Signing Off Saturday, Jul 31 2010 

Gotta get away from the negativity

I’ve been writing these letters for over a year and a half, and posting them here for just over a year.  It’s become an emotional drain.  After writing the damn letter the first time, I dredge it all up again (and elaborate) when I post it here.  Dealing twice with each instance of Katrina shorthand is starting to get to me.  It’s too much.  I’ve agreed as part of a larger group to write the letters, so I’ll keep writing them.  But posting them here was my idea, and it’s gotten to be too depressing.

The blog will still be accessible until I get around to taking it down; but I have no plans to keep adding more Katrina shorthand letters.

So, reader, that’s about it.  Thanks for reading.

The truth hurts Friday, Jul 9 2010 

Really. This hurts.

I have about a half dozen Katrina-shorthand letters to post, but I had to get this off my chest.

This is America’s Chernobyl, a major industrial f__k-up with concomitant “fallout” on our environment, health, food supply, and economy. The difference is instead of ruining a major world breadbasket, as in the Ukraine, BP has screwed up a major world fishery and wildlife habitat.

We’ll all be experiencing the consequences. For a long time. The damage is more than is possible to fix.

Forget restoration in the short term. We amuse ourselves even by saying things such as “it’ll take generations.” Generations from now, sea levels will have risen, leaving the country’s murdered marshes and wasted wetlands even less amenable to the paltry efforts government or BP are even able to mount, no matter what kind of resources they pour into it. I’d be surprised if more than a week’s worth of gushing oil has been picked up since BP blew a hole in the bottom of the sea. That’s all for show. Sure, the beaches will be cleaned up within a few years (maybe), but it’s not just about the beaches by a longshot.

Here’s just one aspect of what’s not going to be fixed: some species will die out. Louisiana’s marshes are breeding grounds for such a variety of wildlife that it’s inevitable. What’s BP’s plan for reviving a species? Migratory birds (those that escape extinction) will move to another route. Even if the marshes are completely restored (not possible, imo), what can the government do to get birds to shift back to a previous migratory path?

As for the now-ubiquitous promise that BP and/or government will “make it right,” that’s what they say because it’d be impolitic to honestly own up to the fact that it’s not going to happen, which I’m convinced they’re aware of. This will be “made right” about as much as the Ukraine has been (or will ever be) “made right.”

Carville Cuts Tuesday, Jun 15 2010 

What’s up with this?

James Carville is ordinarily a very outspoken advocate for the truth about the flood.

The two versions of his recent editorial (one to CNN, the other published in the TP) is very peculiar and is getting at lot of attention (see this article).  I sure don’t know whether Carville wrote two versions, or if the Times-Pic edited a letter he submitted; but it seems less plausible that Carville would have chosen to take out the passages from a letter to the local newspaper.

Curiouser and curiouser

The edits are… interesting.  These three (3) passages are deleted from the Times Picayune (TP) version of James Carville’s piece.


We felt the effects of this neglect for the past five years, after rebuilding a city which was 80 percent flooded due to shoddy construction of flood control systems and levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

and another:

In case anyone misses the point here, let me state it bluntly: There is nothing natural about the great engineering failure of 2005 in Orleans and Saint Bernard Parishes. There is nothing natural about the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico today. Both were the result of shoddy engineering on the part of private industry, which was in both cases supposed to be regulated and overseen by the federal government.

and a third:

Every penny that has been allocated to the hurricane recovery in Orleans and Saint Bernard is owed to us, and every penny in the future that will be allocated as a result of this current catastrophe is owed to us. We do not seek charity, but we do demand justice.

It’s not credible to me that Carville would cut those particular things for a different version to the Times-Pic.  But if he didn’t, then it’s too bad those parts didn’t make it past the TP’s editing staff.  Still, it’s better that the passages appeared in CNN and were left out of the TP than the other way around.

I wouldn’t call it “censorship,” since that really applies only to govt. action.  The Corps doesn’t govern the Times-Picayune — presumably.  The curious omissions in the TP version might be due to space constraints.  But if that were the case, are we expected to believe it’s mere coincidence that what got cut were each a reference to the truth about the flood?  Or, perhaps because local TP readers are so familiar with the truth that it doesn’t need to be pointed out anymore?  There are plenty of reasons for those omissions, but some of them aren’t so nice.

And don’t call me Shirley Sunday, Jun 13 2010 

Surely, he jests

Thomas Friedman, in his June 11 column, shares a letter to the editor written by a friend of his, Mark Mykleby.  Mykleby writes,

…the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico […] isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault.  It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. […] For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem.

Whereupon Mykleby embarks on a bourgeois guilt trip because he (and, by implication, the rest of us) doesn’t yet “…bike to work, plant a garden, do something.  So again, the oil spill is my fault.”  The only action he then mentions is to ask his wife to give up her car.  It’d be hard to come up with a finer example of middle class “slacktivism.”

Friedman joins in, though he can’t quite decide what the government’s share in all this is.  He writes toward the end: “So let’s pass an energy-climate bill […]  Let’s pass a financial regulatory reform bill […]  And let’s pass an immigration bill.”  That sure sounds like government to me.

Whatta pile of sh!t

BP has, for decades, put profits ahead of safety.  A report from the Center for Public Integrity published on May 16 is being widely cited in the media.  It starts off, “Two refineries owned by oil giant BP account for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years…”

Here are some key points I took away from this 60 Minutes interview.  The hole they were drilling (the one that’s now spewing) was already BP’s second attempt to tap into that particular oil deposit.  That first one had to be abandoned because the drill broke part of the way through, before they hit the oil they were so hot to reach.  Ever used a power drill and pushed too hard into whatever you’re drilling?  Broke the drill, didn’t you?

But wait, there’s more.  Now they need to start over, so they’re in an even bigger rush to get to this oil.  No time to worry about chunks of rubber from the seal showing up topside.  No time to insert the usual three plugs into the hole; gotta get by with just two and then cross their fingers.  But, according to Friedman & his buddy Mykleby, if I had a vegetable garden none of that would have happened.

Oh, all those poor oil-soaked birds, if only I’d raised my thermostat in the summer and lowered it in the winter!

BP’s already dumped as much half a dozen Exxon Valdez’s, and — like that battery bunny — keeps going and going and going…  But Friedman & friend want to say it’s because not enough of us recycle.  They’re wallowing in middle class angst.

Note to Friedman & friend: get over yourselves.

Mythic Saturday, Jun 12 2010 

The end times are here

In March, a story went out from the AP that a man had been electrocuted when urinating on a power line.

This part of the story doesn’t show up anymore in the AP archives:

Messenger apparently urinated into a roadside ditch but didn’t see the live wire.

Pimentel said there will be an autopsy but burn marks indicated the way the electricity traveled through Messenger’s body.


There’s an episode of MythBusters in which Adam & Jamie verify whether this mode of demise is possible.  They busted it.

This can only mean we’ve come full circle back around to the Age of Myths.

It’s about damn time.

Oh well Friday, Jun 11 2010 

And now, on top of that, this

The New Orleans Levee (which doesn’t hold anything back) puts it this way in a banner headline of the current issue: “Gasholes.”

What exactly does it mean for Pres. Obama to say, “I am responsible”?  Not much, if anything.  Looks to me like BP is responsible.  Adm. Allen, or whoever it was who said this, was correct when he said BP is best equipped to fix the leak (now roughly equivalent to five Exxon Valdez spills, and counting).  After all, the government is not in the business of deep water oil drilling, at least not so far as I know.

My guess is that board members of every other major oil company are breathing huge sighs of relief that it wasn’t them.  Since the accident, we’ve learned a lot about BP’s actual record on safety and environmental sensitivity (as opposed to the public-relations veneer they put out as ads with beautifully photographed landscapes and Sunburst logos).  Given this record, I also suspect that many industry insiders are saying, “I knew BP was gonna have a big time f*ck-up sooner or later.” Personally, I find that very credible.

For the first six weeks or so of the spill, an average of about a dozen and a half dead birds were being found per week, slowly increasing more recently to about two dozen per week.  This past week, over 600 birds have been picked up.  It took a month and a half for the impact to really make itself felt.  It now has.  Tarballs now floating up onshore as far as Florida.

Evident for some time had been the damage caused by shipping channels cut through the marshes along Louisiana’s coastline.  The damage is due to salt water intrusion.  Picture a large tropical aquarium – now imagine shooting a firehose into the aquarium.  The aquarium water gets pulled out and replaced by the water from the hose.  That’s something like what happens when a shipping channel is cut through a swamp.  Over time, land goes away.

When Hurricane Katrina blew through already-degraded marshes, a great deal more land went away.  Some estimate that the loss from decades of salt water intrusion, then the destruction caused by Katrina, would take generations (plural) to restore, assuming it’s possible at all.

Katrina left stretches of the river, starting about halfway down from New Orleans to the mouth, where one can stand on the levee and see the Gulf of Mexico on both sides.

It’s hard to find maps that accurately depict Louisiana’s coastline today.  Most maps, in atlases, on the web, on foldout wall charts, on TV graphics showing election returns, etc. show Louisiana’s coastline as it was in the 1930s, when it was measured by the US Geological Survey.  That’s still the “official” mapping.  The mouth of the river down from New Orleans to the Gulf is shown big and fat, and much of the state’s coastline is shown way farther out than it is today.

The damage up to now – shipping channels, Katrina – would take generations to repair, meaning anybody over 50 won’t see it the way it was when they were youngsters.

This latest catastrophic engineering failure will destroy at least as much wetland as Katrina did, if not more.

It’s taken 20 years to clean up a single Exxon Valdez spill in an environment that did not present as many challenges as this does.  For example, in Alaska cleaning crews were able to use high pressure hoses to scrub the shorelines.  The marshes are far too fragile for such a technique.

So.  20 years for one Exxon Valdez.  We’ve already had a half dozen.  Not very encouraging.

It’s likely that no one on the low side of 40 has seen Louisiana’s coast the way it’s shown on most maps.  I doubt whether anyone alive today will ever know the coastline measured by US surveyors 80 years ago.

We should change the maps.  The ones in predominant use are misleading.

Words count Wednesday, Jun 9 2010 

Today, the New York Times. Tomorrow, Strunk and White has petitioned the New York Times to adopt a style policy avoiding Katrina shorthand. John McQuaid is a columnist on the web (a.k.a. a so-called “blogger”) who is in solid agreement that Katrina shorthand is wrong and dangerous. However, he disagrees with’s petition to the NYT, regarding it as a low-level fix. Here’s the post:

Speech has consequences

Names of things and events serve the agenda of the namer. For example, when we decided to refer to a certain automobile pathway as Martin Luther King Blvd. rather than Melpomene St., or to another as O.C. Haley Blvd rather than Dryades St. (both Haley and Dryades equally obscure, btw), that serves the agenda of those who did the renaming, which (I presume) was to raise awareness and support for civil rights. Saying “levee breaches” rather than “Hurricane Katrina” serves the agenda of keeping the spotlight on the Corps of Engineers with the intent of making sure they do it right this time. The following was my comment to his post:

Small things can matter a great deal.  The way we talk about something both reflects and affects the way we think of it.  You make the larger point yourself that Katrina shorthand covers a lot besides just the weather event; but (1) the NYT is so widely read that their style guidelines are not such a small matter, and (2) even if it’s not an overarching solution addressing deep institutional dysfunction and abrogation of societal responsibility, a “low-level bureaucratic fix” as simple as the way we refer to the catastrophe here has an impact.

No one is asking that the flooding in Mississippi be described as anything other than a natural disaster.  But, when it comes to discussing what happened in the city of New Orleans (along with the suburb of Chalmette), a distinction must be made.  Otherwise we come away having learned nothing from a pre-eminently teachable event.

The distinction is this: there was no effort to protect the Mississippi Gulf Coast from storm surge coming ashore; this is evident to anyone driving along U.S. Hwy 90.  In contrast, New Orleans was (supposed to be) protected from storm surge.  It’s worth noting that federal levees held in neighboring Jefferson parish.  The flooding there was due to Jefferson’s leaders’ failure to operate their drainage pumps.  Even so, because they only had to deal with rain, the flooding was minor in comparison to the catastrophe in New Orleans, which allowed the full storm surge into the city.

The editorial policy matters in as influential a venue as the New York Times.  Accurate writing would distinguish the avoidable flooding in New Orleans from the unavoidable flooding in Mississippi.  And how we refer to things makes a difference in our thinking.  Are Democrats “liberals” or “progressives”?  When a very wealthy person dies, do heirs pay “estate tax” or “death tax”?

By insisting on referring accurately and truthfully to the flooding of New Orleans as a catastrophic engineering failure, the New York Times could make an impact on attitudes that would keep the pressure on the Corps of Engineers to do it right this time.  Even after everything that happened, the Corps is pushing a second-rate plan it knows won’t provide the best flood protection for the city.  Keeping the heat on in every way possible, large and small, is appropriate and necessary.

Tennessee dysfunction Wednesday, Jun 9 2010 

More “blame the victim”

Philip Grey is an editorial writer for The Leaf Chronicle of Clarksville, TN. Evidently, he felt shortchanged in the amount of media coverage regarding Nashville flooding. He had this to say in his May 13 opinion column:

But looking back on Katrina, I was struck by the realization that although Mississippi was actually hit harder in some places than was New Orleans, the coverage in that state was much less. Just an opinion, but that might stem partly from the fact that Mississippi was handling its business, while New Orleans was almost stunningly and spectacularly dysfunctional.

Here’s the full article:

Just don’t go there

Katrina shorthand shows up in a variety of forms. One of those is this notion that we sat on our hands, kicked back, put our feet up, or some such when we found out a hurricane was coming. That really gets under my skin.

To the editors,

Phillip Grey should know this: New Orleanians awoke Sat., Aug. 27, 2005 to the first news that Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on us. The previous evening’s weather report predicted landfall in the Florida panhandle. Fact-check it if you like.

Grey’s insulting accusation of dysfunctional preparation is outrageous and patently false. This is a population accustomed to weather events such as Katrina and which knows well how to prepare for such storms. Look at the record. We did what we do for hurricanes, and with only two days notice. We opened shelters for those living outside the levee system. Individuals in homes secure enough for tropical weather events hunkered down with provisions. Individuals boarded up homes and businesses all over southeast Louisiana – very quickly. We enacted interstate highway contraflow evacuation (look up what that entails, and then come back and say we were “dysfunctional,” compare it to Houston’s poorly executed contraflow evacuation for Rita). We were indeed unprepared for the man-made flood caused by levee failures. But don’t think we were warned. Quite the contrary: the USACE gave public assurance of the soundness of the federal flood protection system.

Responsibility for the flood was accepted by Lt. General Carl A. Strock in sworn Congressional testimony before Congress only weeks afterwards. Flaws in the design, construction, and maintenance of our levees were conceded by Lt. Gen. Strock, corroborated by independent civil engineers, and well-reported in the media.

We had roughly 48 hours to prepare for a major storm, and we did it well. The catastrophe here was due to the incompetence and duplicity of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Grey needs to do more research before he starts hurling accusations of dysfunctionality.

More from CNN Wednesday, Jun 9 2010 

A devastating misconception

Around the middle of May, CNN reporter Kinsman interviewed local chef John Besh. She had this to say:

After Hurricane Katrina devastated his city in 2005, Besh rallied the teams at his flagship restaurant August to feed the Police Department, National Guard troops, evacuees, refugees and medical personnel.

This was an on-air report, there is no link to a written transcript.

If you need an illustration

Both sides of the 17th St. Canal were bulging and on the brink of collapse.  Only by sheer luck, the Orleans side broke first. Bad luck in Orleans. Very, very good luck in Jefferson, since most of Metairie has an elevation roughly comparable to the lowest neighborhoods of Gentilly.  The Corps built the levee on the Jefferson side too.

In Kat Kinsman’s interview with New Orleans chef John Besh, she attributes 2005’s devastation of this city to a weather event of that August.  In fact, as documented by court records, independent civil engineers, and Congressional testimony from then-Corps Commandant Lt. Gen. Strock, faulty design and slipshod improvements to the levees made in the 1980s led to their catastrophic failure.  It’s worth noting that in neighboring Jefferson, where the levees held, the flooding was minor by comparison.  We in New Orleans know well what to do when hurricanes threaten.  We were the victims of USACE duplicity; CNN does the general public welfare a great disservice every time it fails to attribute the devastation wrought on New Orleans to its true cause: Corps of Engineers’ irresponsibility and failure to discharge their legal mandate to provide suitable flood protection for a major American city.

Jackson Spills Wednesday, Jun 9 2010 

Not very neighborly

This one’s from the Clarion Ledger based in Jackson, Mississippi. Perspective Editor, Sid Salter writes the following in his editorial on the oil spill:

Bush could neither start nor stop Katrina and decades of Louisiana political corruption involving how hundreds of millions of dollars of federal flood-control dollars were spent on the New Orleans levee system doomed the city to vulnerability to catastrophic flooding long before Bush became president.

FEMA’s lack of leadership in 2005? That’s on Bush. But the overriding cause of the woes that befell New Orleans had far less to do with Bush than Louisiana levee corruption.

Here’s the link:

Point granted.  So what?

Of course there’s corruption in New Orleans. Is there no corruption in Mississippi? Or is corruption there new and vibrant rather than decades old? As a matter of fact, corruption here is centuries old. There was corruption in New Orleans before the Magnolia State even existed. So there. New Orleans was started as a pyramid scheme–perhaps the first such scheme–by a shyster lawyer named John Law, who had been run out of every other royal court in Europe when he happened upon that of the Duke of Orleans, then the regent of France (the King at the time was a little kid). Said Law to the Duke, “Here’s a great scam: we find suckers and sell ’em swamp land halfway around the world!”  Said the Duke to Law, “Sounds like a money-maker!  Let’s do it!  We can name it after me!”

All that aside, logically there must have been collusion in the corruption by the Corps of Engineers, otherwise how can local corruption have had an impact? Local corruption can’t be denied, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. But I still maintain that, even by their own admission, the Corps was primarily responsible.

Mr. Salter,

Your May 9 column displays ignorance of the record surrounding the flooding of New Orleans.  Your claim that decades of political corruption doomed the city is unaccompanied by any evidence.  On the other hand, there is ample evidence in court records and from sworn Congressional testimony, of duplicity, malfeasance, and incompetence on the part of the U.S. Corps of Engineers.  The Corps — not New Orleans nor Louisiana — is responsible for the design, construction, and maintenance of the federal flood protection levees.  It’s correct that Bush wasn’t directly responsible for the flood; he was simply inept in his response.  However, the catastrophe that happened here is squarely the result of Corps negligence.  If you have evidence connecting Louisiana political corruption to sloppy design and slipshod construction of the levees, then present it.  Otherwise you’re doing little more than peddling libelous innuendo and hearsay.

Sincerely yours,

Selective, not ignorant

Sid Salter replied to my letter. His reply brings out facts, and he names sources. I was wrong to write that he’s ignorant of the record; but he sure seems to have a selective memory, and his logic is… tenuous. Some of the points he makes are irrelevant; and the others don’t support letting the corps off the hook. In particular, any flood control legislation or funding in the aftermath of the 1927 flood was superseded by the Flood Control Act of 1965, which placed responsibility for the design and construction and maintenance of our levees completely into the hands of the Corps of Engineers; the act also provides for project funding.  In other words, the levees have been entirely under federal purview (and out of the hands of locals) for the last 45 years. Below is his reply to my letter.  This post is my reply to him.

Mr. Lang:

Read John Barry’s “Rising Tide” for an overview of how Corps flood control projects back to the 1927 flood have been subject to corrupt local politicians up and down the Mississippi and certainly in Louisiana.

A Pentagon report on the Katrina response, written by former U.S. Army War College professor Stephen Henthorne, contained this assessment based on a long view of flood control expenditures in and around New Orleans back to 1927. After 1927, Congress appropriated $325 million for flood control. But, as Henthorne notes:

“Corruption and mismanagement within the New Orleans city government” had “diverted money earmarked for improving flood protection to other, more vote-getting, projects,” Henthorne wrote.  “Past mayors and governors gambled that the long-expected Big Killer hurricane would never happen. That bet was lost with Hurricane Katrina.”

I do not excuse FEMA failings and a stumbling, inept response by the Bush administration. But the Corps serves the political leadership of the country, always has, always will. Congress provides their funding and that makes them subject to the kind of political corruption that produced the vulnerability of New Orleans to a perfect storm like Katrina.

But a number of state and local officials were under indictment for corruption related directly to FEMA prior to Katrina. That was reported by innumerable sources in the press including the LA Times.

History shows that federal funds appropriated for flood control in New Orleans often was spent on project that did more for Standard Oil and for local commerce than for flood control.

And that doesn’t begin to address the failings of Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco in terms of failing to act promptly to protect the people of New Orleans.

I’m sorry if such an assessment offends you. But it is not an assessment born of ignorance.


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