by Greg Palast
August 23, 2007
It’s been two years. And America’s media is about to have another tear-gasm over New Orleans. Maybe Anderson Cooper will weep again. The big networks will float into the moldering corpse of the city and give you uplifting stories about rebuilding and hope.
Now, let’s cut through the cry-baby crap. Here’s what happened two years ago – and what’s happening now.
This is what an inside source told me. And it makes me sick:
“By midnight on Monday, the White House knew. Monday night I was at the state Emergency Operations Center and nobody was aware that the levees had breeched. Nobody.”
The charge is devastating: That, on August 29, 2005,
the White House withheld from the state police the information that New Orleans was about to flood. From almost any other source, I would not have believed it. But this was not just any source. The whistle-blower is Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, the chief technician advising the state on saving lives during Katrina.
I’d come to van Heerden about another matter, but in our talks, it was clear he had something he wanted to say, and it was a big one. He charged that the White House, FEMA and the Army Corp hid, for critical hours, their discovery that the levees surrounding New Orleans were cracking, about to burst and drown the city.
Understand that Katrina never hit New Orleans. The hurricane swung east of the city, so the state evacuation directors assumed New Orleans was now safe – and evacuation could slow while emergency efforts moved east with the storm.
But unknown to the state, in those crucial hours on Monday, the federal government’s helicopters had filmed the cracks that would become walls of death by Tuesday.
Van Heerden revealed:
“FEMA knew at 11 o’clock on Monday that the levees had breeched. At 2p.m. they flew over he 17th Street Canal and took video of the breech.”
Question: “So the White House wouldn’t tell you the levees had breeched?”
Dr. Van Heerden: “They didn’t tell anybody.”
Question: “And you’re at the Emergency Center.’
Dr. Van Heerden: “I mean nobody knew. The Corps of Engineers knew. FEMA knew. None of us knew.”
I could not get the White House gang to respond to the charges.
That leaves the big, big question: WHY? Why on earth would the White House not tell the city to get the remaining folks out of there?
The answer: cost. Political and financial cost. A hurricane is an act of God – but a catastrophic failure of the levees is a act of Bush. That is, under law dating back to 1935, a breech of the federal levee system makes the damage – and the deaths – a federal responsibility. That means, as van Heeden points out, that “these people must be compensated.”
The federal government, by law, must build and maintain the Mississippi levees to withstand known dangers – or pay the price when they fail.
Indeed, that was the rule applied in the storms that hit Westhampton Dunes, New York, in 1992. There, when federal sea barriers failed, the flood waters wiped away 190 homes. The feds rebuilt them from the public treasury. But these were not just any homes. They are worth an average of $3 million apiece – the summer homes of movie stars and celebrity speculators.
There were no movie stars floating face down in the Lower Ninth Ward nor in Lakeview nor St. Bernard Parish. For the ‘luvvies’ of Westhampton Dunes, the federal government even trucked in sand to replace the beaches. But for New Orleans’ survivors, there’s the aluminum gulag of FEMA trailer parts. Today, two years later, 89,000 families still live in this mobile home Guantanamo – with no plan whatsoever for their return.
And what was the effect of the White House’s self-serving delay?
I spoke with van Heerden in his university office. The computer model of the hurricane flashed quietly as I waited for him to answer. Then he said, “Fifteen hundred people drowned. That’s the bottom line.”
They could have survived Hurricane Katrina. But they got no mercy from Hurricane George.
For the rest of the story, get the DVD, “BIG EASY TO BIG EMPTY: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans ,” as reported by Greg Palast from Louisiana for Democracy Now – with Amy Goodman and the music of “the city that care forgot.” Watch a clip on our Youtube page .
And read the full story of our investigation in the added chapter on New Orleans in the new paperback edition of “Armed Madhouse: from Baghdad to New Orleans – Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild.” Click here to donate to our Investigative Fund  and receive a book signed by Greg Palast as a gift from us.