BP Oil Spin Meets Katrina Shorthand

I attended the BP Protest in New Orleans last weekend because there is a distinct connect between the oil drilling debacle and the flood of New Orleans. At the center of both disasters are engineers and the lack of adequate legal federal oversight.
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Photo by Sandy Rosenthal

I attended the BP Protest and Rally in Jackson Square New Orleans on Memorial Day weekend because there is a distinct connect between the oil drilling debacle and the flood of New Orleans.

At the center of both disasters are engineers and the lack of adequate legal federal oversight.

We felt a spokesperson at the Rally Site was important because we wanted to lend our support and be certain the messaging - this time - was done right.

Levees.org's mission is education on the facts surrounding the metro New Orleans flooding and we vigilantly watch out for Katrina 'shorthand' or laziness by journalists who erroneously call Katrina a 'natural disaster' there.

Sandy Rosenthal of Levees.org joins rainy protest. Photo by dlightful

Two recent New York Times pieces were devoted to our quest for accurate messaging. An article by Brian Stelter spotlighted Levees.org's Seal of Approval program that recognizes reporters who accurately describe the significant federal engineering failures of Hurricane Katrina including the collapsed, poorly designed and constructed floodwalls and levees. A Sunday column by public editor Clark Hoyt discussed our petition to the Times calling for a style change memo.

We take the goal seriously because our city, a major metropolis went underwater. And as noted by decorated journalist John McQuaid in a recent post,

"...our collective thinking - amplified by the media - is to lump everything together in a way that tends to strip the human agency out of what's really happening. This is quite useful for those who screwed up. But it's very dangerous."

And in the case of the levees, the human component is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who were found responsible for the New Orleans flooding by a federal judge in Jan 2008.

New Orleans' new mayor Mitch Landrieu is shouldering some of Levees.org burden. Two weeks ago, Chris Myers (host of FOX Sports' NASCAR coverage) mocked the victims of Hurricane Katrina while comparing them to the victims of the recent Nashville flooding. Without naming names, Myers described other flood victims as "standing on a rooftop trying to blame the government" while the citizens of Nashville were "hardworking, tax-paying, legal American citizens." It's obvious to the whole world who Myers was talking about.

In a sternly worded letter to Myers's boss demanding for an apology, Mayor Landrieu wrote:

"...The historic disaster of 2005 was a manmade disaster that should never have happened. Faulty construction caused the breach of levees, causing the flood waters, forcing the people of New Orleans to "stand on rooftops." Almost every levee by the United States Army Corps of Engineer failed, leaving nearly 80% of our city flooded and causing 1,464 deaths. Subsequently, this failure has been called the worst engineering disaster in the history of our country...."

And now, inside of 5 years, due to the carelessness of engineers and lax federal oversight, a large portion of south Louisiana's geography is again laid waste.

Too often engineers trust other engineers too much whether it's the ability of blowout preventer to function or or making sure levees are being built to design specification. BP's blowout preventer had components that are engineered, but if you trust the wrong people and dependable components aren't provided, you can get terrible consequences.

NASA didn't do that. NASA would have multiple levels of redundant computers, literally up to five computers doing the exact same thing. NASA used a safety factor of 3.0 or 4.0. We now know - because they failed - that the Corps of Engineers' levees in metro New Orleans had an actual safety factor of less than 1.0. There was no redundancy to protect the population once the protection system failed.

Obviously this rig wasn't robust and did not have the levels of redundancy we take for granted in the space program. Obviously, the design of the blowout preventer was inadequate.

Engineering brings us good things like cars and the gadgets we use every day.

But careless engineering brings death, destruction and pollution. So we need - at all times- to hold engineers and their institutions accountable. That will happen only with completely independent oversight by both government and the engineering community.

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