Blood on the hands of Big Oil

SA-born hurricane expert fired for telling horrific truths.

Crime scene; Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans: Going on for ten years ago, New Orleans drowned. Don’t you dare blame Mother Nature; Miss Katrina killed no one in this town. But it was a homicide, with nearly 2,000 dead victims. If not hurricane Katrina, who done it? Who is to blame for the crushing avalanche of water that buried this city? Read on.

It wasn’t an Act of God. It was an Act of Chevron. An Act of Exxon. An Act of Big Oil. Take a look at these numbers dug out of Louisiana state records:

Conoco: 3.3 million acres (1.3m hectares); Exxon Mobil: 2.1m acres (849,000ha); Chevron: 2.7m acres (1.09ha); Shell: 1.3m acres (526,000ha).

New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

These are the areas of wetlands removed by just four oil companies over the past two decades. If you’re not a farmer, translated into urban-speak,  that’s 38,042km² drowned into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s what happened: New Orleans used to be a long, swampy way from the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes and storm surges had to cross a protective mangrove forest nearly 160km thick before they reached the city.

But then, a century ago, Standard Oil, Exxon’s prior alias, began dragging drilling rigs, channelling pipelines, barge paths and tanker routes through what was once soft delta prairie grass.

Most of those beautiful bayous you see on postcards are just scars, the cuts and wounds of drilling the prairie, once America’s cattle-raising centre. The bayous, filling with ’gators and shrimp, widened out and sank the coastline.  Each year, oil operations drag the Gulf of Mexico 6.4km closer to New Orleans.

Just one channel dug for Exxon’s pleasure, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”) was dubbed the Hurricane Highway by experts – long before Katrina – that invited the storm right up to – and over – the city’s gates, the levees.

Without Big Oil’s tree and prairie holocaust, “Katrina would have been a storm of no note,” Professor Ivor van Heerden told me. Van Heerden – who grew up in South Africa – was once Deputy Director of the Hurricane Centre at Louisiana State University and is one of the planet’s leading experts on storm dynamics.

“If they’d only left just 10% of the protective collar… They didn’t.”

Van Heerden was giving me a tour of the battle zone in the oil war. It was New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, which once held the largest concentration of African-American-owned homes in the US. Now it holds the largest contrition of African-American-owned rubble.

[And they want us to trust the same oil companies with fracking the Karoo? Is there any evidence to suggest that they show the slightest concern for the environmental impact and consequences of their drilling activities? – Ed.]

We stood in front of a house, now years after Katrina, with an “X” spray-painted on the outside and “1 dead dog” “1 cat,” the number “2” and “9/6” partly covered by a [mortgage bond] foreclosure notice.

The professor translated: “9/6” meant rescuers couldn’t get to the house for eight days, so the “2” – the couple that lived there – must have paddled around with their pets until the rising waters pushed them against the ceiling and they suffocated, their gas-bloated corpses floating for a week.

In July 2005, Van Heerden told Britain’s Channel 4 television that, “In a month, this city could be under water.” In one month, it was. Van Heerden had sounded the alarm for at least two years, even speaking to George Bush’s White House about an emergency condition: with the Gulf closing in, the levees [flood barrier walls] were 45cm short. But the Army Corps of Engineers was busy with other rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. So, when those levees began to fail, the White House, hoping to avoid federal government responsibility, did not tell Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco that the levees were breaking up.

That night, August 29, with the storm by-passing New Orleans, the governor had stopped the city’s evacuation.

Van Heerden was with the governor at the State Emergency Centre. He said, “By midnight on Monday the White House knew – but none of us knew.”

So, the drownings began in earnest.

Van Heerden was supposed to keep that secret. He didn’t. He told me, on camera, knowing the floodwater of official slime would break over him. He was told to stay silent, to bury the truth. But he told me more. A lot more.  

“I wasn’t going to listen to those sort of threats, to let them shut me down.”

Well, they did shut him down. After he went public about the unending life-and-death threat of continued oil drilling and channelling, Louisiana State University (LSU) closed down its entire Hurricane Centre (can you imagine?) and fired Professor Van Heerden and fellow experts. This was just after the university received a $300,000 check from Chevron. The check was passed by a front group called “America’s Wetlands” – which lobbies for more drilling in the wetlands.

In place of Van Heerden and independent experts, LSU’s new “Wetlands Centre” has professors picked by a board of petroleum industry hacks.

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