Today, I interview Sandy Rosenthal who after Hurricane Katrina, has faced the daunting task of exposing the truth behind the disaster. Despite lacking public speaking experience and facing challenges with her pronunciation skills, she fearlessly led an investigative team that exposed the mistakes of the Army Corps of Engineers and their subsequent attempts to conceal their errors.
Sandy’s influential work is detailed in her book, “Words Whispered in Water,” which chronicles her efforts to lead an investigative team and expose the Army Corps of Engineers as the culprits behind the levee breach. In this captivating memoir, she reveals the agency’s attempts to cover up their mistakes, shedding light on the millions wasted in their efforts. Sandy’s advocacy extends beyond her personal experiences, as she passionately advocates for the 62% of the American population living by levees, hosting a weekly podcast called “Beat the Big Guys.” Through her podcast, she empowers her national audience to take on the big challenges in their own communities.
Sandy’s resilience and drive are not limited to her professional endeavors. She leads an active lifestyle, playing tennis six days a week, practicing yoga, and finding joy in teaching her dogs silly tricks. Additionally, she cherishes her role as a grandmother, dedicating quality time with her two grandchildren in San Francisco every month. Sandy’s extraordinary journey from a place of struggle to becoming a powerful advocate exemplifies her unwavering determination to make a positive impact and inspire change.
Sandy’s story serves as a testament to the transformative power of finding one’s voice and using it to effect change. Her journey is a source of inspiration for individuals facing their own challenges and seeking the courage to speak up and make a difference in their communities. Through her experiences, Sandy encourages others to embrace their authentic voices and overcome obstacles to create meaningful change in the world around them.
Sandy Rosenthal is an extraordinary individual who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the most costly engineering disaster in US history, which claimed the lives of nearly 1400 people in the summer of 2005. In the face of adversity, Sandy embarked on a courageous journey to uncover the truth and seek justice for the victims. Despite lacking community organizing experience, she fearlessly led a team of individuals who shared her determination to expose the true culprits behind the catastrophe. Through her unwavering dedication and newfound voice, Sandy not only shed light on the responsible parties but also inspired widespread reforms in engineering practices.
Sandy’s remarkable journey serves as a testament to the power of one person’s resilience and determination. In the absence of others who knew the truth, she took it upon herself to lead the charge, defying all odds. Her ability to articulate complex issues and rally support from the public, media, and influential figures made her an influential advocate for justice. Sandy’s ongoing commitment to promoting transparency and accountability in the engineering industry continues to make a lasting impact, reminding us that one person’s voice can spark profound change and prevent future disasters.
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Transcript of Interview
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking Doreen7steps.com
Episode #110 Sandy Rosenthal
“From Voiceless to Powerful Advocate”
(0:39) Doreen Downing
Hi, I’m Dr. Doreen Downing and I’m here today with a fabulous guest. I’m host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. And what I do is invite guests here who have found their voice, and somewhere along the line, there was some difficulty in having a voice.
But today my guest, Sandy Rosenthal has done something that has completely changed my impression of what happened during Katrina in 2005, I believe it was, and we’ll hear more about that, but wow. Sandy found her voice, spoke up against authority and the powers to be, and has made a huge change in how we have viewed that disaster, I might call it.
And I know she calls it the 2005 flood, and we’ll hear way more about it today. But first, I just want to say, hi, Sandy.
(1:37) Sandy Rosenthal
Hey Doreen. I’m so delighted to be here today.
(1:40) Doreen Downing
Yes. Well, I met you in a book club meeting of your book, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. I’ve read it and I know that this is one of the things that everybody said.
It was a page-turner. It’s something you can’t put down. It’s like, Wow. I lived a lot of what happened during Katrina just by reading your pages and the stories you told, and your journey to be a voice for your city.
(2:13) Sandy Rosenthal
I appreciate that very much. Yes.
(2:15) Doreen Downing
So you sent the bio, I’d like to read it just so that we can get on the same page and people will understand some of your background.
(2:23) Sandy Rosenthal
(2:25) Doreen Downing
After Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Levy Failures in New Orleans, Sandy Rosenthal founded the nonprofit levy.org with 25,000 supporters nationwide. Her book, Words Whispered in Water, is about how she led an investigative team to expose the culprit in the levy breach disaster. The Army Corps of Engineers and how the agency spent millions covering up its mistakes.
Rosenthal is an advocate for the 62% of the American population living by levies. Sandy hosts a weekly podcast called Beat the Big Guys, where she coaches her national audience on how to take on the big guys in their own communities.
Rosenthal plays tennis six days a week, practices yoga, teaches her dogs silly tricks, and spends time every month with her two grandchildren in San Francisco.
Wow. That’s a big mouthful, I’m sure. But I’m really glad that there are highlights here that people can begin to place who you are and why you’re here today.
(3:46) Sandy Rosenthal
Well, thank you so much for that introduction. That was a lot of material. I was hoping you would cut some of it out. There was quite a bit there.
(3:55) Doreen Downing
But it’s all so important, you know, really exposing what you did with the Army Corps and the mistakes and the millions of dollars that they were trying to save.
That then probably cost way, way, way more. But before we go into the actual event and the book and what’s currently going on for you? I always like to explore early childhood. I think you grew up and were born in New Orleans, right?
(4:25) Sandy Rosenthal
Actually, no, I was actually born in the Boston area.
(4:28) Doreen Downing
Oh, south of Boston. That’s why you have the Boston accent.
(4:32) Sandy Rosenthal
Yes. As my father is from, he would say Norwood, Massachusetts and my mother was from Pawtucket. So the two of those dialects are very thick and very distinct, and I was raised with a combination of those two.
(4:49) Doreen Downing
Well, and you mentioned to me that that played a part in you being a young girl and having that heavy accent as well as something that you call–what, a disability or what do you call it?
(5:05) Sandy Rosenthal
Sure. When I was a youngster in grammar school, it was called a handicap, and then it changed to disability. I’m not sure what they call it now. And the interesting thing is what I have is sensorineural hearing loss. And it’s a strange word because it implies that I at one time had normal hearing.
I was born hearing the way I do, I didn’t lose anything. So it’s a very misunderstood thing. Hearing is so misunderstood. People think that if you go get hearing aids, that it’s like glasses that you put on your glasses and you can see, well, people believe wrongly, that somebody would put in hearing aids and can magically hear. It doesn’t work that way.
It’s a completely different process. And for my entire life, there was no hearing aid that fixed the hearing problem that I had. And if I can I go ahead and jump in, so what happened to me growing up because of that?
(6:04) Doreen Downing
Absolutely, because that’s you learning how to be yourself in the world, have a voice, speak up, and when you speak, if it has the accent and some kind of something different for folks or little kids, you’ve got to be pointed out.
(6:21) Sandy Rosenthal
Absolutely. So what happened is I’m born with this hearing loss and this turns up, there’s a gene for it. My mother had it, my sister had it. My daughter has the gene, but does not have the hearing loss now. Good, luckily for her, but I definitely had it. And so growing up, things sound differently to me, and I’ll give you an example.
Yes. So a classic one is that a hen is a chicken, and normally it would be chicken. I hear chicken. That’s what I hear. So, but practice and practice and practice. I’ve learned how to pronounce things properly. Practice and being picked on by an older brother and other kids for the way I pronounce things.
I eventually learned, you know, I learned how to say chicken, but a lot of the more subtle sounds, the ts, the R’s, the L’s I had a lot of trouble with right into my adult life, right up until the age of 40. Keep in mind that when I moved to New Orleans, I not only had this, this difference in speech wasn’t a speech impediment.
There’s nothing wrong with my jaw and my bone structure. It was the way I spoke. And combining that with that heavy accent, that heavy Boston dialect, people literally couldn’t understand me. My family could understand me. So as you can imagine, it was embarrassing, you know, and annoying that people couldn’t understand me.
And finally, at the age of 40 years old, I was so fed up with not being understood that I actually went to speech therapy school. To learn how to speak at my age, and it was remarkably exhausting. They would put things in my mouth like I would have to hold a cork, a wine cork in my mouth. And, and talk with the cork in my mouth.
And all of this was designed to get me to open up my mouth. People with a Boston dialup tend to talk like this. They tend to clench their teeth together when they talk. So the good news about speech therapy is I get to practice all day long every day. Yes. And I’m still practicing. I don’t think a day goes by where I think about, did I pronounce my L right?
Did I touch my tongue? To where my teeth meet when I say this, you know, to this day I’m still working on my speech. And what that did was it gave me confidence and when it came time for me to use my voice, I had the confidence to do it. Now, I didn’t have confidence in public speaking, but at least I had confidence in my ability and, and my ability to make myself understood.
(9:11) Doreen Downing
This is so fabulous. I have not heard a story like yours, and I’m sure that what we’re talking about is just in terms of pronunciation and words and language and sound and all of that has something to do with you, you, your willingness to come into a center stage. And I would say that you held yourself back for probably a pretty long time, even though 40 years is down the line. You probably already had children by then.
(9:45) Sandy Rosenthal
And what’s interesting is when I announced to my children that I wanted to take speech therapy, they didn’t like that idea. They wanted me, they didn’t want me to sound different. Oh. I said, oh, yes, I did too. It’s very sweet. That’s very sweet.
But, you know, I’m doing this for me. And even though I, to this day, I still remember how I think that was a very sweet thing for them to say. Yes.
(10:11) Doreen Downing
(10:13) Sandy Rosenthal
And, the only other thing I want to point out is if you, if your hearing is normal, you and your sight is normal, you just learn to speak that babies are doing it all day, every day.
They just do it. But if you don’t have normal hearing or normal eyesight. Nice eyesight can help too. You don’t learn how to do those subtle sounds. And you don’t realize that you, that you never learned them. I actually tied for first place with the best accent in college and the other person that won the best accent award had a thick Puerto Rican accent. And she was from Puerto Rico. Yes.
(10:55) Doreen Downing
Well this is pretty fascinating to hear how you also were awarded for that voice.
(11:03) Sandy Rosenthal
It was a gag award. I won it from my college dorm, the floor of my college dorm. You know, fun. It’s like a fun, fun award.
But again, I went to college in my home state of Massachusetts, and I had a thick, thick accent.
(11:23) Doreen Downing
Well, what brought you to New Orleans?
(11:25) Sandy Rosenthal
I married a local, I met him at Amherst College. I went to Mount Holyoke. He went to Amherst and we actually met on the campus of Mount Holyoke and we fell in love and got married right out of college and we were coming up on 44 years.
(11:41) Doreen Downing
Oh, congratulations. 44.
(11:43) Sandy Rosenthal
Thank you. Good, good chunk of time together.
(11:46) Doreen Downing
And what was he studying and what were you studying at the time?
(11:51) Sandy Rosenthal
I studied psychology, which I believe I still use to this day. And he studied economics and is definitely still using that to this day. He went into insurance, the family insurance business, and I went into a career in marketing and then afterwards, after the levee breaches, after the catastrophe of the levee breach, then I moved into community mobilizing, which I’m still doing to this day.
The things that happen in town that need a community mobilizer. I jump in and go, I’ll do that. I got that.
(12:23) Doreen Downing
Oh Sandy, if anybody isn’t watching you, I just want to say to the people listening the way that you just smiled so brightly right there about your willingness to step into and up on a stage basically to lead.
So you did mention, and let’s move into that now, about having taken your vocal, I guess challenges. Seriously. And then that helped you feel like you can go on a stage when you needed to, but how, okay, so let’s go back and so the hurricane happened in 2005.
And you’re living in New Orleans, you’re raising your family and you’ve done this work around vocalizations speech and what happened that you were saying that you had to do something about it. Tell a little bit of the story then.
(13:38) Sandy Rosenthal
Yes. So a hurricane happened. It didn’t hit New Orleans, it hit Mississippi, but there was a storm surge that ended up causing levees to fail. Levees that we had always depended on levees that we thought were utterly invincible, and they failed in many major spots and flooded the city of New Orleans.
So I had you know, perhaps luck. I didn’t flood, my home didn’t flood, and I packed for three weeks. My husband had seen Hurricane Betsy and the damage that did 50 years earlier and he told me no 40 years earlier and he told me, Sandy, pack for three weeks cause we’re not coming back to the city for three weeks.
And because of that I was in a unique position, a unique place where I could listen to what was being said. Listen to the radio, watch the news on TV, read. Well, we couldn’t read the newspaper. We didn’t have one. We only had radio and television. This is, keep in mind, this is 17 years ago, and I very quickly formed a different version of events than what I was hearing.
It sounded to me like these levees broke because they were designed wrongly, not because of anything that the local officials didn’t do, or nothing to do with the storm, and certainly nothing to do with the city of New Orleans. And that hunch that I had, I stuck with it. And then eventually the more I read, keep in mind I didn’t flood, I didn’t have to deal with fema.
I didn’t have to deal with an insurance company. I didn’t have to deal with a contractor. I was fortunate that, with that lucky place, I was at the right place at the right time, for lack of a better word. And I started, I formed my own version of events. I was convinced I was right and I started talking about it.
And then I got into an argument with a young, not a young man, a man about my age from Alexandria, the city of Alexandria, which is about two hours from New Orleans. And he and I were talking about the catastrophe. And I told him it was the levees, those levies built by the federal government.
They failed, they should have held. And he told me, no, no, no, no, no. Katrina was a huge storm. There’s nothing wrong with those levies. And the people like you, who were living there, don’t deserve any help. I don’t know his name. I wish I did because I’d like to thank him because he put me on the straight and narrow path.
I had to do something. I had to do something, but then I was concerned. I said, well, who’s got to lead this movement to get the word out? I mean, I can’t do that. I have no experience like that, and I’m not a public speaker. I’ve never done any public speaking before, and for two weeks I tried to find another organization that was already doing the work that I wanted to do.
No such group existed. And for another two weeks I wasted precious time looking for a spokesperson. And I said, well, I guess I’ve got to have to do it. And I know if it hadn’t, if I had not taken that speech therapy just a few years earlier, I would never have had the confidence to do it.
And, when it came time for someone to put a TV camera in my face or a mic in my face, you know what went through my head. What happened to me, I’m one of the lucky ones. And, talking to a TV station or a radio station often on a moment’s notice is a walk in the park, is a piece of cake, so to speak, compared to the suffering of the people of New Orleans.
Many of whom, like 50% of them lost everything. And if they didn’t lose everything, they lost a lot. A lot of these people lost family members. Over 1400 people died within a few hours. So that was what I had to do.
Actually, I just said to myself, this is easy, public speaking. This is easy compared to the suffering that I’ve watched all around me.
(17:53) Doreen Downing
Oh, that is such a point to have put it relative to what suffering was happening around you, that public speaking anxiety doesn’t compare.
(18:06) Sandy Rosenthal
Oh, I guarantee you, Doreen, there are a lot of capable, smart, motivated people out there who have everything it needs to take on a community problem, but don’t have the speaking ability. Just can’t do it. And if you can’t do the speaking, you can’t lead.
(18:27) Doreen Downing
(18:28) Sandy Rosenthal
Can’t lead. If you can’t speak.
(18:33) Doreen Downing
There’s this actual kind of speaking, but there’s the fear and the fear that holds people back. And what you’re saying is fear didn’t hold you back.
It was like your passion and your, what you were seeing needed to be done. You were called to step into it, even though you might have been afraid, but luckily you weren’t.
(18:58) Sandy Rosenthal
There was basically no time to be afraid, if that makes sense. There was no time. The sense of urgency was constant, especially in the first months and then in the first years. I don’t know, it’s been 17 years.
While I still don’t have that same day-to-day sense of urgency, you know what I do have looming ahead of me. Right. We have the 20th anniversary coming up in just two years. In just two years, we got the 20th anniversary coming up and already I’m making plans for what we’re going to do. When the 20th anniversary of the worst catastrophe of the worst engineering catastrophe in the history of the nation comes around.
(19:37) Doreen Downing
If I were listening to this today, I might wonder, so what was the result? What has been the result of you pointing the finger at what were really the mistakes that were made by the Army Corps of Engineers?
(19:54) Sandy Rosenthal
As you know, it’s all laid out in spellbinding detail in my page-turner book. I love when people say that, yes, that it’s a page turner.
That’s what I wanted it to be. I didn’t want it to be a textbook. And all the details are in there, but the bottom line is it did take longer than I thought it would. It was harder than I thought it would be. But finally, eventually, major media finally has the story correctly, and that is that the Army Corps of Engineers was looking for ways to save money when they were building their levees.
And in the 1980s, they were behind schedule. The government accountability office had taken them out to the woodshed and given them a thrashing and said, go back and finish those levees you, you’re behind schedule. The Army Corps of Engineers is worried, so they look for ways to save money because costs are rising and they thought they could save money on steel.
Steel is very expensive and is very expensive to drive it into the ground, into the levees to stabilize them. So they did a study, a large scale study in an area of Louisiana with soil similar to New Orleans, and they determined after their study that they only needed to drive sheet pilings into the ground 16 feet, one six instead of 46 feet.
Four, six. And that new guidance saved them a hundred thousand dollars. A hundred thousand dollars, which is a lot of money, when you’re building levies. So for a hundred thousand dollars, they changed their guidances, drove all the sheet pilings in only 16 feet instead of 46.
When Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge arrived, the levy just fell over. They fell over when water was still four feet from the tops of the height of the walls. Four feet and one of the canals broke on both sides. Now, I’m not an engineer, but you would think once a canal is broken on one side, that’ll relieve pressure.
No, it broke on the other side too. These are the Army Corps of Engineers, and these were drainage canals. These weren’t Mississippi River levees. So it was difficult for all of America to wrap their head around how could the Army Corps of Engineers made this bit terrible mistake. It can’t possibly be true.
And it took a while to convince the American public about what really happened, but it took 10 years, but it’s finally done. There’s still a few vestiges of the fairy tale out there. When I say fairytale, I mean monster. Storm City below the sea, full of corrupt officials. That was the fairytale that the Army Corps of Engineers would want you to believe.
And they almost got away with it, but they didn’t. And the big media, New York Times, the Associated Press, all of the big major media, they’ve got the story right.
(22:44) Doreen Downing
I’m sitting here in such gratitude for your one voice that started the whole movement of people waking up to truth. And this is just one model of what anybody can do.
Like you said, you know, if you’ve got to be a leader, you do need to stand up and speak. You do have to be willing to point in directions that are uncomfortable for yourself perhaps, but the ultimate power that it brings to a community. Wow. Thank you so much, Sandy.
(23:25) Sandy Rosenthal
And, one comment on speaking. I don’t mean to disparage people who aren’t good public speakers because I know. Some great speakers with severe, cleft palettes and severe underbites, and, while their speech is different, they can be understood. And as long as you’re understood, you can speak and you can lead.
(23:49) Doreen Downing
Oh, that’s perfect. That’s a perfect way to encourage people today. We’re coming to the end, and I’d like to see if there’s something else. I mean, in a way it was both the whole challenge you had about actually speaking in a way that you could be heard by many people as well as the passion.
I’ve heard you talk about yourself. Well, I was just a housewife, you know, and I’ve got to get up and lead a movement. Oh my goodness. So that both seem to be true of what we’ve been hearing from you today.
(24:29) Sandy Rosenthal
So, it’s often people outside of a field of a discipline who are the ones that speak up and say, no, we’re not going to accept what you’re telling us. We’re not accepting your lies. We’re not accepting these untruth. And it’s often someone who’s, and Erin Brockovich was a perfect example. She had no legal training. She wasn’t a lawyer, not even a slight bit of legal training. And look what she did. So there’s Erin Brockovich’s in every one of us.
(24:58) Doreen Downing
Well and the Sandy Rosenthal is in every one of us too. Thank you.
(25:05) Sandy Rosenthal
Well, thank you.
(25:07) Doreen Downing
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Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.