When technology fails: a cautionary tale from the Gulf

GCN Lab director John Breeden writes about his memories of another disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the literary project it inspired.

Technology is wonderful, isn’t it? But it can fail at the worst possible times. Laptops and computers catch viruses and lose your work, the power goes out right before sending in a big report, or an inconvenient rain can turn your new cell phone into a sparking, sopping mess. And sometimes, it’s much worse.

The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which thankfully seems to be all over now (except for the clean-up), all started because a blowout-preventing device didn’t work. And even though a bunch of whiz-bang technology is being used to fight the spill and inform people of the dangers, including that satellite map of the oil slick that everyone wants to see, it was still technology that failed us.

And why does this always seem to happen to Louisiana and New Orleans? This latest disaster is painful for me because it reminds me of another event I helped to cover for GCN: Hurricane Katrina. There too, technology failed at the worst possible time. Computerized pumping stations designed to remove six million gallons of water from the flooded city each day became disabled and useless for weeks after the rains fell. You didn’t have to be there in person — and trust me, you didn’t want to be — to see what happened next: death, destruction and suffering on an almost inconceivable level was shown on every news channel in the days following the disaster. I like to think of myself as a tough guy emotionally, but seeing that was too much. It broke my spirit and my heart.

I felt like I had to do something, anything, to help. But I’m a technology guy and a writer. Those are two skills that aren’t worth too much when your world is suddenly shifted into pure survival mode. Still, I came up with a plan, albeit a crazy one. And now I’ve got the ball on the one yard line. I just need a little help to take it all the way home.

My idea was to use my skills to help out. So I wrote a novel called "Old Number Seven." I wanted to create a dramatic story based on what happened there, one that shows the horrors of that month but also the triumph of the human spirit. And I wanted to donate profits from the book to charities still working in New Orleans. I’d like to help rebuild the destroyed libraries within the city, and also help out animal rescue groups who work with the sometimes forgotten victims — the animals who suffered right alongside people.

The novel is about an old man who works at one of the old coal-fired pumping stations built along the industrial canal in 1925. It’s not to be confused with the brand new Number Seven pumping station that was in the news and spectacularly failed to protect the city until it was far too late. The old man in the story is dying from cancer but works with his son to transform the old station from a museum back into a working facility before the storm. Sitting inside a sandbagged fortress they built together, they decide to ride out the storm and try to save as many people as they can.

The novel is finally complete, and I think it’s pretty good. Former GCN chief copy editor Trudy Walsh helped edit it for me. It’s ready for its debut. Only this is where I need a bit of help. The process of getting a book read by literary agents who then take things to a publisher is a bit convoluted. Throw on the added burden of asking a publisher to donate some of their profits to charity, and you’ve got a bit of a tough sell in the current market. But I haven’t lost hope. If any of you, dear readers, happen to know a good literary agent, please send them my way. They’ll really enjoy the novel, and we might just be able to do some good. Any of you can reach me here at jbreeden@gcn.com or at my home address, which is johnbreeden@comcast.net.

Who knows, perhaps we can have some small good come out of something so tragic. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, and pray that all of you stay safe and never experience anything like what happened in New Orleans.

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