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Thankful for the Truth-Tellers

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NEW ORLEANS--It's a beautiful, warm, sunny Thanksgiving Day in the Crescent City. The Saints are winning, the Hornets--despite stumbling this week--are winning, the oysters (though expensive) are back. There's much to be thankful for here.

But my gratitude this season is directed at three people I've met who have had the extraordinary courage to find out the truth, tell it to the public, and bear the discouraging consequences for their actions. Dr. Bob Bea of UC Berkeley, with his partner Dr. Ray Seed, decided to come to New Orleans right after the 2005 flooding to investigate its causes. Dr. Bea does this for a living. He likes to joke that "my life has been one disaster after another." He formed the Deepwater Horizon Study Group this year, to look into the BP spill with an independent team. He's smart and funny and tough as a ton of nails.

Dr. Ivor van Heerden is a soft-spoken native of South Africa who spent most of the last two decades studying hurricanes, storm surge, and their effects on the unique marshaland and coastline of southern Louisiana. He helped found the LSU Hurricane Center, of which he was deputy director at the time of the 2005 flooding, and with his partners launched another independent study of the causes of that catastrophe after seeing with his own eyes the watermarks on the floodwalls proving that the surge never got to the top, never overtopped the structures, as the Corps of Engineers had claimed. For his efforts at spearheading the LSU team's investigation, he was ultimately fired by the university.

Maria Garzino is a civil and mechanical engineer in the Los Angeles office of the US Army Corps of Engineers. She's got whistleblower status now, so she can't be fired. She needs that protection because for the last four years she's been going patiently up through the ranks, reporting what she learned from her job supervising the installation and testing of the pumps that are key to the "new, improved" Hurricane Risk Reducation System being built in New Orleans at a cost to federal taxpayers of $14 billion. Finally, when rebuffed, ignored, corrected, and subjected to other forms of "get away, kid, you bother me," she reported her findings, and supplied her documentation, to the US Office of Special Counsel within the Justice Department, which re-investigated and validated her conclusions.

These three people, and their associates, had the courage to do the hard work, investigating, documenting, verifying, and then telling the public what they had learned. In an era where popping off one's mouth on a subject one may have no expertise on has become not just the norm but the desired thing to do (at least in the public media), these individuals did the hard work, and then did the harder work of telling us the unpleasant truths about the 2005 flooding--truths that many folks around the country, and in the federal government, still haven't absorbed, understood, and acted upon.

I'm proud to know them, and I'm amazed at their calm persistence in the face of what they've had to handle for the last five years. And I'm profoundly thankful that they care.