IN THE RUINS OF POMPEII, HOPE FOR NEW ORLEANS
BY Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
POMPEII, Italy. Feb. 19, 2006 -- Under two thousand years of volcanic ash, could there be a clue to the survival of New Orleans?
Fernando Nando, an historian and guide from nearby Naples, smoothes his salt-and-pepper hair as he reminds visitors to "remember that about 15 years before the gigantic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in A.D. 79, the city of Pompeii was very seriously damaged by a massive earthquake."
Before trying to place a Hurricane Katrina or Andrew, a massive earthquake in Pakistan, or a tsunami in Asia in a modern context, one might look at the historic context. Mr. Nando reports best estimates are, "Pompeii and surrounding villages have been destroyed and rebuilt 85 times since recorded history."
Many of the working-class, middle-class and slave-occupied homes damaged in that Pompeii quake were still unrepaired when 25 feet of volcanic dust buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., but the most patrician of homes, temples, and meeting places had already been partially or fully rebuilt in the 15 intervening years. The city of Pompeii, where 20,000 people or more were suffocated by ashen fumes, had been inhabited for at least 800 years before that volcanic eruption.
While walking the streets of the destroyed city, the latest town and nearby seaside villages, Pompeii's history and present provides a perspective unobstructed by considerations about insurance companies and public and private liabilities for natural disasters.
Even while living most of my life in hurricane zones, I prided myself in a curmudgeon's philosophy that we should not rebuild houses and farms along Missouri River floodplains or South Carolina seashores. Let the risk-takers pay their own self-insurance or be damned. If it takes $20 billion to rebuild a poor neighborhood which could be underwater again by next year, well, just turn it into a park and move the people somewhere else.
But what if the story of Pompeii is the history's best lesson on survival?
What if the human determination to persevere even in hardship is the true birthright of our species?
What if five days, or five years, or five centuries of glorious mountain vistas and Mediterranean sunsets trumps the natural disaster of a century, or a millennium?
What if the recollection of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents is reason enough to rebuild my town or neighborhood?
It makes you think, and it makes you less chauvinistic. Gumbo and jambalaya and jazz are no less part of the patina of America than bath houses and temples were to the ancient citizens of Pompeii.
Perhaps every street, every playground, every park, every bar and every church in New Orleans should be restored as a stronger structure and in a more protected environment just because we have the technology to do so.
Mr. Nando leads visitors from the cold waters of the bath house to the chamber with warm water, and on to the large steam room, the communal sauna of its day.
"It's sort of funny," he shrugs. "Even with the weight of 25 feet of ash on the building, this is probably the only room and the only building pretty much undamaged by the volcanic eruption. Look at the ceiling. It's curved. It's an arch. After the earthquake someone thought to rebuild it stronger with an arch instead of a flat roof. The Romans were not going to give up their hot baths!"
Perhaps Americans should not give up on New Orleans.