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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Posts Tagged ‘hurricane katrina’

We’re Not Forgetting

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

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Except for posting this brief comment, we are among the millions of New Yorkers who are doing anything but “commemorating” the 10th anniversary. We are not reading the magazines’ special commemorative editions or watching the solemn and reverent broadcasts brought to you by our sponsors of the corporate media. We live in New York City—we don’t need to be reminded. It’s with us every day, in every heavily armed National Guardsman at Penn Station, every fire station you pass by, etc., just as you can still hear Hurricane Katrina howling through New Orleans, not only on the anniversary of Aug. 29, 2005.

Let Us Remember These Attacks Could Have Been Blocked

While we remember the dead, and those who died bravely trying to save lives, while our sincere condolences go out to their families, the children who never knew their daddy who died that day—

While we are never forgetting let us also recall that for eight months in early 2001 Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice blew off counter-terrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke’s repeated requests for meetings to brief them on the threat of Al Qaeda; and that Bush was specifically warned in an Aug. 6, 2001, CIA briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” but remained on vacation till Sept. 4 and never did call Clarke. And we will never forget watching the towers burning—we could see the smoke from an elevated subway track in Queens a few miles away—and then on a TV in our office in midtown Manhattan watching the towers burning, hearing about another plane striking the Pentagon, and looking out the window and wondering, “Where is the f—in’ goddamn air force?!”

The first plane to hit the World Trade Center was American flight 11 out of Boston. It took off at 7:45 a.m. After 8:13 there was no more pilot contact with air traffic control. Around 8:20, two flight attendants called American’s headquarters to report a hijacking. Under normal conditions that plane would have been stopped, shot down if necessary. But NORAD and the FAA claimed NORAD wasn’t contacted until 8:40. Even then, the first fighter jets weren’t scrambled until 8:52. American flight 11 hit the north tower at 8:48—thirty-five minutes after Boston lost contact. McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is only 70 miles from Manhattan—an F-15 at top speed could have been there in three minutes—but instead the order went to Otis AFB in Cape Cod. Cape Cod? It would have been strange enough for the system to fail for Flight 11, but the same thing happened with all four hijacked flights: FAA is tardy in telling NORAD, then NORAD is slow to order up fighter jets from unnecessarily distant bases, then the fighters don’t arrive till after the damage is done. For Washington, the obvious base is Andrews, 10 miles away, but instead the jets were ordered from Langley AFB, 130 miles from Washington, after the Pentagon was hit. (The USAF was budgeted $85 billion for fiscal year 2001.)

While human beings, many of them with their clothes on fire, were jumping out of the burning towers and splattering like eggs on the concrete plaza a quarter mile down, the commander in chief was in Sarasota, Florida, sitting virtually paralyzed as a class of second-graders read a story about a pet goat. Four different accounts attest that he had been notified about the attacks in New York before he entered the classroom for the photo-op.

(Imagine the reaction if any of this happened with the current president, or any Democrat, in the White House.)

This is not the part they want us to remember today. Sorry. This is what we remember and always will, just as we’ll never forget the entire city abandoned by that same administration (with the president this time on a five-week vacation), children and elderly and all ages in between suffocating and dehydrating in the Superdome and outside the Convention Center for days after Hurricane Katrina and on rooftops all around the sweltering city of New Orleans in late August and early September 2005.

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And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.   —Revelation 21:4

et absterget Deus omnem lacrimam ab oculis eorum . . . 

Il essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux . . . 

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See also:

Is Katrina More Significant Than September 11? Thoughts on Two American Traumas (Sept. 11, 2010)

Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America: On the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan (Aug. 23, 2010)

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Top photo from WTC observation deck by Nathan Benn, Feb. 18, 1988; bottom photo of New Orleans resident Angela Perkins outside the New Orleans Convention Center, Sept. 1, 2005, by Melissa Phillip/AP Photo.

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When Harry Met a Cover-Up:
Shearer Talks about “The Big Uneasy”

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

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[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

We sat down recently with Harry Shearer—that is, we sat down and e-mailed him some questions, and he sat down and wrote some thoughtful replies—to talk about his new film The Big Uneasy, which tells the real story of why New Orleans flooded in Hurricane Katrina. (Click here for the trailer.) Here’s a brief sample:

Q. You’ve said that in President Obama’s 3-hour “drive-through” appearance in New Orleans in October 2009, he used the phrase “natural disaster,” and that that is what prompted you to make this film. Is anyone learning that Katrina itself did not flood the city, but that the levees’ failure is what flooded the city?

Shearer: Very few, very slowly. People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built “protection system,” the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been “wet ankles.”

Q. Had you thought of making a film on this subject before the president’s remarks triggered you? (Somewhere we saw a mention that the idea had occurred to you at the Rising Tide 4 conference, and that you posed the idea but nobody responded and so it was up to you?)

Shearer: No, I don’t recall giving serious thought to it, though I may have mentioned at RT that wresting back control of the narrative of the city’s near-destruction might have required somebody to do such a film. But I’d really not thought of myself as that somebody until I heard the President say something that he patently should have known was not true.

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Before we continue with the interview, we want to talk a bit about the film. You may not have seen it because it does not yet have a distributor. Harry is working on that. Thus far it has been shown in New Orleans at the Prytania Theater uptown (it premiered before the Rising Tide conference in late August near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), and it has run briefly in New York City and Los Angeles. We saw it twice at Manhattan’s IFC  Center (as shown) and want to do all we can to spread the word about this excellent project—particularly to people with connections to film distributors with a social and political conscience.

Leave It to a Jester to Tell the Truth

Harry Shearer is famous as a versatile humorist, writer, and “voice artist” for The Simpsons and as Derek Smalls, the bearded Ringo-like bass player in This Is Spinal Tap, so at first it may not seem that a movie about the flooding of New Orleans would be his natural subject matter. How funny can it be to explain the catastrophic engineering failure that led to the flooding of 80 percent of the city and hundreds of deaths (if not more)? Although The Big Uneasy won’t have audiences rolling in the aisles, this compelling and richly sourced new documentary does clarify the facts about the disaster-within-a-disaster. Misconceptions are corrected. Cover-ups are uncovered. Truths are told. Acts of professional courage are held up to the light.

Shearer’s comic talent is for real, but his seriousness is authentic, too, as anyone knows who has read his Huffington Post blog pieces over the past several years or listened to his weekly radio program Le Show (KCRW, Los Angeles). He explains in the opening reel that he is a part-time New Orleanian. Through his work with Levees.org (no relation) and his blogging and other efforts he has helped keep the spotlight on his adopted city’s predicament with a commitment and persistence that should earn him some kind of Honorary Full-Time Citizenship award. You’ll understand why when you see The Big Uneasy.

In a recent post on HuffPo Shearer acknowledged that it’s ironic that “a damn comedy actor” should be taking up the untold story:

. . . the story that the flooding was a man-made catastrophe that developed over four and a half decades under administrations of both parties, and the story from a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers that the “new, improved” system for protecting New Orleans may right now be fatally flawed. . . . given that lapse among the professional journalists, it was up to a damn comedy actor to piece together the material that’s been sitting there, on the public record, all this time . . .

A review in New York magazine by David Edelstein said it well:

By the end of The Big Uneasy, I came to appreciate [Shearer’s] self-effacement. He’s not a filmmaker or an investigative journalist. He’s not really in his element here. He just, finally, couldn’t stand by and hear “natural disaster” one more time without picking up a camera and, like his protagonists, doing his civic duty for the city he loves so deeply.

Get This: The Flooding Was Not a Natural Disaster

The Big Uneasy is a feature film–length documentary about how and why New Orleans was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It happened not because Katrina was so overwhelming: although it had been a Category 5 storm in the Gulf, Katrina was only about a Category 1.5 hurricane when it blew past (not straight through) New Orleans, sparing the city the brunt of the storm. The city flooded because of engineering failures in the federally built levees and walls of outflow canals that gave way under pressure even before the storm’s winds did their worst. The film draws on engineers’ reports, postmortem studies, and never-before-seen amateur video footage to show the flooding was not a natural but a man-made disaster. It was not inevitable. Contrary to predictable official claims that the storm was simply overwhelming and the levees were never designed to hold a storm of such magnitude, the flooding resulted from inferior engineering—a point that Ivor van Heerden (right) of the LSU Hurricane Center began speaking out about very soon after the storm passed.

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Is Katrina More Significant Than September 11?

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Thoughts on Two American Traumas

[ Cross-posted at Daily Kos. ]

Between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which do you think gets most attention, and why?

What if the national focus on 9/11 is exaggerated and the nation should focus instead on 8/29—Hurricane Katrina—as the catastrophe that signifies the greatest threat to America? The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has received high-profile attention, marked by the release of feature films (Spike Lee, Harry Shearer), hour-long special reports (Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper), and a presidential address at Xavier University, so we’re not complaining that Katrina has been ignored.

We were in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and saw men and women in dust- and debris-covered clothing walking the streets in a daze and crossing the 59th Street Bridge into Queens as from an apocalypse. We heard distraught eyewitnesses on pay phones talking about seeing the burning, falling bodies (“Look, Mommy, the birds are on fire”); we have heard first-person accounts from survivors who were just 20 feet away when their coworkers fleeing the burning towers were crushed beneath chunks of falling metal the size of garbage trucks. We’ve heard accounts from neighbors who were trapped on the E train near the World Trade Center while frantic escapees pounded on the doors to get in. The haunting stories, the anguish go on and on. Many others have experienced far worse than we can ever imagine. So, the following thoughts are by no means intended to diminish the trauma of September 11 or the necessity of dealing with al Qaeda and other extremist threats.

Anorexia of the Homeland: Making War While “Starving the Beast”

And yet we think maybe the challenges this nation faces are more accurately represented by the natural and bureaucratic/political disaster suffered on August 29, 2005, and in the following days, weeks, months, years. The United States is falling apart from a lack of funding of every kind of infrastructure—resulting from neglect, indifference, and a mean-spirited conservative agenda that seeks to roll back the progressive reforms of the 20th century. Our nation is in a downward spiral because of political unwillingness to protect the environment and our fellow citizens who are poor, jobless, homeless, in need of medical care and decent education. Our coasts and cities are vulnerable because of long-term environmental neglect and denial of the effects of industry—global warming, rising sea levels, intensified storms resulting from warming seas—and because corporate-captive politicians of both parties have put industrial and political interests ahead of what’s best for the planet, humanity, and other life forms. Even if 9/11 had never happened, all these conditions would still threaten our way of life.

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Celebrity Sighting: Levees Not War Meets FEMA’s Fugate

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Tomorrow we’ll post some comments on President Obama’s remarks at Xavier University on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But first, allow us to babble excitedly about the public-safety-and-disaster geek’s idea of a celebrity sighting:

After all the luminaries at the fab Rising Tide conference this weekend we didn’t think we could be any more dazzled, until yesterday at the New Orleans airport we bumped into FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate and his wife on their way back to Washington following the president’s speech. Sweet serendipity. We talked for a few minutes, told him Levees Not War has hailed his appointment as FEMA administrator—a return to the good old days of experience + competence that FEMA knew during the 1990s—and asked if we can interview him sometime. You see, Mr. Fugate, Levees Not War has interviewed Ivor van Heerden and Mark Schleifstein and other experts on the environment, infrastructure, and public safety, and we’d sincerely love to hear what you have to say after more than a year on the job. Mr. Fugate (pron. FEW-gate) graciously agreed, and we’ll be following up soon. In the meantime, you can see Deborah Solomon’s interview with “The Storm Tracker” in the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine. He was tickled to hear that we used a photo of him paddling in his kayak (below), his home away from home; this may be why he agreed to an interview. Before parting, we wished each other a boring hurricane season.

A FEMA Administrator Who Tweets

Fugate, a former fireman and paramedic, directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 until his appointment to FEMA in 2009. Until 2009, James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator under President Clinton, was the most well qualified and admired director in the agency’s otherwise troubled history since its founding in the Carter years. Witt had been the emergency director for the state of Arkansas, and praise for his nimble and proactive emergency preparedness and response was bipartisan and pretty well unanimous. Florida native Fugate’s familiarity with hurricanes, however, certainly surpasses that of his celebrated predecessor, and he has won praise for, among other things, his insistence that individuals and families do as much as possible to help themselves by stocking up with emergency supplies and working out a plan for evacuation and communications. See his tweets about preparedness and staying alert about oncoming tropical storms here at In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.

Never anticipating we’d bump into him in an airport, we wrote here in May 2009 after Fugate was confirmed:

Obama’s nomination of Fugate to head FEMA exemplifies a restoration of trust in government and illustrates the difference between Democratic and Republican views of how elected officials should function. It is because Obama has largely chosen very highly qualified individuals for the federal agencies that Americans are consistently reporting to pollsters a renewed confidence in the integrity of government and a sense that the nation is moving in the right direction.

Stay tuned for more Fugate and FEMA reporting. Till then, you can read previous Fugate posts and our interview with Chris Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, which explains in compelling detail why FEMA and public safety demand a competent, experienced administrator, and what happens when those qualities are lacking. (Cooper and Block were the keynote speakers at the first Rising Tide conference in August 2006.)

Fugate for FEMA: “Semper Gumby”—In an Emergency, “The Calmest Man in the Room”

More Praise for Craig Fugate as FEMA Director-Nominee

Fugate Confirmed for FEMA: Help Is on the Way

Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security



Rising Tide 5 Is Aug. 28 in New Orleans: Register Today

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

A Conference on the Future of New Orleans

The Rising Tide Conference is an annual gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans’ recovery. It’s for everyone who loves New Orleans and is working to bring a better future to all its residents.

Fresh back from one vacation, we’re already booking our next trip: to New Orleans, baby, for Rising Tide V.

That’s right, in late August we’re going to the 5th annual Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 28, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (8/29/05). This will be our third RT (after 2007 and 2008), and they just keep getting better. (Press release here.)

Leveraging the power of bloggers and new media, the conference is a launch pad for organization and action. Our day-long program of speakers and presentations is tailored to inform, entertain, enrage and inspire.

Treme, Environment, Levees, Public Safety, and Politics

RT5’s program keeps improving, too, every time we look at it. Check this out:

Breaking news: The keynote speaker will be Mother Jones human rights reporter (Ms.) Mac McClelland, who has been reporting on the BP Oil Flood in the Gulf. See her “Rights Stuff” dispatches for MoJo here. ]

The conference will feature panel discussions on  HBO’s hit show Treme (set in post-Katrina New Orleans) with Treme co-creator Eric Overmyer and N.O. journalist and documentarist Lolis Eric Elie . . . “Paradise Lost” on environmental issues, including LaCoastPost’s Len Bahr, a coastal science adviser to five Louisiana governors, and environmental law expert Rob Verchick . . .  flood protection discussed by Tim Ruppert, an N.O. engineer and blogger . . . public safety, led by activist and blogger Brian Denzer . . . and Louisiana politics, moderated by Peter Athas and featuring Clancy DuBos of Gambit and other N.O. journalists. And more! The event will be emceed (like last year’s) by the incomparable George “Loki” Williams of Humid City (who personifies—indeed, “lives the dream”—of social networking). And all this fun is jump-started by a pre-conference party on Friday night at the Howlin’ Wolf, starting around 7:00.

The all-day event will be held at The Howlin’ Wolf, 907 South Peters Street near the Convention Center. Pre-registration is only $20, slightly more at the door.

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BP Oilpocalypse Threatens New Orleans’s Very Existence

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Steve Wereley [of] . . . Purdue University, told NPR the actual spill rate of the BP oil disaster is about 3 million gallons a day—15 times the official guess of BP and the federal government. . . . Eugene Chiang . . . [of] the University of California, Berkeley, calculated the rate of flow to be between 840,000 and four million gallons a day. These estimates mean that the Deepwater Horizon wreckage could have spilled about five times as much oil as the 12-million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster, with relief only guaranteed by BP in three more months.  Experts: BP Disaster Spilling the Equivalent of Two Exxon Valdezes a Week” | ThinkProgress.org

We have a dream—and it may sound wicked, but its cause is just.

If our wish could come true, the “volcano of oil” unleashed by BP would be driven eastward by ocean currents out of the Gulf of Mexico, loop around the pristine shores of Florida, and sweep up the Atlantic seaboard, hovering offshore just close enough to terrorize and activate the American public and elected officials to finally swear off the national addiction to oil. Let the nation get a taste of what’s sickening Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

As long as we’re visualizing a targeted spread of two Exxon Valdezes per week’s worth of oil, we’d like to see it hovering like an evil genie from a lamp and dripping, dripping malodorously down on the homes and finely manicured lawns of all politicians who have accepted campaign contributions from the oil industry for their votes favoring lax regulations, expanded drilling rights, and low or no royalty revenues for Louisiana.

Fellow Americans who benefit from Gulf Coast oil, it’s time to push Congress and governors to begin developing of alternative energy sources, electric cars, and massive investment in public transportation. (The U.S. is already deep in debt for oil-driven wars, so let’s shift gears and spend instead on immediate national security + new jobs.)

Everyone (almost) is already worried about the Big Spill’s damage to the livelihood of Gulf Coast fishermen and related businesses and the threat to birds, fish, oysters, shellfish, and other coastal fauna. Dead dolphins and sea turtles are pathetic and sickening. But also stomach-turning, terrifying—and possibly fatal to New Orleans—is the fact that the BP “oilpocalypse” is killing the sea grass and other vegetation in the already imperiled, already dwindling Louisiana wetlands that serve as a buffer against hurricanes’ storm surge.

Here’s how it works: Every 2.5 to 4 miles of wetlands reduce hurricane storm surges by about a foot; measured another way, each mile of marsh reduces storm surges by 3 to 9 inches. To protect against the awesome 25- to 30-foot storm surges brought by massive cyclones like Katrina and the Category 5 Hurricane Camille in 1969, for safety southern Louisiana would want (in addition to the barrier islands that have all but washed away) about 50 to 75 miles of wetlands between the Gulf of Mexico and the city of New Orleans. But metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

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BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill:
Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico

Monday, April 26th, 2010

But Seriously, Tragically, 11 Missing Workers Are Presumed Dead

On Saturday, April 24, Coast Guard officials reported that the damaged Deepwater Horizon well on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico was leaking oil at a rate of about 42,000 gallons (or 1,000 barrels) per day—since recalculated at 210,000 gallons per day, a fivefold increase. The leak, about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, is some 5,000 feet (about a mile) below the surface. (Chris Kirkham of the Times-Picayune has written a detailed, illustrated report of efforts to cap the leak.) As of Monday afternoon, April 26, the Coast Guard said the oil spill measured about 48 miles by 39 miles, or 1,800 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. John Amos of SkyTruth reports that NASA photographs taken Sunday, April 25, show that oil slicks and sheen (“very thin slick”) covered about 817 square miles. Amos, who in Nov. 2009 was invited to testify at a Senate hearing on the risks posed by offshore drilling, wrote yesterday (April 25):

This is bad news—it means the blowout preventer on that well is not doing its job, and that several attempts by BP, Transocean and the Coast Guard to operate a shutoff valve on the well using a robotic ROV have failed. The oil slick has grown rapidly and now covers 400 miles.

A friend in New Orleans who is an industry insider says the Deepwater Horizon well “was as sophisticated a rig as has been built operating in the Gulf of Mexico (not a rust-bucket).” He adds:

So far, cleanup efforts haven’t done very well. 126,000 gallons of oil have been spilled, but only 33,726 gallons of emulsion (which is part water) have been picked up, and this is when conditions are calm. If you assume a 50/50 water/oil mix (a conservative assumption, IMHO), the cleanup has only been 13% effective.

Dig deeper here: WWL-TV reportCoast Guard unified command updateUSCG District 8 Flickr streamMMS article on closing blowouts (big PDF)

Our friend Aaron Viles of Gulf Restoration Network reports after a flyover on Sunday (read the entire post here):

We were shocked at what we saw. The main spill was at least 8 miles across . . . and stretching for 45 miles, in a Northeastern and Southeastern direction. The crude at the surface of the Gulf has been churned into a ‘chocolate mousse’ material that was easy to spot from our altitude of 4,000 feet. The mousse covered approximately 100 square miles, and then faded into a heavy, then light sheen, which faded about 20 miles from the Chandeleur Islands, critical bird nesting and migration habitat.

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Campaign to Save Ivor van Heerden’s Post at LSU

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Click this video to see testimonies to the critical work of Ivor van Heerden by such experts and friends as John Barry, Dr. Marc Levitan, Harry Shearer, Sandy Rosenthal, Mtangulizi Sanyika, Jed Horne, and Dr. Oliver Houck.

There is a chance—and here there’s a strong hope—that LSU hurricane expert and experienced gadfly / whistle-blower Ivor van Heerden may be able to keep his position at LSU, currently set to expire on May 21. (The university decided last year that it would not renew his contract.) U.S. District Judge James Brady has denied Van Heerden’s request for a temporary restraining order to compel LSU to rehire him when the contract expires, but the judge has agreed to hear a motion on a preliminary injunction that would require the university to rehire him on May 19, before his contract expires. Ivor has said that Judge Brady’s agreement to allow an injunction trial indicates there may be reasonable grounds for preserving his job.

Van Heerden contends that LSU is firing him—and has downgraded the LSU Hurricane Center that he co-founded and served as deputy director—because his criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina endangers LSU’s ability to bring in lucrative federal research grants. Click here (and see below) for our open letter to LSU Chancellor Michael Martin urging the university administration to retain this invaluable scientist and dedicated protector of Louisiana, its delicate landscape and infrastructure, its people and culture. As Harry Shearer asks in the video above, how is it fair that the one person to lose his job after Hurricane Katrina is a committed scientist who warned repeatedly that the state’s coastal defenses and flood protection infrastructure were vulnerable?

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