Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Triumph of the Underdog

The triumph of the underdog: it's something we all want to believe can happen. But how often to we get to see an underdog triumph in real life? Not often, which makes those few, rare moments all the more precious.

Picture a frumpy middle-aged woman from a small town in Scotland. She’s never been married; never even been kissed. But she dreams of becoming a singing star. She gets a chance to go on a national talent-scouting program, and she grabs it. When she walks out on stage, everyone laughs at her. They think she’s going to make a fool of herself. Then she starts to sing, and audience and hardened judges alike gasp in wonder at the beauty of her voice. By the end of her performance, they’re on their feet, cheering, with tears running down their faces.

Of course, this song can make me cry under even ordinary circumstances. But this performance—ah, this performance is sublime.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Really Happens to Heroes

I was planning to do a post today about heroes in fiction, but instead I’m going to write about a real-life hero, Dr. Ivor van Heerden.

As deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, van Heerden created a hurricane modeling program that predicted—very accurately, as it turned out—what would happen to the southern Louisiana coast and New Orleans if the area were hit by a major hurricane. Horrified by what he knew was going to happen, van Heerden spent the years before Katrina battling to get everyone from FEMA to the Army Corps of Engineers to listen to him. They laughed at him.

His forecasts predicting massive levee failures and flooding in Eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward, were published in the Times-Picayune the day before Katrina hit and helped convinced many to flee. He was at his post at the Hurricane Center, sleepless, through the long dreadful hours of Katrina’s landfall. After the collapse of the federal levee system, he was in the city, watching the water sweep away homes and businesses. This a man who, through intelligence, dedication, and hard work, helped save the lives of countless thousands. After the storm, in a white heat of anger, he sat down and wrote a book called, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina. It’s a gripping read that will leave you sick and angry and wanting to shake a few people. More than a few people. (I blogged about it when I read it in August of 2006, right after we moved back into our house, here.)

Not only did van Heerden write a book, he also agreed to head the forensic investigation on what went wrong. Dubbed Team Louisiana, this investigation prepared the report The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System During Hurricane Katrina for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Because of his expertise and the accuracy of his forecasts, he was frequently quoted by various media outlets. Needless to say, his comments were not flattering to the Powers That Be.

So how did LSU treat this hero? In November of 2005, they told him to stop talking to the media because he was hurting the university’s chances of getting federal dollars (not to mention reflecting badly on George Bush, good buddy of the University’s chancellor O’Keefe). And now, under the direction of Louisiana’s new Republican governor, LSU has fired van Heerden. Their reason? None given, not to the press, nor to van Heerden himself.

Risking his job, Van Heerden fought long and hard to get the truth out there, to save lives, to save our city, to save our coast. That’s heroic. Now, he’s paid the price. In popular fiction, he would ultimately triumph as a reward for making the morally “right” choice. But this isn’t fiction; this is life.

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