Book Review: Words Whispered in Water – Why the Levees Broke during Hurricane Katrina by Sandy Rosenthal

Columbia Water Center features Sandy Rosenthal’s book, Words Whispered in Water, in a technical report.

I was cordially invited by Sandy Rosenthal to review her book “Words Whispered in Water – Why Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina”. The book narrates her journey to make the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) accountable for the failure of levees in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina and to remove the blame from the local population and authorities, in particular the New Orleans Levee Board. Interwoven with details of her family’s experience during and in the aftermath of the hurricane, Sandy describes how one by one the levees failed, and the ensuing devastating direct and indirect impacts to the people of New Orleans. She talks about the chaos, the misinformation in the news, the inaction of FEMA and the lack of leadership of government officials during and after the disaster. While media outlets blamed the New Orleans Levee board and the people of New Orleans, the USACE remained silent about their responsibility in the failure. Ms. Rosenthal is determined to set the record straight.

Words Whispered in Water shows how an individual has the power to change big government agencies that may seem invincible. Starting with the premise that USACE was the main culprit of the devastating damages of Katrina, Sandy sets herself in a path to find the data to prove her hypothesis. The mission of – the organization she started with her son in their kitchen – was “to create national awareness that the flooding in New Orleans was a direct result of engineering mistakes at the federal level”. The author does indeed find irregularities in the design, construction, and monitoring of the levees; and misinformation and misconceptions about the role of the local authorities. In the process, she faces many obstacles and intimidation from the agencies and people she is attacking.

Read as a thriller, the main characters of the book would be: the USACE as the villain, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Washington, the New Orleans Business Council and the press as the accomplices, the people of New Orleans and the Levee Board as the victims, and as the hero with Sandy as their fearless leader. These profiles are constantly reinforced throughout the book. However, when it comes to designing and maintaining infrastructure, things can be more nuanced. Engineers have to balance many objectives, including cost and reliability. Design best practices and data availability evolve in time. Dams for example are built very different now than in the 1940s and thousands of the existing dams and levees in the US do not comply with today’s standards. And yes, this poses a tremendous risk. It is important to keep in mind that there are many engineers within USACE and ASCE that are just as passionate about protecting people as Sandy is, who are very knowledgeable and transparent. However, I agree that the contracting and peer review processes within USACE had to change, and that the responsibilities between the federal and local agencies had to clarified. Sandy does a great job showing why. Moreover, a federal strategy to protect people from flooding and infrastructure failure is urgently needed.

From a technical standpoint there were times when I struggled to find all the evidence that Ms. Rosenthal claimed she had against the USACE and in defense of the local Levee Board, especially in the first half of the book. Once Ms. Rosenthal starts diving deeper on the levee failure reports, the muddled process of the independent investigation, and consulting with academics, her arguments become more powerful. Her drive is remarkable and it is impressive how she became so knowledgeable about all the intricacies that led to the failure of the levees. The book has a nice and easy flow and Ms. Rosenthal shares plenty of personal anecdotes. I enjoyed the realness of the narration through most of the book and while some of the details may seem unnecessary (like how her daughter studied in Brown University and her nephew in Wharton), it is understandable that she is proud of her family and herself. The history of the development of New Orleans and the Mississippi is a fascinating one, where politics, money, and egos influence engineering decisions. The interests of power groups dominating the fates of people who do not have the same voice. While reading Sandy’s account I could not help but constantly remember the great book “Rising Tide” about the great Mississippi flood of 1927 by John M. Barry. The events of the two books are separated by almost 80 years but similar power dynamics persist. Read together they paint the historical picture of the complexities of flood protection that have endured in the region throughout time. Words Whispered in Water proofs how the voice of concerned individuals can change the status quo, and potentially save many lives by kindling the structural changes that are needed to better protect society.

Concha Larrauri, Paulina. (2021). Book Review: Words Whispered in Water -Why the Levees Broke during Hurricane Katrina by Sandy Rosenthal.

Words Whispered In Water

Why the Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina

It’s a horror story, a mystery, and David and Goliath story all in one. In 2005, the entire world watched as a major U.S. city was nearly wiped off the map. The levees ruptured and New Orleans drowned. But while newscasters attributed the New Orleans flood to “natural catastrophes” and other types of disasters, citizen investigator Sandy Rosenthal set out to expose the true culprit and compel the media and government to tell the truth. This is her story.

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