Who Blew the Levee?

August 29, 2015 marks the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf South states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. The devastation was widespread, causing millions of homes to be damaged or destroyed as far north as Meridian, MS and leaving millions of people homeless for months (and many for years) thereafter. New Orleans’ collective Katrina story was, perhaps, the most well known (often to the chagrin of victims who lived outside of the Greater New Orleans area). An estimated 1577 Louisianans and 238 Mississippians lost their lives, the vast majority of the deceased being poor; of that number a majority were African American.

With all the emotional distress attached to the city’s destruction, to the plight of the thousands stranded in the city after the failure of the levees built to protect the city, and the gross mismanagement of the situation at every level of government and law enforcement; should the development of a racially-inspired conspiracy theory be any surprise?

Insinuations of a deliberate explosion, causing an area of the New Orleans’ levee system are not unique to Hurricane Katrina. The idea of a levee being blown in a poor area to save the well-to-do gentry stems from the fact that this did happen in 1927, when power outages caused a failure of the New Orleans pump stations and, days after the city initially flooded, a section of levee was blown some 13 miles away from the city. The intentional destruction of a levee, which was not only unnecessary but ended up causing the homelessness of thousands, is a true story and fairly well known New Orleans area history. From that point on, any flood or levee breach that disproportionately affected the city’s poorer citizens (which invariably happens, in part, because poorer people live in higher risk areas) was met with gossip and innuendo of an intentional levee breach ‘to protect the wealthier wards at the cost of the poorer.’

The belief that someone ‘blew the levees’ in the 9th Ward immediately after Hurricane Katrina was not localized to 9th Ward residents, or to New Orleans. Spike Lee’s assertions on Real Time with Bill Maher came only after the host quoted more deliberate accusations from Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. The leap from the very real plight of the poorest people in New Orleans (and everywhere in America, for that matter) and the also very real racial disparity (which often intersects with poverty to create a double-bind of inequality and risk) has been, to some who had discussed the outcomes of Hurricane Katrina, conflated into a conspiracy that deliberately targeted the poor African American New Orleanians.

The biggest problem with this conspiracy theory, and with the ten-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans this theory has been enjoying a resurgence online and in other media, is not that it is an oversimplification of the real story of racial and economic injustices, but that it seems to invalidate those same injustices. To say that the ‘powers that be’ decided to deliberately one ward to protect others; assumes a total lack of morality and sense of justice at every level of government, ignores the fact that all wards received damage, and that blowing up a levee would only guarantee a chain reaction of further levee breaches due to way the New Orleans levees were set up at that time (essentially a ring of earthen mounds with little reinforcement and a set of ineffective lock/gates which were in desperate need of repair) and that 53 total levee breaches were reported as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

The disregard of facts, the anti-Government innuendo, and the willingness to move towards a decidedly nefarious view of humanity are all at the heart of this and other conspiracy theories. This is quite sad, considering that the story of post-Katrina rescue efforts could have been interpreted as the unification of the entire country (and even the entire world) to donate their time and money to first rescue, then house, then fund the recovery efforts, and later volunteer their intellect, fame, clout, and any other asset available to turn the lost city into the current city of New Orleans. Assuming a nefarious plot to blow the 9th Ward levees, too, lets some of the worst incompetence in human history off the hook; making it seem as though politicians and policy makers are evil, instead of incompetent. The innuendo regarding the 9th ward being ‘blown up’ often jumps over the leadership of then mayor, C. Ray Nagin, who is currently serving a ten year prison sentence for bribery and money laundering due to his post-Katrina profiteering; corruption that slowed New Orleans’ recovery by years.

Rather than acknowledge the mismanagement of every level of government, those who believe the levees were intentionally blown up tend to blame everyone but former-Mayor Nagin; including the Federal Government, the Army Corp of Engineers, the State of Louisiana and former-Governor Kathleen Blanco. Blanco eventually acknowledged her responsibility in the gross mismanagement of the disaster at the state level, as did former President George W. Bush, the then director of F.E.M.A., Michael Brown and the Army Corp of Engineers. A lack of planning, lack of adequate resources, lack of adequate protections, lack of proper deployment of assets, a general disregard for the immediacy and severity of the situation, and incompetence unchecked at every level. This is the truth about the Government’s involvement regarding Hurricane Katrina. If the gross incompetence and mismanagement of disaster relief and deployment is overshadowed by the specter of conspiracy theory and the accusations of racist plots is all anyone remembers when they consider the subject, then no honest discussion will ever be had and the lessons of this disaster will simply need to be relearned.

Instead, it is wiser to reject the conspiracy theory and accept the gross incompetence and structural inequality as factual causes, learn from the hard-taught lessons of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and prevent the next natural disaster from becoming the next great human-caused catastrophe.

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