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"We Need Leadership" 

Historian John Barry says New Orleans has a chance to change for the better. But, he warns, we need to speak with one voice.

John Barry's 1997 book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, recounts in great detail the social, economic and political upheaval that accompanied the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Barry's book unmasks not only the historic incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but also the self-serving arrogance of New Orleans' ruling Carnival class --Êand exposes how both caused and exacerbated the local impact of the disaster. Since Hurricane Katrina accomplished what the 1927 flood did not do -- i.e., flood vast portions of New Orleans -- Barry has been an outspoken critic of the federal government's role in failing to protect New Orleans. A resident of the French Quarter, Barry also has been a leading advocate for increased flood protection as the key to rebuilding New Orleans.

GW: In your book, Rising Tide, you document how mistreatment of African Americans pushed many thousands of them out of the Mississippi Delta forever. Do you think New Orleans will lose a significant portion of its black culture as a result of the way local leaders responded to Katrina?

BARRY: I'm concerned that that's going to happen. At the moment, things don't look great on that front, but a lot remains to be seen.

GW: There's certainly a lot of concern about whether neighborhoods will be allowed to rebuild, and when they'll be allowed to rebuild, and how much help they'll get. What have you seen so far?

BARRY: I did see the Industrial Canal break and went through the Ninth Ward where it was the worst, and St. Bernard as well. The Ninth Ward did get a lot more water than Lakeview. The reality is, much of the Ninth Ward is higher ground than Lakeview. Yet, you don't hear people talking about bulldozing Lakeview. It doesn't necessarily make all that much sense to do away with a lot of structures in the Ninth Ward. A lot of them are damaged and may have to be destroyed, unfortunately, but the general idea that the Ninth Ward is really, really low ground and therefore should not exist is not factually correct. Maybe parts of New Orleans East, which is probably the lowest ground in the area, but even those areas are no lower than much of Lakeview. Just to give you a sense of comparison, there are parts of The Netherlands that are more than 50 feet below sea level. Here we're talking about 6, 7 or 8 feet below sea level. So, the area can be protected. The question is whether it will be.

GW: What do The Netherlands do right that we don't do, and what will it take to secure those parts of New Orleans?

BARRY: They had a disastrous event in 1953, when much of the country was flooded and many people were killed, and they made a commitment that they were going to protect the area against a 1-in-10,000-year event. We have a much lower standard in the United States. Generally, our standard is roughly a 100-year event to a 500-year event. What a 100-year standard means is that there's a 75 percent chance in the average person's lifespan that they're going to see something that meets or exceeds that standard. Put another way, there's a 7 1/2 percent chance that in the average person's lifetime, they'll see a 1,000-year flood. Nowhere really, with the possible exception of some levees along the Mississippi River, do we protect against a 1,000-year flood. So it's not just a New Orleans problem. Sacramento, California, is protected to the 100-year level. If you had a 1,000-year flood in Sacramento, then that flood would do to Sacramento much of what Katrina did to New Orleans. We really need to rethink our flood protection standards all over the country.

GW: That message doesn't seem to be getting out to the rest of the country.

BARRY: It is not getting out. Certainly not yet. I'm making an effort to get it out. I'm certainly not the only voice out there. The Sacramento Bee ran an excellent story on its front page about how vulnerable Sacramento is. I would guess that the entire California delegation, which is pretty powerful, would have seen that and, hopefully, the implications got across that this is a national problem. Also, there has been testimony before Congress by Jerry Galloway, a former general in the Corps, highly regarded, so there is sort of like nooks and crannies that it's sitting in right now.

GW: But there's no groundswell yet.

BARRY: No, there's not. And whether it develops into one, that remains to be seen. Hopefully people will start pounding on the point and it will get across. But it has not gotten across yet.

GW: Did Greenville, Mississippi, recover from the 1927 flood? If not, is New Orleans in danger of repeating some of those mistakes?

BARRY: I think the more relevant model, and a more disconcerting model, is Galveston, Texas. In 1900, Galveston was the largest city in Texas, and it looked like it was going to be one of the great cities in America. Then along came the hurricane of 1900, and now Galveston is Galveston. That happened even though Galveston raised the entire island, basically, several feet, and built a 17-foot-high seawall. It didn't matter. People were not going to stay there. I think the most important thing in New Orleans is to make a firm commitment to a flood-protection system that people have confidence in and that will work. Then you have a chance of getting people back. The other thing is, since the levees simply failed in New Orleans in front of a flood they were designed to contain, and since the federal government -- not the Orleans Levee Board -- was entirely responsible for those levees and for that failure, I think there's a certain moral high ground that New Orleans has for help from the federal government. The government is dodging that at this point.

GW: In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, you made the point that the federal government, through the Corps of Engineers, is entirely responsible for the failure of the levees, yet they don't seem to be accepting that responsibility. What can local and regional leaders do to get them to accept that responsibility?

BARRY: Just keep pounding on the point, but at the same time, I think it's important not to sound like we're whining. It's a delicate line that you gotta dance. Even before we get to that delicate line, the most important thing we need to do is get together and start speaking with one voice. They're not doing that.

GW: And Congress has used that, to a large extent, as an excuse to ignore the problem.

BARRY: Very much so. And that's the most important thing. If the governor's commission and the mayor's commission and the governor and the mayor and the congressional delegation all get together on the same page, then you become a powerful voice. As long as people are picking at each other or making different suggestions and arguing over which one is the best idea to pursue -- you do have to go through a process, but you can do it in a manner in which people are helpful and supportive of one another. And once you reach a conclusion of what it is you need, and there is unanimity at least on a Category 5 standard, then you need to make it clear that you all agree on that, that everybody in the state agrees that that's what we need. But right now there are too many voices going in different directions.

GW: If you were a consultant to the various commissions, what would your top recommendation be?

BARRY: First, I agree with the Category 5 standard. I think we need to have a comprehensive review of the flood-control system to get there. This would involve the Corps working with outside scientists so that there would be a lot of confidence in the result. I have a lot of friends in the Corps. I have a lot of respect for the Corps. Yet obviously, in this instance, the Corps failed. I'm sure people in the Corps feel almost as badly as anybody else. Obviously nobody feels as badly as someone whose home was destroyed, or whose family had lives lost. That doesn't mean they don't feel the responsibility and feel pain over it. And as I said earlier, I don't agree with the idea of not rebuilding the Ninth Ward. It's clearly a major task, but the area can be protected.

GW: In addition to that, the Ninth Ward is not a natural flood plain. It's a man-made flood plain, isn't it -- because of the Industrial Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway and the MR-GO [Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet]?

BARRY: All those things created problems that made the Ninth Ward a target. By no means is all of it above sea level; part of it's above sea level. Virtually none of Lakeview is above sea level, except some areas that were dredged and artificially made so. In general, it's probably a little bit higher -- the historic Ninth Ward -- than all of Lakeview. It's certainly no lower. There was more destruction there, and people there have less money. But they didn't flood themselves, and I do think we need to make a commitment to them.

GW: As New Orleans rebuilds and people talk about how we can come back even better, almost everyone expects the city to be smaller. Can it be smaller and yet stronger?

BARRY: It clearly can be smaller and stronger. Certainly not everyone is going to come back, but there will be new blood coming in. Historically, New Orleans has been one of the most insular cities in the United States. And I think that has been a major impediment to its development. Back in '27 it was the leading economy in the South or Southwest -- dwarfing Memphis, Nashville, Houston, Dallas, Miami. Just dwarfing them in its economic vitality. Of course, that's no longer the case, even before Katrina. However, now I think that insularity may be a plus because New Orleans is a harder city for people to leave than a place like Dallas. The roots are deeper. So that may mean that more people are going to come back than might have come back to another city struck by similar circumstances. But, at the same time, there should be opportunity here that will bring in new blood that would not have otherwise come to New Orleans. We have a chance to remake things. For example, to build a great school system. We may well have had the worst school system in the country. The chance to build a good one exists now. That didn't exist before. So, it may turn into an opportunity. I'm not at the point of making lemonade out of lemons. This is a terrible tragedy, and I certainly haven't recovered from that. I doubt that I ever will. But, you do have to go on, and maybe some good can come out of it.

GW: Some people are worried that as the city rebuilds and new blood, new money comes in, that it will be "Disneyfied" or gentrified. Is that a real threat? Does everybody even agree on what gentrification is?

BARRY: Well, gentrification is generally thought to be yuppie types taking over. Certainly the Disneyland aspect has always been a threat to the city, at least in the last 30 years or so. I think people with those concerns have very real concerns. I share those concerns. But everything is in flux now. Everything. And we don't know what's going to happen. All we can do is try to figure out what we want to happen and try to make those things happen. And that means speaking very loudly, which somewhat contradicts what I said earlier about trying to speak with one voice. There are real issues that need to be debated here, and they're not easily resolved. Hopefully, we can address them in a way that's supportive and where we don't seem to be tearing each other apart so that people in Washington who look at it see a rational process going on that's going to yield a consensus view -- rather than a chaotic situation.

GW: You live more than half the year in New Orleans. Are you even cautiously optimistic that we can recover from this?

BARRY: That's the right way of putting it -- cautiously optimistic. I think there's a real chance. A lot of things have to work out right. We need leadership at every level, from the ground up. From people in their individual homes all the way to the governor and the Senate, and everybody in between.

GW: Are you seeing that kind of leadership?

BARRY: I've been a little disappointed -- more than a little disappointed, I guess -- at the inability of everybody to get on the same page. I think all of them are aware that that's a problem. They know it themselves, and we need to get it done.

GW: Was this a problem for Greenville? Is history repeating itself?

BARRY: There was a huge migration out of the Delta, without any question. Hundreds of thousands of people left. But Greenville itself did not particularly suffer because there was a new influx. African Americans from all over the South were going to the Delta at the same time that African Americans from the Delta were going North. So the labor supply there was refilled. In addition, because the Flood Control Act of 1928 was the most expensive project that the federal government had ever embarked upon -- except to fight World War I -- there was actually money going into the region to build these levees. It actually did relatively well during the Depression, compared to the rest of the country. So Greenville is not really a model of what can go wrong. Things went right there for a while.

GW: What lessons can New Orleans take from that?

BARRY: Without lobbying specifically to get money to Greenville, they did succeed in getting federal money to rebuild their flood-control system -- along the entire length of the Lower Mississippi, not just in Greenville. The lesson is flood control matters. That's step number one, before we can do anything else.

GW: I don't think it would be a stretch to say that putting flood control all over southeast Louisiana would really be finishing the job that was begun in 1928. Would you agree with that?

BARRY: I would agree with that. In fact, that's one reason why the Corps of Engineers was involved in building levees along the drainage canals. That's a descendant of that legislation and part of the responsibility that the federal government took on in 1928.

GW: So you plan to continue living in New Orleans?

BARRY: Absolutely. My home is definitely New Orleans.

  • Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
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