Army Corps reviews making breach sites landmarks

March 16, 2012 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The head of the Army Corps of Engineers says a panel of historians will study whether two of the main levee breaches that led to the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina should become national historic landmarks.

In a letter to state officials released Friday, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary of civil works, said corps historians would look at a proposal to have the 17th Street Canal and Lower 9th Ward breaches placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Darcy said she would report on the panel’s recommendations by the end of March.

The effort to place the sites on the historic register has been led by Levees.Org, a New Orleans group that formed after Katrina to push for change at the corps and to keep the nation’s attention focused on Katrina. The group’s efforts to get the breach sites on the national register have been backed by the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office.

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Any recommendation from the corps panel has the potential to embarrass the Army Corps because the breaches and flooding of New Orleans have been blamed on shoddy work by the agency. After floodwalls failed, floodwaters poured into New Orleans and led to the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

In the letter to state officials, Darcy said there were a “number of technical, informational and procedural matters” that the agency had to review.

The corps has expressed concern over what the historic markers might say. When a state board recently reviewed the proposal, 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.”

The corps has a say over whether the sites should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it owns the levee along the Lower 9th Ward where the floodwall collapsed on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina struck. Both the 17th Street Canal site and the Lower 9th Ward site are bundled together in the same nomination headed to the National Park Service.

“We thought it would be noble to commemorate the worst engineering disaster in U.S. history and honor those affected,” said Sandy Rosenthal, the founder of Levees.Org. “While disaster sites are not common (on the register), they are not unprecedented.”

She said at least two other national disasters are commemorated on the National Register of Historic Places — the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the Shenandoah blimp disaster in 1925.

The corps could ask for changes to the nomination, which could extend the process. It could also approve making the breach sites landmarks or make no recommendations. The corps cannot stop the nomination, Rosenthal said.

Regardless of the corps’ response, the nomination likely will be submitted to the National Park Service. Then there would be a 45-day public comment period before the site could be registered.