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Was there a conspiracy in New Orleans?

By Zenitha Prince | Last updated: Mar 7, 2006 - 7:25:00 AM

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New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward suffered more destruction than other sections because of the closeness of the broken levee. Photo: Shon Sturdivant ***image1***

NEW ORLEANS (NNPA)—On Sept. 12, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan was in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a 23-city tour to promote the Millions More Movement mass assembly in Washington, D.C., then mere weeks away, when he made a statement that has stirred ripples of reaction in the public pool.

“I heard from a very reliable source who saw a 25-foot-deep crater under the levee breach,” Minister Farrakhan said. “It may have been blown up to destroy the Black part of town and keep the White part dry.”

He is not alone in believing that the poor and Black of New Orleans were somehow targeted to sustain the worse of Katrina.

“Mother Nature is one thing but this goes beyond Mother Nature,” said Raynold Fenelon, a New Orleans cabdriver. “They blew that levee. I believe the Canal Street levee broke, but they blew that one by the Ninth Ward. Then, they were talking about a barge hit the levee,” he said.

There is no question that the Ninth Ward was an unsightly scene. Black bodies floated in the poisonous stew of gasoline and sewage; Black men, women and children were marooned on roofs and ignored by passing helicopters; Black people were crammed into a putrid Superdome by the thousands, going for days without food or water; and Black homes sustained the worst of the damage.

Many believe it was planned.

The allegation that officials purposefully breached the levees to sluice water away from majority White, rich areas like the French Quarter has flooded the blogosphere.

Andrea Garland, a former resident now living in Texas, wrote in her blog at “(I) also heard that part of the reason our house flooded is they dynamited part of the levee after the first section broke—they did this to prevent Uptown (the rich part of town) from being flooded. Apparently, they used too much dynamite, thus flooding part of the Bywater. So now I know who is responsible for flooding my house-—not Katrina, but our government.”

And the rumors have spread on a tide of discontent and anger to Capitol Hill.

In a Dec. 6 hearing conducted by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans resident Dyan French testified that she actually heard the explosion.

“I was on my front porch. I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee, boom, boom!” she said, gesticulating with her hands. “I’ll never forget it.”

The current levee system, a 16-foot high wall that covers about 350 miles, was built after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to counter, maximally, a Category 3 storm. Katrina, at 125 miles per hour on landfall, was a Category 4. Scientists predicted in publications that the deterioration of natural barriers, a sinking delta and rising sea levels would eventually prove too much for the levees. So did a 2002 Times-Picayune prophetic series that warned that major flooding was “just a matter of time.”

Engineers, scientists and state and city attorneys are now investigating whether malfeasance in design, construction or maintenance caused the flooding.

“It became obvious to us pretty quickly that the flood walls along the 17th Street Canal had not failed through overtopping, they failed through some other mechanism,” said G. Paul Kemp, associate professor of Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast and the Environment and a member of a state sponsored forensics team investigating the flooding. “The preliminary report does show some questionable decisions about the depth that they drove the sheet pile that support the wall.”

Another preliminary report by a team of engineers from the University of California at Berkeley and the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded: “Several major and costly breaches appear to have been the result of stability failures of the foundation soils and/or the earthen levee embankments themselves. In addition, it appears that many of the levees and floodwalls that failed due to overtopping might have performed better if relatively inexpensive details had been added and/or altered during their original design and construction.”

Still, locals hold on to the theory that the wall was deliberately blown, goaded on by memories of government complicity in the Tuskegee experiment and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s COINTELPRO program to undermine civil rights groups.

The Tuskegee experiment was a government-sanctioned program that began in 1932 and involved the use of 399 Black men as guinea pigs to discover the effects of syphilis. Though told they would receive free “special treatment” for their “bad blood,” the men were left untreated and attempts to obtain treatment elsewhere were stopped. The story did not reach the public until 1972. Even then, neither the men nor their families received an apology. President Bill Clinton finally offered an apology in 1997—25 years later.

COINTELPRO was a covert operation initiated by the FBI in 1956 to “neutralize” domestic political groups, but was almost immediately extended to so-called dissident organizations including the Nation of Islam, Black Panther Party and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The covert program did not end until the early ’70s when its details were exposed during a Congressional investigation.

Despite the backdrop of that history, conservative media pundits have mocked Katrina theories. However, there is proof that something like this happened in the past. It happened when Hurricane Betsy deluged New Orleans in 1965 and in the Mississippi Flood of 1927, as John Barry discusses in his book, “Rising Tide.”

The book discusses the social and political forces that precipitated the flood and pointed to possible reasons for deliberately flooding St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes where poor Whites and Blacks lived. Back then, a club of rich bankers ran the city and made the fatal decision to blow the levees in order to save their businesses. That flood was the final straw for thousands of Black laborers, who left the Delta in droves, forever changing the economic and social structure of the area.

Though for different reasons, some see the same forces at work now.

“Politicians, corruption, greed… they wanted this area to widen the canal for cruise ships,” said Pamela Everage, 39, a Ninth Ward resident who works on a cruise ship in Hawaii.

Others see the flood and the subsequent dispersal of poor Blacks to far-flung places across the nation as an ethnic cleansing of New Orleans. Naomi Klein, in an article entitled “Purging the Poor” published in the Oct. 10 issue of the Nation magazine, said New Orleans is already displaying a dramatic demographic shift since most of the people who can return are White.

She further contends that, given high vacancy rates in many parts of the city, many of the poorest evacuees could be housed in the city “without a single structure being built.”

Bringing back poor people is rarely discussed.

“All the talk about a smaller, better New Orleans is tantamount to not rebuilding low-income public housing,” said Robert Bullard, a professor at Clark Atlanta University and an environmental justice activist. “Ninety percent of Black wealth is tied into their homes, so you’re not only destroying Black neighborhoods, you’re destroying Black wealth.”

Mr. Fenelon, the New Orleans taxi driver, added, “The mayor is talking about building houses that are better than the ones people lived in, but will they be able to afford those houses? They don’t talk about that.”

He added, “It’s all politics. There ain’t no real love for us Black people, especially in the ghetto.’’

(This is the second of an 8-part series of stories about the Gulf Coast and the road to recovery after Hurricane Katrina.This project is a cooperative effort between the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the Baltimore Afro.)