The TV News Media and the Largest Civil Engineering Disaster in U.S. History

11 Dec ’05

One of the better signs of the increasing irrelevance of a large swath of the TV news media has been its inability to remember that there is no longer a New Orleans, and its seeming preference for a storyline that attributes the destruction of that city to Mother Nature, and perhaps also fairies, instead of human error, and in particular, error by a branch of the U.S. Federal Government. The disappearance of the Katrina story, so soon after the media self-lovefest that emerged after it had (we now know, only briefly) found its spine enough to challenge Government on disaster relief, is in itself a story, but of course one we will not hear from that media.

Instead, we have the New Orleans Times-Picayune, certain other intrepid print reporters, and perhaps most significantly Harry Shearer, the satirist (of course – it would have to come from a satirist, wouldn’t it?), writing on a blog, the Huffington Post, and podcasting on Le Show, to keep this particular fire alive.

To recap, briefly: it now appears to have been quite clearly documented that the cause of the flooding that destroyed the City was construction and design flaws by the Army Corps of Engineers when it originally built the floodwall at the 17th Street Canal. This has been described as the largest civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. On the cause, from the Times-Picayune:

The floodwall on the 17th Street Canal levee was destined to fail long before it reached its maximum design load of 14 feet of water because the Army Corps of Engineers underestimated the weak soil layers 10 to 25 feet below the levee, the state’s forensic levee investigation team concluded in a report to be released this week.

That miscalculation was so obvious and fundamental, investigators said, they “could not fathom” how the design team of engineers from the corps, local firm Eustis Engineering and the national firm Modjeski and Masters could have missed what is being termed the costliest engineering mistake in American history.

“It’s simply beyond me,” said Billy Prochaska, a consulting engineer in the forensic group known as Team Louisiana. “This wasn’t a complicated problem. This is something the corps, Eustis, and Modjeski and Masters do all the time. Yet everyone missed it — everyone from the local offices all the way up to Washington.”

Unfortunately, the sass is gone from the story, as far as the national TV media is concerned, presumably because there are no longer any opportunities to tromp around in rubber boots glaring defiantly into the wind, and looking oh-so-dashing. And so the TV new media is oblivious of the story, and as a result, folks who don’t stumble across it in the print media are oblivious of it as well.

Harry keeps on it, though, reporting both on the story and the TV media’s ignorance of it. Much of that is available here, and on Le Show, available here.

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