Thursday, September 01, 2005

Industry, Redundancy, and Coping with Hurricane Katrina

It looks like fully industrialized societies may not be much of an improvement over societies that have not fully industrialized. In engineering (mechanical, software, etc.), when critical services that other system services depend on are concentrated in a single component or single center or operation, if that component or service fails the rest of the system goes down with it. That is called a "single point of failure." Systems that have multiple failover mechanisms and redundant components are, however, considered more reliable because if one or more components go down, then the other redundant components for a time can assume the extra load. The system is strained, but it doesn't go down. The cost of redundancy is high, but the cost of system failure is higher--even if it rarely happens. Like any other system that depends on highly specialized components but lacks redundancy, a highly industrialized society is similarly fragile because critical services become concentrated with a small number of people or agencies. If small but important social components fail on account of sabotage or disaster, the effect on the rest of society can be disproportionately catastrophic.

America, which is known as "the bread basket of the world," has an especially vulnerable food supply. The seeming benefit of the industrialized food supply is that it allows fewer people to produce considerably more food. America produces so much food that to keep food prices high enough, the government has to offer subsidies to farmers to not grow food or just dump grains in the ocean. The down-side of America's industrialized food supply is that, because food production is concentrated in the hands of a few (and we aren't talking of storage systems that largely depend on the availability of transportation and electricity), the system has little scope for failover. This is true of many other essential components of society, but the food supply is perhaps the most obvious failure-prone component.

The recent disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina has highlighted this fragility in the American social system. The national response to the disaster has been heroic, commendable, will save many lives and will eventually restore order. In the mean time, however, there has been considerable disorder. Reports of hundreds, perhaps thousands dead in New Orleans and in Mississippi, the widespread looting in the aftermath, a breakdown of law enforcement, and the inability to quickly mend the destruction wreaked by nature reminded me of news reports we often hear of when typhoons hit places like India or Bangladesh. Even since 9/11, America is not a place that we expect hundreds and thousands of people to perish in cataclysmic mass destruction--whether natural or man-made.

The environment, the economy, and the geopolitical situation are all changing, and with these changes the kind of society we build may affect our future chances of survival. If means of production, especially that of food, is a critical component of any social system, which will be the better long-term social strategy to implement:
  • globalization with its potential for higher efficiency and higher profits but increased dependency on services and products from foreign lands, or
  • localized production that is redundant and therefore more robust but less efficient and less profitable?
A localized means of production might be better suited to withstanding environmental threats like the Hurricane Katrina disaster or, more increasingly, disasters that could be wreaked by foreign enemies. These are things for which we shouldn't be caught unprepared. Scaling down American commercial farm enterprises and encouraging small farmers who relied less on industrialized means of farming could be in the interest of America's national security. Right now the chemical industry, the machinery industry, and food production are all tightly coupled. Loosening the couplings between these subsystems, which means making them less interdependent, would make for a more robust social system that could better withstand a catastrophy.

To put a personal face on all this socio-economic / systemic theory, there is the untold story of how two small, unnoticed Hare Krishna temple and farm communities in New Orleans and Mississippi are coping with the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The Hare Krishna devotees at the farm community, who seem to be doing better than some of their neighbors, are providing a helping hand. This is a letter sent from the Hare Krishna farm community near Carriere, Mississippi. (The name of the farm community is New Talavan):

[email dated 31 August 2005 from Yogindra Vandana das Adhikary]
Dear Maharajas, GBCs, Temple Presidents, Web & Magazine Editors and Devotees,

Hare Krsna! Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!

The power of the Lord's external energy is inconceivable. How one storm can destroy the social structure of an area ranging from 50 miles west of New Orleans all the way to Mobile, Alabama is stunning. In Mississippi, everything from Jackson on south is devastated. There are no commerce, transportation or other normal activities going on.

Despite our good fortune to have our temples in both New Orleans and New Talavan emerge relatively unscathed, the harsh reality is that there is no functioning society around us. The devotees in New Orleans are virtually trapped. Although they have supplies, there is no power, running water or cooking gas. The sanitation system is nonexistent. There is no water pressure in case of a fire, and water is till rising in the city from a 500-foot break in the river levee. This just came in this morning's news [only approximate link could be ascertained]:
NEW ORLEANS - The governor of Louisiana says everyone needs to leave New Orleans due to flooding from Hurricane Katrina. "We've sent buses in. We will be either loading them by boat, helicopter, anything that is necessary," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. Army engineers struggled without success to plug New Orleans' breached levees with sandbags, and Blanco said Wednesday the situation was worsening, leaving no choice but to evacuate.

"The challenge is an engineering nightmare," Blanco said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "The National Guard has been dropping sandbags into it, but it's like dropping it into a black hole."

As the waters continued to rise in New Orleans, four Navy ships raced toward the Gulf Coast with drinking water and other emergency supplies, and Red Cross workers from across the country converged on the devastated region. The Red Cross reported it had about 40,000 people in 200 shelters across the area in one of the biggest urban disasters the nation has ever seen.

The death toll from Hurricane Katrina reached at least 110 in Mississippi alone, while Louisiana put aside the counting of the dead to concentrate on rescuing the living, many of whom were still trapped on rooftops and in attics.

A full day after the city thought it had escaped Katrina's full fury, two levees broke and spilled water into the streets of New Orleans on Tuesday, swamping an estimated 80 percent of the bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city, inundating miles and miles of homes and rendering much of New Orleans uninhabitable for weeks or months.

"We are looking at 12 to 16 weeks before people can come in," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on ABC's "Good Morning America, "and the other issue that's concerning me is have dead bodies in the water. At some point in time the dead bodies are going to start to create a serious disease issue."
Perhaps when civil and governmental authorities find the New Orleans devotees, they will ship them to New Talavan or engage them in cooking and serving meals to the other storm refugees. If anyone reading this has the ability to communicate by phone, please inform the New Orleans emergency authorities that there are at least 15 Hare Krsna devotees, including the devotees hurt in the recent accident, in urgent need of evacuation at 2936 Esplanade Ave., and if possible they need to get to New Talavan in Carriere, Mississippi, where our community can care for them.

New Talavan is a different situation. Although we have well water, LP cooking gas and some bhoga [food that can be cooked or eaten], supplies such as LP gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, dahl, rice, oats, cash etc. are running low and need to be rationed. There is no phone service, and the electricity will be out for at least two months. If we don't start our own massive cleanup operation, it will be months before the local government can clear the county roads. The devotees have already cleared the roads on the farm itself, but we are still cut off from the surrounding area.

Our need and request is to please contact FEMA administrators (601 960-9999) and the Red Cross (800 GET-HELP). Inform them about our community in NW Hancock County, north of Leetown at 31492 Anner Road, We are providing water and meals for locals and 23 devotees on the temple property. If they can supply us with LP gas, rice, oats, beans, corn, canned tomatoes, butter and sugar, gasoline and diesel fuel to run our generator, etc., we can supply meals to many people from the surrounding community.

It is stunning and shocking to have your entire social system stripped down naked. There are some here who have lost their mental equilibrium, perhaps the greatest danger of such a disaster. All of our books distributors and Food for Life collectors worked the New Orleans tourist district, which is under water and will not reopen for months. We cannot even send or receive mail, which was another important source of income. All the banks and ATMs are closed and inoperative. Thus the only for us to receive funds is electronically. If you read this and want to send a donation, the only way at present is through At least we can collect donations now and use them to purchase things online as soon as the postal system is functional again. The email addresses for dominations are for New Talavan, and for the New Orleans devotees.

For the time being, our schedule revolves around the sun coming up and going down. We have altered our sadhana and Deity schedules to accommodate the lack of lighting and water. Mangal-arati will continue to be at 4:30 but we are offering only burfy and milk. Afterwards, the devotees just chant japa. At sunup around 7 AM, the devotees can bathe and dress the Deities. Then we cook and offer breakfast around 10 AM. Then again around 3 PM we can cook and offer about 6 PM, have arati, class and distribute prasadam. The daily temperatures are still in the 90s, so the devotees welcome and relish the cool mornings and evenings.

Please send us your prayers and let's not forget the two seriously injured boys in the ICU in El Paso. Lalita-pranesvara Prabhu is there alone caring for them. His cell phone number is 504 638-4874. Please call him, since we cannot, and inspire him to continue his difficult service.

Although we are down, we are far from out; so with your prayers and blessings we will be back stronger than ever. Hoping this finds y'all relishing the mercy of Guru and Gauranga,

your servant,

Yogindra Vandana das Adhikari


ISKCON New Talavan Community
Founder-Acharya: His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Temple President: His Grace Yogindra Vandana das Adhikari
31492 Anner Rd. Carriere MS 39426 601 749-9460

Please always chant:

Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

The one part in the letter above that really struck me was this: "It is stunning and shocking to have your entire social system stripped down naked. There are some here who have lost their mental equilibrium, perhaps the greatest danger of such a disaster." That's what prompted me to open this post with some discussion on what makes systems robust or failure-prone. The farm community at New Talavan has tried to be as self-sufficient as possible, though it still relies somewhat on modern amenities like LP gas, electricity, and email. My wife visited New Orleans several months ago and also visited the temple farm communities there. (We live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.) She brought back with her some whole-wheat flour grown and milled on the New Talavan farm. We still have some of the flour, and from time-to-time we bake bread with it. Because the New Talavan community was a little self-sufficient, it appears they were in a better position to help soften the blow of the disaster than were some of their neighbors. I also felt this fact was relevant to wider social issues, which is why I brought them up at the beginning of this post.

The Hare Krishna community in Carriere, Mississippi will greatfully accept donations in cash or in kind and will put them to good use for the surrounding community immediately. If you donate or send help their way, please also mention this weblog (Indus Valley Rising) referred you.


Blogger krishna_kirti said...

BTW, the person who wrote the above letter, Yogindra Vandana Das, had an Indian imports shop in downtown New Orleans which must have been destroyed.

1:08 AM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger Dymphna said...

Fascinating post. I think you would enjoy reading a blogger called Pundita.
Here's what she said in a recent post --the first part is a snip from a letter to her:

My question is whether you think the government and the public will see the Katrina disaster as an interruption or a wake-up call, once the immediate crisis has passed.
Tom in Sioux City"

Dear Tom:
The "wakeup call" stage is long past; that stage came with Hurricane Andrew. At this moment the CEOs of US oil and refinery companies would prefer to face the entire remnants of al Qaeda rather than meet one insurance claims adjuster in a dark alley. CEOs at Lockheed and all other major corporations in the New Orleans area share the same preference.

This is what's known as increasing the R&D budget at the point of a gun. This is America, not Bangladesh. So 25% of a major US industry shouldn't be shot to hell for weeks because of a storm. A key American city shouldn't be 80% flooded within 24 hours of a storm and with no immediate way to deal with rising waters.

The only question now is whether to rebuild or move New Orleans. If they want to rebuild, Louisiana has to spend megabucks on existing technologies or ask for new ones, if they want to perch a key American city below sea level between a river and a lake in a hurricane alley.

If they don't have the bucks -- either the federal government pulls a rabbit out of the hat or New Orleans is removed from the map.

I think the American public understands that -- or they will, by the end of this week.

Regarding your comments, I hope I haven't given the impression that I see America tottering to the poorhouse. This is an incredibly powerful, wealthy and vital nation. Yet our level of assistance to other countries waxes and wanes according to our domestic needs and foreign policy emphasis. That's a self-evident fact many countries have come to ignore. They need to pay attention to the fact.

I don't see the line I'm taking as tough; I'm just squarely confronting realities and urging others to do the same. American aid and development policies were not overhauled when the Cold War ended, just as US defense policy was not overhauled until 9/11 forced a review. It's past time for the overhaul.
It's pundita.blogspot

She's on vacation this week but she has a whole slew of essays that would be of interest to you, going back a ways.

7:15 AM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

I don't thing that small-scale and redundant farming and industry necessarily means primitive operations only. The high-tech revolution is just beginning to impact the economy at all levels, and one of the coming trends will be the efficient miniaturization of enterprise.

With efficient use of information technology, the "economy of scale" rule will no longer be as significant as it used to be. Given the right equipment and software, an internet connection, and a robust power supply, small farms and manufacturing should be able to compete effectively with larger enterprises.

All this is predicated, of course, on their willingness to use modern methods (pesticides, fertilizer, etc.).

11:20 AM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger krishna_kirti said...


Thank you for letting me know about Pandita. Yes, she's very good. I searched through some of her articles to see what she had to say about India. Didn't find much to begin with; seems mostly about U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

But I came across this fun anecdote about her escorting a busload of Western visitors through Jammu and Kashmir. I can totally relate to the food-service. Haute cuisine on kerosene stoves? That's rich. It's too good not to repeat:

Everyone at our table turned expectantly to me for advice after happily studying the menu. I knew it was useless but it was my duty to try. "Even if two cooks laboring over four kerosene stoves could produce coq a vin, lasagne, moo goo gai pan, filet mignon and fried chicken, look around you. You'll be here until 2:00 AM waiting for the orders to arrive and we have to get up at 4:00 AM."

After conferring among themselves, they put in their orders for their favorite food from the menu. "And what will you be having, Madam?" inquired the waiter.

"Whatever the cooks had for their dinner tonight."

Twenty minutes later my rice, dal and chapatis arrived. Two at the table--a Scottish couple who'd attached themselves to our group--grabbed the waiter and switched their order from fettuccine Alfredo to rice and dal.

An hour later, after the Scots polished off their dinner and the three of us ordered another round of beer, a division broke out in the ranks of the starving. One by one, they ran after the waiter and changed their orders to rice and dal. The lone holdout quavered with tears welling, "I want my egg drop soup."

Far from home in a land very foreign, hungry, exhausted, finally realizing he'd embarked on a journey he might reasonably not survive, he wanted comfort food.

Pundita found the waiter and explained the situation. Moments later he arrived at the table with a steaming bowl of dal watered down to the consistency of thin soup. Then, with a flourish, he produced a peeled hard-boiled egg and dropped it in the soup.

Of course, she used this to illustrate a point about governments in the third-world not being as modern they make themselves out to be. Nonetheless "when in Rome do like the Romans" is still a good policy to travel by.

I'm putting her on my blogroll in the Western Civ section, since her posts are mainly about the US and how it deals with the rest of the world.

9:44 PM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger krishna_kirti said...

Baron Bodissey wrote: With efficient use of information technology, the "economy of scale" rule will no longer be as significant as it used to be. Given the right equipment and software, an internet connection, and a robust power supply, small farms and manufacturing should be able to compete effectively with larger enterprises.

I once spent a couple of summers working on a commercial seed corn farm in Wisconsin. The farm itself consisted of 5,000 acres of land on which a high-profit, high-selling seed corn was being grown.

The corn itself was grown three rows each, to outer "female" rows and one inner "male" row. The male row was to grow and disperse its pollen, while the "female" row consisted of another variety of corn that would have its tassles pulled before they could produce pollen. The cross-fertilzed corn in the two female rows would later be harvested and sold for a high profit.

There was a team of us who would go through each field with hoes and root out the weeds as we found them. (This was after each field was dusted with herbicide.) And we went through each field three times, too. (It takes a while to weed 5000 acres of corn fields, three times.)

When the tassles on the female rows grew to a certain length, then three for four busloads of elementary school-aged children were bussed in to pick the tassles on the outer rows; each of us on the orignal hoeing team got to supervise a team of the child tassle pullers.

But the children didn't pull all the tassles, not even most. The children pulled the rest of the tassles missed by a large tractor that went through the fields with special tassle pulling equipment.

After the tassle pulling operation was complete, the corn was given time to fertilize, mature, and then the corn was harvested with some other machines.

Big operation, and the farmer was making a lot of money. He had his own helicopter, too.

10:08 PM, September 01, 2005  
Blogger krishna_kirti said...

I forgot to mention that I fully concur with Pundita's points.

11:35 PM, September 01, 2005  

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