18 Missing Inches in New Orleans
On August 22, 2006, we were videotaping Katrina evacuees still held behind barbed wire in a trailer park encampment a hundred miles from New Orleans. It had been a year since the hurricane and 73,000 POW’s (Prisoners of Dubya) were still in mobile home Gulags. I arranged a surreptitious visit with Pamela Lewis, one of the unwilling guests of George Bush’s Guantanamo on wheels. She told me, “It’s a prison set-up” - except there are no home furloughs for these inmates because they no longer have homes. [...]
That Monday night, August 29, 2005, the sleepless crew at the state Emergency Operations Center, directing the response to Hurricane Katrina, were high-fiving it, relieved that Katrina had swung east of New Orleans, sparing the city from drowning.
They were wrong. The Army Corps, FEMA and White House knew for critical hours that the levees had begun to crack, but withheld the information for a day and night. The delay was deadly.
Van Heerden explained that levees don’t collapse in a single bang. First, there’s a small crack or two, a few feet wide, which take hours to burst open into visible floodways.
Had the state known New Orleans’ bulwark was failing, they would have shifted resources to get out those left in the danger zone. [...]
But why did the levees fail at all if the hurricane missed the city? The professor showed me a computer model indicating the levees were a foot and a half too short - the result of a technical error in the Army Corp of Engineer’s calculation of sea level when the levees were built beginning in the 1930s.
And the Bush crew knew it. Long before Katrina struck, the White House staff had sought van Heerden’s advice on coastal safety. So when the professor learned of the 18-inch error, he informed the White House directly. But this was advice they didn’t want to hear. The President had already sent the levee repair crew, the Army Corp of Engineers, to Afghanistan and Iraq.
UPDATE, 5/11: Van Heerden is also mentioned here in this blog, in connection with a NOVA program about the Katrina levee disasters.