Harry Shearer is best known for his iconic comic work in The Simpsons and This is Spinal Tap. His documentary directing debut, The Big Uneasy, is the least funny film I’ve seen in a long time. In it, Shearer demystifies the reasons that the levees failed and 1800 people died when Hurricane Katrina pounded the coast line. Shearer’s film, a damning indictment of old and new decisions made by money-motivated politicians and the Army Corps of Engineers, will be bared in a one-night-only showing in 150 theaters this Monday (Aug 30th) to commemorate Katrina’s fifth anniversary.
A New Orleans resident, Shearer financed, wrote and produced a film which doesn’t show a single shot of a flood-stranded unfortunate standing atop a roof awaiting rescue. That story of human suffering has been covered by Spike Lee and others. Just as alarming is Shearer’s focus on the engineering problems that caused water to funnel in and knock down concrete walls. Also biting is the high career price paid by experts who investigated and criticized the decisions made by the Army Corps of Engineers, which authorized the spending of billions of dollars to develop a system that could withstand future hurricanes. Shearer is unconvinced the fortified barriers will do the job.
Why make a movie that is so out of character?
“This was really forced on me when President Obama came last October and referred to what happened as a natural disaster,” Shearer told me. “The moment the president made that comment, I realized the city of New Orleans had lost the battle. This was not a natural disaster. It was a dramatic and catastrophic failing of a 4 and one-half decade program that was supposed to protect against this. That story got lost in the emotional reporting of the human suffering, as if others somehow had decided the narrative of what happened to us.
“Because I’ve got resources, talked to so many people on my radio show, had some training as a journalist, and didn’t have my house wrecked, I had the emotional energy to study up and try to rewrite the national narrative at a time when the 5th anniversary of Katrina has put the focus back on the radar and TV screens,” Shearer said. “By Monday, we will have seen so much of that old footage again, and it just seemed like a good idea to try and create an event for a film that discusses why all this happened. Hopefully, we can capitalize on this moment.”
According to the film, the seeds for disaster were planted back to the 1950s, when cyprus trees were dynamited and the natural wetland barrier dredged to make way for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Walls were built to keep out the flood waters. Turns out, the wetlands acted like a sponge that soaked up water from storms. The levees didn’t work because they were built on silt, sand and other soil that washed away. Walls toppled because the ground beneath them disappeared. That same soil exists under the walls that survived Katrina. A pumping system designed by the Army to protect against another disaster wasn’t good enough to pass numerous inspections, and when an Army Corps of Engineers expert went public, she was turned into a pariah. When Ivor Van Heeden, a co-founder of the Hurricane Center at LSU, spoke out about Army Corps of Engineers missteps, his department was closed down and he lost his job. UC Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea was also ostracized for making comments critical to the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, which takes it on the chin from Shearer. He has no confidence that the improvements will permanently protect New Orleans from future hurricanes.
“Maybe it’s not the best idea to put an agency that’s supposed to protect people inside a department that’s designed to kill people,” Shearer said.