Politics Mondays: The Intentional Destruction Of Levees in New Orleans – A Conspiracy Theory? Not In The Light Of History. (October 3, 2005)
"There is no perspective," a friend of mine living outside of the United States wrote to me in an e-mail, a few weeks back. He was referring to the American media coverage regarding Hurricane Katrina, as well as the reaction and thinking of many in response to the disaster. In that, and subsequent e-mail exchanges he has placed emphasis on relevant examples, analogies, parallels and precedents from recorded history – all over the world, that he believes help to place what happened in the Gulf Coast and across America over the last 40 days in perspective.
Three meanings of the word "perspective" according to yourdictionary.com are: 1) The relationship of aspects of a subject to each other and to a whole 2) Subjective evaluation of relative significance; a point of view and 3) The ability to perceive things in their actual interrelations or comparative importance.
I often find that most people with deep emotional attachments to political ideologies, among other worldviews, lack "perspective", as the word is defined in its first and third meanings above. One such influential group within the much larger body of those who ardently subscribe to political ideologies, that many of us are familiar with, are political talk show hosts – on both cable and radio. The recent ‘explosion’ of conservative talk radio, in particular, and its influence on public opinion and the decision-making of American elected officials is an interesting study, related to this concept and word – perspective.
Recently, as it relates to the controversy that has erupted over Minister Louis Farrakhan’s suggestion and hypothesis that a levee breach, or crevasse, in New Orleans was intentionally affected by an explosion; I have noted that much of the public discussion and ‘uproar’ over the Minister’s publicly expressed thinking has been heavily influenced by opinion leading talk show hosts. Those, within that group that I have paid closest attention to over the last two weeks are Mr. Sean Hannity and Mr. Larry Elder. I have listened periodically to both of their radio shows for several years, and in terms of their profession, I see both of these men as talented, interesting, and successful. I do not consider them to be journalists and I do realize that their public expressions take place as much in the context of entertainment and a broadcasting industry business model, as they do in the spheres of ‘politics’ and ‘news.’ As a result of this, and their rigid attitudes and thinking, I expect them to be selective in their research process and limited in how broad and deep of a context they provide in discussing current events. Although they frequently speak truths accurately, as many of us do, I do not expect them or any of their peers to be purely motivated by a desire to a) search for facts b) make proper interpretations; and c) draw accurate conclusions, that can be tested and verified by any reasonable and rational person.
However, for many, talk radio is often the first and only, if not most trusted source of news, information and analysis on current events and politics. I have several associates and acquaintances who have impressed me with how deferential they are to what they hear on such programs. It is as if they do no independent thinking outside of what they hear Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Larry Elder, Glen Beck, Michael Savage and Laura Ingram say. For liberal or progressive ideologues, perhaps the same is becoming true of their relationship with National Public Radio (NPR), and Air America talk show hosts.
I have been struck by this reality as it relates to the quality of the discussion, in not only talk radio, but all forms of media regarding Minister Louis Farrakhan’s statements. To me, the most noticeable factor missing from this conversation and debate - other than a serious effort to get the premise, motive and context of his actual remarks - is that of historical perspective.
Although Minister Farrakhan has mentioned historical information in all of the public statements he has given regarding his suggestion and hypothesis regarding the levee breach; I have not heard a single talk show host; Sunday morning news program; or newspaper article that has addressed the Minister’s view or that of other Blacks who share it - in part or full - deal with some of the historical information presented or alluded to by the Minister in any of his talks in question. Nor have they, of their own, presented a relevant historical context in which to weigh his remarks.
Minister Farrakhan’s teacher, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, wrote, in part, beginning in the 1930s, "Of all our studies history is the most attractive and best qualified to reward our research, as it develops the springs and motives of human actions and displays the consequences of circumstances which operates most powerfully on the destinies of human beings." His statement has been repeated over the years by many of his students, perhaps most famously by Minister Malcolm X.
History takes us into the motivation of human beings and consequences of their thinking and action. It also provides perspective for events that take place in the present, allowing us to weigh events, things, institutions, persons, ideas, and scenarios in relation to one another, across space and time. It elevates our view of what we are currently looking at, above and beyond its "face" or most superficial aspects. With the light of history we can deepen and sharpen our perception of an actual reality, and its relationship to the law of cause and effect.
Although it is hard to estimate and verify such things, I am convinced that the most referenced book utilized by the media since Hurricane Katrina is the historical work, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 And How It Changed America by John M. Barry. As a consequence, I also hold the opinion that, thus far, Mr. Barry is the media’s most respected opinion leader on the wide impact, implications and ramifications of floods that have hit the Gulf Coast region of the United States, over the last 100 years. He has been quoted extensively by journalists in mainstream and alternative media and has been interviewed by a wide range of talk show hosts – from Tim Russert, on the respected mainstream political talk show, "Meet The Press" to Matsimela Mapfumo and Dick Gregory on the popular Black talk radio show, "Make It Plain." Mr. Barry and his book, provide historical perspective for those who would wish to better understand Hurricane Katrina, and think through its real and potential impact.
Yet and still, as widely referred to as Mr. Barry and his book are by members of the media, I have not read in print or heard on radio, a single reference to a major, if not central theme of his book – the decision to intentionally destroy the levees in the Flood of 1927, in order to save one part of New Orleans at the expense of another. I find it hard to imagine it possible for anyone who has read this book to miss this prominent subject. And even for those who only skim, glance or glean, the book’s index even includes a section under the heading: "levees: the intentional destruction of." It then lists the following page numbers as dealing with that particular subject: 168, 222, 227, 229, 231-232, 234, 238- 258, 339, 408. Under the index heading of "Herbert Hoover" one finds a sub heading of "levee dynamiting and." The page numbers listed for this are 246, 252-253, 255, 340. (Even Minister Farrakhan makes an appearance in Rising Tide's index under, "Farrakhan, Louis, 128").
So why, in light of this subject’s prominence, in such a widely respected and referred to book, has it received so little attention in all forms of media? More specifically, why have those who have spoken so apparently freely on the subject of Minister Farrakhan’s comments, not mentioned the material in Rising Tide which describes not only the intentional destruction of levees, but also how the decision was made and who made it, in chronological order? Is it a mere oversight or accident that not one person in the media to the best of my knowledge has explored a relationship to what Minister Farrakhan is suggesting happened in 2005 with what is documented to have happened in the 1920s, in this book?
In my "E-Letter To Mike Dunne and The Advocate Re: "LSU Storm Expert Rejects Levee Failure Explanation", I wrote that there is a rational and reasonable basis for suspecting that there is more to the reality of what caused the levee(s) to break during or after Katrina, than what has been publicly offered by government and the mainstream media. I also mentioned that there were five salient points to that basis. The fourth of those points was the possibility of a historical precedent. To support that basis I quoted two brief excerpts of Rising Tide, pages 222 and 231 to be specific.
In order to provide more perspective related to that basis, here, below, are some more excerpts, with brief notes of introduction, related only to the planning phase of the intentional destruction of levees during the 1920s. (bold emphasis is mine.)
-*Note: In 1922 a flood hit New Orleans and intensified a decades-old debate among those who favored a policy of using levees only to protect the city from flooding, and those who believed that "spillways" – outlets that allow water from rivers to escape, in order to relieve water pressure on levees – should be built somewhere in the city. The leading advocate of "spillways" was James Kemper who was supported by a major New Orleans newspaper publisher, Jim Thomson, a man with high level Washington, D.C. connections. When a levee breach or crevasse took place in a place called Poydras, 12 miles below New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish, although it caused widespread damage in that area, it resulted in a decrease in rising water levels in the river at New Orleans. The Poydras crevasse and its effect was used by "spillway" advocates as support for their approach. Those lobbying for spillways made their case at the local, state and federal level and received support as well as resistance. The discussion of "spillovers" evolved into one over whether or not it would be helpful to destroy levees that had already been built
Excerpt From Rising Tide, pgs. 167-168:
More than ever, Kemper was convinced New Orleans needed a spillway for emergencies. He believed the experience of the Poydras crevasse proved his case. He began to fight, hard, for his beliefs, and was joined by far more powerful allies.
Jim Thomson threw his weight behind Kemper. Long interested in the river, Thomson owned two New Orleans newspapers, the Morning Tribune and the afternoon Item. He was also well connected in Washington; he had worked in several presidential campaigns and, using family like a medieval potentate cementing alliances, became the son-in-law of the Speaker of the House and the brother-in-law of a senator, with a niece married to a senator. He contacted the presidents of every bank in the city, the Cotton Exchange, the Board of Trade, the Association of Commerce, and union leaders, then formed them all into the Safe River Committee of 100. Together their connections stretched from Washington to Wall Street.
For the next five years Thomson pushed Presidents Harding and Coolidge, the War Department, and the Congress to require the river commission to build a spillway.
General Beach, head of the Army engineers, responded by charging that New Orleans’ interests wanted a spillway only to save money. The city’s port infrastructure – docks, railroads, grain elevators, cotton warehouses, wharves – had been built to the old Mississippi River Commission standard. Raising it all to the new commission standard would cost millions o dollars, and the federal government would pay none of it. Beach also warned, "Some one has apparently started a propaganda, judging by the letters which are reaching this office...Indiscriminate accusations against adopted methods can only result in harm." When the criticism did not stop, he threatened the city, subtly intimating that he might advise "capitalists" to invest in competing ports like Mobile or Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans.
But his critics persisted. Finally, at a meeting on spillways in August 1922 in New Orleans, Beach told the businessmen present, "If it were my property, I would rather blow a hole in a levee, if conditions became serious, and let the water take care of itself, rather than [pay to] build it and pay $250,000 a year continually in interest charges [for bonds] and the additional cost of maintenance."
The chief of Army engineers was recommending that his audience blow up a levee and flood its neighbors. It seemed an astounding position for him to take. In taking it he was conceding that they were right, that a spillway would work.
Excerpt From Rising Tide, pg. 222:
After the 1922 flood the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers had advised the New Orleans financial community that, if the river ever seriously threatened the city, they should blow a hole in the levee. In the years since, those words had never left the consciousness of either the people in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, who would be sacrificed, or those who dealt with the river in New Orleans
-*Note: On pg. 225 of Rising Tide, John Barry writes, "Three men determined what went into newspapers in the city." He describes how New Orleans-area and Louisiana media coverage was determined by three men, Robert Ewing, owner of the States and papers in Monroe and Shreveport; Esmond Phelps who controlled the board of The Times Picayune; and Jim Thomson, owner of The Morning Tribune and the Item. According to Mr. Barry, a Mr. Issac Cline, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau’s New Orleans office, who was watching the media’s coverage of the flood, became displeased with it. The local coverage of the flood, as he felt it ignored or understated its severity for some. In this next excerpt Mr. Barry describes Mr. Cline’s position and continues with more of the discussions regarding the intentional destruction of levees – an emergency meeting among the city’s establishment. Referred to in this excerpt are Rudolph Hecht, president of Hibernia Bank and Lonnie Pool, president of Marine Bank and Trust Company.
Excerpt From Rising Tide, pg. 227
Cline was not worried about New Orleans itself. He agreed with Kemper that a great flood – and this already looked like a great flood – would break levees hundreds of miles upriver and relieve the city. But people in vulnerable areas read and relied on New Orleans papers; the lack of warning there would create a false sense of security. His angry protest was conveyed to Thomson, who relented somewhat, printing that afternoon, "Heavy Rains Raise River; Weather Bureau Advises of Rising Stages…The bureau urged ‘all persons interested to take necessary precautions against still higher stages during the next two weeks.’"
The story did not satisfy Cline. Late that afternoon he met with business leaders to demand honesty in future stories. They assured him of it. They were lying. Nor did they tell him that Thomson had already called an emergency meeting about the river. Butler had been out of the city and had sent Canal Bank Vice President Dan Curran, a close friend of LeRoy Percy, as his representative. Hecht and Pool had attended. In that meeting, for the first time, Thomson had talked seriously about dynamiting the levee. If the situation worsened, he said, he would travel to Washington and see the president himself.
No one had protested against the enormity of the act Thomson was suggesting. It was illegal, and it would destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people. Nor had anyone questioned the authority, right, or ability of those in the meeting to perform this illegal act. Nor, although they had been discussing the most public business, business that involved federal, state, city, and parish governments, had anyone protested the fact that no public official had been present.
After the meeting, Thomson had informed levee board president Guy Deano, who in turn privately advised Klorer, the city councilman and river engineer, "The Emergency Committee had conferences...and plans have been worked out by them."
-*Note: A second emergency meeting was held to discuss the intentional destruction of levees in New Orleans. Referred to in this excerpt is James Pierce Butler, head of the Canal Bank, the largest bank in the South with intimate ties to Chase in New York. Also referred to is the Board of Liquidation, which was created in 1880 by New Orleans bankers to handle the debt left over from Reconstruction. It had enormous powers including handling all of the money New Orleans collected in taxes and authority over the city’s issuance of bonds.
Excerpt from Rising Tide's picture section. Under a picture of Mr. James Pierce Butler, Jr. appears the following caption:
"...Butler was president of the South's largest bank and of the elite Boston Club. He manipulated the state and federal governments into dynamiting the levee outside New Orleans - flooding out thousands of people - to relieve pressure on the city."
Excerpt From Rising Tide, pg. 228
With the torrents were still falling, Marcel Garsaud, a former Army colonel and levee engineer who was now manager of the Dock Board, called Hecht, the board president, and said they needed to discuss the river situation immediately. Hecht also asked Butler, Pool, who that year headed the New Orleans Clearing House Association, several other bank presidents, and General Allison Owen, president of the Association of Commerce to come to an emergency meeting.
Thomson was not invited. Possibly Hecht kept him out because he was not a member of the inner sanctum. Possibly Garsaud objected because of Garsaud’s bitter feeling toward Kemper, whom Thomson might have brought. Garsaud was prickly, bristled at any offense, and although the two engineers agreed on policy Kemper had recently rebuked him for his mistaken calculations on the industrial canal, and for playing "politics" and creating discord, writing, "I have been in this game, Colonel, much longer than you have. For a long time I fought a lone fight...You have set us back several years."
Those who did belong to the inner sanctum gathered in Hecht’s office at the Hibernia Bank. Outside, the rain lashed the windows; the wind shook them. Hecht, a cigar aficionado, lit one. So did several others. The smoke filled the room. The windows were opaque with condensation, isolating them from the world outside.
Garsaud announced that he had just talked to Cline. The rain could continue for hours. "If the levees up river hold, the Mississippi could reach a stage of 24.5 feet here," Garsaud said. "In my opinion a stage above 24 feet could well cause a crevasse." Then Garsaud suggested that they could eliminate any doubt about the safety of New Orleans by dynamiting the levee elsewhere, if the men present deemed it wise.
Everyone present knew that Thomson had already begun planning for this eventuality, but it was not his decision. It was theirs. They were bankers, mostly. Bankers had a history of taking charge in city crises. During the 1905 yellow fever epidemic, the U.S. Surgeon General refused to help the city without a guarantee of $250,000. The mayor had lacked the authority to make any such commitment. Charles Javier, then president of the Canal Bank, a member of the Board of Liquidation, and chairman of the state Democratic Party’s Central Committee, had made two telephone calls, then gave the guarantee, and federal resources had poured into the city to fight the outbreak.
Now all of the bankers present had received wires from correspondent banks in New York and elsewhere, inquiring about the city’s safety. Implicit in the inquiry was the question of investment risk, a life-and-death question to them.
Butler had replaced Janvier at both the bank and the Board of Liquidation. Nothing could be done if he opposed it. Butler was the key.
Excerpt From Rising Tide, pg. 231
Butler turned to the men in the room and said they needed information on several issues, some legal, some technical. Addressing Garsaud, he said, "You say "if the levees above us hold." There is little chance of that, is there?"
"They will probably not hold," Garsaud conceded. "But the pressure will be intense here in any event. It is possible that water could flow out through any levee breaks and return to the river."
Hecht raised another point. Even if no river water entered New Orleans, the flood could destroy the city financially. People were building boats, tying them to their porches, stocking groceries. To liquidate inventories, wholesale suppliers were cutting prices in half and begging customers around the country to buy. Daily, hundreds of thousands of dollars were being withdrawn from banks. If the fear grew great enough, if a run developed on a bank, it would hurt, and perhaps even destroy, weaker banks. Short-term credit was disappearing, period. Long term, if the nation’s businessmen lost confidence in the safety of New Orleans, serious damage could result. Rival ports were hungry. The Illinois Central recently had – for the first time – shipped a load of molasses from Gulfport, Mississippi. U.S. Steel was planning to ship exports out of Mobile, Alabama.
Pool’s bank was the most vulnerable in the city; he had aggressively loaned money to sugar planters. A crevasse on the river’s west bank could destroy them, and his bank. Dynamiting the levee on the east bank might also relieve them. Pool argued: "The people of the New Orleans are in such a panic that all who can do so are leaving the city. Thousands are leaving daily. Only dynamite will restore confidence."
Butler knew the power of the river. As a boy, he had watched his father cut a canal from St. Catherine’s Creek on their property to the Mississippi. It had been a mistake. The creek quickly grew into a powerful river itself and scoured out acres of their plantation. The creek had awed him, and the Mississippi had seemed like God. He knew what floods were.
Now they were discussing purposefully loosing the Mississippi River on their neighbors. It was a horrible thing, a thing that ran against everything he had been raised to believe. How real was the threat to New Orleans? The threat to its business was real enough, but how real was the threat of the river? Or did it matter?
"I believe," Butler said coolly, not explicitly deciding but allowing momentum to gather more force, "the appropriate step at this point is to involve the authorities."
Eventually the decision to explode the levee was made and actually executed. It involved the highest levels of government and commerce. According to Mr. Barry, it was an unnecessary act and one that had tremendous negative consequences - some less obvious than others. The book, Rising Tide contains this story in great detail, as the above excerpts should indicate. The actual explosion is described in Chapter Twenty. The destructive process took place for ten consecutive days, using 39 tons of dynamite. It destroyed the St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.
Why isn’t that story being told today, in light of a supposed interest, expressed by many in media, to understand why so many Black former residents of New Orleans believe that levees were intentionally exploded - that certain parts of the city may be saved at the expense of other parts?
Shouldn’t the account of levees dynamited in New Orleans in 1927, contained in a popular book - arguably the most respected in the media since Katrina - be included in any discussion of Minister Farrakhan’s belief that a levee might have been blown up, in 2005, to save some portions of the city, at the expense of others?
What Minister Farrakhan has presented - that levees were intentionally exploded so that certain parts of the city may be saved at the expense of other parts - has been mocked as a ‘conspiracy theory’ by many. None of those that I have heard making a caricature out of the Minister and his suggestion - using the "straw man" argument technique - do so with any reference to history, not to mention the history of levees in New Orleans or the Gulf Coast. And none of them use Rising Tide to refute what he has put forth.
Regardless to what the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has come to mean in today’s lexicon and colloquial expression, what is described in Rising Tide, as it relates to the deliberate dynamiting of levees, clearly reads like a widening conspiracy. It would not be difficult to prove this, I don’t think. If that is the case, then those who mock and ridicule Blacks for considering the possibility that the levee breach near the Ninth Ward was deliberately created, do so without perspective, or while concealing or omitting it.
There are a lot of factors involved in an individual or community accepting as possible or probable, the suggestion that Minister Farrakhan has put forth. Not the least among these factors is historical precedent.
Perhaps that is why "no one" is talking about a major aspect of the book, "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood Of 1927 And How It Changed America."
Maybe it provides too much perspective, in a climate that has too little.
Monday, August 28, 2006