Thursday, December 8th 2022   |

Sandy Rosenthal releases new book on 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

By DEAN SHAPIRO, Exclusive to the CCJN

As New Orleans observes the 15th anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the timing was optimal for the release of a new book by one of the most outspoken and influential advocates for the truth being told as to who and what were responsible for the flooding that covered 80 percent of the city, resulting in more than 1,200 lives lost and an estimated $125 billion in property damage.

Sandy Rosenthal points out where the levees broke following the passage of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago to New Orleans students. (Photo courtesy Sandy Rosenthal).

In the aftermath of the catastrophe caused by numerous breaches in the city’s protective levee system, Sandy Rosenthal became the face of an organization that sought to, and largely succeeded in, establishing that the blame for those breaches could be attributed to negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As the founder and chief spokesperson for Levees.org, Rosenthal has been on an unceasing mission to convince a skeptical and often-hostile and accusatory outside world that the disaster was not the fault of the citizens of New Orleans.

Nor was it, she strongly emphasizes in her book, the fault of the former Orleans Parish Levee Board, the agency responsible for maintaining – but not designing and constructing – the earthen levees and floodwalls that surround a low-lying American city, much of which is below sea level.

Rosenthal’s book, titled “Words Whispered in Water: Why the Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina” (Mango Publishing Group, Coral Gables, FL: 2020) is a trade paperback containing just over 300 pages of text and another 37 pages of meticulously documented endnotes, some 503 in all. The preface includes nearly a dozen testimonials from professionals in various fields with whom Rosenthal consulted for their expertise, as well as authors of related books and several celebrities.

The book follows, chronologically, the sequence of events leading up to and through Hurricane Katrina and its long, lingering aftermath right up to the present. In the opening chapters, Rosenthal recounts her own family’s experiences prepping for evacuation and leaving the city just days before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, temporarily settling in Lafayette and setting up her husband’s business in Baton Rouge until it was safe to return to New Orleans.

The book goes on to recount what led Rosenthal to found Levees.org after frequently hearing undocumented and poorly informed opinions from people who blamed New Orleanians and the levee board for the disaster, instead of the Corps, which designed and built the protective walls and levees that failed to fulfill their designed function.

The book, printed in 12-point serif type, is a fast read that is highly informative and, thankfully, not overly technical. Although much of the content is taken from or based upon what would normally be complex and esoteric civil engineering jargon embedded in studies and reports, Rosenthal skillfully navigates those complexities and renders the content more easily understandable to the average layperson. Page by page, chapter by chapter, she lays out her case and presents her evidence in lawyerly fashion for attributing culpability to the Corps.

During her determined quest to establish and pinpoint that culpability, Rosenthal encountered numerous obstacles and setbacks, which she describes in meticulous detail.

The book contains numerous abbreviations and acronyms that could have been confusing but, fortunately, there is an appendix one can refer to that lists what they stand for. And some of the 10 chapters are very long but, fortunately also – and with great foresight – the author breaks her chapters into sections, separated by asterisks, where the reader can conveniently place a bookmark.

Dozens of books were published immediately after Katrina and in the immediate years following. Many of these hastily published works contained misstated “facts” – misinformation, ill-informed speculation and even geographical errors by authors who weren’t from Louisiana. Coming into print, a decade and a half after the event and with the benefit of time to gather up all the facts and put everything in perspective, “Words Whispered in Water” can now take its place in the forefront of all the accounts written about the disaster.

Sandy Rosenthal uses a bullhorn to engage a crowd. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Rosenthal)

Years in the making and eagerly anticipated, the book answers many key questions heretofore unanswered (or unaddressed) while dispelling rumors and outright falsehoods about what caused the flood protection system to fail. It definitely qualifies as a priceless contribution to the already existing body of knowledge regarding one of the worst mass tragedies in American history, one that fulfills the author’s determination to “set the record straight.”

A native of Massachusetts and a longtime congregant with her family, of Touro Synagogue, Rosenthal moved to New Orleans in 1980 with her husband, Steve, a New Orleans native. They met three years earlier while the two of them were attending separate colleges near to each other in central Massachusetts. The couple has three adult children, two sons and a daughter and one granddaughter. Over the years prior to “finding her calling” as an organizer and crusader for flood protection, she was (and still is) a tennis aficionado, a yoga practitioner, a dance instructor, a founding member of a mentoring program and an active participant in a Carnival parading group.

During an exclusive interview just days before the August 29, 15th anniversary commemoration of Katrina, Rosenthal explained in detail some of the key findings unearthed by Levees.org and the conclusions at which they arrived. She also discussed what the organization is doing today and expressed her hopes for the future. Below is a summary of the key quotes taken from the interview (not necessarily in the order in which they were asked):

CRESCENT CITY JEWISH NEWS: Although you rightfully – and with much evidence – lay the blame for the levee failures on the Corps, and some of the things they did to you were despicable and unprofessional, does the Orleans Parish Levee Board bear any share of the blame?

Sandy Rosenthal and her son frame supporter actor John Goodman. (Photo courtesy Sandy Rosenthal)

SANDY ROSENTHAL: Their (the levee board’s) role was maintenance and it is very clear in the book they were the janitors. And not only were they the janitors but the Corps had very very specific rules and guidelines on how the district was supposed to maintain those levees. And the Corps gave them a grade of excellent every year.

There was no evidence that there was anything wrong with the maintenance. A lot of people got it in their heads that the levee board should tell the Corps how to build levees, which is ridiculous because no one tells the Corps what to do. But a lot of people had that in their heads that the levee board is supposed to guide the Army Corps in how they build levees. The levee board is nothing but an inactive partner. They’re the people who direct how levee money is spent for the maintenance. They’re basically money managers. They direct who does what with the money they earn from their assets (Lakefront Airport, marinas and other residential and commercial properties adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain).

CCJN: What was actually determined to be the cause of the floodwall failures? Was it because the steel sheet pilings weren’t driven down deep enough into the ground from the top of the levees? How far down were they and how far down should they have been?

Sandy Rosenthal unveils signage that blames the federal flood on the protected U.S. Corps of Engineers. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Rosenthal)

SR: The original guidelines were anywhere between 31 and 46 feet. That’s what they should have been (and what’s stated in the book). But in 1982, the Corps was behind schedule and the GAO (Government Accounting Office) pretty much shook their finger at the Corps and said (in effect) “Get to work. You’re behind schedule. This is unacceptable.”

They were behind schedule and costs were rising and, as I explained in the book, they were looking for ways to save money and steel which is extremely expensive. It’s expensive to buy and expensive to drive into the ground. They did a study and wrongly concluded they only needed to drive sheet pilings down 16 feet because any further was a waste of steel and a waste of engine power. And the walls collapsed 3-4 feet before the water reached the top of the walls. Which means they failed even before the water was at its maximum load.

CCJN: So, did the walls collapse because of the powerful pressure of water rushing underneath the sheet pilings and toppling them from below?

SR: From below, yes. And that’s why they broke. And they could have broken in a thunderstorm. It happened to be Hurricane Katrina but . . . we could have had a massive failure of the pumps, which actually happened a couple of years ago. We could have had a massive failure in the pumping system. The water could have gotten way too high in those walls and they would have collapsed in a rainstorm.

CCJN: Bringing it up to the present day, have any or all of those floodwalls been brought into conformity yet? Are they all now down to the depth where they should be?

SR: No, and you know why? Because they built gates and pumps at the mouths of all the drainage canals. And also at the Industrial Canal.

CCJN: So they’re counting on those (control structures) doing their job?

SR: They are. The Corps has also put in gauges at the at the 17th Street and Orleans and London Avenue canals and they also mixed the dirt with cement to strengthen the levees and they’ve also armored them in case they overtop.

CCJN: So they’re doing that or have done that in lieu of deepening the pilings?

Sandy Rosenthal at a Levees.org event at Touro Synagogue. (Photo by Alan Smason)

SR: Right. They’ve basically taken the drainage canals out of hurricane protection. They’re not hurricane protection anymore. They’re just drainage canals.

CCJN: How confident are you that those floodgates are going to be effective? Have you actually been out there to see them?

SR: I actually have and they are impressive. Extremely impressive. They’re enormous and expensive to maintain as well, and what we should have had before Katrina arrived.

Am I confident that they will work? I’m confident we won’t have wholesale levee breaches like we did during Hurricane Katrina. I am not totally confident that we won’t have overtopping.

CCJN: (Referring to her effort to convince the U.S. Senate to commission an “8/29 Investigation” into the cause of the levee breaches and flooding) You state (in the book) that the 8/29 Investigation died and you don’t know why. Did you ever ask (then-Senator) Mary Landrieu what happened and why? Or (then-Senator) David Vitter? Do you think there was pressure and/or threats on them by the Corps or others to drop the investigation? Are you free to speculate?

SR: I did not ask her (Landrieu) but I am free to speculate. I don’t mind speculating, especially when it’s characterized as speculation. What I think happened is that that our (U.S. Senate) delegation basically made a deal with the White House and the White House said, “We’ll send you plenty of money to rebuild yourself a new system if you’ll stop talking about this independent investigation.” The White House preferred, in my mind, to just rebuild the system without being blamed for the failure of the original one. They didn’t want to be blamed.

CCJN:I’m wondering, too, and we may never know if there was any coercion involved.

SR: It’s possible, but I don’t know. I’m careful in my book to discuss only the things I know, and the things I can prove.

CCJN: What, specifically, do or did you expect to accomplish by having the blame primarily or fully laid at the feet of the Corps? It would seem that they did – though maybe only to a limited extent – absorb at least some of the blame. If they DID accept full or total responsibility would it possibly have helped make a better case for the impacted people being made whole again with federal dollars in compensation? Many of the people who lived close to the levees lost their homes and didn’t have flood insurance because they were led to believe they were in safe zones.

SR: The people of this city, in the years after the flooding, were characterized as “irresponsible and a burden on the country.” My goal in writing my book was to set the record straight. What happened to us was due to the federal government’s mistakes and incompetence. They tried to cover up that incompetence for years and so that’s why I wrote the book.

And, of course, in the end, I do discuss how the Army Corps was not found liable – financially liable. So, the American people are likely to feel that, “Well, if there’s no financial damages awarded, well I guess the case had no merit.” That’s the way it is in America.

Levees.org icon. (Photo by Alan Smason)

My answer is . . . yes, I think if the Corps had admitted its responsibility up front without saying “Well, at the end of the day, we’re at fault but . . . “ that’s a big, big “but.” So I do think things would have been better. I think of the psychological and emotional toll that it took on the people of this city by being made to feel like it was their fault. Some people will never recover and I hope it helps a little bit with my book. And I also hope that I’ve inspired others to right a wrong.

Oh, by the way, you said something about flood insurance. More people in New Orleans had flood insurance and didn’t need it, per capita, than anywhere else in the entire country. So that’s another myth. We actually were very very well insured, per capita.

CCJN: (Referring to the reorganization of the levee board post-Katrina) Do you think the current levee board setup is any improvement?

SR: Nothing has changed. Zero. Zip. Nada. And, had none of this levee board reform had ever been passed, nothing about the levee maintenance would be any different than it is now. The only thing that has changed – and this is key – is the way the levee board is selected. The levee board used to be selected by the governor. Now the new levee board members are selected by a nominating committee with life terms.

CCJN: And who are the nominating committee members?

SR: What’s interesting is that you don’t know who they are. They don’t want anyone to know who they are. The same person has been chair of the nominating committee for 15 years. And you call that reform?

My organization passed legislation to change that. My organization passed legislation in 2013 to change that nominating committee members cannot serve more than X number of years. And the legislation passed with all Yeas and no Nays. (The measure passed both houses of the state legislature and was signed by the governor.)

CCJN: So, based on your acquired knowledge and experience over the years, how safe do you think we are we today? What actual improvements have been made since Katrina and do you have confidence that the problems have been fixed or do we have to be tested by a monster storm to learn the answer?

SR: The answer is yes. The Corps does do tests. They have tests that they run. They fill up the drainage canals pretty high and turn on the pumps and test them. They don’t only wait for a storm to do that. Those tests are obviously extremely expensive but, to my knowledge, they do them . . . it’s my understanding that they do. But, yeah, we will not know until the big one comes, if the Corps has done its job.

CCJN: What are you doing today to further the mission of Levees.org and “keep the torch burning”? Feel free here to talk about the most recent developments the organization is undertaking.

SR: I’d like to get the flooded house museum (on Warrington Drive in the Gentilly neighborhood that was severely damaged by the London Avenue Canal breach) onto the Federal Register of Historic Places. I continue to do a levee breach bike ride every year. I really enjoy that and I go to that every year. I didn’t do one when COVID was at its height but I hope to do one of those soon since it’s a bicycle ride.

CCJN: So what would you say is the primary message you want to get across and make stick? What are your hopes for the future? We need some good, upbeat closing quotes here.

SR: On an upbeat note. I continue to live out my days here in the city. While I feel there may be some (levee) overtopping, I feel that the system is much better than what we had. I love my city. I’m proud of my city. I feel that the city is, in many ways, a better place since the devastation of 15 years ago. Not in every way but in many ways, and I love the pride we take in our neighborhoods, like the pride we take in our city. And I love New Orleans.

Words Whispered in Water” by Sandy Rosenthal can be purchased at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street, New Orleans, or ordered by calling 504-899-READ (7323) and through Amazon.com.

 

 

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