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Wall St and Business Wednesdays: E-Letter To Daniel Machalaba And The Wall Street Journal Re: "Still Unknown: Did Barge Strike Levee?"


For approximately two weeks now, I have been referring and forwarding your brief September 9, 2005 article "Still Unknown: Did Barge Strike Levee?" to individuals I know and respect who have been actively following the news reports regarding the Katrina disaster and working to help evacuees and those throughout the Gulf Coast. I have been impressed by how none of them were aware of your specific article, prior to me bringing it to their attention, as well as the fact that of all of the papers that I would expect to cover it, The Wall St. Journal stands uniquely alone in the way it has even dared to consider the question – the very possibility – that the ‘breach’ in the levee near the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was caused by a barge that crashed into it.

I am pretty confident that you have heard some reports or news that many within the Black community in New Orleans and across the country, suspect that there is more to the story of how the Black areas of the city were disproportionately flooded than has been provided by print, cable, radio and TV media. The story getting the most attention in this regard is a suggestion, publicly offered by Minister Louis Farrakhan of The Nation of Islam, that the levee may have been blown up to destroy the Black part of the city. Minister Farrakhan states that this opinion is based upon information he received from a reliable source who saw a twenty-five foot crater underneath a levee that was breached. There are also local Black residents of New Orleans, interviewed by ABC News' anchor and correspondent David Muir, who are convinced that they actually heard and felt an explosion. They believe government is responsible. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, on "Meet The Press", last weekend, said he was surprised not only by how many Blacks in New Orleans believe this but what kind of people do, saying, "I was stunned in New Orleans at how many black New Orleanians would tell me with real conviction that somehow the levee breaks had been engineered in order to save the French Quarter and the Garden District at the expense of the Lower Ninth Ward, which is almost all black...But these are not wild-eyed people. These are reasonable, sober people who really believe that."

Many in media have reacted to all of this by stating that Minister Farrakhan is putting forth a ‘conspiracy theory.’

Aside from the negative connotation that phrase – conspiracy theory - has now come to garner in the political lexicon, I think these commentators, observers and journalists are incorrect. I believe that Minister Farrakhan is not putting forth a theory, but possibly, more accurately, a ‘hypothesis.’ There is a very significant difference in a shade of meaning between a theory and a hypothesis. A thorough comparison and contrasting of these two words is beyond the scope of this communication, but is worthwhile and should be done. For now, I will state that a theory implies considerable evidence in support of a formulated general principle explaining the operation of certain phenomena. It is a speculative idea or plan as to how something might be done. A hypothesis implies an inadequacy of evidence in support of an explanation that is tentatively inferred, often as a basis for further experimentation. It is the groundwork, foundation, supposition and proposition tentatively accepted as a basis for further investigation and argument. It is an interpretation of a practical situation taken as grounds for action.

In reacting, as they have, in mischaracterizing Minister Farrakhan’s hypothesis, the media, in particular, has done us all a disservice, I believe. I have heard numerous commentators play the excerpt of Minister Farrakhan’s remarks, over and over again, for the purpose of not investigating what he said but for the purpose of entertaining their audiences and furthering an ideological agenda. Two examples of this I have heard this week are the way the comment was handled by Larry Elder and Sean Hannity. On the talk radio programs of both of these men, I heard some good points made, a bit of analysis and plenty of mockery. But I did not hear that which is required to understand any communication, whether spoken or written, by another person – the premise, motive and context of that communication.

Now, I don’t actually expect that from Messrs. Elder and Hannity, who I view primarily as opinion leaders, entertainers and ideologues. But I do expect that from journalists, who are professionals in the area of investigating and researching facts, making proper interpretations and offering explanations regarding persons, entities and events. Two days ago, on September 19, 2005, in Houston, Minister Louis Farrakhan offered more related to what I call his hypothesis, presenting historical information to support the legitimacy of considering the possibility and suggestion his widely-reported remarks include. As of yet I have heard none of those who have been speaking about this controversy refer to his latest comments.

All of this is relevant to your article which raises, in its very title, the question as to whether or not a breach in the levee was caused by a barge striking it, rather than rising water, or water pressure, as has been widely reported. What you are putting forth is more of a theory than a hypothesis, in my view because it deals more with the how of the matter. But in both cases, whether theory or hypothesis – it is expected that further investigation would occur, or arguments would be made by those considering the theory or hypothesis – to test it, support or refute it. That is why I am both pleased and disappointed by your reporting.

While I am impressed by the courage and insight it took to write your article, I have noticed in your subsequent reporting that you have not pursued any of the important avenues contained in your brief September 10th article. Here is that article in its entirety (bold emphasis is mine):

Still Unknown: Did Barge Strike Levee?
By DANIEL MACHALABA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 9, 2005


Ingram Barge Co. confirmed that it owns a barge that careened down the Industrial Canal as Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, but says the vessel probably was sucked through an existing breach in the levee that allowed water to inundate the neighboring lower Ninth Ward.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is repairing the levees, has said that one possible cause of this breach is that the barge smashed through. Another possibility, the corps said, is that the floodwaters that went over the top of the levee caused the failure by weakening its structure. The corps said it hasn't yet begun an investigation.

Dan Mecklenborg, chief legal officer of Ingram, a closely held barge operator based in Nashville, Tenn., said an initial examination didn't reveal any significant damage to the barge, now resting against a house near the levee.

"It seems to us likely that the flood wall failed, and the barge was sucked through and didn't ram a hole in the levee," Mr. Mecklenborg said. He said the barge had already delivered its cargo of cement to a nearby terminal when Katrina hit, and that it would have been the terminal's responsibility to secure it in advance of the storm.

According to Mr. Mecklenborg, the terminal was operated by Lafarge North America Inc., a construction materials company based in Herndon, Va. Sherry Peske, Lafarge's vice president-communications and public affairs, said the cement terminal remains inaccessible and the company is "not yet able to provide additional information regarding the terminal or its related transportation operations"


****

Mr. Machalaba, if the Army Corps of Engineers, which is repairing the breach said that a possible cause of the breach was a barge smashing through it, why wouldn’t you pursue that hypothesis? Furthermore, if as you report - the Army Corps of Engineers themselves said that as of the date of your article (10 days after the hurricane hit) they still had not begun an investigation into the matter, I would expect in your future reporting that you would update your readers on the status of the decision to investigate this matter, not to mention an update on the status of an investigation if one had begun. Yet, in your next article in The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2005, "Lost on the River: Web Site Helps Owners Find Their Stray Barges" I read the following (bold emphasis is mine):

Katrina ripped barges from their moorings on the Mississippi River and Industrial Canal in New Orleans, which connects the river to other busy freight routes. The canal still is partially blocked by one barge, while another that was swept through the levee along the Industrial Canal now rests in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The barge was ‘swept through the levee,’ Mr. Machalaba? You write it as a fact on September 17th, when on September 10th, you framed that explanation as only a theory. What evidence or information changed your mind on this subject? Was it the Army Corps of Engineers? If so, why did you not report on what you learned from them? Was it information from a reliable source? If so, why did you not state that to be the case? And finally, was it just laziness or fear on your part? That the matter was so potentially explosive and controversial that you decided to leave it alone and place a more non-threatening assumption in your future articles?

Mr. Machalaba did you know that there are others, beyond the Army Corps of Engineers who are considering that the breach in the levee near the lower Ninth Ward was caused by a barge rather than rising water? There is a University of Michigan Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mr. Steven Wright, who is reported as saying, in a September 13, 2005 article in The Michigan Daily "My understanding is that one failure was in major part caused by the impact of a barge with the levee itself."

Finally, I have, for weeks noticed the raging debate over insurance companies who are attempting to back out of covering claims to insured Katrina victims who had their home damaged. One of the arguments as justification for not doing so is that the homes were damaged by water rather than wind, and these homes were only covered for wind damage. Another argument as justification I have heard is that these homes were covered for rain damage, and not damage caused by a flood that came from a breach in a levee.

The more I think about it, in addition to other theories or hypotheses I consider, I find myself asking the question of whether or not it is possible that the information contained in your article is not being given adequate attention by you, your newspaper, or other media outlets, because it raises the possibility that responsibility for billions of dollars worth of damage to homes and property, not to mention loss of life, may not lie directly with the hurricane, rain or rising water, but perhaps with a barge, and those who own it or were responsible for housing it. I noticed in your brief September 9th article, "Still Unknown: Did Barge Strike Levee?" you kind of hint at the question of who had responsibility for the barge at the time of the hurricane. You quote Dan Mecklenborg, chief legal officer of Ingram Barge, the owner of the barge in question, who I think skillfully slides responsibility, if any, away from his company and onto another. You wrote:

"It seems to us likely that the flood wall failed, and the barge was sucked through and didn't ram a hole in the levee," Mr. Mecklenborg said. He said the barge had already delivered its cargo of cement to a nearby terminal when Katrina hit, and that it would have been the terminal's responsibility to secure it in advance of the storm.

According to Mr. Mecklenborg, the terminal was operated by Lafarge North America Inc., a construction materials company based in Herndon, Va. Sherry Peske, Lafarge's vice president-communications and public affairs, said the cement terminal remains inaccessible and the company is "not yet able to provide additional information regarding the terminal or its related transportation operations.


And unfortunately, yet again, Mr. Machalaba, you have not pursued any of this in subsequent writings.

I give you a tremendous amount of credit for raising an important question on Sepetmber 9, 2005. You deserve acknowledgment for ‘starting’ one of the more interesting stories surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

I just wish you would finish it.

Sincerely,
Cedric Muhammad
Publisher
BlackElectorate.com
http://www.blackelectorate.com


Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

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