On Levees.org birthday, we’re thankful for its years of myth-busting

Halloween 2005 must have been particularly scary in New Orleans. Most of the city was desolate and rotting, having been drowned two months earlier by a cataclysmic engineering disaster. Scores of corpses still lay in wrecked homes, awaiting an unhappy discovery. Political leaders doubted whether the stricken city would (or should) ever recover. Adding insult to all these injuries, the true emerging story of New Orleans’ devastation – shoddy federal levees – was being overwhelmed by an invasion of zombie Katrina myths.

Folks gather at the first Levees.org rally in January of 2006, with founder Sandy Rosenthal wielding the bullhorn. (Some goof in a red shirt is also in the crowd.) Photo courtesy of Levees.org

Six years ago, Sandy Rosenthal decided to organize a resistance to the zombie myths that have done immeasurable harm to New Orleans’ recovery, creating Levees.org. And thank God she did, because back then, our city desperately needed passionate and dedicated mythbusters. Her latest post at Levees.org talks about the genesis of her effort, and reprints an informed comment by engineer and blogger Matt McBride. McBride recently responded to one of the “zombies” that continue to stagger around our national discourse whenever Katrina and the Federal Flood are discussed.

Rosenthal reprinted McBride’s comment at Levees.org, and I’ll do the same:

The issue at hand is not the particular type of design of the walls or levees. The issue is whether the citizens of the greater New Orleans area were fully informed of the risks arising from the inadequate engineering of those walls and levees. And the answer is they were not. What would that warning have looked like? I suppose it would go something like,

“We, the Corps of Engineers, have full scale testing that shows the millions of dollars of I-walls we have constructed along the outfall and Industrial canals will likely fail below their design heights. As a result, we have commissioned a stem-to-stern independent review of these life-safety devices, including their original design assumptions for the soil mechanics underlying them. That review has found those assumptions and our calculation methods to be overly broad and dangerously simplistic. There is a better than (very large number near 100) percent chance one or more of these walls, which back on peoples’ homes all over the metro area and protect hundreds of thousands of citizens from over a dozen feet of flooding, could collapse when they are supposed to be holding back floodwaters, causing Lake Pontchartrain to flow into the city. This could happen even in a category 1 hurricane.

“Because of this deeply serious situation we have requested ‘X’ billion (where ‘X’ is some suitably large number) dollars from Congress in an emergency supplemental bill to address these grave failures of engineering, design, and construction on our part. In the interim, we are moving forward with emergency repairs to bolster the areas the independent panel feels are the weakest. The emergency supplemental bill will also provide funding through various FEMA programs for those citizens who wish to raise their homes to do so on an expedited basis. In addition, we have formed a task force with FEMA’s flood mapping program to quickly revise New Orleans-area flood maps to reflect this scenario, since the current flood maps – which act as implicit warnings against what we thought were ‘safe’ conditions – are obviously incorrect. Flood insurance rates, due to the unique circumstances of this situation, will not change, and policies will be made available to citizens whose homes lie within this newly designated floodplain at substantially subsidized rates. Local municipalities will receive additional funding to deal with this unanticipated and extreme change in their floodplain management policies.”

Such a warning, or something like it, would have come out at the beginning of every hurricane season and been a part of all the local TV channels’ specials, as well as the Times-Picayune’s usual series of articles around June 1st. It would have spawned numerous investigative series. It would likely have resulted in multiple civil court cases, and certainly would have gotten Congress’ and the White House’s attention. You would have seen hundreds, if not thousands of homes being raised over 10 feet in the air every year. You would have had a massive debate in the national sphere about whether this was money worth spending. And the Corps’ prestige would have lay in tatters. That – putting all the facts out there in plain English and seeing the massive consequences that would result – is what would constitute fair warning and would produce an informed populace.

But that didn’t happen – ever.

Some of it came to pass, but only after the storm, when hundreds lay dead and the city was brought to its knees.

So please stop pretending that the people of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes were adequately warned and were thus foolish to live where they did, and currently do. It is offensive and odious in the extreme, and only reveals your own ignorance and lack of compassion.

–Matt McBride

Happy 2011 Halloween, New Orleans.


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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Leslie March

    As a real estate professional it has always concerned me that the FEMA flood maps are so outdated and it takes years to make any changes. Matt McBride hits it right on the head when he says that people were not adequately warned. The federal government needs to step up to its responsibilities and admit that their levees were at fault.

  • Nan Schellhaas

    Kudos to Matt McBride for telling it like it is – and was!

  • Yeah Matt, true dat!

  • You’re welcome.

    I’ve often been mystified how many have missed the disconnect between our supposedly outsized (according to the chattering class) pre-Katrina flood risk and the pre-Katrina flood maps showing a measurably smaller risk for many inside the levees, and certainly no risk of floodwaters up to the ridgelines of peoples’ roofs. I also sometimes wonder whether FEMA and their flood mapmakers were ever made privy to what the Corps truly knew about the levees and floodwalls.

    I suppose it’s just easier for people to avoid the cognitive dissonance of massive engineering errors coupled to their own vulnerability to flooding, and to just blame the victims, no matter what the facts. But easier, in this case, is also meaner.

  • DOC

    I am behind Matt 110%.

    I work for the federal gov’t. before, during and after Katrina. I know that not only NOLA was and is vaunerable and still is and the feds have done vary little but have made the circumstances worse in the Gulf, i.e., the Deep Water Horizon murder site. After hurricane Katrina struck NOLA, I had devised a plan to deal safely with the highly contaminated water that remained. My supervisor at the time, told me quote “that I was to shut up and not say anything about it” the highly contaiminated NOLA water and that would include the contamination that remained after the Corp pumped all of the water out of NOLA into Lake Pontchartrain.

    If the readers wish to know what is seriously occurring regarding the weather and what is in store for the global populace. Search for the USAF’s report “Owning the Weather by 2025” and Operation POPEYE and a botched operation called Operation Cumulus. Additionally, search for HAARP.

    One important note is, levees are part of the nation’s infrastructure. The infrastructure in this country has been willfully neglected by government and now the country is crumbling at an excellerated rate and it is just a matter of time before the infrastructure system of this country fails in its entirety.

  • Zoey Bartlett

    New Orleans has been in this location since the 1500’s.
    When the levees were first built to restrain the Mississippi River, I believe there was some integrity in the work and people took their job seriously.. More seriously than the Corps takes their job now.
    To fault people for living below sea level is crazy.. They’re acting like we just decided it would be fun to live below sea level & moved here.
    Most of us are from generations of New Orleanians..and don’t forget, the threat has been heightened by the canals built to facilitate the oil industry in the 60’s and 70’s.
    Just face it..most people who don’t live here, just don’t get it and it is our mission to inform the poor dawlins.

  • Thanks a million for bringing Matt McBride’s splendidly creative smart comment to the attention of folks everywhere. Happy Birthday!

  • Mark, thanks so much for stepping up in the beginning, flying the Big Red Balloon ahem 😉
    I really appreciate how you and the folks at Rising Tide hit Matt McBride with an Ashley right after the Federal Flood, and brought his blog out early, further in front of the Corps counter espionage media. It cannot be underestimated the effect Fix The Pumps has had on this entire story. Indeed, there might not even be half the story had he not stuck with it so diligently.

    Upon first meeting him, I asked Ashley Morris, at y’alls 1st RT Buffa Partay, what he thought of Sandy Rosenthal.
    “Lady with a Bullhorn. She’s out there, on top of it early,” he shot back.

    Matt, you’re just about the most articulate engineer I’ve ever run across. My father, a ramblin wreck from Georgia Tech who battled the Corps and won in MS, was a bit more blunt regarding the Corps of Engineers and their flooding New Orleans: “There is nothing more dangerous than a lying engineer, because then all you have is the word of a liar.”
    I really appreciate you and your work.

    I’ve contracted the geographer Ezra Boyd to take the Levees.org National Counties with Levees Map a step further into Interactive.
    You can find it on the right side of my blog the New Orleans Ladder.
    Right now it is light on Data Imputed, but that will change as my learning curve smooths. Our Plan is to make it interactive to the point where Matt McBride can impute Data layers, or someone in another part of the country for their particular Levee Failure, Flood or whatever. This isn’t Google Maps, it is a high order GIS thingy with multiple layers and takes a bit of doing –but it can be done!
    Please go check it out and any suggestions or questions can go through my comments section.

    Thanks yous again, erster,
    fo swingin a 50lb hammer.

  • Atta boy Matt – you have done almost as much as Sandy with your “Fix the Pumps” blog spot – thank you!

  • Edwin Weber

    The fact is, the part of New Orleans west of the Industrial Canal could have easily been rendered invulnerable for a relatively little extra investment. Had the pilings been driven 20 feet deeper, and more strongly connected at the top, the flooding in this part of the city would never have happened.
    the veteran engineers of the Sewage & Water Board KNEW that those proposed floodwalls were phoney stage props, and said so, Which is why they were purged by Sidney Barthelemy and replaced with stooges who not only approved the phoney floodwalls but later dredged the canals in such a way as to scrape away what little suppport the pilings had, to make sure that the city would flood in the nest hurricane and bring a Golden Harvest of GRAFT to the City Hall Gang from the “federal aid” that was sure to pour in.The idea that the city couldn’t have forced the Corps to build real floodwalls is totally phoney.Our congressional delegation was easily powerful enough to do that. The City Hall Gang WANTED phoney floodwalls.

  • Eric Schlosser

    Mr. McBride presents the unbiased truth. The scary part is that all of his findings are out there for everyone to see at http://fixthepumps.blogspot.com/ and NO PUBLIC OFFICIALS SEEM TO CARE! The main reason it scares me is that so many thousands of citizens are affected & the Corps of Engineers attitude is that we are safe & that “who are you to question the Corps?” It makes me sick to my stomach reading about the corps arrogance and the dangerous situation they have created while wasting $millions of US tax dollars.

  • Sgt Rock

    I agree with all stated with one exception. And that exception pertains to the 17th st Canal and Bucktown/ajacent Lakefront Commercial property.

    The residents of Bucktown and the owner operators of the many restuarants and businesses opposite Bucktown in Lakeview actively interfiered with the Corps when it proposed a gate across the 17th St Canal for hurricane protection back in the late 80s and early 90’s. Even political figures and prominent citizens went to public meetings with the Corps to bemoan the loss of “A way of life” that the surge gate would undo.

    The public outcry, even from the many citizens who should have known better, forced the cancelation of the gate.

    Those politicians, residents and powerful citizens must publicly accept responsibility for thier part in adding to the Katrina devistation.

    Only when the truth, no matter how embarrasing and painful it is, will make the efforts of Levee.Org and its active members totally honorable.

    Steep Up Bucktown, Lakeview!! Admit publicly your complicity in the terrible tragedy of Katrina. Then, the whole world will know we pull no punches, overlook any fact, to demonstrate our resolve to asess blame, accept responsibility, and make all engineering work reliable.

    Till that happens we are just a bunch of YAHOOs crying over spilt milk, pointing an accusative finger at the Corps, too ashamed to look in the mirrow first.

  • Dear Sgt, Rock,

    The Corps initially considered five alternatives for improved protection for the 17th Street Canal but ultimately narrowed their choices to the two most cost-effective alternatives, which were 1) raising the height of the canal walls (parallel protection) or 2) installing floodgates at the canal mouths at the lakefront (frontage protection). There is no evidence in the project record that the Army Corps felt that there were differences between the two approaches in providing reliable hurricane surge protection.

    For reasons unique to the 17th Street Canal, there was no stated difference in the cost between the two approaches. This was because with newly authorized sheet pile construction guidelines and other factors, the cost difference between parallel protection and frontage protection was minimal for the 17th Street Canal. The Army Corps ultimately selected parallel protection as its final recommendation for the 17th Street Canal.

    It is important to note that the flood gate plan did not include auxiliary pumps like those at the new gates in place at the 17th Street Canal built after Hurricane Katrina.

    Data to back up this comment appears in the Hurricane Decision Chronology by Douglas Woolley and Leonard Shabman, April 2008.

  • Kudos to Matt and to Sandy. Sandy hasn’t just fought for the people of New Orleans. When the Army Corps and FEMA attempted to decertify and deaccredit the levees in Alexandria, she stood with us as well, and without anyone’s prodding or pleas, she publicly challenged the decision. Since then– and in the face of litigation- the tune has changed, and Alexandrians have been spared a great injustice. Mayor Jacques Roy definitely led on this, and Sandy helped, without anyone even asking for it. So thank you to her for looking out.

  • Sgt. Rock:

    The plain facts, agreed to by everyone including the Corps, are that the walls along the outfall canals, including the east wall of the 17th Street canal, failed well below their design heights because of inadequate engineering, not site selection.

    Please explain how gates designed by the same outfit as designed those walls would have been any more successful? They would have been designed using the same methodologies and the same engineers, as would the walls immediately adjacent to them. I see it as quite likely that if the gates themselves had not failed, the immediately abutting I-walls would have, creating identical flooding, just with the entry point for the water a quarter mile away from where it came through in 2005.

    Transition zones around similar structures in St Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans parishes crumbled because they were not properly engineered. Why would transition zones at the mouth of the canals have been any different?

    One needs to step back from the particulars of any given geographical location and confront the hard truth that it was the engineering that failed throughout the system. ANYTHING built before Katrina was just as susceptible to failure as what actually failed. If there had been gates at the lakefront (without pumps mind you, so no way to get the 19 inches of rain out of the city), they could have failed just as spectacularly as the outfall canal walls. I mean, do you seriously think the Corps would have put extra safety factors on top of the pilings driven for the gates just because they were Corps’ preferred alternative? They would have followed the same inadequate engineering guidelines they had for everything else.

    Why is this so difficult for some people to grasp? The system that failed on August 29, 2005 – the Hurricane Protection System – failed because the engineering and design system behind it had been in failure from the beginning of the project in the 1960’s. It was only a matter of time for this to happen, but it was going to happen no matter what. The crime is that people within the Corps knew this and did not let the citizens know in any meaningful, sustained, easily understood, and very loud way.

  • Edwin Weber,

    I probably shouldn’t troll-feed like this, but here goes….

    I have been seeing your comments about the “City Hall Gang,” Mayor Bartholomey, the “stage prop’ walls, etc for years now. You post mostly the same verbiage over and over again. It’s often refuted, sometimes quite well. Here’s an example:


    Your accusations are always presented with such passion, but do you have any documentation to back up what you say? Have you gone after the documentation with public records requests and then attempted to get it out to the public, either through traditional media or by publicizing it yourself? I’ve looked at some of your stuff, and you r feelings about the media seem to parallel those of government, so I’m guessing “no” on the media route.

    I’m not trying to lend credibility or to knock down your repeated insistence that it was actually the (according to your interpretation) suicidal locals who should be blamed for the failure of the 17th Street wall (note: your thesis about dredging undermining the walls’ foundations does not apply to the failures along the London Avenue or Industrial Canals). I’m trying to find out if you’ve got anything written to back them up.

    You see, I’ve been been writing about this kind of stuff since 2006, pretty much from when I got back into the city, first through public presentations and emails, and then through my blog. I’ve always tried to gather as much written information as possible before forming conclusions. I waited nearly two years to get the internal Option 1/Option 2 cost estimates, and only then did I post that the Corps overstated the estimated costs to Congress by many multiples. Of course I had suspicions, but I did the hard digging to find out the actual truth.

    Accusations like you present, if left unsupported, are just that: accusations. It’s easy to keep saying them, but after while there’s needs to be some backup.

  • Judith Martin

    My parents built our house after World War II as one of many households that included a returning G. I. They believed that no one would lie to a G. I., and so trusted the levees. As a family member of a G. I. household, I believed with my parents, too. That various agencies of the city, state, and federal governments would know that they were lying, and perpetuate those lies, makes me wonder: How many other truths are being kept from the American people, and the military veterans who gave up so much to protect this country?

  • Matt, don’t take this wrong, I love your blog and use it frequently for source data, but the people who can “get” your copious data are other engineers like my brother in BR, or my father the Ramblin Wreck from Georgia Tech –17th in his class, Electrical/Mechanical/Civil (Pop said, “Hell, everyone did Civil. They wouldn’t let you out of GT unless you’d built something for them, in my case it was Georgia Stadium –and it’s still standing!”)
    Pop caught one post of yours in 2006 before he had his stroke. He emailed me about it, saying Follow This Engineer. Apparently, I’m told, he went Livid during the flood as the family scoured the news clips Looking for me in New Orleans, when they showed the 17th St Canal Breech. My brother said he stood up cussing, stabbing at the TV, screaming “Here! There! There! This floodwall Failed from being Pushed! Goddamn Corps! Look! The bastards didn’t drive the piling deep enough!” He was an Engineer… he could do that.

    My father had long before The Flood confronted the Corps about their Project Engineering Manifesto. They hated him in the Vicksburg HQ! He was convinced before 8/29/05 that they built everything to fail, so that they could re-build it to fail again so they could rebuild it… ad nausea.

    I really appreciate how you’re handling these feckless astroturfers. That is more or less the thesis of this post, to wit: Myth Busting with a 50lb Hammer.
    Everyone here knows there was a time when Editilla would rip these two fuck sticks a new asshole to go with their collection. But, alas, unlike my father’s devastating strokes the following Spring or so after the Corps flooded New Orleans, my own recent strokes the week before Halloween, while mild, have left me temporarily? indisposed to getting mid-evil on they whiny asses. But, I can Still muster a hearty FYYFFs!

    Judith! It’s so good to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well these days. I know your grief, the aforementioned Outhouse Flowers don’t know anything –because They Were Not Here. Hell, I bet Sgt 8-Ball doesn’t even live in New Orleans. Do not let them sully your grief. Never bow to the infidels.
    What you describe of a GI Household, was evident in my father’s shock at the Corps of Engineers flood of Nola. Guy’s like our parents beat the ficking Nazis –they mfkn Out-Engineered those badly potty-trained German fascists. Engineers like my father and Bob Bea (and I met a bunch of them during his activism) at first just couldn’t get their mind around the basic engineering mistakes, and shoddy project guidelines employed by the Corps of Engineers. I mean, sometimes Pop would just shake his head trying to describe it sometimes… for example: how they would begin dredging creeks near our farm FROM THE TOP DOWN. Think about that, you don’t do that or you will have a severe flooding problem. But AHA! The Corps is there to FIX your flooding problems!

    This is why one, of many, of my names for 8/29/05 is “Kafkatrina Nightmare with an Exquisite Corps.”

  • Lynn Christiansen

    Mr. Moseley:


  • Capitalism is not a victimless crime. Make no mistake. The misery visited upon us here on the plantation, slavery having been equalized in 1863 to us all – except our Owners – the misery is the result of capitalism, profit, competition for profit. Fix it by working to build the struggle for socialism-communism.

  • tuffcookie

    Matt, thanks for keeping the truth out there. Are you aware that all of the current work post 2005 levee failure hasn’t been checked? Here is audio of engineer Stradford Goins speaking at the October board meeting of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The Corps has simply refused to make public the storm tracks that were used to determine the current levee (including heights) work.

    Here is where the board THEN approached the Corps on the issue of these elusive storm tracks. Board member Estopinal confronts ‘Walter’ of the Corps on this issue.