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"Hold the Corps Accountable!" Activist Sandy Rosenthal Shares Her Katrina Experience

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Sandy Rosenthal is the founder and director of Levees.Org, a grassroots organization that seeks to inform all that New Orleans was destroyed primarily by bad engineering and not bad weather. Levees.Org has played a crucial role in spreading the word that the New Orleans disaster was a man-made disaster and that we should "Hold the Corps Accountable." Ms. Rosenthal has no prior political experience. I interviewed her in her uptown New Orleans home on October 12, 2006.

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I was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts. A very small town of about 20,000 people. I essentially spent the first 18 years of my life in that town. That's where I learned to talk like this. That's where I learned to pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.

I went to Mount Holyoke College. I met the man who would be my husband, Steve Rosenthal. Since he's a New Orleans born-and-raised local, I came back with him. I had been living in New Orleans for 25 years when Hurricane Katrina came.

The Evacuation

We were in New York City when we got word the storm was coming. Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon is the worst time to find out there's a storm coming because you can't prepare your office. It's too late to do a lot of things. But [my husband's] office had a storm plan that kicked into gear. In fact, our hotel rooms in Jackson had been reserved since the prior Monday. Most people in New Orleans didn't have that good a hurricane plan, but our office did. At home we did, too.

We had to book an emergency flight home. The flight was full of tourists coming to New Orleans. We were tempted to go to them and say, don't go. But we were afraid that the marshal would bar us from getting on the plane. It was post 9-11. We were afraid that that could happen to us. We needed to get back to board up our home and get our children and the dog. So we kept our mouths shut. We feel really bad about that. We know some of those tourists got trapped. We don't know, but we feel sure that they did.

We just had 12 hours. We had to board up the house, move all the furniture, roll up the rugs, and pull up the curtains. It was very difficult. We took every pot we had and filled it with water. We put them in the freezer to buy some time for when the electricity went out. We knew it would go out. Next time, we're just going to pull everything out. We didn't plan for three weeks. Or a month. We were hoping for a few days.

We'd been through this before. We evacuated for Ivan one year earlier. The exact same situation. Each evacuation prepares you for the next one. We had hurricane lists. We had a list on the computer that I printed out and followed. The children thought we were going to be back the next day. They knew better than to argue. We got our two sons [20 and 15], got the dog and got in the car. We left at 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

When I got into the car to evacuate, I was so happy because all my plans for September had all fallen into place. I loved my work. I was working part-time in advertising and marketing. I volunteered heavily in the public schools; I taught nutrition and fitness. I was an avid tennis player. I had just won a tennis tournament. I was very excited about my trophy. I even brought with me on the evacuation. Through the public tennis court system that we have here, I'd organized leagues for public people to play in. Anyone could join, and I had two leagues going. I also taught fitness. I was all excited because I'd just lined up a schedule of fitness classes that worked with the rest of my life that was obviously very busy at the time. My life was perfect. Everything was all set. And then Katrina came.

I realized a few days later that all those beautiful plans, none of them were going to happen. I said to myself, well, that may be true. However, I'm the same person. The same person that got all that ready is still here. Who knows what that same person is going to do now. Time will tell.

First, we evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi. We now know this was a mistake. The storm went right to Jackson. We lost all our power. We relocated to the Drury Inn in Lafayette. We chose this hotel because they had some rooms available and because they had internet access. Very critical. We had just arrived when we got word that the levees had broken. That New Orleans was flooded. It was at that moment we realized we weren't going back. There were lots of hugs and tears but we had each other.

In Lafayette

My husband has been in insurance for 30 years. He believed that this was potentially the big storm, and he told us to pack for three weeks. I am the only person that I've talked to that packed for three weeks. Ironically, our house didn't flood. We're on high ground. However, we were prepared for the evacuation. We had our clothes. We had our computers. We had our checkbooks. We had everything. We hit the ground running.

One of our sons went off to college a few days later. Our other son is a freshman at Newman. Newman wasn't going to open. Those were the crazy days right after the storm and we had to find a school for our son. We were lucky that his two best friends were going to a little school south of Lafayette. He wanted to go where his best friends were. We thought that was important [right then]. Being with your friends, being with your family was more important than anything else. We settled in Lafayette so that our son could go to a good school and be happy. It was all about my son during those days.

We didn't know Lafayette. We had no family there. No friends. My son and I had been at a few tennis tournaments there, but that's it. While we lived there, I played a lot of tennis because there wasn't much else to do. Compared to 99 percent of the folks who evacuated, my experience immediately post-Katrina was actually not bad, but all I could think about was going home.

My husband set up an emergency office in Baton Rouge. He commuted from Lafayette to Baton Rouge. It was tough. I also worked for that company. But I was able to do a lot of work from home via computer.

In just days, all the available housing was snatched up by desperate displaced people. We were very luck to find a place to live, but we couldn't move in until the current tenants vacated.

We spent an entire month in the Drury Inn, right off the interstate. The Drury Inn was full of dogs and people. Rooms had as much as 11 people in them because the hotel was set to the max. People from everywhere. The people next to you could have been from Plaquemines Parish or St. Tammany. It was everybody. All in this hotel. All of us there for the exact same reason. It was a crush of humanity, but a very supportive humanity. And all of us were glued to the television sets.

It was a very odd way to live as a family. My son had to do his homework at a hotel, wake up in the morning in a hotel and go to school. I worked hard to make my son feel at-home and comfortable. Hotels are not made to be lived in. It was tough. The dog was miserable. When your dog's miserable, you are, too. But you can get through anything if you know it's just for one month. We got through.

Finally on October 1, a full month after Katrina, we moved into our home. We felt a whole lot better when we were actually in a house. With a kitchen. A stove. These amenities that you take for granted.

The Beginnings of Levees.Org

I started getting reports that the levees had all failed. It wasn't just a matter of overtopping. It wasn't the matter of a big storm. It was a matter of faulty engineering. I started to get mad. I started thinking about how nobody knows this. New Orleans knows this, but not many other people seem to know it. Or seem to care. That's when the whole idea of forming Levees.Org began.

I am not a lawyer, but it was clear to me that the people who should be responsible for the levees breaking should be the people who built them, not the people who maintained them after they're built. If a skyscraper fell to the ground, that would be like blaming the janitor and not the architect, or the engineer, or the contractor who built it.

No one else seemed to be looking at it that way. I felt like a player in a B-rate movie, where the whole world is wrong, but this one person is right. Turned out it was true for a while. In the beginning it felt like I was the only one, and a few select others, to see through what was going on.

On Halloween Day, I participated in a tennis tournament as a fill-in. My partner was from Alexandria [LA]. I was talking to my partner about the flooding of New Orleans. How it was a man-made disaster, and it should never have happened. He told me, oh no, New Orleans is below sea level, and the storm was just too strong and nothing could have been done about it. I said, no, that's actually not true, there were 50 levee breaches. It was because they weren't built right. He told me, no, that I was wrong, and that it was meant to happen, that we shouldn't rebuild New Orleans because it's hopeless.

This was a conversation I had with a Louisiana resident. I could tell from the whole tone of the conversation that this is what he wanted. He didn't want New Orleans to be rebuilt. I began to think to myself, well if that's the attitude of citizens within our own state, imagine what people are saying in California, Wisconsin, Maine -- who aren't even close to us. No way are they following this as well as you would think people are following this in our own state. That was October 31st.

I went home and said to my husband: we've got to figure out a way to educate the nation that New Orleans was not destroyed by a hurricane, but by faulty federal flood protection. We're going to tell the nation. That's a pretty big mission for one person. But I said it, my husband remembers it, and that's when my son and I put our heads together.

My son is very skilled in website design. We realized with a good website, we could help get the word out. We spent a month working on it. We reserved our URL. We created the mission. We created the goal. We created a technique to get people to join. We launched on December 3rd.

My worries were confined to: How am I going to gain credibility? What do I have to do to gain peoples' confidence? I did not worry about criticizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I might as well be criticizing aliens on Mars; I never, ever expected them to respond to me or to recognize what I was doing. It would have been like talking about President Bush -- I never would expect President Bush to respond to anything I did.

I'm a citizen. I'm exercising my right to speak publicly about something I believe. I wasn't born yesterday -- I know I wasn't doing anything wrong by that. So my worries were confined to how am I going to do this? To gain credibility, I needed members.

The first thing we did is create a petition to President Bush. We said: President Bush, please recognize the mistakes of the Corps and please help New Orleans as you promised in Jackson Square, a week after Katrina. People were happy to get on and sign that. We got 200 members immediately. That's how we gained our core membership.

"Everyone Looked At Me Like I'd Sprung a Second Head"

On December 7th [2005], I drove into [New Orleans] for my very first meeting to talk about Levees.Org. It was a meeting at Touro Synagogue that was organized to discuss what steps citizens could take to get assistance from Congress. I had called ahead and made certain there would be wireless internet so that I could show off our newly launched website.

I waited my turn. I was wiggling in my chair like a little girl on her first day of school. Finally they came to me. I said, I've formed an organization called Levees.Org, and we're going to educate the whole nation about what really happened, that this is federal, and not local, and we're going to hold a rally at the Corps building. And I'm not just all talk, I have a website, and I have 200 members.

There was silence in the room. Everyone looked at me like I'd just sprung a second head. The moderator said, OK, next.

I got in the car and I drove back to Lafayette, and I told my husband, they don't get it even in New Orleans. I was in a room full of educated people at Touro Synagogue and they don't get it. This is December 7th. That gave me the strength to go on. Things like that gave me the strength to go on.

We moved back to New Orleans December 17th. Our child had finished the school semester, and we could come back to the city. I was so busy working on Levees.Org, that's all I could think about at that time. But it was good to be home.

I'll never forget the point at which the interstate comes up high, and it takes a turn, just as comes into the Bonne Carre Spillway and you can see New Orleans in the distance. I saw the city and was feeling so good because for the first time, I was not only driving back to New Orleans, I was driving back to New Orleans to stay. That was a very exciting day. December 17th. Saturday.

Growing Levees.Org in New Orleans

In the beginning, it was true grassroots. We were people talking to people. I did a lot of talking. I did a lot of canvassing. We had some yard signs made. I used to drive around with them in my car and pull up to peoples' houses and say, do you want to put this sign in your yard? I loved that human part of grassroots work and I miss it. We still are grassroots, although we've developed a lot of momentum.

We are web-based. I've had someone ask me, have you considered going more into communities and using the telephones more, and yes, I considered it. We just don't have the people. It's time-consuming work that is important. I'd love to be doing it. But we don't have the people. People here are gutting their homes. Working two jobs. Traveling back and forth to their houses, cleaning their houses. Nobody has time. We had to get the most benefit for the littlest amount of effort. We had no choice. For that reason, we've had to be web-based.

[Being web-based] has its drawbacks. People lost their computers in the floods. Some don't have computers. You really lose the elderly. The elderly are generally not doing the computer thing. Not all of them; my 90-year-old grandmother has an email address. I don't mean to speak of all of them. But you do lose that group who hasn't gotten fully into the internet scene. Again, we've done it out of necessity.

In New Orleans, I do grassroots group work that isn't web-based, primarily the yard signs that we have all over town that say "Hold the Corps Accountable!" We have 20 banners all over town that say "Hold the Corps Accountable!" and have a phone number, so anybody can get more information about who we are and what we're doing. I have two ladies whose job it is to check that phone number everyday for phone calls coming in.

In the beginning, a lot of people told me I was barking up the wrong tree. Go join other grassroots groups that are doing these missions. I would say no, that's a separate mission. That's a good mission, but that's not all that I'm doing. This was when there was a lot of confusion, when a lot of people really thought it was the local levee boards that were primarily responsible for the levee failures. I got a lot of that.

I have had a little bit of vandalism. My Expedition was parked out front, full of signs. The car was keyed. There's no doubt in my mind that that was intentional because of the work that I'm doing for Levees.Org. I tried not to say a word about it because it defocused on the mission.

The only [real] backlash has been Congress' resistance to recognize the mistakes of the Corps. I can count on one hand the number of our members of Congress, that's including our own delegation, who have recognized the mistakes of the Corps, and said we've got to do something to help those people. Two of them our own delegation and they almost don't count.

The First Rally @ the Army Corps of Engineers

At that time, the Corps of Engineers was blaming the New Orleans Levee Board for the breaks. This was engineering. People didn't know what to believe. Now it's common knowledge that the mistakes were the Corps'. It was far from common knowledge in January [2006]. In January, much of our energies of Levees.Org was convincing our own citizens that this isn't our fault.

We put out a press release that [our] rally was going to be the Corps building on January 21st [2006]. A friend of my sister-in-law helped get word to the media. I asked my husband to help me. He gave me some money so that we could run an ad in the Times-Picayune. Between the ad in the Times-Picayune, the membership that we had gotten through grassroots, and then these signs that I had put up, we gathered members to come to our very first rally.

[We had] about 300 people. A very healthy number of people especially since there were so few people in the city at that time.

We chose not to invite elected officials to speak. We chose to keep it citizens. I stated that the mission of Levees.Org is to make the facts of the New Orleans flood mainstream knowledge. That we wouldn't stop until this was done. At that time, it was just getting out the word, getting out the facts. It was essentially a kickoff rally.

We all turned our bodies to face Washington, DC. I yelled to the Capitol, President Bush, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, you flooded us, now please help us. It was a chant that we kept going for quite a while. It was great. Little kids. Everybody was there. I wish there had been a better representation of African-Americans. You had to realize how few people were back at that time. I did try to keep it diverse. There were some there, but not as many as I had hoped for.

The Corps administrators were very worried about our rally. I found out afterward that they had issued memos to the entire staff that there's going to be a rally, so be prepared.

I guess they thought we were going to throw tomatoes at them or something. We're a peaceful group. Everyone knows we're a peaceful group now. But I think they were preparing for the worst. There were even a pair of Humvees and U.S. Corps of Engineers in full military garb. I didn't see any guns, but I did see the Humvees and the men. They had a police car pull up into the driveway -- I guess to prevent people from trying to pull into the driveway.

I never looked in the direction of the Corps building. I just focused on doing a peaceful demonstration just to get out the word that this is the primarily the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is not us. We felt that if American citizens had the facts, that would create a whole lot better environment for getting the funding and the assistance that we needed.

The First Face-to-Face Meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers

In late February [2006], Dan Hitchings, the equivalent of a one-star general at the Corps, invited me and a group of my members to go sit down and have a talk with him. He was, and still is, the Director of Taskforce Guardian which is responsible for ramping up the condition of the levees.

I was shocked. I had said publicly many times -- on radio and in print -- that I didn't expect the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to talk to me. They're military. I was surprised when he called. And he did.

I had no expectations for that meeting. I thought we were going there for a Power Point presentation. Well, we sat down at a table, and he answered any question we had. No prepared speech. No Power Point presentation. I asked him, point blank, to his face, people here think it's us, that the levee boards caused this flooding. Would you set them right on this? He said that no, the levee boards did not cause the flooding, to his knowledge. Now, there are investigations going on right now, but as far as [I] know, the levee board did nothing of significance, concerning flood protection. I said, well, what about the Corps' role in all this? He said, the Corps is accountable to the people and to Congress for the final product.

Now this is February, before [the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] admitted responsibility for the flooding. They were changing their stance. They were realizing they can't have this stand-off attitude. They were becoming more transparent -- I wouldn't say transparent, but they stopped the standoffish, defensive attitude that they'd had for years up until Katrina. That was a groundbreaking event. A change. A definite milestone in the relationship of the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans and the relationship of Levees.Org with the Corps of Engineers. It was an important day.

Too Big to Be Just Mother & Son

In March, it became obvious that it could no longer be a mother and son team. We needed people in charge of things like signs and letter writing. We needed a research department. I began doing outreach programs to find people who would like to work in research, people who would like to write. I needed to have a team of people who could help out, who liked to come to events. There are people who that's all they want to do: they won't write a letter, but they'll come to a rally. I started setting up these groups in about March. I now have 10 different committees each composed of 10-40 people.

The first true jump in our membership was when Bobby Jindal signed on with us. He signed our petition, and then he agreed to be listed on our website as a public supporter of Levees.Org. He was the first. Very "Bobby Jindal" of him to do that. Totally willing to do something that no else has ever done. Shortly after that, we got the public support of Sen. David Vitter. Another jump in our membership. Sen. Vitter is a Senator. Bobby Jindal went from 1,400 to 2,000 in 24 hours. Then Vitter was another jump. Probably from 2,200 to 2,600. Another big jump. Those things help. Members is credibility. It really is.

We have no corporate sponsors, and expenses are funded entirely by member donations. We've probably received, I would say, on the order of $5,000 or so in donations. Unlike other grassroots organizations, we have no political advisors, no alignments to anything, or anyone. It gives us independence. In fact, the Corps of Engineers has even said to someone who said to me, that they're worried about Levees.Org because they don't know what we're going to do next. We're unpredictable. That's what makes it very scary for anybody who's watching what we're doing. It gives us power.

To read the complete oral history essay, please visit: