Mark Schleifstein: Lack of commitment to public infrastructure to blame for Katrina flooding - September 7, 2008
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Mark Schleifstein, co-author with John McQuaid of "Path of Destruction", has worked at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans since 1984. His reporting during and after Hurricane Katrina was among the newspaper's stories honored with 2006 Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service and Breaking News Reporting and the George Polk Award for Metropolitan Reporting.
NOTE: This is a segment of a live show webcast on Sept 1st
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Hi. Welcome back to The Real News Network and our coverage of Hurricane Gustav. We're talking about Gustav. We're also talking about Katrina. It seems, I'm sure to all of us, that it takes another hurricane to get America talking about Katrina. We're joined now by Mark Schleifstein, who writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. And he's still in New Orleans, if I understand correctly. You didn't leave when everyone else did. Welcome, Mark.MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN, JOURNALIST, TIMES-PICAYUNE: Welcome. Thank you.JAY: Now, tell me, were you in some threat by staying?SCHLEIFSTEIN: I guess so. You know, the storm, by the time this morning came around, it was clear the storm was smaller than expected. And, fortunately, it moved enough to the west of us that it was not a major threat in terms of life or limb. There still was a concern about some flooding as the day went on, but things have turned out pretty much alright.JAY: Now, let me let our audience know that you're an award-winning environmental reporter. You specialize in hurricanes. And I remember you wrote some of the best stuff during Katrina. This is where, I guess, at least for me, The Times-Picayune got on the map. SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, thank you.JAY: So tell us a little bit about what went wrong in Katrina. And if this storm had hit New Orleans with the same force as Katrina, would things have been any different?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Yeah. And it gets a little bit complicated, but basically what happened with Katrina was that you had a major hurricane hitting usit actually did weaken just like this one did before it made landfall, but it was right near the city. But then you had the storm surge come in, and a number of the pieces of the system of levees that protect the city failed. So you had, you know, these natural forces going on that the levee system should have protected people from, but the levee system was not up to quality standards. And then, with Gustav, basically we're facing a similar situation as late as four o'clock yesterday. Until the forecast changed at that point in time, there were major concerns about over-topping of levees and the ability of some of the pieces of the system to withstand the forces of a storm surge.JAY: So the original problem with Katrina was one with, I understand it, a lack of commitment both on the spending side and the execution side to defending New Orleans. I remember reading many articles, probably some of yours, that it wasn't like it wasn't known this could happen. There just seemed to be an inertia about doing something about it. What has your reporting, first of all, led you to conclude about who's to blame for why Katrina became such a disaster?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, there are many levels of blame that go, you know, even down to our newspaper. But, you know, in terms of the actual event itself, the major blame has to be placed at the feet of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose designs were incorrect. They blew it, basically. They misunderstood in a variety of different places the forces that could occur from hurricanes, and, actually, they misunderstood what kinds of hurricanes could exist in the Gulf of Mexico. And so the system was not designed properly.JAY: That seems hard to fathom. I mean, they had available to them the best science one could go out and buy. How could they be so wrong?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, all of the levee system in the New Orleans area had actually been authorized 40 years ago. And this is a bureaucratic agency that, once something is authorized, you build it and you try not to go back and question the authorization, you know, the underlying reasons why the thing was authorized, because, you know, you never know what Congress is going to do. They may cut off your money. It might be just too difficult to get the money. And in terms of, you know, the local governments that are supposed to be what they call "local sponsors," the problems that they have is the same thing: they recognize the inability to convince Congress to get certain money out of it for, you know, major levee projects that are, you know, in essence dirt when there are many other things that the community wanted out of Congress. They wanted money for a variety of other things, anything from hospitals to education, you know, all that sort of stuff.JAY: Of course, if the size of the public pie keeps getting smaller and smaller, there's less and less money available. So isn't this part of a question of just what kind of commitment does government have to public infrastructure?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Exactly. And that's something that has been pointed out repeatedly in the three years after Katrina. You go across the Atlantic Ocean to the Netherlands, and you see a country that decided after a major flood in 1953 that there was only one thing to do, and that was to build a major levee system no matter what it cost, and to attempt to do it right.JAY: This is having a the-storm-of-a-thousand-year standard versus what's supposed to be the storm-of-a-hundred-year standard.SCHLEIFSTEIN: Actually a 10,000-year standard. And that's part of the problem. The other part is that, you know, the reality is that we are a government made of 50 states, and all 50 states have to compete for that little piece of pie. And then, when something like a war comes along, that cuts out a big chunk of that pie.JAY: If you judgeoh, sorry. The war would have cut out to it. But, also, what about an outlook of lack of interest in public spending? And do you see any difference from either the McCain or Obama administration on this front?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Yeah, that's the other thing. And I remember I covered the presidential campaign of 1988, and one of the things that I did in the early days was follow around Jesse Jackson, and he used to joke about it. He'd say, you know, we'd be on a bridge in New York City that was falling apart, and he'd say, "This is the multi-letter dirty word 'infrastructure.'" And that's true. No one understands that our infrastructure has fallen apart, and they don't want to pay for it.JAY: Mark, thanks so much for joining us tonight, but we'd like to talk to you more in the next day or two. I take it you'll be in New Orleans. It looks like the storm's not as devastating as anyone thought it might be. Can we give you a call back, perhaps tomorrow?SCHLEIFSTEIN: Sure. Sure. Hopefully the electricity will be on by then.JAY: Right. Thanks so much for joining us. And right after a short break, we go to Minneapolis with Ray McGovern and Scott Ritter.DISCLAIMER:Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
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