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#NPRreads: Lying About Sept. 11, And California's Drought-Stricken Levees

NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the#NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you three items.

From NPR social media editor Lori Todd:

Last week, comedian and actor Steve Rannazzisi admitted to the New York Times that he had lied about escaping from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. For Jean Kim, who was a psychiatrist in post-Sept. 11 New York, this was not shocking. Kim has heard a handful of patients tell similar stories in the months and years following the tragedy:

"I began calling it to myself the '9/11 sign' — anyone with a report of a 9/11 death in their history was likely seeking some sort of secondary gain, at best in the form of greater sympathy in the face of a multitude of other tough psychosocial stressors in their lives, or at worst, to get controlled substances or even to apply for special 9/11 benefits."

That seems dismissive and cynical, right? But as Kim dug into her patients' stories, they often didn't hold up. What motivates someone to lie about something so huge? In her piece on PostEverything, Kim shares a Sept. 11 story none of us had probably heard before.

From NPR National Desk reporter Kirk Siegler:

Californians know a little something about extremes. That's why this article from Al-Jazeera probably raised a few more eyebrows outside the state than in it (where I am).

After four years of crippling drought — farmers fallowing fields, residential wells running dry, unprecedented urban cutbacks — now water managers are warning about the potential of something that would have been unthinkable months ago: historic flooding.

That's right, if El Nino materializes in the way forecasters predict, California could see a deluge this winter. And the prospect of drenching rain has renewed focus on the state's outdated water infrastructure — in particular, the aging levees in the Sacramento Delta.

As the article points out, a major storm that brings flooding could overwhelm those levees and create a Hurricane Katrina-type disaster while also contaminating one of the state's most important sources of drinking water with salt and sediment.

There's much debate here over whether warnings like these are founded or a bit dramatic. Sources I've talked to while reporting similar stories have offered differing opinions. The issue has also brought a spirited debate here in Los Angeles recently on KCRW's Which Way LA?

But there's an important takeaway quote in the Al-Jazeera piece itself, from scientist Jeffrey Mount, at the University of California, Davis' Center for Watershed Sciences: "When we are in the middle of a drought, we tend not to focus on floods. Yet, it's precisely during a drought that we should be working on flood protection."

Even if drought and flooding seem like polar opposites, anyone who has been a water manager or a hydrologist in the West knows that you have to be ready to shift from one extreme to the other.

The good news is that things have been quietly happening behind the scenes even during this historic drought. Tens of millions of dollars of state drought aid has gone to fortifying flood-control systems up and down the Golden State.

We'll see in the coming weeks whether it will pay off, with the predicted El Nino building just in time for the start of California's traditional rainy season in November.

From NPR Digital News producer Wright Bryan:

"What Hurricane Katrina, the floodwall and levee collapses, and the aftermath taught me is that America, and its institutions, simply don't work — and that people like it that way."

Wow. That's John McQuaid's money quote from his piece on Medium, "America Is Forgetting the Lessons It Never Learned from Hurricane Katrina."

But wait, there's more.

"America is an optimistic nation. It has a short memory. Our political system and media don't really learn very obvious lessons that unspool right in front of everyone's faces. And so we end up repeating our errors — at least, some of them — to great sorrow. And I expect the sorrow is going to get a lot greater in the coming decades."

McQuaid is an accomplished journalist intimately familiar with the story of New Orleans, its levees and Katrina. Through this lens he makes that case that the "bureaucratic hash" our government cooked up in response to this disaster is "a canary in the coal mine for the 21st century."

We dismiss Katrina as history, as an aberration in an unusual corner of the country, at our own peril, says McQuaid. Medium bills this as a six-minute read. I say it's a challenging piece that's worth chewing on. If you read it, let me know what you think: @wrightbryan3.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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