Commentary Forum 5/24/11

Nicole Wroten Nicole Wroten

Come hell or high water, hold the Corps accountable

By Nicole Wroten

Nicole Wroten

People still refer to the disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina simply as “Hurricane Katrina.” This is not correct. Hurricane Katrina did not cause the flooding of New Orleans; it just brought the rain.

“The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions, and decades in the making,” said Creighton Bernette, a character on the HBO drama Treme about New Orleans in the months following the storm. Bernette (played by John Goodman) and his words are based on real-life post-Katrina advocate and Tulane University professor Ashley Morris. Morris was just one of the activists who took charge of a movement of citizens who weren’t going to take this disaster lying down.

New Orleans resident Sandy Rosenthal started an advocacy group,, after she learned the levees had not been overtopped as was reported, but rather had failed. It’s one thing if the levees were overtopped – it couldn’t be helped. It’s another thing entirely that they were breached and they failed. Something the government built and maintained, failed. Hmmm, who’d have thought it? Rosenthal’s and subsequently New Orleans’ mantra soon became “Hold the Corps accountable” – a phrase that you can still see on bumper stickers and in store windows across New Orleans. The Corps’ power finally started coming into light.

In no other instance, since the disaster following Hurricane Katrina, has that been more apparent than in the recent opening of the Morganza Spillway, which put 25,000 residents in the Atchafalaya Basin at risk. This “devil’s choice” was one that nobody wanted to make, but the Army Corps certainly stepped right up and decided, didn’t they? The “devil’s choice,” indeed.

How is it that this government entity, responsible for the over 50 levee failures causing the flooding of New Orleans, still gets to make decisions like this in the U.S.?  More than a dozen investigations were carried out after the disaster, all agreeing that the engineering mechanisms built and maintained by the Corps failed. But of course, the only federally mandated study was undertaken by the Corps of Engineers themselves. Indeed, their own study concluded there were engineering oversights and flawed design in the levees protecting New Orleans – protecting a pre-Katrina population of over 1.3 million people. The study conducted by the Corps of Engineers of the Corps of Engineers said the Corps of Engineers failed miserably. Why are we still allowing them to control and mandate flood protection in the U.S.? Why are we still allowing them to make these decisions to flood our own backyards?

Saturday, I was at a local salon listening as several women discussed the flooding in Louisiana, spouting off facts they’d seen on the news. “I think they’re better off,” one woman snidely pronounced. After having evacuated New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina, I know first-hand what it’s like to “run” from a flood – the worst one in U.S. history.

She reminded me of all the comments on and blogs I read following Hurricane Katrina, suggesting New Orleans should not be saved because of its bowl design and vast flood protection measures eating up federal dollars. Should we not have rebuilt San Francisco after the earthquake? Should we turn our backs on every city along U.S. coastlines because of hurricanes?

I returned because that is what people do in the City of New Orleans. It is their home. Flooding, they are used to. Rebuilding can be done. They can’t get used to a home that is not New Orleans.

I feel Dayton and New Orleans can be easily compared in this regard. The people of Dayton want to live here. The City of Dayton, however, deals differently with flood protection.

The Miami Conservancy District (MCD) was established after the Great Dayton Flood of 1913 and built the levee system that now protects Dayton and the surrounding areas from flooding. This district is funded by the community that most benefits from its flood protection and the Army Corps of Engineers has zero involvement in the maintenance or funding of the system.

This is rare in the U.S. because most cities currently have a levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers and are “protected” from flooding by them, like New Orleans. MCD Chief Engineer Kurt Rinehart agrees that Dayton, having a unique system like this in place, has both advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages include not being able to get Congressional monies to fund larger projects and repairs, but on the flip side, one of the advantages is not having to wait on federal money to complete a project. I think the biggest advantage he mentioned is having local control over what the MCD is doing.

In Dayton, we have control over our own destiny when it comes to flood protection. We pay for this with our own tax dollars and it is comforting to know this control is in our own backyard. MCD works closely with the counties within their jurisdiction and I feel reassured knowing they can’t just swoop in and make a decision without local approval. Whereas the Army Corps of Engineers, well, all they seem to do is swoop in and take control. I consider myself lucky knowing that the Corps can’t screw me over again.

Reach DCP Editor Nicole Wroten at

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