Levees Not War
Rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.

When Harry Met a Cover-Up:
Shearer Talks about “The Big Uneasy”

10/14/10

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[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

We sat down recently with Harry Shearer—that is, we sat down and e-mailed him some questions, and he sat down and wrote some thoughtful replies—to talk about his new film The Big Uneasy, which tells the real story of why New Orleans flooded in Hurricane Katrina. (Click here for the trailer.) Here’s a brief sample:

Q. You’ve said that in President Obama’s 3-hour “drive-through” appearance in New Orleans in October 2009, he used the phrase “natural disaster,” and that that is what prompted you to make this film. Is anyone learning that Katrina itself did not flood the city, but that the levees’ failure is what flooded the city?

Shearer: Very few, very slowly. People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built “protection system,” the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been “wet ankles.”

Q. Had you thought of making a film on this subject before the president’s remarks triggered you? (Somewhere we saw a mention that the idea had occurred to you at the Rising Tide 4 conference, and that you posed the idea but nobody responded and so it was up to you?)

Shearer: No, I don’t recall giving serious thought to it, though I may have mentioned at RT that wresting back control of the narrative of the city’s near-destruction might have required somebody to do such a film. But I’d really not thought of myself as that somebody until I heard the President say something that he patently should have known was not true.

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Before we continue with the interview, we want to talk a bit about the film. You may not have seen it because it does not yet have a distributor. Harry is working on that. Thus far it has been shown in New Orleans at the Prytania Theater uptown (it premiered before the Rising Tide conference in late August near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), and it has run briefly in New York City and Los Angeles. We saw it twice at Manhattan’s IFC  Center (as shown) and want to do all we can to spread the word about this excellent project—particularly to people with connections to film distributors with a social and political conscience.

Leave It to a Jester to Tell the Truth

Harry Shearer is famous as a versatile humorist, writer, and “voice artist” for The Simpsons and as Derek Smalls, the bearded Ringo-like bass player in This Is Spinal Tap, so at first it may not seem that a movie about the flooding of New Orleans would be his natural subject matter. How funny can it be to explain the catastrophic engineering failure that led to the flooding of 80 percent of the city and hundreds of deaths (if not more)? Although The Big Uneasy won’t have audiences rolling in the aisles, this compelling and richly sourced new documentary does clarify the facts about the disaster-within-a-disaster. Misconceptions are corrected. Cover-ups are uncovered. Truths are told. Acts of professional courage are held up to the light.

Shearer’s comic talent is for real, but his seriousness is authentic, too, as anyone knows who has read his Huffington Post blog pieces over the past several years or listened to his weekly radio program Le Show (KCRW, Los Angeles). He explains in the opening reel that he is a part-time New Orleanian. Through his work with Levees.org (no relation) and his blogging and other efforts he has helped keep the spotlight on his adopted city’s predicament with a commitment and persistence that should earn him some kind of Honorary Full-Time Citizenship award. You’ll understand why when you see The Big Uneasy.

In a recent post on HuffPo Shearer acknowledged that it’s ironic that “a damn comedy actor” should be taking up the untold story:

. . . the story that the flooding was a man-made catastrophe that developed over four and a half decades under administrations of both parties, and the story from a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers that the “new, improved” system for protecting New Orleans may right now be fatally flawed. . . . given that lapse among the professional journalists, it was up to a damn comedy actor to piece together the material that’s been sitting there, on the public record, all this time . . .

A review in New York magazine by David Edelstein said it well:

By the end of The Big Uneasy, I came to appreciate [Shearer’s] self-effacement. He’s not a filmmaker or an investigative journalist. He’s not really in his element here. He just, finally, couldn’t stand by and hear “natural disaster” one more time without picking up a camera and, like his protagonists, doing his civic duty for the city he loves so deeply.

Get This: The Flooding Was Not a Natural Disaster

The Big Uneasy is a feature film–length documentary about how and why New Orleans was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It happened not because Katrina was so overwhelming: although it had been a Category 5 storm in the Gulf, Katrina was only about a Category 1.5 hurricane when it blew past (not straight through) New Orleans, sparing the city the brunt of the storm. The city flooded because of engineering failures in the federally built levees and walls of outflow canals that gave way under pressure even before the storm’s winds did their worst. The film draws on engineers’ reports, postmortem studies, and never-before-seen amateur video footage to show the flooding was not a natural but a man-made disaster. It was not inevitable. Contrary to predictable official claims that the storm was simply overwhelming and the levees were never designed to hold a storm of such magnitude, the flooding resulted from inferior engineering—a point that Ivor van Heerden (right) of the LSU Hurricane Center began speaking out about very soon after the storm passed.

The film is well organized into sections introduced by headings such as The Questions, The Answers, The Lawsuit, Ask the Dutch. Comic relief from technical matters and healthy doses of local perspective come with interludes called “Ask a New Orleanian,” jocularly introduced by John Goodman (left) in the tongue-in-cheek voice of a game show announcer asking such familiar complaint-queries as, “Why do they have to live in a city below sea level?” “Why don’t they just move the city of New Orleans to higher ground?” or “Why should my tax dollars have to go to solve their problem?” The New Orleanians chosen to reply include Clancy DuBos of Gambit Weekly and Denise Berthiaume of the LeMieux Galleries. They speak well, and knowledgeably, but the same four or five people appear four or five times, sitting around what looks like a Garden District courtyard café table; we would like to have seen more variety (including racial and socioeconomic) in the locals chosen to reply to the questions.

First-Rate Expert Testimony

To illuminate the fact that Katrina’s worst damage to New Orleans came from the storm surge that blew apart the federally built drainage canal walls and levees, Shearer assembles a formidable cast of experts. In addition to Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, we hear from Robert Bea of the U.C. Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; John Barry, historian and author of Rising Tide; coastal science legend Sherwood “Woody” Gagliano; and other authorities, including several representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and attorneys and federal judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. Additional expert testimony comes in the form of quotations from the very focused and eloquent 40-page letter from Dr. Raymond Seed, a Berkeley engineering professor and head of the Independent Levee Investigation Team that studied and documented the crime scene in the weeks and months after the storm. Also helping clarify matters are Tulane’s Richard Campanella; Time magazine writer Michael Grunwald; Carlton Dufrechou, former director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation; and Garret Graves of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities. We can think of a few others we would like to have heard from—Tulane’s Mark Davis, for one—but we can’t complain; it’s amazing how much high-level expertise Shearer is able to fit comfortably into this 90-minute film.

Among the structural failures the film explores are the too-shallow pilings reinforcing the walls of the 17th Street, London Avenue, and Orleans Avenue outflow canals (built on soft, shifty soils) and the ill-fated Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet shipping channel known as MR-GO, all built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and/or contractors without outside oversight. John Barry says that one Corps contractor, Pitman, even brought a lawsuit objecting that the Corps’ specifications were faulty and would lead to disaster, but he lost his court case and was directed to follow orders. One speaker characterizes MR-GO (built between 1958 and 1968 and obsolete before it was even completed) as “the cut that led to a thousand deaths.” (Further details can be found in our interviews with Ivor van Heerden and with Mark Schleifstein, environmental reporter for the Times-Picayune, as well as in these authors’ books, The Storm and Path of Destruction, respectively.)

Van Heerden, Bea (shown at left), and others who conducted postmortem field tests (Team Louisiana and the Independent Levee Investigation Team, supported by the National Science Foundation) show that the flood control structures collapsed well before waves overtopped the walls. (In fact there was no overtopping.) Also hugely destructive was MR-GO’s role as a “storm surge delivery system” to conduct massive volumes of seawater from the Gulf directly into the city. This “funnel effect” was exactly what Corps engineers had warned about in a 1988 study (and other experts before that). The 1988 study, however, was disregarded until it was disclosed in a recent lawsuit that found the Corps’ poor maintenance of the shipping channel responsible for some of the worst flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward during and after Hurricane Katrina.

There were about two dozen ruptures in the federally built drainage canal walls and levees in the metro New Orleans area, including the infamous breaches in the 17th Street, London, and Orleans Avenue outflow canals, which let water into the city, in addition to breaches along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. (The Mississippi River levee, a different type of construction from the outflow canals and shipping channels, did not breach, thank God.)

It is the regretful assessment of Berkeley engineering professor Raymond Seed (quoted, not filmed) that congressional and Corps cost-cutting has eviscerated much of the Corps’ former engineering expertise. The cuts have reduced the USACE to a department of project managers who outsource much of the actual engineering work to outside, private firms. (Bob Bea was himself a Corps engineer in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Betsy [1965], as was his father before him: Bea can tell from personal experience what has been lost.) This is not to say that there is no engineering expertise still on staff. But, like many other federal agencies,* the Corps has suffered from the privatizing drive (especially strong in the Rumsfeld years), diversions of talent and dollars to the wars overseas, and penny-pinching by Congress that must approve projects and funding. The Corps has not been able to compete for the level of talent that private engineering firms can afford. (*FEMA wasn’t doing so well in the Bush years, either, as we recall.)

The three members of the Corps of Engineers who are either authorized or willing to speak on the record are for the most part lame, defensive, or, as a lawyer might say, nonresponsive. (Some of the names don’t inspire confidence, either: the current commander of the Corps’ Hurricane Protection Office is named Robert Sinkler, and his New Orleans District office is located on Leake Avenue.) Karen Durham-Aguilera of Task Force Hope, wearing sunglasses at all times, refuses to speak about anything in the past, but says, incredibly, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘the funnel effect’.” One of the most accurate and candid assessments by a Corps official is when Col. Jeff Bedey, former commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Protection Office, describes the political nature of the Corps’ decisions and funding and decision making, especially as directed by Congress.

One Corps official who speaks quite candidly is Los Angeles–based civil mechanical engineer Maria Garzino (right). This whistle-blower still has her job, though in a diminished capacity. She was responsible for overseeing the quality of pumps being built by a Florida-based manufacturer to drive water out of the New Orleans outflow canals from the canals’ mouth at Lake Pontchartrain. In a frightening likeness of the missile defense system tests that fail every time, the new pumps crashed or self-destructed in test after test. After each failure the Corps allowed the manufacturer to lower the performance standards. Still they failed. Originally the pumps were supposed to be good for 50 years; now the Corps, after spending some $700 to 800 million on their construction and installation, says the massive rig of pumps is an “interim” system, good for two or three years. Garzino doubts they’ll function effectively even through one big storm. After she blew the whistle on the manufacturer’s and the pumps’ performance—doing her job, reporting the failures to her superiors in the Corps—she was demoted and then investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (which is supposed to protect whistle-blowers).

Help the Wetlands Help Save Us

In addition to the failings of the flood protection structures, Shearer introduces us to coastal and wetlands experts and activists—including Carlton Dufrechou, John Barry, Woody Gagliano, and musician Tab Benoit—who explain the importance of the Louisiana wetlands and the dangers posed by coastal erosion. Dufrechou (once a project manager for the Corps) explains that New Orleans was once well inland but is now essentially a coastal city. Coastal Louisiana is at greater risk from hurricane storm surge than when New Orleans was settled because the state has lost some 2,000 square miles since the late 1920s (mostly from oil and other industrial intrusion). The fragile wetlands act as a storm surge buffer—roughly every 3 miles or so reduces storm surge by a foot—but the protection is shrinking. Garret Graves of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities says the state is now losing about 25 to 40 square miles every year. There are solutions to coastal erosion—none of them simple or cheap—but Tulane’s Richard Campanella warns that New Orleans only has about 10 or 20 years, “no more than a generation,” to solve the land loss and subsidence problem.

Fresh Thinking, Novel Approaches

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Speaking of subsidence and solutions, one of the most interesting parts of The Big Uneasy —worthy of a whole new film—involves the “Dutch Dialogues” ideas of New Orleans architect David Waggoner. He has studied how the Dutch manage to live at and below sea level. One thing New Orleans should stop doing is pumping out all the water because soil without moisture contracts and sinks. More water = more safety. Counterintuitive as it may sound, New Orleans should instead allow more water into the city in the form of a veinlike network of small canals and bayous like Bayou St. John, to keep the soil “fat” and damp. Moisturized soil reduces the subsidence, or sinking, that puts the city at further risk of flooding (or of deeper floods). Click here to see maps and diagrams that Waggoner and Ball Architects have drawn up (example shown). These ideas are practical, practicable—the kind of fresh thinking that the city needs to survive. Harry, here’s your next film project. Or . . . somebody.

A related idea comes from Mississippi River historian John Barry, who says the wetlands can adapt to rising sea levels as long as they are getting of new layers of sediment from freshwater diversions. We had never heard this before; this is good news. The two biggest river diversion projects currently under way, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are the Caernarvon and Davis Pond diversions of water from the Mississippi River at strategic openings to allow river water to spread across the wetlands and replenish the soil. Such projects could really do some good if they got sufficient federal funding, but there is not much time left. Shearer does not come right out and say so, but the message is clear: It’s up to the public to push hard for coastal restoration before it’s too late.

But Wait—There’s More

Much more. We haven’t even talked about the Corps’ stonewalling and obstruction of Team Louisiana or the National Science Foundation team’s attempts to discover the cause of the structural collapses. There’s also the conflict of interest in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ getting $2 million from the Corps for a purportedly impartial “external review” of the Corps’ IPET assessment of what went wrong. We haven’t discussed the struggle between the Corps and Congress and others about which option to pursue for pumping water out of the city (the least expensive is not necessarily the worst option in this case). Nor have we mentioned LSU’s firing of Ivor van Heerden and everyone else who worked on Team Louisiana (read about the Van Heerden affair here), or Van Heerden’s lawsuit against the university for wrongful termination.

The Big Uneasy is impressively comprehensive in covering questions of what happened, the investigations, the parties involved, the answers arrived at (and attempts to block findings), what became of those who led the investigations, and what did not happen to those responsible for the engineering failures that led to the flooding. The film is well-paced, beautifully filmed in crisp, vivid HD. It’s astonishing how much breadth and detail Shearer manages to compress into this 90-minute film, and yet it doesn’t feel crowded. Out of all the very knowledgeable authorities interviewed, none go on too long, yet none appear to be cut short, either; they leave you wanting more. That’s good editing.

The film concludes with colorful footage and snapshots of Carnival parades, Mardi Gras Indians, steaming bowls of gumbo and other mouth-watering culinary images of letting the good times roll. Quick glimpses of the rich culture that is endangered but doesn’t have to be lost. The last words in the film, spoken by Carlton Dufrechou, concern the unity that we’re going to need to save Louisiana. It is a place and culture worth saving, he says, and he’s betting we’re going to come together and do the right thing. But there’s a plaintive, nearly grieving tone in his voice that suggests he worries the wetlands and the city may not be saved after all.

If the right choices and efforts are not made, it will be because not enough people saw and took to heart the truths and spirit so comprehensively and lovingly brought together in this fine work by Harry Shearer, to whom the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana owe a great debt.

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And Now, in Full, Our Interview with Harry Shearer

Here, then, is an exchange between Levees Not War and Harry Shearer on the making and content of The Big Uneasy. One question we forgot to ask him was how he got the eminent Professor Bob Bea of Berkeley to talk with relish about how he likes to taste dirt, to test the quality of soil by sensing the granules on his tongue. We’ll follow up on that question next time ’round.

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Q. You’ve said that in President Obama’s 3-hour “drive-through” appearance in New Orleans in October 2009, he used the phrase “natural disaster,” and that that is what prompted you to make this film. Have you noticed any positive response? Is anyone learning that Katrina itself did not flood the city, but that the levees’ failure is what flooded the city?

Shearer: Very few, very slowly. People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built “protection system,” the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been “wet ankles.”

Q. Had you thought of making a film on this subject before the president’s remarks triggered you? (Somewhere we saw a mention that the idea had occurred to you at the Rising Tide 4 conference, and that you posed the idea but nobody responded and so it was up to you?) [Shearer was the keynote speaker at Rising Tide 4 in 2009.]

Shearer: No, I don’t recall giving serious thought to it, though I may have mentioned at RT that wresting back control of the narrative of the city’s near-destruction might have required somebody to do such a film. But I’d really not thought of myself as that somebody until I heard the President say something that he patently should have known was not true.

Q. The time between the initial idea and the premiere was impressively short: about 10 months. Were you pushing to have it released in time for the 5th anniversary? Did it get a fair amount of attention, or was it overshadowed by other commemorative specials?

Shearer: Yes, I was pushing from day one to have a big “event-type” release on the 5th anniversary, to benefit from the momentary re-focus of the media on the flood at that time. I regret to say it didn’t get nearly the amount of attention I’d intended, for various reasons.

Q. Did you already know quite a few of the interview subjects? Were there any experts or interview subjects you wanted to interview but who were not able or willing to participate?

Shearer: I knew Ivor, Bob Bea, Maria and John Barry. They’d all been on my radio program. Ivor and John I’d gotten to know personally, Bob and Maria I’d just spoken to “down the line,” so we first met when I arrived to film them. There were plenty of people we wanted in the film, many that we interviewed, who didn’t make it into the final product. That’s partly the result of shooting several people telling roughly the same story, and making choices as to how many different story-tellers we wanted. Ray Seed, Bob’s partner in the ILIT [Independent Levee Investigation Team] investigation out of U.C. Berkeley, was the one person I really wanted to interview, but who, for reasons of his own, chose not to participate. I did get a lovely letter from him, though, after he’d seen the film.

Q. How did the Maria Garzino case come to your attention? She’s warning us of possible danger to come—very likely danger, if the outflow pumps fail during a big storm. Was it from Molly Peterson’s KPCC story? (This aspect of the film gets a lot of attention, appropriately, and effectively counterbalances the Van Heerden case to show that Ivor is not the only whistleblower, not the only victim of official retribution.)

Shearer: Maria had written directly to me with her story, and I checked it out with a couple of people I trust in N.O. Strangely, they had waved me off it, and so I didn’t respond until I heard Molly’s reporting, which convinced me that Maria’s story was real and substantial. Then I interviewed her for Le Show.

Q. The tone of the film is quite calm and evenhanded. The Corps officials seem to be given plenty of opportunity to respond to criticisms. They seem either lame or defensive and nonresponsive, however, except when Col. Jeff Bedey describes the political nature of the relationship between the Corps and Congress and decision-making and funding. Were these the only Corps officials who were willing to participate? Were any interviewed but left out? Did you try to speak to Al Naomi, senior project manager for the Corps at the New Orleans office?

Shearer: Al Naomi made it clear he didn’t want to speak for the film. We tried to get some Washington Corps people to participate, but it just didn’t work out.

Q. Are there any subjects from this film that you wish you had had time to explore in more depth? Any thought about follow-ups? (One we would love to see would be on New Orleans architect David Waggoner and his Dutch Dialogues, especially combined with what John Barry said about the wetlands being able to adapt to rising sea levels as long as they receive new layers of sediment.)

Shearer: I regret that none of the interviewees mentioned the role the oil industry played in hastening the wetlands destruction, but they didn’t.

Q. Your opening mention of “except for occasional oil spills” and another brief reference to the BP oil spill seemed sufficient. Did you consider including more of a mention, or would that have been off-topic?

Shearer: No, I was very single-minded in what I wanted to focus on with this film. I felt I had 90 minutes (actually, 94) to undo five years of media misinformation, and I didn’t think I could waste any more time on anything off-topic. Besides, I heard through the grapevine that Spike [Lee] was veering towards the spill for his film [If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise], so I knew that subject was going to be covered.

Q. What’s with NPR? National Petrified Radio, as you write. (Afraid of being dismantled even under a Democratic administration?) NPR would not cover The Big Uneasy at all? (Is this the same kind of fear-of-retribution that got Ivor van Heerden fired from LSU?)

Shearer: Can’t tell you what’s with them. They shunted me to “Talk of the Nation,” a not widely heard midday chat show, and then used that as an excuse (citing their “dibs rule”) for no coverage on the flagship newsmagazines. I can’t guess at their motives, only at the circle of hell reserved for them.

Q. When is the national release going to be?

Shearer: We don’t know when/if a national theatrical release will occur . . . There is no date because as of now there’s no distributor.

Q. Any attention from members of Congress or Obama White House or federal agencies such as FEMA? Are they about as petrified of the subject as NPR? If there’s “a question of fear,” why do you think that is? Fear of what?

Shearer: FEMA’s not really a subject of this film, we deal with the cause of the disaster, not the response. No reaction from Congress or the White House, as of yet.

Q. Any response from the Corps, under the radar if not officially? (The film’s treatment seems quite fair and evenhanded considering the Corps’ culpability.)

Shearer: I’ve seen some internal emails, all very upbeat and anodyne (“we’ll just continue to do our good work”). This tells me we haven’t hit a nerve yet with the level of public awareness.

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Our hope and prayer is that The Big Uneasy will find a courageous and imaginative distributor and that the truths and deceptions it shows will be seen far and wide, and acted upon, and soon.

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Must-Read Links + Must-See Videos

Trailer for The Big Uneasy

Resources page of The Big Uneasy web site: reports, letters, and other solid documentation

Harry Shearer as Keynote Speaker at Rising Tide 4 (in 2009)

Dr. Raymond Seed’s Letter to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) : An excellent, eloquent summary of how New Orleans flooded, the investigations, and obstruction by the Army Corps of Engineers

Flash Flood | Katrina blow-by-blow: Interactive graphic by The Times-Picayune

HarryShearer.com

Harry Shearer’s Le Show

Bonus video: Shearer on The Late Show with David Letterman. Did you know that Harry Shearer as a child actor was cast in the role of Frankie, the bad kid precursor to the character of Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver? True fact. See it here (4:15).

Other Interviews in the Levees Not War Interview Series

Ivor van Heerden, author of The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina: The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist

Mark Schleifstein, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms

Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

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