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paranoid theory of the week :: were the new orleans levees bombed during hurricane katrina?

there's been a great deal of coverage on the tenth anniversary of hurricane katrina this week, about what happened, the various administrative and governmental failings, what has been rebuilt, what damage remains and what has been done to keep such a thing from ever happening again. as fierce as the storm was, the greater problem was arguably the ineptness that preceded and followed it. a chronic lack of funding for upgrades to the city's protection system and a response protocol that was completely unprepared for a catastrophic failure in that system, saw thousands of people stranded in horrifying circumstances for weeks as the rest of the world stared in disbelief.

but as if that wasn't bad enough, rumours surfaced at the time that the disaster was not merely the result of administrative incompetence, but was exacerbated by a very deliberate plan to sacrifice the city's poorest and most vulnerable in order to save the wealthy and profitable areas. so ten years on, we're taking a look at whether or not the disaster of katrina's aftermath was more sinister than is believed.

the theory ::
the levees in new orleans were not breached, but were blown up in order to divert floodwaters into the poor, largely black areas of the city, away from wealthy neighbourhoods, popular tourist areas, and business districts and to force residents out of the flooded areas so that the valuable land could be seized by developers.

the origins ::
eye witnesses at the time claimed they saw or heard the explosions, particularly around the 17th street levee.

the believers ::
it's unclear how many reports from eye and ear witnesses there were claiming to have heard an explosion at the time of the crucial breach, but suffice it to say, it appears to have been more than a handful. louis farrakhan, head of the nation of islam, was the earliest high profile supporter of the theory, claiming in 2005 that then new orleans mayor ray nagin told him that the levees had been deliberately blown up. [nagin denies this.] filmmaker spike lee, whose documentary when the levees broke chronicles the story of the storm, said in 2005 that the idea that there had been a deliberate effort to displace blacks from the city to be less far-fetched than people made it seem.

the bad guys ::
the american government and military, possibly haliburton, a frequent government subcontractor inextricably linked with then vice president dick cheney.

the evidence ::
well, let's start with the fact that the government had done it before. in 1927, much of mississippi, arkansas and louisiana was inundated with floodwaters after six months of inordinately heavy rain. hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and it was a key factor in the decision of many to abandon the south for the more prosperous and meteorologic-ally safer north. this flood was worse than katrina in almost every measure: when adjusted for inflation and as a proportion of budget, the financial damage was much greater; the area affected was larger; the number of dead and displaced, proportional to population, were greater and the government response to the aftermath was worse.

the first levee breaches had occurred around christmas 1926 and continued. fed by spring floods charging from the north, the waters continued to rise and by april of 1927, it's safe to say that the powerful of the south were in full on panic mode. they had, for months, operated under the assumption [hope] that the floods could never reach the business capital of new orleans, but as the record rainfalls persisted and the gulf of mexico reached the point of capacity and blocked the progress of the water, it became obvious that they had been wrong. so on april 15, in order to save the city, the federal government blew up the levee at caernarvon, 13 miles south of new orleans, in order to relieve the pressure and stop the water from backing up right into the city.

the area that was sacrificed was poor and rural. the vast majority, 75% of the population was black and while they were promised restitution for their losses, very little was actually done. temporary relief camps were as nightmarish as those constructed for katrina. in some cases, evacuees were moved to drier ground, but then left without food or water. some were unwilling to rescue black workers out of fear that they wouldn't return to their jobs. [blacks represented 95% of the crucial agricultural workforce.] and in a move of flagitious insensitivity, black men living in the camps were forced to earn their place by doing hard physical labour as part of the relief effort.

so when spike lee said that the idea that the government would sacrifice black people's property and lives in order to save white businesses wasn't far-fetched, he was being uncharacteristically understated. it is a historical fact that less than a century before katrina, the federal government had done exactly that.

of course, the actions of the great mississippi flood don't prove anything about katrina, but they do provide pretty compelling circumstantial evidence, just as prior crimes can be used in a court case to show character, but not to determine guilt or innocence.

the other evidence at our disposal is that of witnesses, who say that what they heard when the levees breaking, the sound was percussive, like a series of explosions, rather than the roar of a steady flow of water. and despite the position of the media that these were just rumours, witnesses went as far as to testify before congress to what they had heard. knowing that there was little chance that they would even be believed, it's difficult to imagine that there was an incentive for these people to lie, so it's a safe assumption that they spoke truthfully about their experiences.

you've undoubtedly noticed the tricky wording i used in that last sentence. and i used it because even the most honest and well-intentioned witnesses are notoriously problematic. our minds play tricks on us when we're under stress, when something happens quickly, when something happens while we're distracted and even when the conditions are right for us to process going on, reflecting on it too much can cause our memory to play tricks on us. mistakes are possible, which is why criminal trials rely more and more on forensic evidence [even if we're not quite at csi-level certainty yet].

furthermore, there is the question of how confident witnesses could be about what they heard. very few of us know what an explosion or a bursting dam sounds like [which is a good thing]. it's possible that some of the witnesses who claimed to hear an explosion had some experience of the former, less likely the latter. we live in a world where we see catastrophes all the time in movies and on television, but they're nothing more than trickery, often quite different than the real thing. a car backfiring sounds considerably more like a gunshot in the movies than an actual gunshot, but unless you've heard both [possibly a few times], you're unlikely to be able to make the distinction.

when people say that what they heard was more like an explosion than a levee breaking, they're relying on their experience to tell them what those things should sound like. which raises the question: what does the rupture of a protective wall sound like? this wasn't a case where the waters simply spilled over the top of the wall. the wall burst from the force of the water behind it. the pressure built up until the structure was so taxed that it started to give and, unable to hold together any longer, it came crashing down, allowing the water to roar in after it. again, you're probably noticing my choice of words there: "crash" and "roar" and "burst". nature is in possession of awesome powers, but we're rarely given the opportunity to witness their full force, even as a simulation. we might think that the breach of a levee would sound like a great wave crashing on land, but when you consider the physics at work, it's not crazy to think that it could sound a lot like an explosion.

there is one important difference between the 1927 flood and the 2005 katrina flooding: in 1927, a predominantly poor, black area was sacrificed to protect the wealthy whites. in 2005, some wealthy white neighbourhoods sustained some of the heaviest damage. nor was the core of the city protected. if this was a planned operation, it was a near-complete failure. i know that might not seem like a stretch in light of what happened, but consider that this was something that had been successfully done before. it's hard to argue that the government in 2005 wouldn't have known how to accomplish their aims when the government of 1927 did.  

investigations into the site of the breach revealed no evidence of explosions [which leave pretty significant evidence]. believers will argue that the investigations are merely the power structure acquitting itself of any wrongdoing and i'm not trying to discount that as a possibility. but consider that barely a year after katrina, the democrats won control of both houses of congress and had every reason to want to discredit george w. bush and his administration. revealing a secret operation, so awful in concept and so inept in execution would not merely have made him unpopular: it could have dealt a crushing blow to his entire party, galvanized the african american vote and effectively guaranteed that the democrats held on to power for decades. don't think of whether or not the democrats were more interested in the welfare of poor blacks than the republicans were: think in terms of what they had to gain for themselves.

the likelihood :: 1/10
i'm not willing to completely discount this one on the basis of historical precedent, but it's extremely unlikely. with no physical evidence and well-meaning but unreliable eye witness evidence, we have to determine that the breach of the levees in 2005 was exactly that: a breach and not a bombing.

but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be outraged and it doesn't mean that what happened wasn't criminal, or that it wasn't an example of racism and class-ism at its worst.

the failings of the federal response beggar belief and amidst the stream of remembrance happening, we should be asking hard questions about what has been done [the system built as a response to the 1927 flooding actually affected the flow of the mississippi in such a way that it's made flooding worse], how it has been maintained and how the rescue system has been improved to deal with a future failure in the levees. what happened in the wake of katrina wasn't the result of a sudden panic over a situation more serious than expected. it was the exposure of a deeply flawed system and the response- typified nowhere so much as in the case of patients at charity hospital watching as patients of a nearby private hospital were flown to safety via helicopter- revealed a mindset that some lives- white lives, wealthy lives- mattered more than others.

before i leave you, i want to go back to the idea that we should be asking serious questions about the current state of preparedness. the response i've heard from officials is that, yes, the revitalized levee system could withstand a storm the size of katrina without breaking down. that should not be comforting. hurricane katrina was a category three hurricane by the time it made landfall and most of us know that storms can go up to category five. even more disconcerting: katrina didn't directly hit new orleans, it only sideswiped it. so if katrina is the measuring stick for preparedness in the city, it's inadequate in two ways. this doesn't bode well.


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