As America moves past the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the air here is filled with both optimism and apprehension. Our optimism is justified. The city's recovery is finally getting some traction beneath the soles of an energetic new mayor and City Council, and the feds have allocated more than $2 billion for a new teaching hospital and dozens of new public schools. Likewise, our apprehension is rooted in the knowledge (confirmed almost daily on network news) that too many Americans — including many of our nation's leaders — still harbor fundamental misconceptions about Katrina and the flood that followed it.
For the first five years after Katrina, south Louisiana struggled to recover and rebuild. In the next five years, we have to work just as hard to dispel lingering myths about what caused the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans and what it will take to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again — here and elsewhere.
In his searing documentary, The Big Uneasy, filmmaker, satirist and New Orleans champion Harry Shearer exposes some ugly truths that many in power have tried to keep buried since the floodwalls failed in 2005. We hope everyone in America watches Shearer's film, for it strikes at the heart of what needs to happen in the next five years.
For starters, America needs to understand that what happened in New Orleans was not, as so many continue to call it, "a natural disaster." Far from it. What happened on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster. What happened in New Orleans was entirely man-made: the largest civil engineering failure in the history of the United States. This failure came at the hands of the United States government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which lied for decades about the integrity of its floodwalls. Worse yet, after the storm, the Corps lied again and again — until its hand was finally and irrefutably called by scientists and citizen activists — about what caused the flood and about the integrity of "temporary" pumps the Corps installed after the storm at the mouths of local outfall canals.
As Shearer's film reveals, the Corps today tries to "look forward" by refusing to discuss its past failures and its endemic organizational flaws. That poses a grave danger. If people and elected officials across America fail to comprehend the scope — and the potential consequences — of the Corps' bureaucratic intransigence, the next man-made disaster is not far away. And next time, it could happen anywhere in America. FEMA statistics show that most Americans live in counties protected by levees. Those are Corps-designed and Corps-built levees. The Corps' failures in New Orleans thus reflect a larger national problem, not an isolated local one. In the coming years, Congress must find the resolve to rebuild New Orleans and reform the Corps. Failure to do so will put blood on the hands of every congressman and senator when the next floodwall, levee or dam fails. Mark our words, America: What happened in New Orleans in 2005 is going to happen again, here and elsewhere, if Congress fails to reform the Corps.
Another myth that must be dispelled is the two-pronged notion that New Orleans cannot be saved because it lies below sea level. As historian and levee board member John Barry notes, every deltaic port city in the world lies at or below sea level. World commerce could not exist without those ports, including New Orleans. Moreover, at least half of New Orleans sits above sea level.
Locally, we have to get past some myths of our own, such as the notion we can pump the city dry. As noted in Shearer's film, the Dutch long ago realized that water can actually help control flooding. Yes, it's counterintuitive, but it's true. We have to incorporate drainage canals more effectively (and more aesthetically) into local landscapes. Water in proper proportions also raises the ground beneath us, which helps guard against rising sea levels. We have the opportunity right now to make these fundamental changes. Let's not squander it. In many ways, the next five years will be even more critical to New Orleans' recovery than the five years immediately following Katrina.