Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Bush Legacy Endures

When The Wire invoked the metaphor of a "new day" for a radical reformist shift in the power structure of the Baltimore Municipal Government, the ensuing narrative wasted no time in undoing that metaphor. As an assiduous student of the poetic wisdom of such narratives, I have subsequently taken a very jaundiced view of that metaphor, most recently with regard to our State Department (for which, incidentally, I have also appropriated the bowl of shit metaphor from The Wire). However, while the new Administration of Barack Obama may be making positive advances on our country's reputation in the global arena, there remains an Augean pile of dirty laundry left behind by George W. Bush on the domestic front; and our current economic mess is just the stuff at the top of the heap. Buried deep in that pile remains the disgrace of Hurricane Katrina. Not only may that be the blackest blot on the Bush escutcheon (particularly since it involves other members of the family); but also it is a "gift that keeps on giving" (or taking away, as the case may be), even as there are those today still trying to clean up the mess.

One of the more interesting clean-up efforts involves a claim made by six New Orleans homeowners that, in the words of Jon Wiener's recent post to The Notion, one of the blog sites for The Nation, the Army Corps of Engineers "failed to heed environmental laws in building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shortcut for large ships between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans during Katrina." Federal Judge Stanwood Duval will rule on this claim in a trial scheduled to begin on April 20. This will not be an easy case for the Judge; but it will be made more difficult by the possibility that the "well of evidence" has been poisoned. Worse yet, the poisoning can probably be traced back to the influence (if not direct actions) of the Bush Administration.

This is the basic story as Wiener reported it:

Louisiana State University is firing a leading hurricane scientist who was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in a case against the Army Corps of Engineers for their pre-Katrina work in New Orleans. Ivor van Heerden, who had been deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center, says the school's former president, previously a Bush appointee, had earlier threatened to fire him if he testified.

Tenure exists, we are told, to protect the expression of views that are unpopular with the powerful. This is another case where the person who needed the protection of tenure didn't have it. LSU was able to fire van Heerden because he is an untenured Associate Research Professor.

Van Heerden was the leader of "Team Louisiana," the official independent state-funded investigation of the Katrina flooding. That panel found that the levee failures reflected poor design, bad science and shoddy engineering on the part of the Corps. The Bush Administration had held the levee failures were an "act of God."

When van Heerden was first asked to testify in spring 2007, he said in an interview Sunday with Harry Shearer on KCRW's "Le Show," LSU's then-president, Sean O'Keefe, told plaintiffs' attorneys that if van Heerden testified against the Corps he would be fired. O'Keefe had been appointed to high offices by both Presidents Bush – George W. Bush named him head of NASA in 2001, and George H. W. Bush had named him acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1992.

According to van Heerden, the LSU president said that "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts."

The second clause in that final quote is the real reminder of the extent to which the legacy of the Bush Administration is still with us. Whether or not this emerges as an embarrassment, the more important victims are those "major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts;" and that is why New Orleans remains stuck in all that mud created by Katrina. The good news, however, is that van Heerden may still get his day in court. Whether or not he is an "expert witness," he can still be called to testify as a "fact witness;" so claims such as those van Heerden published in his book, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina – the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist, may still be presented as evidentiary "facts" and subjected to cross-examination like any other such evidentiary facts. This trial may thus provide an excellent opportunity for van Heerden to rehearse his presentation, because he is likely to present it again in a second trial, which will decide, as Wiener put it, "a massive class action suit seeking hundreds of millions in damages from the Corps." The people of New Orleans will thus be facing quite a few days in court over the coming months. Let's hope that the decisions turn out in their favor.

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