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Saturday, April 30, 2016

When the Levees Broke

Much like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina has been a marking point in twenty-first century America. Though it only affected one small portion of the country directly, it still reverberates through culture and politics, as a representation of the haves and have nots, and especially of the incompetence and failure of nerve of government.

In 2006, just a year after the storm, Spike Lee made a four-hour documentary for HBO, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. There have been many books and films about the storm, but as time goes on I think people will look to this for its thoroughness and Lee's boldness in pointing blame.

Of course, a storm is a storm, and there's nothing anybody could do about it. But Katrina, which became a category 5 hurricane and slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, did most of its devastation after the storm left. That's when the levees, made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, failed. That's when the cluster-fuck of trying to bring food and shelter to thousands of displaced persons, made the U.S. look like a country that didn't care about black and poor people.

You may wonder about the four-hour length, and indeed this could have been a two-hour film. But I think Lee was going for weight--in telling the story of twenty people, instead of ten, it adds to the groaning heaviness of the disaster. I watched it over two nights--watching it straight through may be too much for someone, who could give up all hope for everything.

Lee interviews many people, most of them residents of New Orleans. Wendell Pierce, an actor who is in the New Orleans-based series Treme, is one of them. Terence Blanchard, Lee's composer of several films, takes his elderly mother back to see her house, which has been ruined. Her tears will get to the hardest of men. Another person who is on Treme, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, is the most visible and memorable person in the film, as she doesn't hold back in her anger (and occasional humor) describing her frustration. There's even a brief chat with Sean Penn, who volunteered after the storm.

But most of the people interviewed are the unknown residents who suffered greatly, losing their homes and loved ones. Some still look shell-shocked, some are righteous in their anger. One woman shows us her house, which is now just a foundation. Her friend is asked when she is going to get her promised trailer. "I guess when I give somebody a blowjob."

There were two great failures with Katrina. The levees, we are told, were completely unprepared for this category of storm, though they were supposed to be. The concrete slabs that abutted the mounds of earth were held together, as one expert puts it, by rubber bands. The water didn't so much go over them but knocked them down, putting 85 percent of the city underwater. If the levees had held, there would have been minimal flooding and life would have gone as normal for most folks.

Secondly, FEMA, under the management of Michael Brown, was woefully inadequate in providing services. Many people were herded into the Superdome, where they lived for several days in stifling heat and their own filth. Some were on the interstate ramps. People who tried to walk across a bridge to a neighboring parish were turned away at gun point. President Bush, who comes in for special enmity here, didn't put boots on the ground until after two weeks.

Many died in the storm, many by drowning. Lee doesn't hold back, and shows many of the bodies, floating face down in water, their corpses bloated and blackened. Somewhere around 1,800 people died, depending on whether they were considered to be victims of the storm. Some bodies were found long after the storm, in homes that had supposedly been searched by authorities, with large spray-painted zeroes, indicating no victims, on the side of the house. Here was yet more government ineptitude.

The third villain in the film is the insurance companies, who did everything they could to avoid paying out benefits. Many people had hurricane coverage, but not flood insurance, and the companies said that it was flood damage that was the culprit, and did not pay.

Lee also does a nice job of showing what a vibrant place New Orleans is. If this storm had happened in a run-of-the-mill U.S. city its impact would not nearly have been so great. It is a cultural melange of peoples, and though mostly black, has many different races (we do see the memorable clip of Kanye West saying that George Bush doesn't care about black people) and the birthplace of jazz. Though a resilient people, New Orleans has not retained all the people who left, and were evacuated to far flung places. One woman who was sent to Utah of all places has found a home and good neighbors.

There is a lot more to this story. Lee mentions nothing about the chaos of Memorial Hospital, or the shootings by police. But this will do.

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