I am a New Orleanian. The city adopted me, and I adopted it. When 80% of the city flooded at the end of August 2005, I was in Los Angeles, getting ready to act in a movie. Like the rest of the country, I was glued to the TV and the Internet, and like the rest of the country I assumed that the obvious explanation was correct: massive hurricane, city below sea level, natural disaster.
When the film wrapped, I flew back to New Orleans on the first plane out. Arriving in the city on November 5, I had the first meal in one French Quarter restaurant not served on paper plates: the hot water had just been turned back on. The sidewalks were still lined with thrown-out refrigerators, and the only vehicles you saw on most streets were National Guard Humvees.
But already the local newspaper and radio talk shows had interim reports from two independent teams of investigators looking into the flooding, and already the story they were telling was diverging from the obvious explanation.
Within a few months, both investigations had released their (remarkably similar) findings: the flooding of New Orleans was not a natural disaster, but rather the product of more than four decades of design and construction flaws in a system Congress had ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to build to, ironically, protect New Orleans from serious damage from a hurricane.
As each new piece of the investigatory puzzle was put in place, I blogged about it at the Huffington Post, and I interviewed the lead investigators (as well as a whistleblower from inside the Corps) on my weekly radio broadcast, Le Show. But, in October 2009, as I sat watching President Obama’s town hall appearance in New Orleans on an Internet feed, I heard him describe the flooding as a “natural disaster”, and my head exploded. I realized that blogging and radio had failed to make a dent in the narrative of the disaster that had solidified into the national consciousness. That’s literally the moment when I decided to make a documentary about this story, featuring the investigators, the whistleblower, and everyone else I could contact who actually knew what the hell had happened to New Orleans.
I also resolved to make the film in a shockingly short period of time, so as to take advantage of the media’s DNA programming, which would have them return to the story on the fifth anniversary of the flood--an evening on which we planned nationwide screenings of the film. And I pretty much decided to stay out of the film myself, lest audiences be distracted by questions like, “What’s the guy from Spinal Tap and the Simpsons doing here?”
Given that time schedule, there was no question of going through the normal process of raising money to make the film. Fortunately, through my day job, I had access to some of Rupert Murdoch’s resources.
And one more thing: given the mass media’s sentimentalism about the subject matter (one network anchor told me, when I asked why viewers of the broadcast didn’t yet know why the city had flooded, “We just think the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience”), I determined to make a film filled with the facts of the story. That meant a relatively information-dense movie, which led me to make two other choices: really good-looking cinematography and vivid animation of the concepts being discussed. I never wanted a moment when people would think they were watching an educational film.
Now we’re into the post-anniversary period, where the film is seeking, and finding its real audiences at festivals and theaters in this country and abroad. The truly startling thing, to me, about this part of the project is how defiantly the national media, even outside the NY-DC axis, is wedded to the original storyline, how reluctant they are to embrace this “new” information--on the public record for some time now, but unknown to most Americans--and how insistent they are that “everybody knows what happened in New Orleans”. If only. Because American taxpayers, after having paid half a billion dollars over four decades to nearly destroy the Crescent City, have just spent $14 billion on a “new, improved” system that the whistleblower in this film maintains, with independent certification from an agency within the US Department of Justice, has a serious design deficiency at its heart.
And because taxpayers in more than 100 American cities are being similarly “protected” by levee systems designed and built by the Army Corps (not to mention all the communities around the country battling short-sighted, environmentally-damaging Corps projects). What happened in New Orleans could happen next in Sacramento.
Yep, another "natural disaster".
WHAT THIS FILM IS NOT...
by Harry Shearer