaster to strike Mumbai and there was a call for evacuation, you would most likely do what many poor New Orleans folks did, stay back and pray for the best.