Web Letters | The Nation

A New Orleans Christmas in the Lower Ninth

Battling myths of the New Orleans flood

This is a very good article, and the author apparently spent much time in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and worked hard on this article.

But Mr. Hertsgaard writes, “I was most interested in the Jourdan Avenue area immediately adjacent to the Industrial Canal, the epicenter of Katrina’s death toll. The horror there was set in motion when Katrina’s floodwaters loosed a massive barge from its moorings farther up the canal and sent it crashing into the east side of the levee. The levee gave way with a bomb-like crash and roiling water gushed through the breach. Within minutes, the flatlands north of Clairborne were drowning as the floodwaters quickly submerged nearly all the houses.”

A quick fact-check reveals the barge did not cause the flooding.

I founded Levees.org to battle the myths relating to the New Orleans Flood.  A major city went under water and over 1,600 died, and we think it’s very important for the facts to be accurate.

There is no expert testimony that asserts that a barge contributed to the breaching of the east side of the Industrial Canal.  Three major studies cite the mechanism of failure of the Industrial Canal east side south breach as caused by I-wall displacement after storm surge overtopped the floodwall.

From everything we have studied, the barge apparently was either swept through the opening or floated over the wall as portions of the wall were failing. For the unmoored barge to be sitting in the Lower Ninth Ward after being sucked through the breached wall was no more surprising than a rubber ducky. Both float.

Second, we maintain that it was not “Katrina” that devastated the Lower Ninth Ward. That would be like blaming an iceberg for the Titanic disaster. No one says that, of course, because that would be a gross oversimplification.

Saying Katrina flooded the city, though ostensibly correct, disregards what really happened in August 2005. Three of the major canal-wall breaches inside the city (17th Street, London Avenue and Industrial Canal eastside north) would have occurred in a far less severe storm. Some of the walls failed when the water was still five feet below the tops of the canal walls.

The death and destruction in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, was the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of the world since Chernobyl, according to Dr. Ray Seed, University of California–Berkeley.  The storm was merely the precipitating factor.

Sandy Rosenthal

New Orleans, LA

Feb 23 2011 - 5:40pm

A New Orleans Christmas in the Lower Ninth

Hertsgaard responds to Sandy Rosenthal

Well, I guess Wilde was right: no good deed goes unpunished. Levees.org has done important work in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, spreading the message that the destruction of New Orleans in the wake of the storm was caused above all by the failure of poorly made and maintained levees—and thus by human error or worse—rather than by the “natural disaster” explanation favored by most media reports. But Sandy Rosenthal’s complaint about my New Orleans Christmas article is sadly misplaced. As I told Sandy when she first contacted The Nation’s editors, she is asserting a disagreement that does not exist about something that was not even remotely the point of my article.

I have written many times, both in The Nation and in my new book,HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, that I share the view that Katrina was primarily a man-made disaster. Most of the damage and suffering that befell New Orleans was due not so much to the strength of the hurricane as to the inexcusable condition of the levees and other hurricane defense systems of the New Orleans metropolitan area (not least the authorities’ unforgivable failure to order and facilitate an evacuation of the local population, especially those lacking their own vehicles, before the storm—a shortcoming that, fortunately, has since been addressed). I am happy to repeat this belief here, if it will make Sandy happy. But somehow I doubt it will.

The point of my article was not to analyze (yet again) what caused the destruction of New Orleans but rather to report on the extraordinary spirit and physical evidence of renewal I witnessed in one of the city’s hardest hit areas, the Lower Ninth Ward, five long years after Katrina. Sandy objects to my reference to the barge that crashed into the Industrial Canal that runs along the western border of the Lower Ninth, arguing that the barge is not what caused the flooding there. But I never said it was—go back and read the piece. Sandy is right that the levee walls, both at the Industrial Canal and elsewhere, were already overtopping and worse by the time the barge loosed from its moorings and crashed into the Industrial Canal’s levee. In short, both points are correct and not mutually incompatible at all. I didn’t mention Sandy’s point because I saw no need to go into that level of detail about an issue that simply wasn’t the point of my article. If my phrasing of a piece written in haste inadvertently conveyed a misleading impression, I apologize.

I’m all in favor of worthy NGOs doing what they can to get their names in the paper and draw people to their cause. But unleashing friendly fire over nonexistent disputes is not a good use of anyone’s time.

Mark Hertsgaard

San Francisco, CA

Feb 23 2011 - 5:32pm

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