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Lancing the Greenie Myth of New Orleans

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In the immediate political aftermath of the New Orleans Flood, conservative commentators fanned a myth that environmentalists blocked the Army Corps of Engineers' original plans for barrier structures and forced the federal agency to choose an alternate inferior design that could not protect the city from Hurricane Katrina's surge.

No one lances the Greenie Myth so deftly as Robert Verchick, J.D., Gauthier-St. Martin Eminent Scholar of the Loyola University and recent winner of a Fulbright.

In chapter nine of his most recent book, Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010), now available in paperback, Verchick describes how the myth developed, and then exquisitely blasts the myth with the true story.

Between 1970-75, the Army Corps issued a plan calling for massive sea gates for the coastal area east of the city -- the Rigolets and Chef Menteur Pass. A jazz photographer with a law degree, Luke Fontana accompanied by small group of conservation-minded fishermen filed suit against the Barrier Plan in 1977 over the Corps's cursory Environmental Impact Study (EIS). After three days of testimony, federal Judge Charles Schwartz said he had heard enough. He agreed with Fontana and temporarily prohibited the Barrier Plan implementation "citing inadequacies in the ...EIS analysis of the surge barrier effects on lake salinity regimes and habitat...."

Today, Verchick writes, a proper EIS can be hundreds, even thousands of pages long, but in 1970, the corps's 4-page typewritten EIS and optimistic conclusion about the barrier's effect on sea life was "based on an outdated study modeled around an obsolete version of the project." Eventually, the corps abandoned the barrier project and elected to raise the height of the city's canal walls instead.

Less than two weeks after the 2005 flood -- when over 100,000 families were trying to figure out where to live, where to work and where to send their kids to school -- the barrier plan sprang to life in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times, "A Barrier That Could Have Been." The story claimed the superior plan was "derailed" by an environmental lawsuit. A right-winger blogger branded the levee failures a "Green Genocide."

But in reality, Judge Schwartz had simply asked the corps to return with a better EIS.

This judge was not, as the Los Angeles Times reported, stopping the Corps in its tracks. He was saying, 'Y'all come back.'

But five years later, having never completed a revised EIS, the Corps decided against the barrier option and concluded that higher levees providing hurricane protection was less costly, less damaging to the environment, and more acceptable.

In 2005, the Army Corps' levees and floodwalls breached in 53 different locations within a space of a few hours. And Verchick concludes that "it is unfair and destructive to cast responsibility for the failure of the New Orleans levee system on this small band of activists and a popular environmental law."

Furthermore, Verchick reveals, there is another "broken link in the causal chain," namely that Corps officials interviewed by the Government Accountability Office a month after the storm "believe that flooding would have been worse if the original (barrier) plan had been adopted" because of the direction of Katrina's surge.

Levees.org has long believed that early myths and misinformation in the weeks and months after the New Orleans Flood were harmful because they alienated American citizens and may have prejudiced members of Congress.

So we highly recommend Facing Catastrophe which is now available in paperback and on kindle. Furthermore, while the book is required reading at several law schools and graduate programs in disaster studies, it is also remarkably accessible to lay people.

http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674047914

For the full book review, click here.

Today, we are pleased to announce a new Myth Buster: Had environmental concerns in the 1970s been ignored, the flooding in New Orleans during Katrina would likely have been worse.

Click here for more Myth Busters by Levees.org.

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