||Last Updated: May 3rd, 2007 - 08:46:27
"By midnight on Monday the White House knew. Monday night I was at the state Emergency Operations Center and nobody was aware that the levees had breeched. Nobody."
The charges were so devastating - the White House's withholding from the state police the information that the city was about to flood - that from almost any source, I simply would have dismissed it. But this was not just any source. The whistleblower was Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy chief of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Studies Center, and the chief technician advising the state on saving lives during Katrina.
That Monday night, August 29, 2005, the sleepless crew at the state Emergency Operations Center, directing the response to Hurricane Katrina, were high-fiving it, relieved that Katrina had swung east of New Orleans, sparing the city from drowning.
They were wrong. The Army Corps, FEMA and White House knew for critical hours that the levees had begun to crack, but withheld the information for a day and night. The delay was deadly.
Van Heerden explained that levees don't collapse in a single bang. First, there's a small crack or two, a few feet wide, which take hours to burst open into visible floodways.
Had the state known New Orleans' bulwark was failing, they would have shifted resources to get out those left in the danger zone.
Van Heerden: FEMA knew on 11 o'clock on Monday that the levees had breeched. At 2pm they flew over the 17th Street Canal and took video of the breech.
Question: So the White House wouldn't tell you that the levees had breeched?
Van Heerden: They didn't tell anybody.
Question: And you're at the Emergency Center?
Van Heerden: I mean nobody knew. Well, the Corps of Engineers knew. FEMA knew. None of us knew.
The prevarications continued all week.
Van Heerden said, "I went to the Governor's on Tuesday night and I said this, 'There's a lot more breeches than one.' They said, "Whatever you need, go find out.' I got in an airplane, I flew. I counted 28 breeches."
The White House had good reason, or at least political and financial reasons, to keep mum. A hurricane is an act of God, but catastrophic levee failure is an act of the Administration. Once the federal levees go, evacuation, rescue and those frightening words - responsibility and compensation - become Washington's. Van Heerden knew that "not an act of God, but catastrophic failure of the levee system" would mean that, at least, "these people must be compensated."
Not every flood victim in America gets the Katrina treatment. In 1992, storms wiped out 190 houses on the beach at West Hampton Dunes, home to film stars and celebrity speculators. The federal government paid to completely rebuild the houses, which, hauled in four million cubic feet of sand to restore the tony beaches, and guaranteed the home's safety into the coming decades - after which the "victim's" homes rose in value to an average $2 million each.
But in New Orleans, instead of compensation, 73,000 have been sentenced to life in FEMA's trailer-parks in Louisiana. Even more are displaced to other states. I asked van Heeerden about the consequences of the White House's failures, the information about the levee being just one of a list.
"Well, fifteen hundred people drowned. That's the bottom line."
But why did the levees fail at all if the hurricane missed the city? The professor showed me a computer model indicating the levees were a foot and a half too short - the result of a technical error in the Army Corp of Engineer's calculation of sea level when the levees were built beginning in the 1930s.
And the Bush crew knew it. Long before Katrina struck, the White House staff had sought van Heerden's advice on coastal safety. So when the professor learned of the 18-inch error, he informed the White House directly. But this was advice they didn't want to hear. The President had already sent the levee repair crew, the Army Corp of Engineers, to Afghanistan and Iraq.