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New Orleans — Still Under Water

The White House knew [the levees broke] because the Army Corps of Engineers sent them photographs. Again, I want to emphasize that the White House had the photographs of the levees breaking, and didn’t tell state and local officials who had stopped the evacuation because the hurricane missed New Orleans. Everyone thought they dodged a bullet, but the White House didn’t tell anybody the levees broke and were drowning the city. — Greg PalastDVD cover
Greg Palast is just unstoppable, and after you watch his remarkable new DVD, “Big Easy to Big Empty: The Drowning of New Orleans,” you’ll understand why.

You have read about the Katrina disaster for more than a year now, but you’ll see it in a new light after watching Greg Palast’s reporting.
In an expanded documentary that now includes a half-hour interview with Amy Goodman, Palast, in his usual bold style, reveals new factual details about the Bush Administration complicity in the deaths of Katrina victims. You’ll be convinced by the end of watching “Big Easy to Big Empty” that what we are dealing with here is criminal negligence.
Watch an excerpt from the film
BuzzFlash: Greg your new DVD, “Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans” is absolutely shocking because all of the footage you shot was one year after Katrina hit New Orleans. After all the devastation, virtually nothing has happened to recover from Katrina, and the residents have been left to fend for themselves.
Greg Palast: It’s unbelievably ugly. You will see in the film mile after mile of destroyed houses. The 9th Ward looks worse than Berlin after the war because there’s hardly a building standing. And this was just filmed a couple months ago! This was filmed one year after the flood. In Indonesia, they have rebuilt after the tsunami. The only thing they are rebuilding here is a Disneyland on the Mississippi to recreate a new, white, conservative city.
And don’t forget, keeping African-Americans from coming back into New Orleans is amazing political gerrymandering. This is going to be crucial to keeping Louisiana in the Republican column in 2008. That’s really part of the story.
BuzzFlash: Sometimes I’ll see you on TV or read something by you and I’ll think to myself, there goes Greg again, saying something crazy — Greg’s saying they want to destroy the public housing in New Orleans to build new condos and keep the African Americans out.
But let me read you this from the Washington Post from December 7th: “Public housing officials decided Thursday to proceed with the demolition of more than 4,500 government apartments here, brushing aside an outcry from residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina who said the move was intended to reduce the ability of poor black people to repopulate the city.” (Read the Washington Post Article)
Well, you were right again.
Greg Palast: Understand — I used to work for the Housing Authority of New Orleans. The most beautiful housing in New Orleans are the townhouses near the French Quarter. And as Malik Brahim, an African-American leader there, says, “They just don’t want them poor black people back.” That’s a crucial part of the film. It’s about keeping the working class black people out of the city.
They’re talking about knocking down 4,000 public townhouses. These are dry, safe, good houses. That’s why they’re still there. They literally want to bulldoze these homes because they don’t want those “black people back.”
You’ll see in the film a woman, Patricia Thomas. We help break into her home because they’ve boarded it up. Everything is dry. You could eat the dry cereal. They’ve shuttered up their houses with steel bars. Katrina didn’t do this, she says, “Man did this.” And “the man” is in the White House and in the Mayor’s Mansion.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think the rebuilding effort and relief effort in New Orleans has just come to a complete halt?
Greg Palast: It’s not stalled. This is the plan. This is another White House gimmick to hide their evil intent in the clothing of incompetence.
The same with Iraq — oh, we screwed up? We didn’t get all the cheap oil that Wolfowitz promised in his congressional testimony, when he said the price of oil would decline. Well, it’s gone up. Golly gee, who funds the Bush Administration but the oil companies and Saudi Arabia? Who profits when the price of oil goes up? That’s “Mission Accomplished.”
Look to New Orleans. Golly gee, the black folks haven’t come back. There are no labor unions anymore in New Orleans. There are no public schools. It’s all vouchers. Worker wages have gone down. It’s “Mission Accomplished.” This is the plan. This is the program.
The idea that this is just a screw-up, or a delay, or a stall is wrong. This is the plan. You’re seeing it in effect. They don’t ever want those people back. You still have 73,000 POWs – prisoners of “W.”
New Orleans residents are locked in these “aluminum Guantanamos,” also known as FEMA trailers, as you’ll see in the film. There are a thousand mobile homes next to the Mobil Oil refinery. These trailers are in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no way those people can get any jobs. It’s a cycle. Some businesses and homeowners would like to rebuild New Orleans, but they can’t get workers, and those who would like to work live too far away to get any jobs.
Families are not even allowed to move their trailer to their own home property. It’s a deliberate program of ethnic and class cleansing in the City of New Orleans.
BuzzFlash: One of your big scoops in “Big Easy to Big Empty” was you found a company, “Innovative Emergency Management,” that gave large donations to the Republican party, to create an evacuation plan in case of a hurricane. No one seems to be able to find that plan.
Greg Palast: The most innovative thing about their emergency management is that they had no plans that anyone knew about.
When I went and talked to “Innovative Emergency Management,” they called security. I just went in and said where’s the plan? What makes you qualified to do an evacuation plan besides your relations to the Republican Party?
These people had zero qualification to do this planning. We were told that the main problem was that they had no plan for getting people out without cars. I mean, their whole plan was “jump in your car and drive like hell.”
But what if you didn’t have a car? We had one guy who didn’t have his car with him, and he was abandoned for four days in the rising water, standing on the overpass. He told us how he closed the eyes of a grandfather who had died giving his last bottle of water to his kids. The guy died of dehydration.
That’s a story that no one has reported. Forget Anderson Cooper and his tears. By the way, we can’t find Anderson Cooper after the fact.
BuzzFlash: Have you been able to find “Innovative Emergency Management’s” evacuation plan yet?
Greg Palast: Actually, I finally got the contract that said they were “supposed to create” an evacuation plan. FEMA had withheld the documents we requested for a year and a half. FEMA was keeping it secret and was telling us it’s a national security document until we threatened to sue.
I worked on an evacuation plan in Long Island, New York, for a hurricane. And you know what the key part about an evacuation plan is? You have to have it. Cops have to have it. Emergency workers have got to have it. The bus drivers have got to have it.
The most important thing is that we found out from the experts at the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University that they had a detailed evacuation plan.
BuzzFlash: Do you think part of the reason is that they may have had an evacuation plan for a hurricane, but not necessarily for a breach of the levees or a major flood?
Greg Palast: That’s part of the problem, because they had no plan in case of a breach. Number one, the LSU Hurricane Center told the White House before the flood — and I want to reemphasize this — before the flood — that New Orleans would be under water on a class 3 hurricane, that the levees were deficient, and that they were 18 inches short. The White House completely ignored their warnings.
You have to understand that the LSU hurricane experts actually spoke directly to the White House about this and what they saw as an emergency situation.
You should also know that the White House knew for nearly a full day that the levees had in fact been breached, and were about to drown the people left in the city. The emergency crews and police stopped the evacuation because they thought the city had survived Hurricane Katrina because the storm missed New Orleans. The hurricane watch center didn’t realize that the levees had started to crack.
The White House knew it because the Army Corps of Engineers sent them photographs. Again, I want to emphasize that the White House had the photographs of the levees breaking, and didn’t tell state and local officials who had stopped the evacuation because the hurricane missed New Orleans. Everyone thought they dodged a bullet, but the White House didn’t tell anybody the levees broke and were drowning the city.

What explanation could anyone have for that kind of “criminal negligence,” as a City Councilman says in the film.
Greg Palast: It is criminal negligence. Remember, I was a racketeering investigator.
The levees are federal property. If the federal levees failed, then it becomes a federal evacuation issue, and Bush and his gang did not want to be responsible.
Even more important is that they are financially responsible for all the homes lost, because the levees were deficient.
The original story coming out of the White House was that the Mississippi River and the lake north of New Orleans simply overflowed, right? Just big waves crash over the city and later the levees broke. Uh-uh. The city flooded because the levees broke.
Ivor van Heerden of the Louisiana State University hurricane center said he flew over those levees and he counted 28 levee breaks.
He said the White House, when they knew that the city was about to drown, said that there was one break. And he found 28. As he said, “That’s not an act of God. That’s an act of negligence.”

You have a lengthy interview with Amy Goodman as part of the bonus features of the DVD. At one point, you spoke about the wetlands and the marshes that protect New Orleans from storm surges and floods. You place at least part of the blame on the oil industry, which is continuing to drill off the coast.
Greg Palast: The oil industry laid pipelines and canal routes through the marshlands. People say, “How come these people live in a city that’s below sea level?” Well, they weren’t anywhere near the sea, is the answer, except that over this past century, the oil industry has drained and destroyed the marshes. Now the Gulf of Mexico has come real close to the city.
BuzzFlash: What needs to happen to turn the situation around, when you have so many people and families displaced and so much profiteering going on? How do you ever break the deadlock?
Greg Palast: A couple things. One, people have to know what the hell’s going on. That’s why they should get the film, invite friends and family, and have a screening so people can get informed. If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t solve it. This is like the war in Iraq. Once people figured out what’s going on, they started wanting to get our troops the hell out.
And second, we have to allow the people of New Orleans to rebuild their homes. We need to give the people back their homes, and give them the jobs to rebuild their homes. And that will take care of it.
In fact, I show an example of a group called “Common Ground” which is rebuilding homes with the residents with their own sweat equity and a few bucks for materials. And this week, they’re being evicted.
You have a group which has already put 115 families into homes that they’ve built themselves, and now they’re being evicted this week. And by the way, all the money — the million dollars of material and the hundred thousands of hours of sweat equity — are all being stolen away from them by developers who are saying “Oh, you didn’t have the right to rebuild those houses, we own them.” And they’re literally stealing their houses. That’s what’s happening.
And that’s all with the grand approval of the Bush Administration. It’s all with the grand approval of the Mayor of New Orleans, who is doing nothing about the mass evictions of people who have rebuilt their homes, and now their properties are being seized by banks and land speculators.
BuzzFlash: Greg, as always, thank you for speaking with us.
Greg Palast: Thank you.
Interview conducted by BuzzFlash Senior Editor Scott Vogel.
Buy the DVD that broke the story and support our work: New Orleans: Big Easy to Big Empty.
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Armed Madhouse” which includes Palast’s investigation, conducted for Harper’s Magazine, of the secret role of James Baker III and Saudi Arabia in the forming of US plans for Iraq’s oil.
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