special investigation for Democracy Now!
Monday, August 28. From New Orleans.
DON’T blame the Lady. Katrina killed no one in this town. In fact, Katrina missed the city completely, going wide to the east. It wasn’t the hurricane that drowned, suffocated, de-hydrated and starved 1,500 people that week.
The killing was done by a deadly duo: a failed emergency evacuation plan combined with faulty levees. Behind these twin failures lies a tale of cronyism, profiteering and willful incompetence that takes us right to the steps of the White House.
Here’s the story you haven’t been told. And the man who revealed it to me, Dr. Ivor van Heerden, is putting his job on the line to tell it.
Van Heerden isn’t the typical whistleblower I usually deal with. This is no minor player. He’s the Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. He’s the top banana in the field — no one knew more about how to save New Orleans from a hurricane’s devastation. And no one was a bigger target of an official and corporate campaign to bury the information.
Here’s what happened. Right after Katrina swamped the city, I called Washington to get a copy of the evacuation plan.
Funny thing about the murderously failed plan for the evacuation of New Orleans: no one can find it. That’s right. It’s missing. Maybe it got wet and sank in the flood. Whatever: No one can find it.
That’s real bad. Here’s the key thing about a successful emergency evacuation plan: you have to have copies of it. Lots of copies — in fire houses and in hospitals and in the hands of every first responder. Secret evacuation plans don’t work.
I know, I worked on the hurricane evacuation plan for Long Island New York, an elaborate multi-volume dossier.
Specifically, I’m talking about the plan that was written, or supposed to have been written two years ago by a company called, “Innovative Emergency Management.”
Weird thing about IEM, their founder Madhu Beriwal, had no known experience in hurricane evacuations. She did, however, have a lot of experience in donating to Republicans.
IEM and FEMA did begin a draft of a plan. The plan was that, when a hurricane hit, everyone in the Crescent City would simply get the hell out in their cars. Apparently, the IEM/FEMA crew didn’t know that 127,000 people in the city didn’t have cars. But Dr. van Heerden knew that. It was his calculation. LSU knew where these no-car people were — they mapped it — and how to get them out.
Dr. van Heerden offered this life-saving info to FEMA. They wouldn’t touch it. Then, a state official told him to shut up, back off or there would be consequences for van Heerden’s position. This official now works for IEM.
So I asked him what happened as a result of making no plans for those without wheels, a lot of them elderly and most of them poor.
“Fifteen-hundred of them drowned. That’s the bottom line.” The professor, who’d been talking to me in technicalities, changed to a somber tone. “They’re still finding corpses.”
Van Heerden is supposed to keep his mouth shut. He won’t. The deaths weigh on him. “I wasn’t going to listen to those sort of threats, to let them shut me down.”
Van Heerden had other disturbing news. The Hurricane Center’s computer models showed the federal government had built the levees around the city a foot-and-a-half too short.
After Katrina, the Hurricane Center analyzed the flooding and found that, had the levees had just that extra 18 inches, they would have been “overtopped” for only an hour and a half, not four hours. In that case, the levees would have held, and the city would have been saved.
He had taken the warning about the levees all the way to George Bush’s doorstep. “I myself briefed senior officials including somebody from the White House.” The response: the university’s trustees threatened his job.
While in Baton Rouge, I dropped in on the headquarters of IEM, the evacuation contractors. The assistant to the CEO insisted they had “a lot of experience with evacuation” — but couldn’t name a single city they’d planned for when they got the Big Easy contract. And still, they couldn’t produce the plan.
An IEM press release in June 2004 boasted legendary expert James Lee Witt as a member of their team. That was impressive. It was also a lie. In fact, Witt had nothing to do with it. When I asked IEM point blank if Witt’s name was used as a fraudulent hook to get the contract, their spokeswoman said, weirdly, “We’ll get back to you on that.”
Back at LSU, van Heerden astonished me with the most serious charge of all. While showing me huge maps of the flooding, he told me the White House had withheld the information that, in fact, the levees were about to burst and by Tuesday at dawn the city, and more than a thousand people, would drown.
Van Heerden said, “FEMA knew on Monday at 11 o’clock that the levees had breached… They took video. By midnight on Monday the White House knew. But none of us knew …I was at the State Emergency Operations Center.” Because the hurricane had missed the city that Monday night, evacuation effectively stopped, assuming the city had survived.
It’s been a full year now, and 73,000 New Orleanians remain in FEMA trailers and another 200,000, more than half the city’s former residents, remain in temporary refuges. “The City That Care Forgot” — that’s their official slogan — lost a higher percentage of homes than Berlin lost in World War II. It would be more accurate to call it, “The City That Bush Forgot.”
Should they come home? Rebuild? Is it safe? Team Bush assures them there’s nothing to worry about: FEMA won’t respond to van Heerden’s revelations. However, the Bush Administration has hired a consulting firm to fix the failed evacuation plan. The contractor? A Baton Rouge company named “Innovative Emergency Management.” IEM.
Watch this special investigative report about Katrina on Democracy Now! this morning or hear it on your local Pacifica or NPR station. You can also download it at DemocracyNow.org.
And catch the one-hour special report, “Who Drowned New Orleans?” on LinkTV, with Greg Palast in New Orleans plus an exclusive interview with Amy Goodman. (Get it on Direct TV channel 375 and Dish TV channel 9410. Or check your cable listing at LinkTV.com.)
And for more on IEM and Katrina, read Greg Palast’s new NYT bestseller, “Armed Madhouse” (Penguin 2006).
A Jacquie Soohen BigNoise Films Production, produced by Matt Pascarella.
And very, very, special thanks to our Associate Producers on this particular story — without their generosity and financial support this report would not have been possible.