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Forget NPR, Shearer, The Big Uneasy, me: Maria Garzino still wants answers

So Harry Shearer’s ticked off at NPR’s “censorship” of coverage for his film The Big Uneasy, and NPR’s Ombudsman rejects his claims. And the whole silly flap – on the NPR site, on twitter, on blogs – misses the point. Credible claims backed by evidence have been forwarded to President Obama – claims that show New Orleans may be in danger of repeating past mistakes because its protection against hazard has been misrepresented. Engineer and whistleblower Maria Garzino deserves a real answer for the trouble she’s been through.

Like Shearer, I, too, was disappointed that NPR didn’t cover New Orleans with greater depth during this last Katrinaversary. Unlike Shearer, and unlike NPR, I spent 2 and a half years submitting nearly 50 Freedom of Information Act Requests to the Corps at various branches, to the F.B.I, to the Environmental Protection Agency. The result was an investigation that aired in four parts last year on Southern California Public Radio, where I work.

You can find it here.

The series centered on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower, Maria Garzino. The first reporter to mention her claims at all was Cain Burdeau, in the Associated Press office in Louisiana; he reported on her initial memo expressing concern about the testing process. I followed Garzino through her escalation of her complaints and the response from her superiors, Corps command in Washington, the G.A.O., and the Office of Special Counsel. These stories also made public for the first time documents and memoranda written by other Corps officials and consultants that confirmed that the Corps knew one thing while making public a different one with regard to the pumps.

Maria Garzino reported to her superiors – and other records show – that hydraulic pumps purchased by the Corps to place at the outfall canals have never proven themselves under test conditions that mimic a Katrina-like storm. A storm that surged into the lake and raised water and pressure on canal walls. Canal walls that were not built as well as they should have been: not as deep, and not on as solid a sediment bed as they planned for. Those miscalculations cost the canals breaches, including one more than 400 feet wide in the 17th street canal that flooded Lakeview, Broadmoor, and other neighborhoods of New Orleans.

An independent engineer, finally, last year, confirmed Garzino’s engineering judgment. In a letter that landed at the Obama White House, the Office of Special's Final Independent Engineering Expert Opinion Report found "little logical justification" for contracting for untested, unreliable pumps, and validated many of Garzino's concerns, even saying she did not go far enough in some cases.

It is not generally speaking the custom of the station-based public radio reporter to out their inner workings with freelance pitches, particularly to NPR. I’ll make an exception to say that NPR was offered these pieces, or segments thereof, or a conversation about them. The message I received was that they had their own coverage plans, and anyway, there had been enough about Katrina around that ‘versary. (In those moments, the frustration of the local reporter knows no bounds: I lived in New Orleans after Katrina, and with Eve Troeh, now at Marketplace, I grew so restless with people coming in and telling us how it is that we decided to tell people how it was for us, for residents, not parachutists. I’ve also been on the other side of the equation, working at NPR.)

As the narrator for Pushing Daisies would say, the facts are these:

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were spent the original contracting, not to mention millions more in add-on contracts to prop up a “temporary” system. The temporary system, supposed to be in place for 5 years, looks to be stretching out longer than the Corps originally promised, or promised in a modified way, or promises now. It’s 2010, and the temporary gates and pumps at the New Orleans outfall canals aren’t going anywhere for 3 years or more.

The Corps says everything works; the independent engineer and Maria Garzino say they don’t. The White House has been silent. Maria Garzino has risked her career and her health to seek an answer for herself and for New Orleans. I, for one, would like to see her get one, whatever it is.

A postscript: I’ll add a note to Alicia Shepard’s explanation of the Dibs List at NPR. First, I disavow any direct knowledge of how NPR operates that list now. I’ve been “out of the building” as they say for almost 4 years. But I sure dealt with the Dibs List before that, when working at Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Day to Day. Most of her explanation is dead-on, true, accurate, and valid. This caught my eye in Shepard’s blog:

The Dibs List was set up about five years ago to prevent bigger shows (ME and ATC) from snagging all the big-name personalities. NPR also hoped to prevent publicists from cherry picking shows and to avoid having multiple NPR staffers calling the same person about interviews.

When I was a producer, publicists, Harry Shearer and whoever else did in fact try to “game the system” to get on the best shows. And, yes, so did producers. But the thing is: the system IS gameable. If Tell Me More covers someone, ATC could well cover the same person, justifying it by saying that they’re taking a different tack or have an angle that the other show didn’t. Some people do appear on multiple shows; I have seen and participated in these battles first hand, and while I’d like to think our talk shows at KPCC are a little different, the fact is, the business of explaining what happens in the world is chaotic and messy. The Dibs List at NPR – as probably at any news org – tries to bring order to chaos. But a news org is an octopus on growth hormones: entropy happens, and chaos can win a day. Just like with Frank Stoltze’s desk.