Levees.org to try again to place levee sites on historic list

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An advocacy group is making a second attempt to place a site where a levee breached during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the National Register of Historic Places — this time crafting an application that tries to get around opposition by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the ill-fated flood walls.

That history was made when levees failed in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, isn’t in dispute. Much of the city became a seascape and thousands who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate took refuge on rooftops, in the sweltering Superdome arena or the city’s chaotic convention center. Of the more than 1,800 who died along the Gulf Coast, most were in New Orleans or surrounding areas.

Yet the group Levees.org has had a difficult time getting breach sites on the National Register of Historic Places. The list includes Civil War battlefields, Mount Rushmore and numerous lesser known but historically significant locations.

Last year, Levees.org concentrated on two of the dozens of locations where flood walls failed.

One, along a navigable waterway known as the Industrial Canal, was a major contributor to catastrophic flooding in the city’s Lower 9th Ward. The other, along the 17th Street drainage canal, was a major factor in the roof-high flooding of other areas, including the hard-hit Lakeview neighborhood.

Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal said one problem with the Industrial Canal site is that it’s owned by the Corps.

“Because the corps owned one of the breach sites, they were allowed to comment on it,” Rosenthal recalled in a Thursday interview.

The levee breaches, in addition to being an embarrassment to the corps, have been the subject of litigation, some of which is under appeal. The corps, citing the legal complexities, was slow to weigh in on the Levees.Org nomination — effectively slowing a complicated application process that began in 2010.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of the Louisiana congressional delegation supported the Levees.org effort, but, when the corps finally did comment, it came out against the historic designation.

In letters to the park service that were made public only after the rejection, the corps said one reason was the nomination’s reliance on opinions from experts cited by plaintiffs in various lawsuits over the breaches, without consideration of opposing views from other experts. The letter rejecting the application from Carol Shull, who at the time was the interim National Park Service official overseeing the register, cites that contention by the corps among the reasons for rejecting the application.

This time, Rosenthal said, Levees.org will concentrate on the 17th Street Canal site alone, eliminating the need to get the corps involved.

Although much of the research legwork has been done, the process will, again, be lengthy.

“It starts as a brand new nomination,” said Jacques Berry, spokesman for the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees the Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism.

Nomination of a place for the National Register starts with documentation submitted to state historic preservation officials, who will offer guidance and administrative support. At some point, the application goes to a historic review board that meets only a few times a year — and which doesn’t have a meeting currently scheduled. That board’s recommendation then goes to the state Historic Preservation Officer, whose approval is needed before it goes to the National Park Service.

In response to a request for comment this past week, the corps acknowledged that it will not be a part of the process this time, inasmuch as it does not own the property involved.

While her group hopes eventually to nominate other breach sites, Rosenthal said, the 17th Street Canal site is perhaps the most significant. The canal moves massive amounts of flood water and the breach contributed to flooding not only in Lakeview but a significant part of uptown New Orleans, including the area around a hospital where dozens of patients died.

“The 17th is the least controversial and most clear cut example,” she said, “of how American civil engineering can go wrong.”