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Lessons from the muddy Mississippi

By G.D.

By G.D. Maxwell

Believe it or not – and don’tcha just love columns that begin with a statement like that – there really are actual, valuable lessons little Whistler can learn about how we do what we do from what got done and didn’t get done in the former city known as New Orleans.

Yes, it happened in a different country, a country different even than the country we thought it happened in. A country few of us, even if we were born and raised there, can believe is actually the United States of America.

Yes, it happened in a place where the weather’s hot and natural disasters are more top-of-head worries than they are here. Our biggest worries, natural disasterwise, have more to do with winter arriving without snow and tourists, the Fitz Slump slumping into the day skier parking lots, forest fires, earthquakes, vanishing bridges and the pending world latte shortage.

But lessons there were, as Yoda might say.

Lesson #1: Things are not always as they seem when nature is in charge.

Several hundred years ago the city of New Orleans seemed like a good idea. It grew, almost organically, on the last piece of dry land – above both sea and river level at that time – before the Mississippi river poured its load of water and mud into the Gulf of Mexico. Its fortune was forever linked to a river that drained, as it turned out, two-thirds of what would eventually become the USofA and a fair chunk of southern Canada. It had Major Important Port written all over it.

But, being a river and therefore part of nature, the Mississippi was not always as it seemed. What nobody, not even the very first engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers – established after the U.S. Revolutionary War specifically to engineer the bejesus out of the Mississippi – realized was that the Mississippi had itchy feet, if in fact rivers can metaphorically be said to have feet. The Mississippi is all about change. The historical record of the river, unavailable at the time New Orleans was established, shows its course and, more importantly, its delta, have meandered several hundred miles east to west in the last several thousand years.

New Orleans was built on a moving target. And being a city, New Orleans was not as inclined to move as the Mississippi was.

For the better part of the last century, the Mississippi’s been trying to move west, seeking the most direct route to the Gulf. It has only been the Corps’ Herculean – perhaps Sisyphean – efforts to corral the Mississippi between fixed levees, in size dwarfing China’s Great Wall, that have kept it from being captured and moved west by the Atchafalaya river several hundred miles north of New Orleans. The cost of arm-wrestling nature has been billions, perhaps hundreds of billions if all the costs over all the years were totted up.

Even many in the Corps believe the river will win in the end.

So what’s the lesson for Whistler? We have two major forces shaping our happy resort town. The first is winter, or what passes for winter in the wake of global warming. There’s probably not much we can do about it and, recognizing that reality, we should pat ourselves on the back because we’re not even doing that.

The second force is development and its power rivals the Mississippi for sheer tenacity. Now, I have nothing against developers; without them, we might all be living in tepees. But to throw up our hands – and meaningless barricades like bed unit caps – and think they’ll go away is a bit like building ever-higher levees on sinking land. When you’re dealing with powerful forces, it’s never too early to start planning.

Which brings us to Lesson #2: Plans are nice but execution’s where the action’s at. (With apologies to all my former grammar teachers.)

What happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina was an event long ago foretold… almost in exact detail. George Bush may, in fact, be the only person on the planet – other than his former head of FEMA – who thought the flood surge and drowning of New Orleans was unforeseeable. Everyone else foresaw it.

Including the city of New Orleans itself.

There is, on file for all the world to see, a very comprehensive, detailed, meticulous City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan prepared by civic-minded bureaucrats. It is, as its title states, comprehensive. In 25 single-spaced pages running to 10,000 words, the plan outlines who should do what, at which level of government, when a hurricane hits New Orleans. It outlines training exercises, emergency health and shelter strategies, public notification, evacuation… everything. Additional documents deal specifically with shelters, nursing homes and emergency preparedness.

The plan – available at – should make all planners, governmental or private, swell with pride at a job well done.

So on the one hand you have a readily foreseen disaster; on the other you have a comprehensive emergency plan. Clap the two hands together and you get a textbook case of mismanagement that has done nothing short of making the entire world wonder if the world’s only superpower has the intellectual and management capability to deal with any emergency bigger than a house fire.

What’s the lesson for Whistler here? Yes, Victoria, that was a rhetorical question.

The rhetorical answer is that plans are plans and actions are actions and in a perfect world, a plan will inform an action. But whether the ultimate action is good, bad or indifferent will depend 100 per cent on the abilities of the people implementing it. Otherwise, the plan will make good toilet paper when the looted stores run out.

Whistler’s got a plan, or at least most of one. It is, oddly enough, a Comprehensive Sustainability Plan. And like New Orleans’ plan, it is comprehensive. Unlike New Orleans’ it isn’t dealing with something discrete or foreseeable. It’s dealing with the future, which is a bit more like dealing with the Mississippi river’s desire to change its course.

The Plan won’t, for example, answer the question – and remember, this is just an example – of whether allowing Larco to weasel out of its current zoning and lease space to London Drugs is something Whistler should embrace or not. The Plan, ironically, informs both answers to that question. One can point to its rambling clauses on economic sustainability to support London Drugs and one can point to its rambling clauses on the unique character of Whistler Village to oppose London Drugs.

The answer to the London Drugs conundrum – and the answers to all the other hard questions that’ll be facing our community in the next, oh, forever – will be decided by the people we elect to office, the people we hire as bureaucrats, and their willingness, or lack thereof, to engage the community in finding answers we can all live with. Plans are nice but people execute plans; their quality is more vital than the quality of the plans.

And you thought politics was unimportant.