There are very few of us who will live our lives unscathed by a monumental disaster, natural or otherwise. As a survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—I was two blocks away when the first tower collapsed—I can definitely relate to those who survived Hurricane Katrina. Somehow, I think it’s easier to forgive a natural disaster, however there wasn’t anything “natural” about Katrina. Yes, it was a horrible storm, however its rank as a Category Two Hurricane proves that it shouldn’t have caused as much damage as it did. It was the breach of the levees that left homes under water and over 1,800 people dead. Sandy Rosenthal, the co-founder of Levees.org along with her son, talked with us recently about her foundation and her ongoing mission to call civil engineering to the carpet and to never forget the victims.
Rosenthal was more than eager to talk about how her non-profit originated. “After the levees broke, I noticed there was a lot of shock, confusion and misinformation everywhere. People were frightened and paranoid for good reason,” she explained. “When you’ve got so much death and so many lives that had been turned upside down, we owe it to the survivors to get the facts out there. Everyone should have them, not just the select few. So my son and I started a group with a mission to show that this natural disaster was in fact the [result] of the worst civil engineering in history.”
As most people with a passionate, entrepreneurial mission in mind, the tipping point for Rosenthal was what she describes as a contentious argument with a man from Alexandria, Louisiana. “In his opinion, he thought that we deserved what we got because we shouldn’t be here in the first place. He told me the levees were fine and that Katrina was just a big storm and was bound to happen anyway.” After this encounter, she spent a month trying to find a group that was showing that Katrina wasn’t caused by Mother Nature. "Calling it that would only be protecting the human beings responsible for it.”
Levees.org was launched on December 2, 2005 but was slow to receive media attention until almost a year after its inception. “There was a vacuum of leadership and I was embraced by many people who believed in what I was doing, including those who were on the fence,” said Rosenthal.
When asked about Mayor Ray Nagin’s response to the storm, I was a bit surprised at her somewhat sympathetic response. “Nagin was in the crosshairs of a lot of people because he did not evacuate residents and did not have a plan for people who would not or could not leave,” she reasoned. “The mayor before Nagin didn’t have a plan and the one before that didn’t have a plan. There has never been a plan. No one in their wildest dreams ever imagined the levees failing and when we were warned to leave by the National Weather Service, all the powers that be couldn't have predicted this. Nagin was blamed for something that was unreasonable. There is not a single major city in the nation with a plan for a total evacuation. It’s like planning for an alien invasion; it was just not in our world view.”
Rosenthal questions the capacity of the Army Corps of Engineers and their past decisions regarding the levees, citing the more powerful storms Betsy and Camille that didn’t cause as much damage as Katrina. “They planned for a wave and surge height and Katrina came in less than that. They were the great and powerful engineers; why would we not trust them? In 2005, they had the reputation for engineering too good and that’s why we had the mindset that we did. We didn’t need a plan because why should we? We were protected or so we thought.”
Nevertheless, Rosenthal is confident about the current state of the levees but admits that there’s a lot left to be desired, especially on the part of the government. “We should have a 1 in 1,000-year flood protection for all of greater New Orleans. It’s a large city with a lot of people and a big infrastructure and the system we have is a 1 in 100-year so there’s a one percent chance that the system won’t be good enough,” she explained. “There are other cities with 500-year protection. St. Louis and Dallas have it and we should too, but President Bush would only sign off on 1 in 100.”
Despite various challenges—inclusive of signing on with General Honore’s Green Army and confronting Jindal’s office head on to hold big industries accountable for damage to the water and coastal resources—the mission of Levees.org continues to be increasing awareness in order to achieve safe levees and to remember the approximate 100,000 households that were displaced during Katrina. Rosenthal is working on a book for the tenth anniversary and is placing plaques around the affected areas that explain why the levees broke and to remember those lives lost. These plaques are vetted and fact checked by historians and exist currently on 17th and London streets at the request of the residents. Her goal now is to reach out to those in the Lower Ninth Ward and to initiate the three-month process for them.
In addition to all her work with Levees.org, Rosenthal found time to be an oncology volunteer from 2005 to 2010. “After the flood, everybody was changed and I’m not a nurse or a psychologist but I always wanted to have a role with some very sick patients,” said Rosenthal. So she took the initiative and walked into Touro, knowing very well that she wanted to work with advanced stage cancer patients and they created a program just for her. “Often when people have cancer, their own family and friends can be frightened and they’ll stay away or they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, but the wrong thing doesn’t exist. It’s all about the Four A’s: attention, affection, acknowledgement and acceptance.”
One could say that Rosenthal applies that same mantra to her work, but it would be necessary to add an additional “A” after acceptance and that would be action.
For more information about Levee’s.org and their mission, click here.