THE BLOG
07/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Floods: Army Corps Says PR Firms Transform "Babblers" into "Spokespersons"

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Image: Sandy Rosenthal of Levees.org inspects a wet spot that has been expanding along a repaired levee in New Orleans.

Kevin Gosztola of OEN News contributed extensively to this report.

A calculated form of disinformation played out in mainstream newspapers, radio networks, and internet sites this weekend as spin doctors acted as apologists for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This planned distraction was perpetuated while massive levee failures continued up and down the great Mississippi River Basin. God, Nature, and rice farmers in the Midwest were blamed for the catastrophe with little or no challenge to what has turned out to be a behemoth public relations campaign bought and paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. Government agencies are forbidden by law to lobby the government, but there is no restriction on hiring public relations firms.

USACE has known for some time that the levee systems in America need restructuring. It appears that, rather than improving the levee system to prevent worse case scenarios from happening, or sounding an alarm, the USACE has chosen to hire public relations firms to help them with crisis communications.

"How these [public relations] professionals can transform masters of techno-babble into credible spokespersons so quickly and smoothly is an amazing thing to behold," says Kevin Quinn, Chief Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Omaha District.

Corps press officer Quinn was offering a testimonial for S&C Advertising & Public Relations. His testimonial is freely available in the Internet and describes how S&C Advertising teaches the Army Corps' so-called "masters of techno babble" how to handle hardball questions. One segment of the course involves a mock television "ambush interview" in which clients such as the Corps are taught "three key messages that the interviewee can always fall back on in touchy situations." Another term for this type of spin "messaging" might be "red herrings."

Amazing Failures to Behold

Some of S&C's other clients include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state transportation departments in California, Connecticut and Minnesota. Massive failures of federal infrastructure such as the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse in August 2007 and the continuing failures of the levee system up and down the Mississippi River drainage basin are certainly "touchy situations."

The USACE message was delivered flawlessly with no challenge.

The Crystal Ball Defense

On June 16, CNN conducted an interview with Lt. General Robert Van Antwerp, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "For a lot of these levees, you could not prevent this," Van Antwerp said.

On the same day on FOX News, USACE spokesman Ronald F. Fournier offered the "crystal ball defense," which sounded a lot like Van Antwerp's explanation. "There is no way to predict whether these levees will break. That's a crystal ball that nobody has," Fournier said.

"The operation of that reservoir was going just as planned and just as expected. We were preventing flooding but as you know and I know, that rain came and never stopped."

Brigadier Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi River Commission, a commission that prides itself on "listening, inspecting, partnering, and engineering since 1879", went on NBC to practice his crisis communications skills:

MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC co-host: We just heard about another levee this morning failing, this one in Meyer, Illinois. Your agency has identified 26 levees that are either--they've either failed already or they are at risk of doing so. Why? Why is this happening?

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Well, certainly those levees were designed for a--for a storm, not the size that has hit so far. Certainly in the Cedar Rapids area, that was--we're looking at probably a 500-year storm, and lower down into the Mississippi, perhaps a 50-year storm or a little bit--little bit larger than that.

VIEIRA: What do you mean when you say that, General? What do you mean when you say a 500-year storm or a 50-year-old storm?

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Well, what we're looking for is the height of the--height of the water as it--as it comes in off the watershed and goes into the river. What you look at is the design, the river--the levee to a certain height. So a lot of the levees that you--that you're talking about have overtopped. We don't consider that a failure. They've overtopped and inundated the area on the other side of the levee.

On June 22, the New York Times ("Call for Change Ignored, Levees Remain Patchy") put its own spin on the issue of levee management in an article accompanied by graphics supplied by the USACE. The grey lady reported, somewhat ingenuously, that "the levees are owned and maintained by all sorts of towns, agencies, even individual farmers, making the work in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri last week of gaming the flood -- calculating where water levels would exceed the capacity of the protective walls -- especially agonizing."

The language was clear. Protecting the levees was gamesmanship, requiring that old crystal ball. Besides, it was a hodgepodge, the press said, with levees owned by poor farmers. This is very far from the truth. The levee system that failed catastrophically was a system maintained and built by the USACE with help and guidance from the civil engineering sector.

Neglect in Des Moines

An article in the Des Moines Register describes ten instances of neglect in the Corps database where the Corps was monitoring the need for fixing infrastructure but decided it would not be worth it to spend the money. Apparently USACE did not want to continue studying the known damage so that a report could be produced to help acquire money to fix it. If the agency did intend to acquire money, the Corps seemed to have no sense of urgency and planned to get to it in another year or two.

The public affairs department of the Corps of Engineers has no problem with justifying such neglect.

Fournier, the man behind the "crystal ball defense", said in the same Des Moines Register article, "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspects only levees that it designed and built, or that it has certified as meeting standards...Many Iowa levees, typically built by farmers or local agencies after flooding in the 1960s, are rows of sandbags covered with dirt. Because they don't meet Corps standards, they aren't inspected regularly and don't qualify for federal repair or replacement projects."

Who or what determines this policy that if an individual has not built a safe levee he or she is allowed to endanger the lives of people in the surrounding area? Imagine if Homeland Security used this defense to justify not making airport security systems uniform.

Fournier later on in the Register article insinuates that Iowans could have faced "levee terrorism." The Register cites him claiming federal officials feared "an incident similar to 1993, when levee protection was compromised by James Scott, an Illinois man sentenced to life in prison for removing sandbags from a levee" could have been potentially responsible for disaster.

Scott, according to the Register, was responsible for the flooding of 14,000 acres and the closing of the Mississippi River Bridge. Since no known occurrences of "levee terrorism" did take place, Fournier's statement certainly raises eyebrows. In addition, Fournier's statements a few days earlier on FOX News give credit to the Corps for keeping the levees safe--until it rained. Now the blame is being shifted and the truth is being shafted.

Levees are owned by the towns and states where they are located. But, by federal mandate, as is the case in New Orleans, the USACE controls them.

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Image: Water bubbling to the surface on a repaired levee in New Orleans--June 22

The question that has so far not been answered with any clarity is "Who controls the levees where flooding was severe in Iowa and Illinois?"

What is the American public to believe? The USACE prevents flooding until there is a flood and then it is the fault of "all sorts of towns and agencies;" even "farmers?"

Bubbas with Bulldozers

Engineer H.J. Bosworth Jr. P.E. responded to the spin that is already on at least fifteen major news outlets.

Bosworth is a native of New Orleans, LA. He has been a licensed civil engineer since 1986 and holds a degree from Louisiana State University. He has worked in the engineering business on local projects as well as projects across the US and abroad from his office in the New Orleans area since 1982.

"The flooding of the Midwest is a failure of the civil engineering profession. Levee overtopping and levee failure is predictable and controllable. Civil engineers have the knowledge and the tools to properly build levees that will do their job," Bosworth said.

"Every levee was designed by a civil engineer and build to specifications. They were not designed and built by "bubbas with bulldozers."

Bosworth went further and accused Galloway of trying to deflect responsibility away from civil engineers, who designed what Bosworth terms "worthless levees." Bosworth expressed concern that the blame will be placed "on local politicians, as was the case during Hurricane Katrina."

The answers provided in the mainstream media outlets were the same across the board. USACE was "preventing flooding," but then the rain came. Isn't that when flood controls come into play--when there is water to manage? But Fournier, Von Antwerp and Walsh got their message across and were not challenged. The rain came, and it did not stop. How could the Corps be blamed when they had "prevented flooding?" The buzz words, the bait and switch, the techniques learned for the PR firms worked perfectly. By the end of the weekend of June 21-22, God nature, pigs, and a lack of crystal balls had taken the rap. The spin-doctors were all preaching from the same script. More about the hapless porkers later.

But that is not all. The revolving doors in Washington are in perpetual motion, and researchers at the Center For Public Integrity have compiled a database that demonstrates the amount of traffic going through the door to the Army Corps of Engineers, and the potential for abuse of power these lobbyists wield over the U.S. Government.

According to the Center, between 1998 and 2004, 598 companies lobbied the USACE. In 2004 alone, the number was 234. The Center's electronic database includes the amount of money paid by lobbyists, specific issues, the agencies they lobbied, and who paid them to do so. The USACE list can be found here.

Sometimes, all the lobbyist has to do is issue a press release, the electronic equivalent of a thank you note, which targets millions of industry contacts--and voters.

There are many of these types of Internet services. Ad agencies use them all the time. For an average of a hundred bucks, you can get your packaged message out to targeted audiences, RSS feeds and Google. There is nothing inherently wrong with the service, but it is interesting to note how this kind of public relations can be a subtle kind of payback for favors gained. Take the example of a May 4, 2007 press release issued by the National Dredging Group as a "thank you" to members of the House of Representatives who pushed the passage of the Water Resources Development Act. In 408 words, the Dredging Contractors of America, which is on the list of USACE lobbyists, obliterated any illusion of ethical distance between USACE, Congress and the dredging group.

WASHINGTON, May 4 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Dredging Contractors of America (DCA) applauds the passage of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill passed the House by a vote of 394 to 25. DCA especially commends Congressman Jim Oberstar, Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, Congressman John Mica, Ranking Republican on the T&I Committee, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chairwoman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee and Congressman Richard Baker, Ranking Republican on the Subcommittee for their leadership in moving a WRDA bill so quickly in this Congress.

This legislation authorizes critical navigation, flood control, and coastal storm damage reduction projects. It also provides updated policy guidance for the Corps of Engineers, allowing the agency to respond to the growing water infrastructure and resource needs across our country.

Sandy Rosenthal, founder of the advocacy and watchdog group Levees.org in New Orleans was not surprised when asked to take a look at the lobbyists connected with USACE.

"The long and growing list of lobbyists to the US Army Corps of Engineers should come as no surprise. The Corps controls many billions of dollars worth of project every single year. With that kind of money comes power. Further, contractors working with the Corps are immune from liability and don't have to be licensed in the states where they work," Rosenthal said.

"This supreme power is the reason that the civil engineering community does not holler with outrage when federally engineered projects fail. To do so would bite the hand that feeds them. This silence happened in New Orleans right after Katrina and it is happening right now in the Midwest," Rosenthal added.

"Independent Experts"

Media "expert" and former member of the USACE, engineer Brigadier General Gerald Galloway, was heard on NPR this weekend. Galloway's resume states he is a "visiting scholar at the US Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources and a Senior Consultant to the Michael Baker Corporation for the FEMA Flood Map Modernization Program." This would hardly qualify Galloway as an independent expert.

Galloway was also a Vice-President at Titan Corporation, a consultant to the Executive Office of the President of the United States, and has "assisted the US Water Resources Council, the World Bank, the Organization of American States, TVA, the Corps of Engineers and various other organizations in water resources related activities."

Titan Corporation is an interesting entity. Information provided on the company's hiring website indicates Titan has 11,000 employees and sales of approximately $1.5 billion per year. As a provider of national security solutions, Titan's business focus includes: "Homeland Security and War on Terrorism; C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance); Enterprise Information Technology; and Transformational Programs."

Titan also has a $54.8 million contract with the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to support the development of spy planes, and an $18 million to design war games for the US Navy.

President Reagan in 1988 appointed Galloway to the Mississippi River Commission. From 1993 to July 1994 he was assigned to the White House to lead the Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee after the 1993 Mississippi River floods. In 1998, he was appointed by President Clinton to serve as a member of the American Heritage Rivers Advisory Committee. From 1974 to 1977, he commanded the Army Corps of Engineers District in Vicksburg, Mississippi, "managing a multi-state water resources development program that included the operation of 7 large dams." In a nutshell, Galloway has spent more time on the Mississippi River as a federal employee than Huck Finn did rafting.

In the end Galloway, a member of the USACE, was used by the federal government to investigate USACE. Now Galloway is the media "expert" on what is wrong with the levee system.

With the level of Galloway's knowledge of surveillance, one would have to ask why some sort of remote sensing by fixed wing aircraft or satellite has not been used to monitor levee safety. Or perhaps it has.

In a telling appointment that has not been discussed, Galloway was on a committee that addressed issues relevant to proposals to draw water from the Great Lakes. This is the elephant in the room that the USACE is avoiding. What is the water management policy of the United States? The aquifers are drying up, and development engineering that allows massive runoff of surface water because of concrete and curb and gutter construction is continuing. Galloway knows this, but his "spin" was that, like the Dutch have done, the US. needs to prepare for 1,000 year floods. This distracts from the issue of engineering malfeasance in the present, and local water zoning ordinances that are not enforced in flood plain communities.

Mix the issues and mix the message. Confuse the public. Divide and conquer. Yes we need to engineer for the future, but that does not excuse the malfeasance of the present. It does not excuse a war economy that is building dams and water control structures in Iraq while denying money for infrastructure at home. It does not explain how the Louisiana Morganza Floodway reconstruction estimates have soared from millions to billions of dollars. It does not explain how several little pigs were considered such a threat to a levee in Iowa that they were shot and killed. It does not explain the spin talk in New Orleans that describes bubbling, flowing water near the reconstruction of the 17th street Canal as "a little wet spot."

When Pigs Swim

On June 18 US News and World Report picked up an Associated Press story that detailed how several pigs had their bacon fried by local officials when the pigs escaped from and avoided floodwaters by climbing onto the levee near Kingston, Iowa.

Floodwaters were described as "raging," and the article quoted officials who maintained they killed the porkies over "worries that they would weaken the levee."

"Basically you cannot have something with a hoof walk on plastic and not poke a hole in the plastic and let water into it," said LeRoy Lippert, chairman of the county emergency management commission. "Hogs, they have a tendency to root and that would not have been good either."

So we have a federally designed and managed levee system, thoroughly investigated by spokesman General Galloway after the floods of 1993--one that "does its job" until it rains, or is threatened by a few pigs with sharp hooves?

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Image: Ducks near the New Orleans wet spot.

Dangerous Trees and Opportunistic Ducks

On June 19 the USACE office in New Orleans issues a press release, which indicated that the Corps was seemingly keeping a close eye on maintenance of the 17th Street Drainage Canal levee that failed catastrophically after Hurricane Katrina, flooding most of the central city.

"In another step to reduce risk for the greater New Orleans area, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon begin the removal of trees and fences along the east bank of the 17th Street Canal. The root systems of these trees invade the levee channels for seepage that can threaten the levee," the release read.

Dangerous trees aside, a visit to the former breach area on Sunday June 22, revealed that the trees may be innocent bystanders, since the USACE termed "little wet spot" is no longer little and appears to have channeled enough water down to street level to provide nesting habitat for a pair of opportunistic ducks.

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Image: Wets spot on left; ducks to right out of frame

Bruce Biles, editor of the New Orleans News Ladder, provided valuable background on the history of the wet spot. http://noladder.blogspot.com/

Approximately 40 to 50 yards from the base of the levee the "little wet spot" as reported and photographed by the Associated Press in May has grown significantly. A hydrologist would have to do a study to determine the exact flow of the leak, but at street level, not far from the three bubbling source points of the leak, a miniature wetland has formed and is currently inhabited by two friendly ducks. One can only hope that the ducks do not meet the same fate as the pigs and trees.

In the interim, residents in the neighborhood of the 17th Street canal are watching the "little wet spot" expand and begin a slow flow towards their neighborhood. They do not know if the levee is sound, and the American public does not know if the spin offered to media lapdogs by Galloway, the man who investigated and oversaw Mississippi River levee management and construction, is sound.

Therein lies the rub. There is now a vacant lot directly across the street from the little wet spot and the ducks. This house used to be there.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is in town today giving a luncheon address in Jefferson. We tried to get her to come out to the 17th Street Canal with us, but her press spokesperson indicated the schedule was too tight, and that the Senator was "aware of the situation. We sent the accompanying photos over to her office.

Landrieu is set to issue a statement later today and we will update this post when it becomes available.

We are also waiting for a statement from the New Orleans USACE. We will post it if and when it becomes available.

Meanwhile Levee.org's Rosenthal issued this statement to Google News:

"A whopping forty-three percent (43%) of the American population lives in counties protected by levees. And as we have seen, levee failure is devastating no matter how high above sea level the protected area may be.

"Many thought New Orleans flooded because of its geography, however, the flooded towns in the Midwest last week were at least 400 feet above sea level. At the risk of sounding cliché, nearly half of all American citizens are in the same boat as New Orleans.

"The flooding in the Midwest, like the flooding in New Orleans, is a mainly a failure of the civil engineering profession. And when it comes to the most important levees, the US Army Corps of Engineers is in charge."

Senator Landrieu provided the following statement after a packed schedule in New Orleans on Monday.

"The situation at the 17th street canal raises concern, and I have already been
in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that they are monitoring
and addressing this situation adequately. As we face continual reminders that
our infrastructure is declining, I only become more resolute in my efforts to
restore this nation's levees, bridges and dams so that they are capable of
protecting our citizens and serving the functions for which they were intended.
I will stay on top of the situation at the 17th street canal and work toward a
quick resolution."

The bottom line.

UPDATE

In fairness, here are the answers to questions posed to the USACE New Orleans Office regarding the 17th Street Canal. They were delayed, but Senator Landrieu was in town today.

"The Corps places public safety above all we do and is concerned for the well-being of our local citizens. The Corps has continually monitored potential seepage in the 17th Street Canal area. Seepage is a common occurrence when building in any coastal area. The Corps considers seepage assessment as part of any geotechnical evaluation for any feature of the system. We are currently coordinating with the Southeast Levee Protection Authority-East, which is assembling an external engineering review team to further examine the seepage along the 17th Street Canal."

As to the four questions asked:

Question: Is the water at the street level a wet spot or a water line?
Answer: Water adjacent to the street has been tested and is not brackish (i.e., not from the canal.) We cannot speculate on the source of this water.

Question: When was the last time it was tested?
Answer: Water across the street was tested approximately three weeks ago. Wet spots closer to the canal and floodwall were tested approximately six weeks ago and were determined to be brackish.

Question: What is causing the flowing water and algae behind the gate?
Answer: We have not observed that, but will visit the site and investigate this afternoon.

Question: The new portion of the "levee" -- What are the dimensions and how deep is it?
Answer: The new floodwall was constructed to more stringent post-Katrina design standards. Sheet piles were driven deep enough to go through the seepage path and cut it off, approximately 67' deep. Supporting pilings for the floodwall were driven to 95' feet deep on the flood side and 110' on the protected side. The wall height is approximately 13' high and 2' thick. The total length of the repaired floodwall is approximately 455'

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