The Southern landscape and many other parts of the United States remain pockmarked with state historical markers that demand reinterpretation or removal. One state historical marker noting the failure of New Orleans’ 17th Street Canal in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that Louisiana has landed on the right side of this history. Efforts to erect a similar federal marker have twice been stymied, however, as the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land in question, has not yet commented on a National Register nomination approved two years ago by the state historic preservation officer. The corps argues that it cannot comment upon the application while litigation over its role in the 2005 flooding of the city remains in process.
The grassroots organization Levees.org developed a historic marker program as part of its campaign to remind people that the hurricane actually side-swiped New Orleans and hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. What was first reported as another close call for the city ended up becoming the worst unnatural and natural disaster in U.S. history when levees throughout the city began to fail. The first State Historic Plaque marking the breaches was unveiled during the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2010. (Part-time New Orleans resident Harry Shearer, whose most serious work in a career spent voicing characters on the Simpsons and creating the Spinal Tap mockumentary is rooted in post-Katrina activism, appeared at that dedication ceremony, the photostream for which can be found here. Shearer’s 2010 documentary The Big Uneasy remains one of the most intelligent examinations of the role that the US Army Corps of Engineers and human error played in the levee failures.)
The success of the marker program at the state level has been followed by two thus-far unsuccessful attempts to apply for National Register designation. A recent article by New Orleans’ daily paper notes the unprecedented nature of the situation:
Jim Gabbert, a National Register official overseeing the nomination process, said today that it remains unclear what his agency can do if the corps again declines to comment on the application.
“I’m afraid my answer is going to have to be I don’t know,” Gabbert said. “Because of the unique situation of this nomination, and the situation surrounding the appeal of the corps’ failure to meet their regulatory requirements under the regulations that guide the National Register, we’re in consultation with the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office.
“When the corps responds, we will be in contact with the corps, the solicitor and the Department of Justice about how ongoing litigation affects this,” he said.
In addition to waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to make its recommendation, Levees.org will work with the University of New Orleans to make this history available as a mobile tour app. The ability to leapfrog over the politics and place the marker text (as well as complementary photos and audio and video footage) onto a mobile historical tour app is another technological advance for historians. Cleveland State University’s CurateScape proves even more useful as it develops in Spokane, Baltimore, and New Orleans.
Full disclosure: The 17th Street Canal levee breaks destroyed half of the contents of my family’s apartment, including children’s toys and artwork as well as family photographs. Along with Harry Shearer and most New Orleanians, I am not an unbiased observer.
~ Michael Mizell-Nelson