Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘US Army Corps of Engineers

Book Review: “Words Whispered in Water”

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Just over a week ago I got an email from a PR flack that was headed “An activists’ deep dive into the destruction of Katrina, the culprits behind it, and what we can learn from it.” What really bugged me about the email was that it was malformatted. I couldn’t actually read it on my screen as the text didn’t fit – and I had to scroll sideways just to find out the most basic information. However, I was both intrigued and somewhat connected since I have actually been to New Orleans, twice. And, of course, in 2005 everybody had heard about Katrina. And the very curious way that the federal government seemed to have adopted to their responsibility. Not as as bad as the way they have – and are – treating Puerto Rico. But bad enough. I must admit in 2005 I was facing my own issues so my attention to Katrina and its aftermath faded – and during our visits I do not recall seeing or hearing much about it or the aftermath.

I have also had to work with engineers in my career, and have had cause to observe the way that engineering companies and individuals have to work in the intricate overlapping worlds of the consultants and the government agencies that employ them. The penalties for those who do not obey the largely unwritten rules and conventions that govern this relationship mean that those who offend can be cast into the outer darkness and be denied future employment, often on no more than a whim of an official or a rumor – the least reliable sources.

The decisions that were made by the American Army Corps of Engineers, charged with building the flood defences of New Orleans were quite remarkably difficult to determine – deliberately so – and there was extensive collusion between the very people who we rely on to look after all of us to try and create a narrative that shifted attention away to the local government officials. They were branded as inept or even corrupt when that was not the case, but the mainstream media and in particular the leading local newspaper, The Times-Picayune preferred to ignore what should have been fairly obvious. The Corps were responsible for building the levees. When the levees broke it was due to fundamental flaws in design. But the corps did not want to admit that and looked for a scapegoats who would have a hard time explaining that it was the Corps and not the local Levee Board. As the author herself puts it, when a building collapses you look at the architects and the builder not the janitor. But a story had been created to shift the blame to – of all people – environmental activists and local politicians.

Sandy Rosenthal was directly impacted by the disaster and she didn’t buy the story that the Corps, and the media, were peddling. Apart from anything else there are these permanent plaques on the levees, put up by the Corps, recording their appreciation of the work done by those charged with maintenance of the levees and the associated equipment over many years. But she was initially on her own. She created a website with the aid of her son and WordPress – the people who provide the same service for this blog. The more she uncovered, the more questions she asked, the more she gathered supporters. But also the trolls who bedevil online activities of all sorts. And, it turns out, the PR company hired by the Corps – and some employees of the Corps itself – joined in by pretending to be concerned local private citizens – textbook astroturfing. There were also the inevitable opportunists who never let any crisis go to waste and who were busy grinding out their own preferred solutions – which would pay them generously.

We now know why the levees broke. And, thanks to the cover of the pressure for answers when everything in New Orleans was in chaos from people who did not have enough time or resources, an eventual revelation of the decisions and why they were so badly wrong. The book itself is 300 pages but a very quick read. There are 503 endnotes for those who want to dig deeper. Sadly there is no index. And for people who do not have detailed knowledge of the complex geography and local nomenclature maps would have been very welcome but there are none. Even so I heartily recommend it.

And if you think that somehow this is just a problem for a distant community with little in common with yours, understand that more than half the population live in places that depend on levees. And we all live on a planet where the climate is becoming much more hostile, and hurricanes much more common and far stronger than before.

PS  The word levee means “an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river”. In other posts in this blog about risk of flooding I have used the term dike “an embankment for controlling or holding back the waters of the sea or a river”. Yesterday we went for a walk along the west dike in Richmond – the one that faces onto the Salish Sea. It has not been raised at all despite the recent King Tides, and the very evident international refusal to reduce ghg emissions that are essential to slow the rising sea levels.

Seen on my Twitter feed December 6, 2020


Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2020 at 8:13 pm