Sandy Rosenthal, author of Words Whispered in Water, was featured in an article written by Leslie Carde for Nola.com, read the article here.
By: Leslie Carde
When Lt. General Carl Strock, chief engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accepted responsibility on behalf of the Corps in 2006 for the levee failures that caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it came as no surprise to many who suspected the disaster was man-made.
With 2020’s 15th anniversary of the hurricane and flooding, two new books explore the disaster from different perspectives. Sandy Rosenthal, author of “Words Whispered in Water” and founder of the citizens group levees.org, chronicles her yearslong mission to unearth a fabric of falsehoods she claims the Corps perpetrated — demonstrating that one person chipping away at questionable explanations can change the national narrative.
The former copywriter, who evacuated New Orleans before Katrina hit, was far from the devastation, in Lafayette, when the storm plowed through.
“Two weeks afterward, I learned my house had survived due to the fact that I live on the ‘sliver along the river,’ above sea level,” Rosenthal said. “That meant I didn’t have to deal with insurance companies or contractors, and could really study the issue.”
When the federal General Accountability Office released its report one month after the storm, stating that the Corps designs and builds levees but that locals maintain them, it incensed the city’s residents, including Rosenthal — who was told she shouldn’t have been living here.
What happened to the levees?
One local scientist believed the city was being blamed for levees built by the Corps that were never capable of withstanding even a moderate hurricane.
Ivor van Heerden, now a semiretired coastal scientist, but then LSU’s deputy director of its Hurricane Center, was on the case from the get-go.
“I went to Gov. (Kathleen) Babineaux Blanco’s office and told her that there was no way these levees could have overtopped. I explained that we had computer models that took into account storm surges and that these levees must have collapsed,” said van Heerden, who holds a doctorate in marine sciences.
Armed later with boat footage he took on Lake Pontchartrain and at the three major drainage canals, he showed 28 breaches where soil had eroded from underneath. It was the beginning of a levee investigation that would ultimately lay the blame at the feet of the Corps.
But challenging the Corps was considered risky. In her book, Rosenthal discusses various civil engineers who she said were told to keep silent. Among them was engineer Gordon Boutwell Jr., the late president of Soil Testing Engineers in Baton Rouge.
A 100-year-old problem
“He told me that the Corps came to him and said that if he continued to criticize their work, his firm would be hurt,” Rosenthal said. “He decided to stay silent but told me that when he was gone, I could publish what he had encountered.
“In 2008, he died of cancer, and I then told his story publicly.”
But, Rosenthal says, the list of engineers who were silenced is long. She claims some have been fired or blackballed from their profession. The Corps, when contacted, said it knew nothing of these practices.
LSU fired van Heerden in 2009, after he pounced on the levees’ catastrophic structural failure. LSU said he was bringing bad press to the university, threatening state funding. Van Heerden sued, accusing the university of limiting his freedom of speech. LSU settled for $450,000.
In Andy Horowitz’s new book, “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015,” he traces the origin of the problems that now confront New Orleans to decisions 100 years ago, when the city, emboldened by surviving a 1915 hurricane, decided to expand away from the river and essentially away from the safety of higher ground.
Those in charge assumed their state-of-the-art drainage system had saved the city, but in 1915, there was no one living in the “bottom of the bowl” — now heavily populated areas that saw massive flooding during Katrina.
“Those who don’t live here think that only the poor neighborhoods flooded,” Horowitz said. “That’s because of the images which were broadcast nightly showing the high water in the 9th Ward, but the truth is that Lakeview was wiped out, too.”
Who came back?
However, he said, in the long run, there was truth to the supposition that poor neighborhoods bore the brunt of the flooding.
Fifteen years later, the more affluent Lakeview has come back. But the population of much of the 9th Ward, predominantly lower middle class and Black, is only a fraction of what it was before the flood. He describes the way that the Road Home program, designed to compensate people for their property losses, assessed homes at preflood market values rather than replacement costs, giving far less money for reconstruction to poor communities.
The two Katrina books are very different. Horowitz looks at how the dissolution of public schools, the unabated dredging of south Louisiana by oil companies, the uneven distribution of profits from natural resources, and even the manner in which the Corps does cost-benefit analyses of projects have all changed the landscape of the city.
Rosenthal’s “Words Whispered in Water” brings together a cacophony of voices who will no longer tolerate the status quo, not just here, but with levee problems all around the country.
One fact that authors Rosenthal and Horowitz, and scientist van Heerden, agree upon is that with rising sea levels and eroding wetlands, the city’s problems are far from over.
Speaking on behalf of the Corps, spokesperson Ricky Boyett said the agency continues to shore up those levees that do not yet meet the 100-year flood standard, but he cautions there is no perfect protection system.
“There will always be a bigger storm than the system is designed to defend against. It’s not designed to protect lives; it’s designed to protect infrastructure and property, so it’s critical that when people are told to evacuate, they get out.”
Both new books are available in bookstores.
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.