If you know that you are right about something, don’t be afraid to speak up. It is not easy being the David in a world of Goliaths, but you have to fight for what you stand for. Don’t be afraid to find your voice. This is what today’s guest just did. Join Elizabeth Bachman as she talks to the author of Words Whispered in Water, Sandy Rosenthal, about how Sandy spoke out against the Army Corps of Engineers during the events of Hurricane Katrina. Learn the true reason why the levees broke (it was not because of Mother Nature). Find out how the Goliaths of the world will try to shut you up. Learn how to speak up to find the truth today.
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Being The David In A World Of Goliaths With Sandy Rosenthal
Stepping Up And Finding Your Voice
In this show, we talk about leadership and communication skills and presentation skills. In this episode, we’re doing something a little bit different. I’m interviewing Sandy Rosenthal, who is the Founder of the nonprofit group, Levees.org. She lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and watched her city get flooded because the levees fell apart. The levees are the dams that keep the water out of the city.
The more she saw it, the angrier she got until she decided to create a group and try to find out the truth. She indeed discovered that it wasn’t a force of nature. It was a failure on the part of the Army corps of engineers who built the levees, who sloppily built them, not to code, and that’s the people who were responsible for it. I thought we’ll have a little bit of inspiration to get us started.
The official bio for Sandy is Sandy Rosenthal founded the nonprofit, Levees.org, in 2005. The group’s focus is educating the public that the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was due to Federal engineering mistakes and not the wrath of nature. Her book, Words Whispered in Water, is about how, against all the odds, she altered the national narrative about the flooding disaster.
In March of 2019, Sandy Rosenthal unveiled the Flooded House Museum at a major site where the levees broke in New Orleans. For those efforts, Sandy has been honored with numerous awards, including outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year from Tulane University, and Most Influential Woman from Mount Holyoke College.
Sixty-two percent of the American population lives in counties that are protected by levees, where the levees are supposed to keep the water away from the homes. These are the people whom Sandy Rosenthal is an activist for and a voice for. She’s also the host of the podcast, Beat the Big Guys. It’s a useful way to find out if you are angry and you have a cause, you can listen to Sandy to learn how to do this.
Sandy Rosenthal, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m delighted to have you. I wanted to have a story of somebody who’s done something amazing and has continued to do amazing things to get us started. No pressure, of course.
I appreciate it.
Sandy, before I ask about the work that you do, I always want to know from my guests, if you could interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
That individual immediately pops into my mind. I didn’t have to give it even a moment’s thought. That would be the peace activist Frances Crowe. Ms. Frances Crowe lived to the great age of 100. Throughout her life, she devoted herself to true activism. She was also anti-nuclear energy, which is separate. It was one of the things she did. Anyone that lived 100 years old did a lot of things. She was mainly a peace activist.
I was fortunate enough to meet her when she was 90. I asked her a question while she was still with us and I asked Ms. Crowe, who was diminutive. Tiny. I looked down at her to talk to her. I said, “Ms. Crowe, how many times have you been arrested in your work with peace activism?” She said, “Not enough.” As an activist myself, I felt unworthy standing next to this amazing woman. I happened to be there while she was receiving an award at the age of 90. That is the individual that I wish I could interview but she’s no longer with us.
I remember her as a young person when we were demonstrating against nuclear power back in the ‘70s. She was one of the speakers and also an important voice against the Vietnam War, in which my parents were very involved.
Believe it or not, she was arrested again after I met her three more times at the age of 91, 94 and 98.
I would be in the audience for that one. I would love to listen to that. Meanwhile, let’s talk about you. You have a very interesting story about taking on the big guys and fighting against a big guy in the context of Hurricane Katrina. Sandy, could you tell us what happened in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans?
Most of the nation, in fact, the world thought at the time that New Orleans was inundated with a storm surge from a hurricane. That was the beginning and the end of the story.
The terrible floods with people who were trapped on the roofs of their houses, right?
The flooding in some parts of New Orleans was as high as 10 feet. Most of New Orleans is about 5 to 6 feet. You have to realize the water came in with force. It was enough to move houses off foundations in many neighborhoods all over the city. Most of the people who were watching this on television, anyone who was old enough to watch TV in August of 2005, were watching people on their roof. They all believed at the time that it was due to the wrath of Mother Nature.
I was in a very unusual space. When I evacuated prior to the hurricane, I packed for three weeks. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. No one I know packed for three weeks except my family. That’s because my husband’s in the insurance industry. Having packed for three weeks, I was in a relatively comfortable, safe place where I had the opportunity to listen to the news, listen to the radio, watch television and read everything I could get my hands on. Due to that relatively safe, calm place I was in, I could pay attention to the stories that were coming out. It didn’t make sense to me that these levee failures were due to Mother Nature. It looked to me like they were due to the levees not being built properly.The levee failures during Katrina were not due to Mother Nature but were due to not being built properly. Click To Tweet
The levees you’re talking about are the dykes that helped control the water around New Orleans.
We had something called hurricane protection that is in New Orleans built by the federal government. We all trusted our dykes, flood walls and levees. We never even thought about them, no more than we would think about will a federal bridge hold if we drive over it. You don’t think about what bridges hold? We never imagined these levees would break. No one in their wildest dreams imagined that these levees could break and fail. Not only did they break but they also broke in 50 different places.
They were destined to fail. They were waiting for something to come along. In hindsight, they could have broken in a summer storm or summer rain. We know that. I began to ask questions and I wasn’t willing to accept that this was because of Mother Nature. In my mind, this was due to the mistakes of our federal government. Keep in mind, I’m not an engineer, attorney or politician. I’m a nobody.
I don’t mind calling myself a nobody at the time when this disaster happened. I began asking questions and the more questions I asked, suddenly I got pushback. I had enough self-respect to believe that if I was receiving pushback, little me and my little rag-tag followers getting pushback, we must be on the right track. We’re either right or on the right track.If you're getting pushback, that means you must be on the right track. Click To Tweet
Who was pushing back?
The first people to push back were the actual Federal Army Corps of Engineers. One of the members of the PR department disguised her identity and used her email account to write to me and threaten me by telling me that people were organizing to stop the lies that I was putting out.
For our international readers, the Army Corps of Engineers is the group in the federal government that builds dams and levees. They’re responsible for big infrastructure things. It’s a huge organization.
It is the largest engineering outfit in the world. Thank you for reminding me that not everybody is familiar with the US Army Corps of Engineers.
People in the US aren’t always familiar with it.
Yes, I appreciate that. Immediately, I received pushback. It was confusing to me at the time but I didn’t let it stop me. I certainly didn’t allow the idea that organizations were being created to fight my lies. I certainly didn’t let that bother me. Keep in mind, all I had to do was look out the window and see people who had lost everything or even lost loved ones. Emails like that weren’t enough to stop me.
When you were asking questions publicly, what did you discover? You talk about being a David in a world of Goliaths, which is a biblical reference to the little guy, the little shepherd with a little sling who’s fighting against the giant. What were you saying that they said were lies?
What I was saying was that the failure of these levees and our losses were not due to Mother Nature and were not an accident. They were due to mistakes made by the Army Corps of Engineers when they built their levees. Most of them were completed five years prior to that flood.
I didn’t realize they were that new.
The most significant breaches, the ones that by themselves did the most damage on their own were the ones in the middle of the city, the 17th Street and a very famous one in the Lower Ninth Ward. I’m sure many people are familiar with the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, a historic neighborhood of Black homeowners.
In my mind, if a brand new building, five years old, crashed to the ground, I would look to the engineer, the contractor and the architect for what went wrong. I would not look to the janitor. At that time, the officials of New Orleans were being blamed for not paying attention to the maintenance of the levees. At first, this flooding was blamed on Mother Nature. Gradually, within a few months, the blame began to fall upon the shoulders of the people who live here in New Orleans for not properly maintaining the levees.
They were built below standard. It took a while for that information to come out. Keep in mind this was over 350 miles of levees and trillions of gallons of water in the city. It took a month to dewater the city. We did not know right away who was responsible and why. This is significant. For a year, the Army Corps of Engineers, those who ultimately were found to be responsible, were tight-lipped and refused to answer any questions from Congress until the levee investigations were completed. It took a year for that to happen. Meanwhile, the attention of the American people and the world moved on elsewhere, as people will do when a disaster’s not right in front of them.
You started an organization to fight on behalf of the people whose lives were damaged by the failure of what the engineers did.
Bill said, “Why did you spend all your time doing this?” I said, “This was not a disaster. It was a bona fide catastrophe. Over 1,800 people were dead within hours, 350,000 families were displaced and hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. This was a catastrophe. With all the misinformation and lies swirling around, I felt that I had to do something.
Keep in mind, I didn’t flood so I had the luxury. I did not have to fight FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Association. I did not have to worry about hiring a contractor to fix my house. I did not have to worry about contacting the insurance company to compensate me for my losses. I was in a relatively safe, warm space where I could devote all my energies to getting the truth out.
I’m going to ask you more about what happened but let’s talk a little bit about your process of how you learned to raise your voice and claim your voice. People said you were a nobody. Working with speakers is a large part of what we do. Helping get women’s voices out into the world is my overall mission. Talk to us a little bit about the process you had to go through.
That’s a two-part answer. The first part will probably surprise you but I was born profoundly deaf and at the age of 40, I took up speech therapy because when you’re born with severe or profound deafness, you don’t say your words properly. I’m saying them the way that I hear them. I’ll give you an example. Chicken. I would say chicken based on what I hear.
Over time, I learned to correct these things from feedback from other family members. A lot of these sounds needed therapy to fix. My jaw ached from the effort of working on my speech therapy. I did it, took it, improved my speech and got a lot of confidence out of that. It was enjoyable to finally be able to communicate, talk to people and have them understand me.
I had completed this speech therapy right around the time that the levees broke. That gave me the confidence to lead my organization. As for finding my voice, I believe it’s what all of your readers need to know. Whenever you are speaking, it is critical that you not allow people to change the subject, digress or get you off-topic. You’ve got to keep them on topic. People will naturally do it.
It’s often people with a painful truth to hide. If you’re trying to beat the big guys in your neighborhood, they are the ones who will try to get you to change the subject or push you off-kilter. Don’t let them. The bad news is there’s an infinite number of ways to change a subject but the good news is to recognize it’s happening and don’t allow it to happen. Be nice about it and say, “Thank you for that point but shall we get back onto the subject of X, Y and Z,” which is what we’re trying to talk about. You’d be surprised how often that’s the tack that’s taken. The people with a painful tooth to hide try to change the subject. Don’t let them.
When you started speaking up and saying the Army Corps of Engineers, those engineers who built these levees, built them badly, what happened? This is little Sandy Rosenthal taking on the federal government.
This is something that any David dealing with a Goliath is going to have to be prepared for. Rather than discuss the merits of what you are saying, they’ll go after you. It is a tried and true method. All the big guys do it. They all work out of the same playbook and they will try to mischaracterize who you are. For example, I often was told, “She’s not an engineer. Why does she think she knows what she’s talking about?” It’s not necessary to be an engineer. I can see, hear and read. That’s all I need to do. That’s what happened when I opened up my mouth. I interpreted that as I must be on the right track if they keep trying to go after me, rather than discuss the merit of what I’m saying.Every time you are David dealing with a Goliath, they will always go after you instead of discussing the merits of what you're saying. Click To Tweet
Talk a little bit, please. You became a spokesperson. Did you sue the government?
I have threatened a lawsuit many times but to get information. Remember, I mentioned that the big guys will try to change the subject. Another one of their tacks is a delay. They’ll delay answering questions and giving you the data that you’ve requested. I employed the threat of a lawsuit to get data that I needed from the federal government to pursue my mission, which is education.
I believe that every single person who’d lost so much as a teacup demanded to know the real reason that these levees broke. Many people lost family members but even if you’ve lost the teacup, you deserve to know the truth. I pushed very hard for it. I never had to file a lawsuit. All I had to do was threaten a lawsuit. You’d be surprised how well it works.
Didn’t anybody ever say, “Yes, we messed up. It was our fault?”
The Army Corps of Engineers is an organization and it’s military.
There must have been a human being there somewhere who said something.
Not a single individual in the Corps of Engineers lost so much of the parking spot. Nobody was punished or went to prison. No one lost so much as a parking spot. With regard to your question, did the Army Corps ever say, “Yes, we’re at fault. It was our fault?” It turned out that because of the military organization, for them to admit that they’d made a mistake is the same thing as what they call bayoneting the wounded. It is the same thing as saying something wrong or bad about a former military commander. They don’t do that.
However, the Army Corps of Engineers was found responsible for the failure of the levees, which is specifically explaining which levees failed and why and why they were responsible. However, financial remuneration was not given. No payments were given because the Army Corps of Engineers is protected from financial obligation should their levees fail due to the Flood Protection Act of 1928.
Do you feel like you won?
Yes. There were several reasons why my organization won. One of the reasons is quite recent. The Associated Press, which is a worldwide organization with offices all over the world, has put out what they call a style guide. In that style guide, it tells its reporters that whenever they discuss the flooding of New Orleans, they are obligated to say it was because of the failure of the levees, not the storm. Depending on the story, how much detail is allowed and the context, they can even further add that those levees were built by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Whenever someone talks about it, they’ve got to do your story, which is the truth. Tell the story the way you have discovered it.
It’s sad you call it my story but what you mean is my story, which is the truth.
I do believe it is the truth. I have not independently verified it. I was figuring out how best to say that. Sandy, can you talk a little bit about how it feels that you have stepped up into this leadership position? This is a show about leadership and stepping forward.
I’m going to take this moment to calm everybody down. Everyone must feel a little nervous before sticking their neck out to speak. Speaking about things that you’re not 100% sure about but you’re pretty sure about goes against common knowledge. There’s a safety net for you. I wasn’t an engineer but if it turned out that I was wrong, I didn’t need to worry about my engineering career being destroyed. I wasn’t an attorney. If turned out that I was wrong, I didn’t have to worry about losing my law license.
As a citizen in the United States where I live, if it turned out that I was wrong, all I had to do was say, “Sorry, I guess I was wrong.” For the first months to a year that I began my crusade to get the truth out, I was worried about somebody would jump out from behind a tree with the truth that the Army Corps of Engineers and the people that wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to look innocent. They were always saying, “There’s information you don’t know. There’s information I can’t give you because it’s confidential.” I’m going, “Why not?” That’s another tack used by the big guys with a painful truth. They’ll try to tell you, “You’re wrong but I can’t tell you why. It’s confidential.”
How does it feel that you’ve been doing this for many years? How do you feel about yourself as someone who speaks out?
I found in myself an individual that I had no idea was there. My family didn’t know it was there either. I’m still shocked. For example, I hope it’s okay to tell our readers that I found out on less than a day’s notice that I would be doing this interview. It’s not a problem. I combed my hair and put on a nice dress and here I am. I feel prepared for whatever you can throw at me.
Would you have been able to do that before the flood or the hurricane?
Perhaps I could have but I didn’t have the opportunity. I didn’t know that I had it in me. I initially didn’t want to be the spokesperson. When I first had the idea that I needed to get the truth out, I thought to myself, “I need a famous spokesperson.” I looked around in Louisiana. Who is famous in Louisiana and might want to be a spokesperson? Nobody can’t get in touch with a celebrity. It can’t be done. I realized that very quickly and I said to myself, “I guess I’m going to have to be the spokesperson until we can find a celebrity.” That’s another message for your readers. You don’t need a celebrity. If you could get one, bring them on but you don’t need a celebrity to lead a crusade in your neighborhood to make your world a better place.
I’m so inspired by everything that you’re doing. Levees.org. What is your organization doing?
We are very focused on making sure that every single engineering student that comes out of engineering schools studies engineering catastrophes and learns why they need to be studied and knows the lessons that can be learned from them. In America, there is no mechanism by which engineering students are going to even learn about this disaster. Some of their professors might talk about it but it should be required for every single engineering student and that’s one of the things that we’re working on.
I’m surprised. I assumed that as an engineer, you’re supposed to learn about failure but not necessarily.
At least not in America.
You have a podcast, Beat the Big Guys and you have a book.
It’s called Words Whispered in Water, which came out in 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, where I go into a whole lot more detail than your readers read here.
There’s a quote that I found by the author, Rebecca Traister, who says, “In the United States, we have never been taught how non-compliant, insistent, furious women have shaped our history and our present, our activism, and our art. We should be taught.” I love that you were a woman who got angry and spoke up. I said, “Never underestimate the power of an angry woman or someone who’s pissed off.”
Anger so long as it’s harnessed properly is a great motivator.
If someone is reading and wants to either support your organization or learn how they can step up to deal with injustice, what can you recommend?
I would recommend getting in touch with me through my Instagram account. The Instagram account is @BeatTheBigGuys. I would love to talk with anybody who is looking for advice on ways to make the world a better place.
Listen to her podcast as well, and let this be an example to us all. If you’re angry, do something about it. Speak up, raise your voice, and channel that anger. Thank you very much, Sandy, for joining us. Thank you for being a guest on the show.
You are so very welcome.
If you enjoyed this conversation, please like us on Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Tell your friends, subscribe to us and especially, please leave us a positive review and a good rating on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that matters. Thank you all. I’ll see you at the next one.
- Words Whispered in Water
- Beat the Big Guys – Apple Podcasts
- Frances Crowe – Wikipedia
- @BeatTheBigGuys – Instagram
- Facebook – Strategic Speaking for Results
- LinkedIn – Elizabeth Bachman
- YouTube – Elizabeth Bachman
- Apple Podcasts – Speakers Who Get Results
- SandyRosenthalAuthor – Facebook
- RosenthalSandy – LinkedIn
- @LeveesOrg – Twitter
About Sandy Rosenthal
Sandy Rosenthal founded the non-profit Levees.org in 2005. The group’s focus is educating the public that the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was due to federal engineering mistakes, not the wrath of nature. Her book, Words Whispered in Water, (Mango, 2020) is about how––against all odds––she altered the national narrative about the flooding disaster. In March of 2019, Rosenthal unveiled the Flooded House Museum at a major breach site. She initiated the installation of three historic plaques vetted by the state’s preservation office, hosts an annual levee breach bike tour, and much more.
For those efforts, Rosenthal has been honored with numerous awards most recently including Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year from Tulane University and Most Influential Woman from Mount Holyoke College. Rosenthal is an advocate for 62% of the American population living in counties protected by levees. Rosenthal has been married to Stephen Rosenthal since 1979, has three adult children, and two grandchildren living in San Francisco. She also has two small dogs named Twinkie and Cupcake.