NOLA Levees….”A Production of Corruption”

From Scout:

Almost everyone I spoke with in New Orleans stated the most important issue facing NOLA is Levees. They want to know what went wrong so the same mistakes will not be made again. Further they want the levees to be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane so NOLA will not be washed away again. Below the Times Picayune has a report on the controversy over what went wrong followed by an account of one woman fighting to hold the Army Corps of Engineers responsible…..

Findings by an Army Corps of Engineers-sponsored panel that the collapse of the 17th Street Canal floodwall during Hurricane Katrina was the result of an “unforeseeable” combination of events are contradicted by a 1986 research project done by the corps itself, National Science Foundation investigators said Monday.

The Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, working for the corps to investigate the levee breaches, said in its second interim report Friday that the 17th Street failure was caused by rising water in the canal that forced the floodwall to flex away from the canal, causing a separation between the wall and the levee inside the canal. Water pressure building inside the opening then exerted force on a weak layer of soil under the wall and the land-side toe of the levee, causing the layer to slip and bringing the levee down and the wall with it.


But in a sharply worded response issued Monday, two University of California-Berkeley professors leading a 34-member National Science Foundation investigation into the levee failures said the 1986 corps research make those claims “unfortunate” and “inaccurate.”

Ray Seed and Bob Bea said the 20-year-old test, which included constructing floodwalls on existing levees and raising water levels to determine what pressures the walls could withstand, resulted in the same kind of collapse that toppled the 17th Street structures and flooded much of the city.

“In simple terms this was exactly the ‘unforeseen’ mode of failure” reported by the task force, the statement said.

When I was in Lakeview awaiting the arrival of a Congressional delegation I met a feisty woman named Mary Burns who is committed to holding the Army Corps of Engineers accountable.

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She and her husband Jimmy live on the other side of the 17th St canal levee break in Metairie. Their home did not flood but her entire family lost their homes to Katrina—14 homes in all. Mary has put her energy into helping in holding the Corps accountable. She stated. “I’m so angry. Dear Lord help me with my anger. Give me a positive channel for it.” Pointing to the placard hanging off her shoulders she says, “This is it.” Angry with all levels of government Mary said, “Vote da bums out, all of ‘em, city, state and federal.” She went on to say that she has voted Republican in the past but the “Republicans will have to work hard for my vote now cause I’m pissed and angry.”

Mary who is a retired Catholic high school teacher is an outspoken force to be dealt with. When a local politician showed up Mary went over and told him, “This was a production of corruption.” She said her statement on the levee break was met with “dead silence.” The levee issue is first and foremost to Mary as well as most in NOLA. She believes the federal government made mistakes which must be determined and corrected if the city will be safe for the return of residents and businesses. But she also related other problems with FEMA, the Small Business Administration and insurance companies.

Mary had a bit of a run in at the FEMA office when her frustration got the best of her while trying to determine the status of the rental assistance request of her 85 year old parents. When told their request was under review she pressed for what that meant. The young FEMA employee Mary described as not trained for the job pointed upward with one hand saying the FEMA hire ups would have the answer. Not to be out done Mary pointed upward with both hands and asked “and where would they be.” At that point the young FEMA worker called over security to sit with Mary. She related the security officer asked if she had any knives or guns to which Mary responded…”No and it’s a good thing I don’t.”

That’s Mary but don’t get me wrong. Though angry she was one of the most humorous women I met in NOLA. I tried to imagine this woman teaching in a Catholic High School. My imagination was piqued even further when she related she taught sex ed amongst other subjectss. I didn’t have to imagine for long as Mary related she once ran afoul with the school administration for using the word ‘penis.’ With a broad grin she related that she told them “OK next time I’ll call it a Dick.” She shook her head in wonder, “Can you imagine not being able to say penis?” She answered her own question by saying Penis with emphasis several times. Mary is not one to back down.

So I suspect Mary will be present with her “Hold the Corps Accountable” placard each time a Senator or Congressman visits NOLA. It occurs to me that Mary not having lost her home is in a position to take up the fight unlike the many others who have lost all and are struggling just to face each day. But Mary struck me as a joyous woman who loves life and is a reluctant fighter. She told me before all this happened she and Jimmy spent their time dancing to zydeco music at one of their favorite clubs. I’m sure Mary would rather have been getting ready to go out to her beloved Tipitina’s than standing on a dusty road taking on the federal government. But Mary will do what she must to breathe life back into her New Orleans and like almost everyone I spoke to that means ensuring the levees are safe. It’s the first step on the road back and she has taken it. Heaven help the bureaucrat who stands in her way.