Katrina was no natural disaster.
Yes, a Category 3 Hurricane named Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005 but the 1836 people that died and the thousands more that were injured or lost their lives in other ways were not the victims of nature; they were more the victims of The Army Corps of Engineers and a failed civil disaster system. In other words, their deaths and suffering were man-made, and thus preventable.
It's easy to forget about Katrina and New Orleans, since it was almost six years ago. But actor/comic/filmmaker Harry Shearer has not forgotten. As a part-time resident of New Orleans he's lived it from the beginning. And now he is updating the world on what we know now (a lot) and what is being done (not much) in his new documentary The Big Uneasy. The film takes a Dragnet approach, "just the facts, ma'am" and that's the problem; there are those that would have one believe that there are two sets of facts, and as any scientist will agree, that simply cannot be.
"You are so right, you get it," Shearer recently told me as he stopped by KGO AM 810 radio show on 7-11-11. "This was no natural disaster, this was a catastrophe years in the making and every year we could be heading for another one, an even worse one if something substantial isn't done. The media has gotten this wrong from the beginning and it's time for that to change," he added.
The film, written and directed by Shearer and produced by Christine O'Malley, is making the tour at film festivals and independent theatres but it should be mandatory viewing for every member of the Senate and Congress, and yes, the President as well.
"We're actually working on that," Shearer commented. "We have a team on the Hill trying to get it seen by key members of Congress and others, it's too important to not be exposed to our lawmakers."
The film looks at Katrina from an engineering and an intellectual standpoint: what happened, when and why. It brings to light the findings of Team Louisiana, a group of scientists, engineers and others brought together to figure it all out, as well as people like Maria Garzino, an Army Corps of Engineers whistle-blower and even New Orleans residents who want to dispel myths or answer asinine questions still being brought forth by public and government alike.
The bottom line is the levees failed the people of New Orleans during the storm and the Army Corps of Engineers failed them years prior. The Corps, which is immune to prosecution for any negligence brought by flood projects they built thanks to Congress, knew, or should have known that building these levees on substandard soil would lead to catastrophic failure. They should have known that the useless and costly Mr. Go (Mississippi River-Golf Outlet) had a funnel effect that would push water in to the city. In fact, their total oblivion to the facts was ruled "gross negligence" by a federal court judge in a subsequent lawsuit; but they don't seem to care.
"It's hard to take on something as large as the Army Corps of Engineers," Shearer went on. "They are the pet organization of Congress, any time a Congressional leader wants to dump money and jobs in their district they do a water project that enlists the Corps. And remember, three years of our disaster were under the Bush administration," he added.
So one would assume that when the Democrats led by progressive (?) President Obama took office the Gulf would get new interest, new help. Well, not so much.
"In the movie, we feature Maria Garzino, who told the Corps that the pumps they were going to be using were simply no good, they did not work and would not stand up to the rigors needed to help save New Orleans again. For years she tried to alert everyone, but no one really wanted to listen. Now, she has drafted a letter to the Obama administration, to the President directly, about her findings, complete with very detailed information. Her response?
"She's been told to basically shut up and go away," Shearer stated. "These are supposed to be the 'good guys' and yet we are getting very little movement or interest on their part, either."
It seems really no one wants to hear the truth about New Orleans and Katrina, the truth that it was a foreseeable disaster; one waiting to happen in many other American cities with Levees from the Corps, including the capital of California, Sacramento.
"There's record snow fall this year which means record melting, record amounts of water, if I were Sacramento, I'd be worried," Shearer commented.
And it's not just that many don't want to hear the truth; many want to prevent it from getting out. The Big Uneasy shows how members of Team Louisiana were fenced out or locked out of the initial disaster sites in Louisiana and how it took armed intervention to force the Corps to let the scientists on the scene even though full cooperation had been pledged. It shows how anyone that spoke out against the Corps was fired, from the former head of the former Louisiana State University Hurricane Center (they got rid of the Center and its leader after a mysterious $12 million contract from the Corps) to engineers from Berkley being labeled "anti-American" by their peers.
"There has been retribution taken out on those that spoke or continue to speak out," Shearer sadly reflected. "Even participating in my film was risky, and many declined. They simply didn't want to lose their jobs or their contracts," he added.
The Corps in the film refused to talk about the past, only the future.
"Sound familiar? Let's not look back, let's look forward? It seems the entire administration, yes, this administration, has that attitude," Shearer passionately explained. "OK, well, looking forward they are still presenting weak solutions for a very strong problem."
The movie raises an interesting question: what does America owe the residents of New Orleans? They certainly don't want or need anything in the sense of the city has a unity and a resilience forged out of great despair as the film's "Ask a New Orleanian" hosted by John Goodman makes clear. But if we gave the victim's families from 9/11 billions of dollars why not New Orleans residents? On 9/11 We, the People, were not directly responsible for the catastrophe. It was an attack. In New Orleans, We, The People under the guise of our employees the Army Corps of Engineers, left an entire city vulnerable to severe flooding, and it happened. It was our failure directly, and we have mismanaged, bungled and ignored the problem ever since taking no responsibility, blaming it on nature.
"If we left more up to nature, we wouldn't be in this mess," Shearer goes on. "New Orleans was an inland city, not a coastal one. We had marshes and Bayou with Cypress trees and so much more to absorb the hit, absorb the water, to protect the city. Those are disappearing at the rate of an acre an hour now and not much is going on to stop it. The Dutch have given us a plan to reincorporate the water back in to the city, to live with waterways and canals as they do, that would be safer. It's known as Option 3 in the new plans before Congress, yet Option 1, a plan that does nothing really to truly help, is the one being funded. Everyone agrees that even Option 2, which replaces the barriers, redesigns them, relies on one pump at the end of each deeper canal is a better plan, but again, it's not being funded. The Corps wants Option 1, a plan that will again fail the city, and it's sad," Shearer concluded.
And in the middle of all of this is the Mr. Go canal, a canal where last year 10 ships made round trip journeys. The Corps spent $15 million last year dredging out the canal because it constantly collapses, so it was a cost basically of 1.5 million dollars per trip through or $100,000 per nautical mile at the tax payer's expense. As those on the Hill scream for cuts to Medicare and Social Security they have a project they built failing, endangering the city and costing a fortune. Why? To big to fail. Yup, they built the canal so large (more dirt was removed than would fill the Panama Canal) that they simply cannot fill it in or close it down. So taxpayers foot the bill for a canal that endangers the city and does nothing to help the economy.
There's so many of those facts in The Big Uneasy that one can't help get angry and frustrated while watching; so it's hard to imagine how people are living the nightmare every day. And the fact that the Corps under both Bush and Obama remains untouchable, even in Federal Court, unstoppable and in many ways incompetent and impotent to help tied down by their own politics is appalling; The Commander in Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers is President Obama, he could end this, look into it, take an interest. Instead the message to many in the film has been shut up and go away.
Well New Orleans isn't going to go away, its people are making sure of that.
"We're not going any where," Shearer laughs. "Many have an even stronger resolve now. We are not still under water, we haven't developed webbed feet or anything. Business is coming back and going strong. I encourage everyone to come take a look, it's not what you expect, and not what the media projects. The images ingrained in the minds of America of New Orleans under water is not the picture of today. This wasn't a natural disaster, nor was it one that just affected poor black people. We were all hit by those flood waters in some way, and we are all recovering," he concluded.
The Big Uneasy is being shown nationally; check the website for show times.
To hear Karel's interview with Harry Shearer check out the podcast at iTunes and at listen.thekarelshow.com The Karel Show His new book, "Shouting at Windmills, BS From Bush To Obama" is available at Amazon.com and at TheKarelShow.com