The Katrina Video Congress Didn’t Want You To See

I’m going to warn you now. If you’ve only heard the news from the mainstream media, everything you think you know about Katrina flooding New Orleans is wrong. If you think you already know everything there is to know about Katrina, then you can safely ignore this post. – If the sum total of your interest in New Orleans flooding is to bash Nagin or Bush, then please… Go to where your intellect will be more appreciated. If you’d like to have your whole understanding of the Great Flood of New Orleans changed, hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

We’ve all heard the story, in the early morning hours of Aug 29, 2005, the Category 4 Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, overwhelming the New Orleans levee system and flooding the city. If you read Wizbang, you’ve known since early October of 2005 this story was fatally flawed.

In the months since Katrina, we’ve learned that the storm was a Category 1 by the time she hit New Orleans. No “Super Hurricane,” just an average storm. We’ve also learned that the New Orleans Hurricane Protection System was not overwhelmed by Katrina, it collapsed. Causing the Corps of Engineers admit they flooded New Orleans not Katrina… An admission that got scant little media coverage. The Great Flood of New Orleans was not a natural disaster but a man made one.

The reason the Corps finally had to admit responsibility was that the floodwall that failed -flooding 70% of the city- basically collapsed under its own weight. It was undeniable. The Corps tried for months to claim the water came over the top of the floodwall and washed it away from the backside. (Which would make it Congress’s fault) Everyone who has seen the break or looked at the surge data knew this was a lie; that the wall suffered a catastrophic failure before the water reached the top. Almost a year later, the Corps admitted that the floodwall suffered from multiple fatal design flaws and failed prematurely.

What was not really told to the public however is how high the water got up the walls before they failed. – This is an important question to a city rebuilding ~$250 billion in infrastructure. It is commonly assumed by the public that the water must have been quite high.

The question also has legal ramifications. Sovereign Immunity says citizens can not sue the government for damages unless there is negligence or Congress allows the government to be sued. If the public assumption is that Katrina was responsible for the flooding, Congress would never allow the government to be sued.

Perhaps that explains why Congress confiscated a video of the floodwall collapsing and refused to let the public see it until (a perfectly timed) 10 months after the storm. – Well after the storm passed but a few months before the current 1 year anniversary hype.

You’ve probably never seen it, but we have video taken by New Orleans firefighters as the 17th street canal floodwall was actually in the process of breaking during Katrina. It answers the question of just how prematurely the walls failed. The video was obtained by the National Geographic channel and aired a few weeks ago. (it took me a while to blog it, so sue me)

The video -if you understand it- is shocking. Sadly, no one at National Geographic or even the local TV station got the significance of the video. — Because they were looking at the wrong thing.

I’m going to explain what is on the video that no one caught and I’ll do my best to give you a good understanding of the whole thing.

Before I type their whole story, watch the firefighters’ story as told by a local TV station a couple of months ago. As you watch the video, don’t worry about the pictures for now, we’ll get to them. For now, listen to the reporter and the firemen tell their story.


You can also see the video here.

Other than the heroism of the NOFD, let’s look at the rest of the video and why it is so revealing. As the fireman said, the wall broke before 9AM. I have a picture taken from a house just a few meters from the break and they left a simple message on their gutted house for the whole world to see about the timing of the break.

clock.JPG
This one isn’t, but most other pictures are clickable.

As you can see the water was high enough to kill a battery powered wall clock by 8:57.

As it turns out, the wall gave way in stages. (Which is logical if you’ve ever hit a lump of mud with a garden hose.) Sometime about 8:30AM it started to leak enough to flood the houses across the street from the break. Sometime a little after 9AM (as per the firemen) the wall slipped some more and was in the condition we see it in the video. Later, about 10:30AM a Coast Guard helicopter pilot saw the wall give way and burst wide open as we’ve all seen in the now infamous pictures:

NOAA_Katrina_NOLA_17th_Street_breach_Aug_31_2005.jpg
Via Wikipedia, very clickable

So as a recap, the video we have is roughly 30 minutes after it started leaking and about an hour and a half before it gave way all together. The damage is still limited to feet not blocks. Now watch the video again:

You were probably, like everyone else, looking at the wall closest to the camera. If you did that, you were looking at the wrong wall. Look at the other wall across the canal. Here’s a screen shot.

breakscreencap.jpg
This is the smoking gun. Go ahead and click on it.
And/Or watch the video a few more times.

If you look at the top of the image in the band where the color is shifted, you see the other wall of the canal. Notice the weeds on the bank? Notice how far from the top of the wall the water is… just minutes after it started leaking but over an hour before it gave way. (BTW- This is a cap from the NGC special, not WWL. Their video was a little cleaner.)

Here is another picture of that same wall -over a week after the storm had passed- after the repair is in place… In other words, with the water at “normal” levels.

17thbreakafterfix.jpg

Look familiar? I reduced it to make it look like the screen cap. It’s clickable.

You can watch the video several times and you’ll clearly see the water was at this level the whole time. In fact the weeds look taller in this picture because the video was shot form so high up. BTW- If you look at the very base of the weeds in the good picture, you can barely see some white rocks in the water. (it will be more clear later)

Here’s a few more shots taken in the few weeks after the storm:

breakatlowtide.jpg
This is right after the repair was made. You’ll notice (on right) I was there at low tide.

noscumlowtide.jpg
This is what got me suspicious just a week after the storm. Anyone in the area knew that wall never saw floodwater…(It was a very low tide)

floodmud.jpg
EVERYTHING the water touched was caked in mud.The wall, on both the front and back, was clean. It had to be dry. Notice I got there just after they got the water out of the area… The mud is still wet. I won’t tell you how I got in, I’ll just tell you that some National Guardsman from South Carolina (with a loaded M-16) never heard of social engineering.

govinchopper.jpg
The Governor had a little bit better view than me. She didn’t even wave. (Horrible composition, I know, don’t remind me.)

breakfromnearbridge.jpg

This is a great perspective. It is taken at low tide from the break side. In this picture, you can see the white rocks in the water the tide is so low. The wall is so tall BTW that I’m 6’3″ and I’m standing on top a pickup truck to take this. And I still couldn’t reach the camera above the wall the way I wanted. AND the truck is on a road they built up to fix the break. The top of the wall is probably 15ish feet above the water level.

The bottom line is, Katrina’s storm surge did not wash the wall away. As you may remember, water had been seeping under the floodwall at the break location for about a year before Katrina. The ground under the levee was soaked and ready to give at any moment…

New Orleans was doomed with or without Katrina, we just didn’t know it. A good high tide puts more water in the canal than this. As the video shows, the water was barely higher than normal levels. The walls could have failed on a decent high tide.

From the looks of the video the fact the wall failed when Katrina was approaching was really coincidence. Yes, Katrina was the “final straw” but so could any winds from the southeast. Or any given winter storm. (we often get winds out the south that “stack” the lake far higher than this.) Indeed these same walls held much higher surges in the past; that is, before they were undermined by seeping water for a year.

Ironically the same flawed walls are incrementally safer now. We’ll never have water seeping under them for a year and nobody doing anything. The flaw(s) is still there but now we can compensate for it more effectively. The right answer, of course, is to replace them.

What I will say next will probably completely throw you. Katrina saved probably over 50,000 lives.

That levee was doomed. If it had failed without notice, the death toll would have been measured in tens of thousands. There would be no evacuation, no preparation, no Feds at all. (such that they were anyway) no Coast Guard in choppers etc. Tens of thousands of people would have been dead in hours and tens of thousands more would have died on 120 degree rooftops waiting for rescue. It would have been unimaginable. – More unimaginable.

“Luckily” -and I groan when I say that- Katrina allowed the city to be evacuated.

I’ve said it for months. Katrina didn’t flood New Orleans. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But what I find just as troubling is the history of this video. It was turned over to Federal authorities just days after the storm. The firemen who took it were told they would be fired if they spoke about it. For months the Corps -who had to have seen the video- claimed the walls were overtopped. For months the firemen listened to the lies and never said a word.

There was no national security reason to hold the video as there might be of a terrorist attack. In fact the video would have helped the scientists studying it determine the cause. Congress had the firemen testify behind closed doors then placed a gag order on them.

I routinely mock conspiracy theorists but I have trouble understanding why this tape was withheld for months. What I also find interesting is that the Corps denied they were to blame until June 1… Just TWO WEEKS before this video was quietly released.

Perhaps, I’m too cynical but it is impossible for me not to notice that if this tape had been released in the weeks after the storm, the media coverage -and the scrutiny of Congress- would have been vastly different.

You may draw a different conclusion but I’ll go to my grave believing that Congress withheld this tape intentionally. It was too damning.

What I don’t understand is where the media is today on this story… The story of their lives is waiting to be told but they just ignore it. If you didn’t read Wizbang, you’d never know the true story of the Great Flood of New Orleans.


Playing Devil’s advocate with myself.
I know what some of you are thinking. (I know because I wondered about it myself…) The water in the canal was higher (exerting more force on the wall) before the wall broke but it is lower in the video because of the break. I was planning on doing a fair amount of work – including pictures, graphs and mathematical equations about flow rates- to disprove this; both to myself and to you. But really there is no need. The canal is about 150 feet across and 10 feet deep. That’s a big pipe! Just about 4 blocks away is a lake that measures roughly 26 miles high by 60 miles wide. (That’s whole bunch of water) There is no way that a hole as small as shown in this video produced any localized reduction in the level of the canal. Just scroll up and look at the aerial picture of the canal and notice the cars on the bridge as scale. Then go back and look at the video and notice the water in the canal was level the whole way and surprisingly calm.

There’s no need for complicated analysis. Just looking at the scale killed the theory. I might guess the water was up 1.5 feet and you’d guess 3.5. – Whatever. The video is probably not an exact enough tool to get that precise.. But it does show beyond any doubt the water was at near regular levels when the wall failed. And certainly below where it had been many times.


And a word about the comments:
If you’re clamoring to talk trash about George Bush or Ray Nagin, please… do it here.

If you are one of the various people who for the last year have ridiculed me in the comments section for saying the Corps flooded New Orleans… Well, I can’t help you. I’ve explained it for a year, the Corps admitted they flooded New Orleans and I just gave you incontrovertible photographic proof.

At this point if you don’t believe it, please take to your own blog and prove me AND the Corps itself both wrong.

If you’d like to make the case that I’m overboard when I say Congress withheld the video… well, we’ll have to agree to disagree. There was no reason to make the firefighters testify behind closed doors. You’re free to draw your own conclusions. As I said, I’ll go to my graving believing the tape was withheld on purpose.

I just wish the media would do their job now that it’s released. We saw the mediagasm when the AP released the footage of Bush being briefed. This is an order of magnitude or so more important.

And a big hat tip to Laura who emailed me about the WWL report and from whom we swiped the video file. And to Kenny who runs Bonaire Resort for the screen grab.

[Editors Note: This is, in a way, the culmination of our (mostly Paul’s) extensive Katrina coverage from the local perspective, going back to before the hurricane hit on this day before the 1st anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There are approximately 175 Katrina posts in our Katrina archives,including a the devastatingly accurate predictions about riding out Katrina in The Superdome, unused school buses, media failures, government failures, and plenty on the Corps. While the post below contains many links, some times the balance between covering new ground on a story and rehashing previous posts has to be tilted toward the former. We’ve made perusing the archives easy – if you’re looking for more detail you should spend some time digging through the archives.]

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