Levees Not War
Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Schleifstein’

Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81

Friday, October 4th, 2013

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Former Head of Army Corps of Engineers Regretted Not Fighting for Storm-Surge Gates
As Tropical Storm Karen approaches the Gulf Coast, and FEMA employees, furloughed by the latest GOP Government Shutdown, are called back to work without pay, The New York Times reports the death of Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, “who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.” Gen. Heiberg died last Friday, Sept. 27, in Arlington, Va. He was 81. In June 2007, the Times reports, “nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that ‘As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.’ ” After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conceived a plan to build flood-surge gates at the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain at the Chef Menteur and the Rigolets passes to be lowered in case of an oncoming hurricane (map below). Environmentalists worried that the presence of the floodgates would make it easier for developers to drain areas for development and that the flow of water would be blocked.Luke Fontana, executive attorney for Save Our Wetlands Inc., filed a lawsuit to block the floodgates. In 1985, twenty years after Hurricane Betsy, the Corps gave up the plan. (The plan and its defeat—“death-by-environmentalism,” we call it—is discussed in detail in Mark Schleifstein and John McQuaid’s excellent 2006 book Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. See our interview with Schleifstein here.) In an interview cited by NPR online, Gen. Heiberg said, “I think that’s probably the biggest mistake I made, quitting instead of fighting. . . . I think Katrina proved that.” (See “Why Did the 17th Street Canal Levee Fail?” NPR, May 19, 2006.)   1965CorpsFloodgatesPlan The New York Times obituary in full appears below.
Elvin R. Heiberg III, General Who Took Blame for Hurricane Katrina Failures, Dies at 81
04heiberg-popup Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, who rose to the top of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s and decades later expressed regret for failing to fight hard enough to build floodgates that he believed might have protected New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, died last Friday in Arlington, Va. He was 81. The cause was cancer, said his daughter Kay Bransford. In June 2007, nearly two years after Katrina, General Heiberg wrote a letter published in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans that read: “As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily.” He explained that in the 1970s, when he commanded the New Orleans district, the corps planned to protect the city by building gates at the east end of Lake Pontchartrain. Environmentalists opposed the project, and local interests objected to sharing the costs, as federal law requires. A federal judge blocked the project and called for a more thorough analysis of its environmental impact. In the 1980s, when General Heiberg was commander of the corps, or chief of engineers—the youngest man to head the corps since the 19th century—the fight over the so-called barrier plan was still going on. “I was discouraged and decided to stop fighting for the barriers any longer,” he wrote in The Times-Picayune. “In retrospect, that was the biggest mistake I made during my 35 years as an Army officer.” In lieu of the barrier, the corps turned to raising levees and floodwalls around the city. It turned out to be a patchwork project that was still not complete when Katrina hit 20 years later and many segments of the floodwall failed. The official corps report on the disaster called the hurricane protection system “a system in name only.” General Heiberg’s letter fed an argument that had begun circulating soon after the storm that had blamed environmentalists for the destruction of the city, accusing them of blocking efforts to protect it. The conservative FrontPage Magazine called their tactics “Green Genocide.” But the barrier envisioned by the corps would have been ineffective, said G. Paul Kemp, an author of Louisiana’s official report on the disaster and an adjunct professor at the Louisiana State University department of oceanography and coastal sciences. Much of the water that inundated New Orleans, he said, had flowed in from a corner of Lake Borgne, which lies to the south and east of the city and which would have been outside the barrier’s reach. Alfred Naomi, a former senior project engineer for the corps in New Orleans, agreed that the barriers “might not have made a difference for Katrina,” though he argued that some areas might have suffered less damage had the barriers been there and that the project would have improved safety overall. He expressed admiration for General Heiberg and his public stand. “That showed integrity and moral certitude that you don’t find a lot in today’s society,” he said. “Right or wrong, he took the hit — and took some responsibility.” Elvin Ragnvald Heiberg III—he went by “Vald”—was born on March 2, 1932, at Schofield Barracks, the Army installation on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Like his father and a grandfather, he joined the Army and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point; the grandfather served as military attaché in Rome and died when he was thrown by a horse while visiting the Austro-Hungarian front in 1917. Vald III graduated from West Point in 1953 and earned master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Washington University. His career in the Army and Corps of Engineers took him to wartime service in Korea and Vietnam and to Saudi Arabia, where he oversaw $14 billion in corps-led construction projects for the country’s national guard. He led the corps’ cleanup and rebuilding effort after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State in 1980, and ran the Army’s Ballistic Missile Defense Program, a precursor to the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” plan. General Heiberg’s many decorations included the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross from his Vietnam service; he twice earned the Distinguished Service Medal. After retiring from the military, he worked with a number of companies, including Dawson & Associates, a consulting and government relations firm with expertise in water resources, where he was a senior adviser. In addition to Ms. Bransford, General Heiberg’s survivors include his wife, the former Kathryn Schrimpf, whom he married in 1953; another daughter, Kathryn Heiberg-Browning; two sons, Walter and Elvin IV; and a sister, Dorethe Skidmore. Contacted by a reporter last year to discuss the old barrier plan, General Heiberg said, “I haven’t changed my mind on any of that.” New Orleans is now protected by a $14 billion ring of walls, levees and gates, including a two-mile barrier at the northwest corner of Lake Borgne, and gates that can close the city’s drainage canals to block any surge from Lake Pontchartrain. Barriers for Lake Pontchartrain are again under consideration. #


Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

louisiana-coast
Historic case is compared to 1990s litigation against Big Tobacco

About 100 oil and gas companies must pay to repair the Louisiana wetlands damaged by a century of oil exploration and extraction, according to a lawsuit filed July 24 in civil district court in Orleans Parish by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East. The Authority (SLFPA-E) was established by the Louisiana legislature in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina to ensure the integrity of the state’s flood risk management systems.

John M. Barry, vice president of SLFPA-E (and the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America [1998]), said:

“With this lawsuit, the Authority is carrying out its mandate to help protect southern Louisiana by strengthening our first line of defense against catastrophic flooding. That first defensive perimeter is of course the buffer of land and marsh that cuts down hurricane storm surge before it reaches the levees. . . . The industry recognizes that it is responsible for a significant part of the problem. We want energy companies to fix the part of the problem they caused—and which they promised to address. We want them to do what they said they’d do.”

map-canals-lawsuit-2jpg-7d45582bb7eb802c

The suit has been denounced by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who said in a statement that the Authority has “overstepped its authority.” The governor asserted, “We’re not going to allow a single levee board that has been hijacked by a group of trial lawyers to determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the entire state of Louisiana.”

The state’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, however, has authorized SLFPA-E to proceed in filing its suit.

An attorney for the Authority, Gladstone N. Jones III, has successfully brought suit against Big Oil firms in the past. He told Clancy Dubos of Gambit that the suit has the potential to be bigger than the ongoing BP litigation, and, according to The New York Times, Jones said the plaintiffs are seeking damages equal to “many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.” Dubos writes, “The case ultimately could seek environmental recovery for all oil and gas activity along Louisiana’s coast. If that happens, this case will be to Big Oil what the Tobacco Litigation was to that industry: a game-changer.” (See Further Reading below.)

The lawsuit asserts that the Authority is obligated by law to restore Louisiana’s coastal land areas, and charges that oil, gas, and pipeline companies that have cut at least 10,000 miles of oil and gas canals and pipelines have damaged the state’s environmental buffer zones that formerly protected the state from storm surge and flooding. As experienced in recent hurricanes, Southeastern Louisiana has been rendered vulnerable to frequent and often catastrophic flooding.

Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land—50 acres every day.

1980–2007

Click the map or here to go to a Lens article about the lawsuit and a slide show of the proliferation of 230,000 oil and gas wells in Louisiana between 1901 and 2007.

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Wetlands protect human settlements from hurricane storm surges, which can rise as high as 25 feet. 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. Metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

The suit summarizes the environmental significance of coastal wetlands and the consequences of oil exploration (quoting from Gambit and from SLFPA-E’s press release):

•  “Coastal lands are the natural protective buffer without which the levees that protect the cities and towns of southern Louisiana are left exposed to unabated destructive forces. This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form. Yet . . . it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Hundreds of thousands of acres of the coastal lands that once offered protection to south Louisiana are now gone as a result of oil and gas industry activities. . . .

•  “For nearly a century, the oil and gas industry has continuously and relentlessly traversed, dredged, drilled and extracted in coastal Louisiana. It reaps enormous financial gain by exploiting the resources found there, sharing some of that bounty with the many residents whom it employs. Yet it also ravages Louisiana’s coastal landscape. An extensive network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals slashes the coastline at every angle, functioning as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction. This canal network injects corrosive saltwater into interior coastal lands, killing vegetation and carrying away mountains of soil. What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner. . . .

•  “Oil and gas activities continue to transform what was once a stable ecosystem of naturally occurring bayous, small canals, and ditches into an extensive—and expanding—network of large and deep canals that continues to widen due to Defendants’ ongoing failure to maintain this network or restore the ecosystem to its natural state. That canal network continues to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands. The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening—and ultimately killing—that vegetation. Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms. The canal network thus comprises a highly effective system of coastal landscape degradation. The product of this network is an ecosystem so seriously diseased that its complete demise is inevitable if no action is taken.” [LNW’s emphasis]

Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune reports, “A study conducted by the late University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland in 1996 for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Gas Research Institute concluded that about 36 percent of the wetland loss in southeastern Louisiana between 1932 and 1990 was the result of the direct and indirect effects of actions taken by the oil and gas industry.” By a conservative estimate, since 1932 Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, equivalent to the state of Delaware, and if the present rate continues, some 700 more square miles of coastal Louisiana are expected to be lost in coming decades.

 

Barataria Bay

 

John Barry told The Lens’s environmental writer Bob Marshall, “No one denies—not even the oil industry—that the canals they dredged helped cause this problem. . . . Now, people will say there are other causes, and we’re not denying that. The levees on the river, obviously, are a major cause. But the federal government built those levees, and they’ve been spending billions of dollars on better flood protection and coastal restoration projects in this area. What we’re saying to the oil companies is, ‘It’s time for you to step up now for the damage you did.’ ”

The Flood Protection Authority’s lawsuit is grounded in long-established legal principles and in state and federal law, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, and the state Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.

Barry explained to the Times-Picayune that the suit is founded upon three principal legal arguments:

  • Most of the damaging oil, gas and pipeline activities were conducted under federal and state permits that “explicitly require the operators to maintain and restore the canals they dredged,” Barry said. He said the oil and gas industry dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals through the state’s wetlands, which provided pathways for salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to kill fresh and brackish water marshes.
  • The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 prohibits actions that impair the effectiveness of flood protection levees. “Clearly, increasing storm surge makes a levee less effective,” Barry said.
  • A tenet of civil law called “servitude of drainage” prohibits someone taking actions on property that they own or control that sends more water onto someone else’s property. Again, Barry said, the oil and gas projects clearly focus increased storm surge onto the levee system.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East is being represented in its litigation by the law firms Jones, Swanson, Huddell, and Garrison, LLC, of New Orleans; Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, LLP, of New Orleans; and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson, LLC, of Lake Charles, La.

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Further Reading

Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East press release

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “Historic lawsuit seeks billions in damages from oil, gas, pipeline industries for wetlands losses” (includes PDF of lawsuit + video of John Barry)

Clancy Dubos (Gambit), “Historic lawsuit coming against Big Oil

Bob Marshall (The Lens), “Science to be key factor in lawsuit against oil and gas companies for coastal loss

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “East Bank levee authority to file lawsuit Wednesday aimed at getting oil, gas, pipeline firms to restore wetlands and ridges

John Schwartz (New York Times), “Louisiana Agency Sues Dozens of Energy Companies for Damage to Wetlands

National Public Radio, “La. Flood Board Sues Oil Industry Over Wetlands

U.S. Geological Survey, “Wetland Subsidence, Fault Reactivation, and Hydrocarbon Production in the U.S. Gulf Coast Region

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority homepage

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Top photo of oil/gas pipeline canals cutting through Louisiana wetlands, 2010, from Getty Images via Bloomberg; graphic by Dan Swenson for the Times-Picayune; map of oil and gas wells south of New Orleans from The Lens; photograph of Barataria Bay, Louisiana (2011) by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

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To Save New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Morganza Spillway Is Opened; Only 2nd Opening Since 1954

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

“The President of the Mississippi River Commission Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh has directed the New Orleans District Commander Col. Ed Fleming to be prepared to operate the Morganza Floodway within 24 hours. The operation will include the deliberate and slow opening of the structure.” —U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announcement, May 13

On Saturday at 3:00 Central Standard Time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the first 25-foot-wide bay of the Morganza Spillway for only the second time in the structure’s nearly 60-year history. The last time was in 1973. The primary objective of the opening is to reduce the likelihood of the swollen Mississippi River flooding the port cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans downstream.

If the Corps had not opened the Morganza, reports Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune, the river would have crested at 19.5 feet at New Orleans, “only a half-foot below the tops of levees and floodwalls in the city.”

The Corps announced that, at least for now, the Morganza opening will be smaller than was suggested earlier: present plans call for 125,000 cubic feet of water per second to be diverted into the Atchafalaya River and Basin instead of the earlier projection of 300,000 cfs. That is less than one-quarter of the total capacity (600,000 cfs) that the spillway could divert if all 125 bays were opened. The opening of the bays will be gradual, beginning with one or two at a time in order to let the Atchafalaya fill as gently and slowly as possible; there will not be a torrent or tsunami rushing into the Atchafalaya Basin.

Flooding will still be considerable, however, over some 3,000 square miles of Acadiana. In some areas the water will be 25 feet deep. About 25,000 people will be affected. Governor Jindal has directed parish administrators in the Atchafalaya Basin parishes to direct people living in the flood plain to evacuate. “Now is the time to take action. Don’t delay. Don’t hope something will change.”

The higher water is expected to reach Morgan City within three days of the opening.

It is predicted that the Mississippi will crest at New Orleans on Monday, March 23.

(more…)

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New Orleans Is Most Likely Safe from River Flooding

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

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There’s a certain trepidation in writing that headline, but . . .

Despite over $2 billion in damages, possibly to reach $4 billion from the Mississippi River Flood of 2011, including dramatic flooding upriver around Cairo, Memphis, and Vicksburg—and despite scary images and headlines on screen and paper—the city of New Orleans should be safe from inundation from the historically high waters now coursing down the Mississippi toward the Gulf. The flooding is the result of normal springtime snowmelt compounded by record rainfall from two major storm systems across the U.S. during April. (See Mississippi River watershed map below; click to enlarge.)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already begun opening the Bonnet Carré spillway upriver from the city (photo below). There will be flooding in the Atchafalaya Basin—possibly around 3 million acres—once water is diverted from the Morganza Spillway, a decision that is expected soon from the Corps of Engineers. And deep-draft shipping may be temporarily suspended by the U.S. Coast Guard if water levels rise to just a little higher than they are now; Americans “upriver” may experience a spike in gas prices as supplies are temporarily interrupted by the halting of oil tanker traffic between Baton Rouge and the Gulf.

Read the Headlines with Some Skepticism

Under the ominous headline “Mississippi River Flooding in New Orleans Area Could Be Massive if Morganza Spillway Stays Closed,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Wednesday that based upon the best information available from the Corps of Engineers, the staggering volume of water making its way down the Mississippi could cause “levee failures and massive inundation of metro New Orleans, worse than Hurricane Katrina, if the Morganza spillway is not opened to divert river water down the Atchafalaya basin. The bad news for people living along the Atchafalaya: the Corps of Engineers predicts they will flood in either case.” Although the article itself was measured, not alarmist, the headline implied there was a possibility that the Corps might decide not to open the Morganza Spillway. Another headline warned, “Corps Officials Fear Flooding.” Note to the reader: It is the Corps’ job to fear flooding and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Now, reporters don’t write the headlines, and the body of an article is often less alarming than the headline crafted by some news editor. But “Flooding Could Be Massive” sort of got our attention, so we checked around.

An engineer friend in the New Orleans area who knows people at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the Corps is monitoring the situation very closely all along the river, per established protocol, and just waiting for Major General Michael Walsh to give the word about opening the Morganza Spillway. Major General Walsh is president of the Mississippi River Commission and commander of all USACE districts along the river. Times-Picayune environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein writes that General Walsh is expected to announce his decision to open the Morganza spillway between Friday and Tuesday (May 13 and 17).

Our engineer friend says, “Walsh is going to wait until the last possible moment to give the order just in case something changes in the river or they [the Corps] discover a better alternative. And when I say, ‘last possible moment,’ that is taking into account the timeline between when the order is given and everything that has to happen to safely open the structure. This stuff is really well thought out. The hydraulics, structures and levee engineers there have been working this 7 days a week for the past two weeks. . . . New Orleans is safe for now. Never say never, but we have no reason to panic as of right now.”

[ Click here for City of New Orleans Emergency Preparedness / Flood Fight information ]

(more…)
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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.

(more…)

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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

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Army Corps Found Negligent by Federal Judge

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

The failure of the Corps to recognize the destruction that the MRGO [Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet navigation canal] had caused and the potential hazard that it created is clearly negligent on the part of the Corps. Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life. (p. 105)

The Corps’ lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions. The Corps’ negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood protection measures and billions of dollars in Congressional outlays to help this region recover from such a catastrophe. (p. 111)

MR-GO navigation canal appears at center (vertical); Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish at left. Detail of NASA photo.

MR-GO appears at center (vertical); Lower 9th Ward, St. Bernard Parish at left. NASA photo.

Federal Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. has found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ poor maintenance of the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet navigation canal was responsible for some of the worst flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune explains: “Duval’s 156-page decision could result in the federal government paying $700,000 in damages to three people and a business in those areas, but also sets the stage for judgments worth billions of dollars against the government for damages suffered by as many as 100,000 other residents, businesses and local governments in those areas who filed claims with the corps after Katrina.”

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Interview with Mark Schleifstein
Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor of
‘Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans
and the Coming Age of Superstorms’

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Mark Schleifstein in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005. In the background is a barge that broke through the breach in the wall of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005, crushing the front end of a school bus (far right). Photograph by Ellis Lucia, courtesy of the Times-Picayune.

Mark Schleifstein in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005. In the background is a barge that broke through the breach in the wall of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005, crushing the front end of a school bus (far right). Photograph by Ellis Lucia, courtesy of the Times-Picayune.

Mark Schleifstein joined the Times-Picayune in 1984 as an environmental reporter after five years at the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi. Since 1996 he and his Times-Picayune colleague John McQuaid have written numerous major environmental series for the paper, most recently in January 2006. Schleifstein and McQuaid won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their series “Oceans of Trouble: Are the World’s Fisheries Doomed?”—a comprehensive eight-day series about the threats to the world’s fish supply, including the effects of coastal wetlands erosion on fish in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1998 the Picayune published their series “Home Wreckers: How the Formosan Termite Is Devastating New Orleans,” a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer.

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