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

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.

Perhaps their most famous project was “Washing Away,” a prescient five-day series published in June 2002, three years before Hurricane Katrina, about the disappearance of the storm protection that southern Louisiana’s wetlands once gave New Orleans, the likelihood of catastrophic flooding, and the frightening inadequacy of the city’s storm protection infrastructure. (In his Katrina book Breach of Faith, fellow Picayune writer Jed Horne describes Schleifstein as “an Old Testament prophet possessed of a vision and the need to warn his people.”) “Washing Away” won the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2003 Excellence in Media award.

For its reporting on Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune in 2006 was again awarded Pulitzer Prizes, for Public Service and Breaking News Reporting, as well as a coveted George Polk Award. Schleifstein and McQuaid have won many other professional awards and wide acclaim for their environmental, political, and business reporting: the list might stretch longer than the text of the interview below. (See Schleifstein’s blog here).

Path of Destruction is one of the best Katrina books we’ve read-factual, well constructed, and humane. For anyone wishing to see the ‘big picture,’ it is an excellent overview book that explains very clearly the science of hurricanes, the history of the river and the city and levees, and the background on disaster preparedness (or the lack thereof) on the local and national levels-including the effects of 9/11 and the federal government’s subsequent concentration on terrorism that diminished funding for natural disaster preparedness-a fixation with disastrous consequences for FEMA and Corps of Engineers. The second half of Path of Destruction tells what happened during Katrina-the storm itself and the response, a disaster within a disaster. Interwoven with the narrative of the chaotic days that followed the storm are personal stories of about a dozen individuals in and around New Orleans-from Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard Parish-as they make their way through the hellish aftermath. Schleifstein and McQuaid warn of a future of extreme weather that is a reaction to the warming atmosphere: Whether we are ready or not-and whatever we may believe about climate change-superstorms will be bearing down on human settlements all around the globe. This book shows what can happen when a city and a nation are unprepared for the worst, and shows human courage and compassion in the face of chaos both natural and man-made.

A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Team

Q. Perhaps you could start by telling us about your Pulitzer Prize. You and John McQuaid together won the prize for Public Service in 1997?

A. It was for “Oceans of Trouble,” published in 1996, a series on fisheries and how they’re affected by the loss of wetlands. I was doing the environmental beat in New Orleans and John was based up in Washington.

In 1995 we went to our sources-including scientists and politicians, etc.-and asked them what do you think fisheries are going to be like in 20 years? And they all said, Oh, they’ll be fine. We’ve figured out a management program to prevent over-fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t think there will be a problem.

We said, “But if the wetlands in Louisiana continue to disappear at the rate they’ve been doing over the next twenty years, then what’s the future of fisheries 20 years from now in the Gulf of Mexico?” They said, Oh, there won’t be any.

Q. Other than that, no problem.

A. A little disconnect. They were replying to the question of managing over-fishing, but habitat is a completely different matter. If the habitat disappears, there’s no place for the juvenile fish. We’re actually seeing the effects of the loss of wetlands in the catch in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the majority of commercial fisheries that are caught in the Gulf of Mexico spend part of their juvenile life in the Louisiana wetlands, that would be a complete disaster.

So we went back to our editors and said, We think there might be a story here. John was covering the Washington angle, and I handled a lot of the habitat stuff. We looked at aquaculture and the way it was changing the industry of fishing, especially shrimping. The series went on for eight days-longer than the creation of the world. This was the first series where John and I worked together. We did another one a few years later on Formosan termites called “Home Wreckers” [1998].

Q. You and John obviously have worked out a formula for a very fruitful collaboration. Great reporting, spadework . . .

A. John has an ability of finding seemingly very odd but very important pieces of the story and explaining that importance and placing it in the context of the story. He’s also very good, once we’ve got all our notes together, at assembling stuff out of everybody else’s notes to make them into stories and make them ring.

The biggest plus I bring to things like this is the original ideas and some of the directions about the broader focus of the way things go. All three of the big series that we worked on together were originally my proposals. Largely because of our locations, I also had the ability of working the internal politics to be sure the series got off the ground.

Q. Has John always been in Washington?

A. He started in New Orleans as a basic reporter, covering some government issues, covering some general assignments and features, and when we had a Latin American bureau he was based in Costa Rica and then Mexico City. He spent about a year and a half doing that, then gravitated to Washington.

Writing ‘Path of Destruction’

Q. Tell us about how you conceived the book and planned its organization.

A. We knew everybody would be doing a ‘tick-tock’ of the storm, covering the Five Days of Katrina. We wanted to be different. We wanted to place the Five Days of Katrina in a context so that people could understand how that happened. When you look at the books that are out there, the tick-tock stories, you end up scratching your head and wondering why do people live in New Orleans? How come they didn’t know about the levee system? What drove these things?

We wanted to answer those questions, so we went back to the beginning, looking at the geology of the area, explaining how southeastern Louisiana and the area where New Orleans was founded was actually formed, geologically, and what that meant for hurricanes. We used the reporting we did for the “Washing Away” series as our starting point-the history, getting into the science of storms, and things like that. It meant looking at how the city itself was formed. And the history of levees in the city, and the history of its expansion, and explaining that, so that people could understand why people could live below sea level, surrounded by levees. It meant explaining in as much detail as possible (but briefly) the history of hurricanes in the United States and the history of the way they’re tracked, and the history of forecasting. The story of Isaac Cline, for example [a pioneer in predicting hurricanes].

Q. Most people would have been busy enough just putting their life back together, but you had time to write a book, too, at a pretty difficult time.

A. How it all came about was, most of the staff had evacuated up to Baton Rouge, and we’d finally moved into our new temporary office park to produce the paper, and John calls me the week after the storm and says he’s spoken with his literary agent. He says, “I’ve worked something up I think might work, and my agent thinks there might be a chance. I’ll send it to you and-” And I said, “What, are you nuts?! My house is flooded I don’t know how deep and I’m up in Baton Rouge bouncing from one living space to another, going from a room with 10 people in it to somebody’s couch,” etc. He said just do as much as you can. And so I make this really stupid decision: Sure, John, I’ve got nothing else to do.

So I’m continuing to do the regular day job 8 to 10 hours a day and in my “spare time” ended up working till about 2:30 or 3:30 every night, and getting up at 7:00 and starting it all over again.

We made ourselves assignments and John kept control over how it was going, what fit where-the way the book was put together, it was all John-and then when push came to shove we started tossing things back and forth to each other. . . . The book was published in August 2006, in time for the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Q. What kind of reaction did the book receive? Did you feel it got a good reception, attention in the press, or from elected officials?

A. It got some attention. It was one of about a dozen Katrina books that came out in August ’06. It had a niche, and I think still does. We’re still getting some action on it. John and I both made the rounds of radio talk shows for the second anniversary.

Q. Including National Public Radio. That’s very good.

A. It was not a best-seller. I think Doug Brinkley’s book (The Great Deluge) was that, because he has the name and the publisher behind him, and he had the critique of the mayor that everybody seemed to jump on that was a little different from ours. I think he’s obviously the leader, and Jed Horne of our [Times-Picayune] staff, also, with Breach of Faith. Jed focuses largely on the human impacts and the effects of the storm on the African American community and the role of poverty and how it played out in the storm.

Q. Did the publisher send the book to members of Congress, in addition to sending to the book reviews?

A. Not that I’m aware of. I know that [former Louisiana governor] Mike Foster used to do that with books. He sent copies of Mike Tidwell’s first book, Bayou Farewell, to everybody in Congress. And I think he did the same with Holding Back the Sea by Chris Hallowell.

Corps of Engineers Builds Levees to Withstand ‘100-Year Storms’

Q. Let’s talk infrastructure. We’re told the flood control system is being restored to pre-Katrina levels. That’s not quite what people were hoping for, or what the President seemed to be promising in his Jackson Square speech, but it seems to be all we’re going to get, at least for now. What else is the Corps going to do?

A. They’re moving to raise the system to a level of hundred-year protection by 2011, and that is well under way. Huge amounts of contracts are in the process of being let or have already been let for the process of design and construction of the system. That will add a major amount of protection to the entire metro area.

Q. One-hundred-year-level protection will exceed the strength before Katrina?

A. Absolutely. One of the problems was that the Corps did not understand-really nobody did-what the risk was of flooding from a 100-year event in the city, and what that meant for the height of levees. And then you add in all the things the Corps did wrong, especially with the problems with the heights of individual pieces of the system of drainage canal walls and levees.

It wasn’t that they measured wrong, it was that they kept using old measurements [see Path of Destruction, pp. 145-50], and had a policy of using the old measurements for old projects, and then using new measurements for new projects. They weren’t updating the old projects or going to Congress or to the local sponsors and saying, “We have these real problems,” until about three, four years before Katrina, when they did actually go to everybody and say, “These measurements are wrong and we need to do something about it, what do you want to do?” . . .

But the answer never came. The Corps was waiting for a local sponsor to step up in each case as they were notified that their levees were too low, and say, “OK, Corps, we want you to go to Congress and tell them that we need to raise the levees to this level. We want greater protection.”

Q. What does this involve, bringing it up to 100-year-storm capacity?

A. It involves a lot of things in a lot of different areas. If there’s a keystone piece to this, it would be the V, that little triangle of wetlands that’s in front of it [at the intersection of GIWW and MR-GO] called the “golden triangle” for some reason. (I had never heard of that before Katrina, but that’s what everyone calls it now.)

Illustration by Ivor van Heerden, from his book The Storm

Illustration by Ivor van Heerden, from his book The Storm (© 2006). Reproduced by kind permission of Ivor van Heerden and Viking Penguin. All rights reserved.

The plan is to build a levee across the golden triangle, and a gate on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the north, and then a gate or closure structure on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), which will give you a wall going all the way across from the St. Bernard levee to the Eastern New Orleans levee. That structure will be in some places like at the gates as high as 33 feet above sea level.

From there on down to the St. Bernard levee, that levee will be raised, depending on the location, 28 to 25 feet, maybe some places 23, and the same on the eastern New Orleans levee going east from that new structure. That’s the key part [the golden triangle levee]. That’s a huge increase in size of all of that area’s protection. The idea there is that it will reduce the ability of storm surge to go over the top.

The goal of this is to reduce the chances of the amount of floodwater that occurs in the city once every 100 years from hurricane events. Events plural. They run these computer models that include 152 different kinds of hurricanes, ranging in intensity from a 50-year storm to a 5,000-year storm. (To do this they use a model called ADCIRC and several other models combined to put together this data.) They run all these hurricanes through the system and determine what the one-percent chance of flooding is, and that provides you with an idea of how high to raise the levees in each area.

The result of that is that you get this high levee. My shortcut for explaining this is: If you listen to the National Hurricane Center, they’ll tell you that the return period for a Camille-like Category 5 hurricane, which is a very small but intense hurricane, is about 75 years, maybe 100. Camille [in 1969] hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast with a storm surge of 23 feet, approximately. And so if you run that storm at different pieces of the levee system, then to prevent it from overtopping the system, you have to raise the system to certain levels. And the difference between that storm and a Katrina is not very much. It could be a half-foot to a foot in terms of height.

What the Corps is hoping is that people buy into the idea that, at least for the start, until we can afford to do something better, if we raise it to a 100-year level, we will be protecting the area from a heck of a lot of flooding, and this will at least get the National Flood Insurance Program off our backs, and allow people to start getting insurance as we promised the National Flood Insurance Program that they would be able to get it.

Q. The National Flood Insurance Program-is that federal or private?

A. It’s federal, but private companies issue the insurance. In other words, I go to State Farm and buy my flood insurance, but insurance money comes from the federal government, from my premiums, and whatever amount the federal government has to make up until my premiums raised in the future make up the difference.

Immediately after Katrina everyone was freaking out, wondering “Should we live in New Orleans again?” And the Flood Insurance Program was saying, “We’re never going to allow anybody to rebuild.” The Bush administration and the Corps went to the Flood Insurance Program and said we will guarantee you that we will build levees to protect from a 100-year hurricane, so that when you issue your policies and you make your flood maps, you can do what you’ve done in the past, which is to base the flood maps only on rainfall events within the levees. The flood insurance program then sets heights for homes and other buildings within the levees based on the potential of rainfall flooding, which still exists.

I-Walls, T-Walls, and Canals

Q. At least for this 100-year strength, is the Corps using T-walls, or only I-walls?

A. Yes. [laughs] They’re going to be using both, but the use of I-walls will be much more limited, and the I-walls themselves will be built better, they say. They’re not talking about using the existing I-walls. Unless the I-walls were built very well, they’ll replace those I-walls.

Illustration by Ivor van Heerden, from The Storm (© 2006). Reproduced by permission of van Heerden and Viking Penguin.

Let’s talk about the 17th Street Canal. The canals now are cut off from storm surge [by gates where they empty into Lake Pontchartrain]. You don’t have hurricane-force water affecting them, but you do have the potential of rainfall water affecting them. As part of the 100-year protection, these temporary gates and the temporary pumping capacity that’s been put in since Katrina will be replaced with permanent pump stations at the end of the canals [at Lake Pontchartrain] that will act as closures on the canals as well.

Q. The three canals now have temporary gates and pumps?

A. Yes, and they’ll be replaced by permanent structures. But these temporary gates and pumps may as well be permanent in terms of what they do. So, you won’t have any storm surge coming in to the canals. But you may have rainfall that will bring water that’s too high for those canal walls—which is back to what the localities were concerned about at the very beginning. That’s why they wanted the Corps to build the walls along the canals and not the gates at the end of the canals. In any case, for 17th Street particularly, the Corps also is looking at getting rid of the canal and replacing it with a large tunnel, or a closed culvert, so that you would not have any walls any more.

Q. A closed culvert like the one that runs under Jefferson Davis Parkway?

A. You got it. Or under Napoleon Avenue. Napoleon’s a better model because it’s been rebuilt into this huge structure that’s so big you could drive a school bus down it. It’s that kind of a structure that they’ll end up building—they may end up building—depending on whether they agree to do it. But I think they probably will.

Q. Why would a closed culvert be a good idea?

A. Because then you no longer have the problem of levee walls. The only thing you have to worry about is local flooding in the streets, or local flooding in general in low places from rainfall events where the pumps that are pumping to the end of the canal don’t have the ability of pulling the water out of the community and putting it into the canal. They’re going to have a concrete structure that will be strong enough that it can hold the amount of water that can be pumped into it. The limiting factor will be the ability to pump water into the structure, rather than the structure itself. It’ll all be underground. It’s like the canals under Napoleon Avenue.

Q. So then you can, so to speak, “walk across 17th Street” from Orleans into Jefferson Parish.

A. Yes. They haven’t decided to do this yet. It may be too expensive, or somebody may object for other reasons. But it looks like they’re going to do it.

So they’ll do it with 17th Street Canal, but not at Orleans Avenue or London Avenue. They’re not handling as much water and they’re not as concerned about them. But for the London Avenue and the Orleans Avenue—the London Avenue canal especially, in the places where it failed it has already been rebuilt, but the wall generally will be rebuilt in a stronger way. It probably will mean the sheet piling underneath it will be much lower [buried deeper]; it may mean that it will be replaced with a T-wall instead, which includes batter pilings that are much deeper and structurally much better. I’m not sure yet what direction they’re going to go on that. The same at Orleans Avenue.

Q. And what are the plans for the West Bank?

A. On the West Bank, the levees there have never been completed. They were 40 percent complete before Katrina, and there was also a plan to put a gate in the Harvey Canal that was not finished. Now the gate is completed, and the levees are under construction and they’ll be made higher. Over there they’ll only be about 14 feet at the beginning, when they’re finished in 2011.

And the other thing for all of this system is that the assumption now is—and part of the official project is—that there will be an additional raising of the levees by 2057, to take into account both subsidence and sea-level rise. So you actually have subsidence and global warming built into the system. Depending on where you are, that’ll add another 1 ½ to 3 feet for the levees, and the structures themselves are already being built to that additional height. So if you’ve got gates or pumping stations or walls, they are all being built to the higher levels now.

Q. How about the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal? Is it essential that it remain open? I ask because the Times-Picayune’s “Flash Flood” animation and the LSU Hurricane Center computer models show the storm surge rushing in through the funnel formed by the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. In The Storm Ivor van Heerden describes MR-GO as a “storm-surge delivery system.”

A. The Industrial Canal is a major industrial area, and nobody has any plans for closing it. And nobody has any plans of closing the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), either. That waterway will stay open. The Port of New Orleans, which has been dragged kicking and screaming to the closure of the MR-GO, has repeatedly, incorrectly said that you have to have the MR-GO open because if it’s closed you can’t get the space shuttles’ external tank [from the Michoud Assembly Facility] out to the Gulf of Mexico and on to Cape Canaveral, and in the future you won’t be able to transport the new rocket capsule that’s going to be built at Michoud. The people who built the capsule and the external tank repeatedly have said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. These are things that go on barges and their draft is enough that we can get them through the GIWW and into the Gulf without any problems at all.” That is one of the reasons why the GIWW will not be closed.

Q. From your point of view, is it okay that these waterways remain open?

A. I think structures can be designed and levees can be designed so that it’s not a problem that they stay open. I think it was stupid to build them in the first place, but that was seventy, eighty years ago. 1922 for the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and the 1930s for the expansion of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The GIWW has been there forever, but it was expanded significantly after the Industrial Canal was built. Doubled in size. It’s not a problem. The other thing is, the 100-year plan calls for a gate at the northern end of the Industrial Canal at Seabrook [at Lake Pontchartrain near the Lakefront Airport] to stop storm surge from getting into the canal that way as well.

A Great Wall of Louisiana?

Q. What do you think about the idea of a Great Wall of Louisiana as mentioned in the recent Time magazine cover story, across the Intracoastal Waterway, going out toward western Louisiana?

A. That will never be built. I can tell you that right now. After Katrina and Rita there was this great clamor and a requirement by Congress that the Corps study Category 5 protection for the entire Louisiana coast. As part of that process, the Corps pulled out every single proposal that had ever been made about how to do that. One of those proposals was indeed all of these different levees that created this “Great Wall of Louisiana” idea that everybody has focused on. The state has made it clear that it’s not interested in doing that, although the state has included it as an option in its plans. But at the moment they’re just lines on the map.

Now, the Corps has what’s called the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration (LACPR) plan, which is this Category 5 study that Congress required of them. They basically are going to present Congress with a Chinese menu of projects to choose from, and it will include both coastal restoration projects and levee or hurricane protection projects, all in the name of hurricane protection. And then Congress will decide which ones they want to finance, and the state will decide which projects they want to finance and which ones they want to do.

What I think will eventually happen there is that you will see levees like the Morganza [Spillway]-to-the-Gulf project that is still awaiting official approval by Congress as part of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that’s now before Congress, but pieces of which are already under construction by the local sponsor. They basically are a U loop around the urban area, in this case Houma. You may see something like that around Lafayette, maybe some additional levee protection around Morgan City, and maybe around Lake Charles. But in terms of one long levee across the state, most people have dismissed that as both too expensive and unworkable, and also not able to get through the court system when the environmental organizations will challenge them.

The Corps Learns from Dutch Engineers

Q. At the Rising Tide 2 conference in August I met Tim Ruppert, a very bright New Orleans-born Corps engineer. He says the Corps has been consulting with some Dutch engineers, getting ideas from them. I think they’ve traveled to the Netherlands to see their flood control works, and they’ve brought some of the Dutch over here. It’s very encouraging that they’re reaching out, because the Corps has not always welcomed outside expertise.

A. They’ve been doing that continuously through this whole process, and indeed the IPET team, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Taskforce that did all the forensic work on why the levees failed, is a good example of that. You’ve got 150 researchers from all across the country, in and out of the Corps, and every other agency, and the Dutch were involved in that as well.

“MR-GO” and Coastal Restoration

Q. What are the plans for MR-GO? It sounds like they’re basically going to put a gate at the mouth of it and not fill it in.

A. The structure I was talking about before is up at the upper end of MR-GO, near where it reaches the GIWW. They have not decided what they’re going to do with that. They may end up with a gate there to allow some traffic to use whatever the MR-GO becomes once it is closed. Now Congress has before it the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which includes a requirement that deauthorizes the MR-GO as a navigation channel and requires its closure at Bayou La Loutre, which is down at the southern end of MR-GO.

Q. Has the Water Resources Development Act been passed?

A. It’s been passed by the House and Senate. It’s the bill that Bush has threatened to veto because it’s got too much money in it for other projects. It’s got every water project on the face of the earth, and it’s usually passed very two years, but there hasn’t been one passed since 2000, so there’s seven years’ backlog of projects.

Q. Not since 2000?! Why the long delay?

A. Congress was arguing over the way the Corps worked on water resource projects-Corps reform, and the way Congress chose which projects to build-which resulted in the bill not being approved for seven years.

In the WRDA there is language that deauthorizes MR-GO and requires that it be closed-not gated, but closed-at the southern end. That language will eventually get through, whether WRDA makes it or not. [On Nov. 8, 2007, WRDA was passed over President Bush’s veto by both houses of Congress-the House voted 361-54, the Senate 79-14-to authorize spending levels for about 900 projects nationwide, including about $7 billion for Louisiana coastal restoration and flood protection.] The Corps also is in the process of making a recommendation to Congress that also calls for the deauthorization and closure of the MR-GO, and may end up giving Congress alternatives that include some kind of gate. But the Corps also is leaning toward a berm at that end, which will just shut it off.

Then the question becomes, What happens to the section in between, where there have historically been dramatic problems with erosion as it widens over time? Another part of the WRDA is something called the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Plan, which was the original version of the state’s master plan for restoring coastal wetlands-the first ten years of restoration projects. And as part of that, there was money for restoring wetlands in the area of the MR-GO. And also, for a major diversion called the Violet diversion that would put fresh water and sediment into the area along the MR-GO and into Lake Borgne, and that fresh water would eventually make its way into the Mississippi Sound, helping oystermen. And the state’s master plan also contains similar language about restoring the area along the MR-GO and the Violet diversion, and the state is actively seeking proposals from businesses to build a Violet diversion. So things there are actually moving.

Protection from Storm Surge

Q. What is the Corps planning to do at the entrances where the storm surge from the Gulf comes in through Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain?

A. That’s in the longer-term Category 5 study. That is indeed where the Dutch idea of the bigger gates may or may not be considered. The Corps is considering proposals that include the Rigolets Pass and the Chef Menteur Pass. And they’re also looking at alternatives where they just build the levees higher on the Lakefront and along the edge of those two passes.

Q. That’s not going to help St. Bernard Parish, is it?

A. No. Those gates don’t help St. Bernard anyway. Those gates are just for keeping water out of the lake.

Q. Looks like nothing’s going to help St. Bernard.

A. The only thing that would help St. Bernard from the larger storms would be a larger levee, or much greater improvements in wetlands. And when I say wetlands in that area, I mean reestablishing the cypress forests. And what that’s going to take is changing the water in that area from the salt water that it is now back to fresh water that cypress trees can grow in. And that will be a significant improvement. That will reduce storm surge dramatically. Depending on how far out they’re able to do it.

Now, all of that costs so much money that it’s crazy to even think about it getting done. That’s going to be the real problem in the future. The estimates I’ve seen for the Category 5-and they are just guesstimates-are between $30 and $100 billion just for the New Orleans area work. That is for the two regions to the east and immediately to the west of the Mississippi River. The rest of the state, you can probably double that on the high side, to maybe another $10 billion on the low side [i.e., $40 to $200 billion]. Those are early guesstimates. The idea of Congress being able to do that today, to even consider it today . . . it’s very difficult to get a handle on. Especially with the war going on. It’ll be hard enough getting the additional $7.6 billion through to complete 100-year protection.

Q. What is the likelihood of that? Do we have much support with our friends in Congress?

A. We don’t know yet. It’s way too early to tell. The Bush administration is recommending that this be done for the 2009 fiscal year budget, so basically as they’re leaving they’ll be making the recommendation.

Q. Is this for the 100-year strength, and it’s to be completed by 2011?

A. Right. Basically what they’re saying is, they have enough money to get them through the construction process to the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year, but they’ll need this additional money to complete the projects.

Q. And the Bush administration says it will request that money from Congress in the 2009 fiscal year budget? That is a Defense Department appropriation, right, being the Army Corps?

A. That’s right.

Presidential Candidates’ visions for New Orleans

Q. There’s a presidential race going on, you may have heard. The only two plans I’ve seen are a New York Times article on Barack Obama’s plan [published Aug. 26], and about that time John Edwards released a six-point plan for helping New Orleans. They both have to do with infrastructure and also police, nursing shortage, practical things like that. Are you aware of Hillary Clinton issuing any plan?

A. I haven’t seen either of those. I heard something about Obama’s calling for the closure of MR-GO. That’s nice. [laughs]

Q. Well, one of the good points in Obama’s plan is that he would make FEMA independent of the Department of Homeland Security. The FEMA director would have a six-year term and he’d have direct, cabinet-level access to the president the way he used to.

A. That would be a major improvement, and it needs to be done. I expect that will be done by whoever gets into office. I really think there will be major changes in Homeland Security and FEMA, whoever becomes the next president.

Changes to Come at FEMA and Homeland Security

Q. What kind of changes in Homeland Security and FEMA?

A. There will be a huge amount of support-there already is-for moving back toward a much more realistic all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness.

Q. Instead of counter-terrorism-based?

A. Nothing wrong with counter-terrorism emergency preparedness, just as long as you don’t do things like happened here in New Orleans. One of the problems with the way the federal government works is that when they create a new program and provide it with lots of money to give out, then local governments looking desperately for money go after those projects. New Orleans was a perfect example of that prior to Katrina.

Q. When the 17th Street breach was discovered, there was a jurisdictional dispute between the Corps of Engineers and the Levee Board about who was responsible for fixing the hole. (It was like a variant on the state-and-federal, Blanco-and-Bush dispute, like, who’s in control here?) Have they settled on a protocol so they’ll know who’s responsible for what next time?

A. It won’t happen again. [Laughs] I can guarantee you that, at least for the next five or six years, until people forget.

Basically there was no protocol available for how to deal with closing breaches, and now there is there is a clear protocol. Added to all that was that on the Corps of Engineers side you had a guy [district engineer Col. Richard P. Wagenaar] who was not an engineer and was basically relying on his people and he felt the Corps should be in control, while the locals thought they should be in control, and it was a mess. The reality was it really didn’t matter. With the physical forces involved with the breach there was no way of plugging it quickly. It delayed things for a while. But in the big scheme of things it wouldn’t have mattered that much, based on what they had available to work with. The water was already coming in.

Q. What will be the protocol next time? Who will be in charge? The Corps?

A. Yes, at least for the short term, while things are under construction. The way things generally work is that when a levee is under construction the Corps is in charge. At some point in the future the Corps will turn over that project to the local sponsor who will then be responsible for operation and maintenance. And at that point, things will get befuddled again, but hopefully not. Hopefully there will be a clear delineation of responsibility, and/or the local sponsor will have what’s needed to deal with it and will do it.

Q. The Corps is responsible while a levee is being built, and immediately if it needs repair, then the Levee Board will step aside and let them fix it?

A. Exactly. One of the problems before Katrina is that the levee system wasn’t really complete, but pieces of it were, so there was a real question about who actually was in charge. (The Corps is responsible for operations and maintenance of a levee until it is complete, and then turns the levee over to the local sponsor, which then accepts responsibility for operations and maintenance.) It was unclear if any of the actual pieces of the system had been turned over officially to the local sponsors, and thus whether the local sponsors were completely in control of it, or the Corps still was.

Political Action

Q. Who are some of the political allies, individuals who can help Louisiana push for flood control money? Who are the people we should focus on?

A. [sighs] Unfortunately, number one with a bullet would be the next president, whoever that turns out to be. Whoever that is will be the one linchpin to additional support. Beyond that, the leadership of both parties is what’s needed behind this. Both Landrieu and Vitter have worked extremely hard attempting to get that done, with varying success. And one of the unfortunate things is that things change with Congress, and I expect that the key players in this will be changing in the next few years. So that’s going to be a real problem.

Q. At the Rising Tide 2 conference in August with all the Katrina bloggers, one of the things that really impressed me was the citizen activism of the bloggers and organizers, and their imagination and determination. They’re making public information web sites, trying to start up a citizens’ radio station, pressing on the city council members . . . They’re taking matters into their own hands because either the city officials are lame or passive, or, if they are working, they’re overwhelmed and understaffed. There’s a lot going on. It felt like democracy.

A. The group I’m most familiar with is CHAT, the Citizens’ Road Home Action Team, led by Melanie Ehrlich and Frank Silvestri. Melanie Ehrlich is a research scientist. She was never an activist, never involved in anything until she lost her house. All of the changes in the program have been a direct result of the continuous complaints of this group, and their pushes to get things straightened out. And they’ve been helping individuals by identifying the specific people they need to get in touch with, passing around the e-mail addresses of individual program officers, and that sort of thing. Extremely helpful.

Q. How would you advise a citizens’ advocacy group like Levees Not War to press the government to increase investment on infrastructure reinforcement, for coastal restoration, emergency preparedness and evacuations, and so on? Is there some way we can frame it in politicians’ self-interest to take care of these essential needs?

A. [laughs] I’d be much more direct than that. If there’s anything that the Road Home program has taught me, it is that the squeakiest wheel is the most successful. I would recommend that any organization do what my wife has done over the last 18 months, and that is to find the name and e-mail address of every individual who is in a position of responsibility and bombard them on a daily basis with requests and demands until they are so pestered that they have no choice. That I’m convinced is the only way to get things done these days. And Congress is no different. The reality is that lobbyists in Washington have entrée because of campaign contributions and the ability of being there on a daily basis. And the only alternative for people who don’t have the money or the ability of being in Congress every day that they have is to do just that: to find some way of tapping them on the shoulder on a regular basis and reminding them that we need a lot of money and we need some coherent direction down here.





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