NEW ORLEANS – Sites where levee failures led to the catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina would join Civil War battlefields and Mount Rushmore on a federal list of the nation's historic icons if an activist has her way, but legal foot-dragging by the agency that many blame for the flooding is slowing the effort.
"It was an event so catastrophic the whole world watched it on TV," Sandy Rosenthal said this week as she walked beside a repaired floodwall along the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated in the storm's aftermath in 2005. "It's the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to sign off on the application for the National Register of Historic Places because it owns one of the sites. But the agency is still embroiled in a legal battle over responsibility and liability for the flooding, and there are concerns that approving the application would influence those cases.
Several federal agencies are meeting next week to discuss the application, and a decision from the National Parks Service expected early next month could speed up the process.
Rosenthal's effort is nearly two years in the making. The activist who lived in New Orleans at the time of Katrina is the founder and director of Levees.Org, a grassroots organization that formed after the storm and became a chief critic of the corps. The group began working in 2010 to have two breach sites — one at the Lower 9th Ward and another along a drainage canal at the Lakeview neighborhood — placed on the register.
Levee breaches at numerous sites flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and swamped suburban areas. Flood water lifted some houses off foundations and reached the roof lines of others. Close to 2,000 deaths were blamed on the storm, many due to drowning. Stories and pictures of the tens of thousands of stranded people dominated media for days.
Under normal circumstances, placement on the register is an arduous bureaucratic task requiring painstaking compilation of technical and historical information and approval from state authorities before it reaches the National Parks Service for consideration. Further complicating this effort is the involvement of the corps, which constructed the levees and floodwalls, and which owns the Lower 9th Ward site.
Corps approval isn't essential to getting the designation, but owners must be given a voice in the decision. The corps' OK would speed the process.
Corps officials have been hesitant to offer a view amid the litigation. The corps missed a late March deadline to approve, deny or seek changes in the application and issued a letter in April saying more time was needed for review by the Department of Justice and others.
"It presents complex legal and policy considerations that must be fully evaluated by the Army attorneys, the DOJ, corps headquarters and my office," Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army, said in the letter.
The agency also has said they want to ensure that placement on the register wouldn't impede any future modifications or repairs. Supporters of the recognition efforts counter that historical status wouldn't prevent changes that would protect public safety.
Rosenthal is frustrated by the argument that the corps needs more time to consider the facts contained in the application. "There is absolutely nothing in our nomination that is not already public record," she said.
Levees.Org, citing federal regulations, has appealed to the Parks Service to press for action by the corps. A decision by the Parks Service is due on June 4. If the Parks Service agrees with Rosenthal's appeal, it would again request the corps to submit its views. However, federal guidelines are unclear as to when the corps would have to respond.
Ultimately, the corps could decide that the sites are eligible for the Register, that more documentation is needed or that the sites are not eligible. The application could proceed without corps participation, but it would take much longer.
Supporters of the application say the corps' decision is supposed to be based on technical and historic elements of the Levees.Org application, not pending lawsuits.
And Joe Bruno, a New Orleans lawyer who handles much of the litigation for plaintiffs, says the corps enjoys strong immunity from liability in flood protection cases. "The corps is being disingenuous, to be polite," Bruno said in a recent interview.
Still, it is clear that federal worries over the existing lawsuits could mean more delays. The 39-page application spells out the corps' role in the construction of the levees and, when a state review board looked at the application several months ago, a corps official said "the narrative needs to be carefully reviewed and edited to make sure that personal opinions and any contested facts are really not presented as fact."
Parks Service historian Jim Gabbert said lawyers for the corps, the Interior Department and the Department of Justice are expected to meet next week to discuss the issues. It's unclear whether they could or would take steps to further slow the process.
"That's why this particular case is interesting — because of the lawyers involved," Gabbert said.
Corps spokesman Gene Pawlik declined to elaborate on the issues Thursday, noting the planned meeting next week of the federal agencies involved. "More will be known following that meeting," he said.
Meanwhile, the low-income Lower 9th Ward remains sparsely populated and pocked with vacant weedy lots, bare slabs and dilapidated buildings almost seven years after Katrina.
Lower 9th Ward residents interviewed this week believe the breach sites deserve the federal recognition. "Katrina was the biggest thing we'd ever seen," said Gertrude LeBlanc, 77, sitting on her front porch a few blocks from the levee.
"They should do that," LeBlanc's neighbor, Gloria Mae Guy, 72, said in a separate interview. "For the simple reason that we are the ones that suffered."