It's not exactly what you would call a power broker's meeting. A group of 40 ordinary New Orleanians are gathered on a Tuesday evening in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church for the first general meeting of Levees.org, a group started in late 2005 by concerned citizen Sandy Rosenthal. Rows of wooden folding chairs have been set up and a portable screen faces the group. The small crowd is dwarfed by the sanctuary's towering ceilings and less than a quarter of the room's space is occupied. Still, it makes sense for the meeting to be held here -- this is hallowed ground, and for members of Levees.org their task is a sacred one.
"Our mission is to let the nation and Congress know that New Orleans was destroyed by a faulty federal levee protection system and not a big storm," Rosenthal explains. "I don't even say the word that begins with a 'K' because that's not even part of the discussion."
Grassroots organizations such as Levees.org began sprouting up in the metro area even before floodwaters had receded. The destruction in Katrina's wake spurred a call to action and promulgated the belief that the federal government shouldn't be wholly entrusted with New Orleans' restoration or flood control. All citizens should play a part.
The best intentions, however, do not always render fruitful results. Silas Lee, a professor of sociology at Xavier University and a political analyst, says there are three vital factors that determine a grassroots organization's efficacy.
"It depends on the group, resources, and political climate -- something influencing voters and members of Congress, or a need," Lee says. "In this case, we have the levees failing."
Rosenthal has kept those three factors in mind in her quest to inform the public of the levee system failure. With the help of her 16-year-old son and Web master, Stanford, Rosenthal founded Levees.org (www.levees.org) in November 2005. The group's mission is spotlighted on the first page of the Web site along with facts stating their case. Visitors to the site are then asked to send letters to Congress and join the organization. Membership is free, and Rosenthal says there are more than 5,000 members throughout the country.
Rosenthal considers staying on message as another piece for her group's success. People who become part of this nonpartisan organization aren't being asked to believe in a multifaceted political platform. Simply get out the word that the Katrina flood was a manmade disaster and promote the group's two straightforward goals: a fair revenue share from Gulf Coast offshore drilling and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reform.
Even though Tuesday night's meeting is sparsely attended, Rosenthal uses it as an opportunity to keep her members on task with the aid of an ally and resource, Professor Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center and author of the book The Storm: What Went Wrong During Hurricane Katrina. Van Heerden presents a lecture on why the levees failed and what should be done to prevent future catastrophes. After the professor's talk, and with the crowd charged up, Rosenthal speaks to her supporters.
She tells them that Congress has the power to reform the Corps and bring about fair revenue sharing, but the only way Congress will listen is if it hears many voices. Every little bit helps.
"Your homework for tomorrow is to get one person inside Louisiana to join Levees.org and one person outside of Louisiana to join."
On the Web site, the organization boasts about the public support of Gov. Blanco as well as five members of the Louisiana congressional delegation. Rosenthal considers this a victory, but she realizes Levees.org needs more than just what Louisiana politicians can offer.
"We can't do this alone," Rosenthal points out. "Congress can only approve federal money for coastal restoration [which would be paid for through fair revenue sharing] and Corps reform."
In order to garner more political influence outside of Louisiana, and, more important, secure congressional votes, Levees.org has formed two new chapters in Florida and California. They were chosen as the first states outside of Louisiana because they have numerous Corps of Engineer projects currently under construction. After November's midterm elections, Rosenthal wants to open other chapters in Texas and Illinois.
Having only three state chapters hasn't prevented the group from trying to influence national legislation. With Congress debating the issue of expanding offshore drilling and allowing Louisiana a share of the federal royalties, Levees.org asked its members to send letters to lawmakers considered most influential for the bill's success. Efforts to pass a compromise bill failed two weeks ago, but more than 1,000 letters each were sent to Rep. Richard Pombo R-Calif., Sen. Harry Reid D-Nev., and Sen. Bill Nelson D-Fla.
By lobbying Congress to pass Corps reform, Levees.org faces a formidable opponent -- the U.S. Congress itself. Currently, Corps projects are not prioritized by necessity or urgency. Instead, they often are based on legislative seniority and are viewed as pork projects, a way for representatives to reward their constituents (or themselves, by taking credit for federal money pouring into their districts). In July, as part of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold co-sponsored an amendment to the Senate's version of WRDA, which would have set up a cabinet-level intra-agency for prioritizing Corps projects. The amendment was soundly defeated in a vote of 80-19.
McCain and Feingold proposed another amendment for Corps reform that did pass. That measure would authorize an independent review panel for all Corps projects costing more than $40 million. Previously, Corps levee projects were not overseen, regardless of cost or environmental impact. The House version of the same amendment authorized a review panel, which would include a member of the Corps, for projects costing more than $100 million. Members of the House and Senate currently are negotiating the two versions in conference.
Levees.org has succeeded in reframing the discussion of who to blame for flooding that inundated 80 percent of New Orleans. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Rosenthal believes New Orleanians thought the "levee failures were somehow our fault." The scapegoats were the levee boards, which are in charge of maintenance but not the design or building of the levees. Rosenthal scoffs at the notion, saying, "To blame the levee boards is like blaming a janitor if a skyscraper falls to the ground."
The group began spreading the motto "Hold the Corps Accountable." Rosenthal, who works in advertising and marketing, organized protests, directed email campaigns, wrote editorials and kept her popular Web site updated with the latest information regarding levees and the Corps.
On June 1, the Corps released a report indicating that there were severe design and construction flaws in the levees. Lt. General Carl Strock, chief engineer for the Corps, admitted the agency's culpability in the disaster and Rosenthal, who was present for the briefing, felt a measure of vindication. In fact, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the Corps Mississippi Valley Division, approached Rosenthal and applauded her efforts.
"He said to me that I have more power to change things at the Corps than he did," Rosenthal reports.
When contacted concerning his conversation with Rosenthal, Crear disputed that he said "those exact words," but he did welcome her organization's participation because he feels that average citizens have more influence over legislators than bureaucrats do.
"They will listen to you more than they will to me," Crear says.
Whether it was an opponent tipping his hat to her, or a bureaucrat trying to mend fences, it doesn't really matter to Sandy Rosenthal or the members of Levees.org. Assuming the government is taking care of flood control, national security, or any other major public concern is no longer an option. Citizens must play a role, she says.
"Most people think the federal government is protecting them," Rosenthal says. "I believed it, too, until I watched my friends lose everything they have."