“They had an actor play my part,” said Ted Falgout as he handed me the videocassette, “but the actual Ray Nagin plays himself.”
The title of the movie was “Oil Storm,” and I’d just finished interviewing Mr. Falgout in his office in Galiano Louisiana, where he serves as executive director of the Fourchon Port Commission. Hurricane Katrina had ripped through three weeks before, and the place was a mess.
Port Fourchon could be described as North America’s gateway for the petroleum extracted from the Gulf of Mexico. “Close to a quarter of the nation’s oil supply comes through right here,” Mr. Falgout said, including about 13% of the imports, “and the Federal Government makes billions. And what do we have coming down here? A highway worthy of a third-world nation. Our coasts are eroding away, and we have levees around half of our critical infrastructure.”
Outside those levees, less renowned than those of the city of New Orleans but no less important to those they protected, was the Gulf of Mexico, whipped to a fury by the recent hurricane. I took a picture of Mr. Falgout pointing to his computer screen, with the image of Hurricane Rita approaching. “A Rita isn’t in the movie,” said Mr. Falgout, “but you’re going to find some of the other parallels hair-raising.”
The story I reported from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was different than most of the ones published. Most of those were tales of failures of institutions, their bureaucracies, and their leaders.
The one I was sent for was about infrastructure, the physical kind—the ships and barges that transport domestic petroleum, the waterways, and terminals they frequent.
Mine was a much happier story than the others. These people, at least, were pros—from the U.S. Navy, the Coast Guard, NOAA, officials of Plaquemines Parish government, private salvage companies, the local skippers. Amid chaos, they completed their missions. They raised the wrecks, cleared the channels, reset the markers, and got the supply running again. Theirs was a tale of accomplishment.
But then there’s the movie. Its story, a fictional one in docudrama form, was wrapped and in the can and ready for distribution months before the devastation of the Gulf Coast. It is a tale of what-if. And some of its what-ifs were indeed hair-raising.
The Game of What-If?
What if a devastating storm should knock-out Mr. Falgout’s domestic oil-business industry? And what if unrest in the Mideast knocked-out imports shortly afterward?
If it had rayguns and little green men, a story of what-ifs would be called science fiction. But this one had an actor representing an actual character, Mr. Falgout, and the actual Ray Nagin himself. The fact/fiction line easily blurs, about the impact and aftermath of the movie’s Hurricane Julia, which strikes southern Louisiana on September 2.
Sitting in Mr. Falgout’s office on that September 20th, the fact that the actual Katrina hit much as predicted, just three days earlier than predicted, was certainly hair-raising. The damage to the energy infrastructure was as bad as forecast in the movie, and the real Ray Nagin was saying in life what he’d said for the camera six months before—“We have over 100,000 residents who rely on public transportation to get around the city, so they will have to ride the storm out.” The movie depicts the Superdome as a temporary shelter for those who can’t leave.
On September 20 Mr. Falgout and I were in the middle of it, and we had to wonder. What if the movie’s other what-ifs test positive?
Now Look at the Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into!
The movie portrays the destruction of civilization as we know it, or close to, but to reach that conclusion it does play science-fiction, forecasting events more than a year into the future.
As this is written, most of that year is finally up. And guess what? As hair-raising as those initial coincidences seemed last September 20, they ended with the Superdome. There has been no collision on the Houston Ship Canal to exacerbate the hurricane damage, and gas has not reached eight dollars a gallon, as it does in the movie. So the truckers haven’t demonstrated, and the farmers haven’t rioted. Old folks didn’t freeze to death in last winter’s Boston to quite the extent presented, nor did Suburbia become depopulated, all on account of eight-dollar gas.