A Conversation With Sandy Rosenthal, Founder of Levees.org


On August 29, 2005, when Katrina, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, moved across the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the coast, more than 50 levees and flood walls built to protect New Orleans failed. With the protection down, tens of billions of gallons of water spilled into the Louisiana city, flooding over 100,000 businesses and homes and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Just three months later, Sandy Rosenthal, who had been living in a Drury Inn with her family for a month after their home was destroyed, started Levees.org, a non-partisan grassroots group that seeks to educate the public on "the true cause of the New Orleans region's flooding." Since February of 2007, the group has been pushing for the 8/29 Investigation, an independent review of the flood protection failures that has received support from the New Orleans City Council. the National Urban League, the NAACP, the Sierra Club Delta Chapter, and many other organizations and individuals, including several members of the United States Congress. Here, Rosenthal discusses her attention to tiny details, the movement towards open data, and how astroturf groups are disparaging true grassroots workers.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I am an activist. I lead an organization devoted to education on the true facts surrounding the worst civil engineering in U.S. history which occurred in New Orleans in August 2005 when the levees and floodwalls, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, failed catastrophically. The flooding was a man-made catastrophe, not a natural disaster.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The Citizens United victory against the Federal Election Commission has dealt a terrible blow to the environmental movement and now allows big business to give practically unlimited funding to politicians. It's by changing the laws, not changing the behavior of individuals that will save the planet. The 'sky's the limit' funding of politicians by businesses is doing terrible harm to our nation's resources and critters and to the planet as well.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

For an activist, being right is only the very beginning in the quest to reach one's goals. Every day people everywhere are waking up just like me with a message to send. They are all telling themselves the same thing, and that is "if only people would just listen and hear what I have to say." That knowledge is actually comforting to me. It lets me know I am not alone, and my only challenge is to be really good at communicating my message.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The movement towards Open Data, the emerging concept that certain data should be released publicly so that non-stakeholder geeky techies can massage, analyze, and number-crunch that data to discover and arrive at truths. Right now, we are encouraging the Army Corps to release LSACs or Levee Safety Action Classifications in order to determine if limited funds for flood protection infrastructure is being spent wisely or being wasted.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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