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On Movies: Two documentaries bring back memories of Katrina

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 24, 2008 - In late August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina closed in on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, weather forecasters predicted it could cause massive damage and death tolls in the thousands. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans went on television and called for a total evacuation of the city. But, in the first of a tragic series of failures over coming days at all levels of government, he did not order the city to provide buses or trucks to evacuate the many thousands of poor New Orleanians who did not have access to cars.

In addition, some residents of the City That Care Forgot decided they would stay and tough it out, even hold hurricane parties, as they had done in years past when dire predictions of deadly storms had turned out to be overblown.

Of course, at that time, the predictions were, if anything, short of the mark. The hurricane struck and floods followed. Most of the city's levees burst under pressure of wind-driven tidal surges, and 80 percent of New Orleans ended up under water.

I recently watched two excellent documentary films about New Orleans and Katrina, and was surprised at how much I had forgotten -- like the armed police and sheriff's deputies in suburban Jefferson Parish who turned people back as they tried to walk across a bridge to escape inundated New Orleans.

In some places, the floods reached as high as 15 feet. People in one-story houses retreated to the attics and then to the roofs, where they could be seen on national television waving desperately at the helicopters that circled over head.

And tens of thousands of people who had managed to swim or wade through flooded neighborhoods to the supposed points of shelter in downtown New Orleans -- the Superdome and the Convention Center -- found themselves stranded for days without food and with very little water. About 1,500 people died. Television news broadcasts repeatedly showed bodies floating in flood waters, and large masses of people huddled on high ground in downtown New Orleans, desperate for rescue. As the days went by, viewers wondered in puzzlement and anger when help would come. Where was the government of the United States?

After four days of these shocking images were telecast around the world, Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Soledad O'Brien of CNN that he had just found out that thousands of people were stranded in desperate straits in downtown New Orleans. She reacted by screaming at him, asking how it was possible that he had not known what was happening. Only then did FEMA's trucks begin slowly arriving with cases of drinking water and cartons of food, followed by buses to evacuate the stranded people whose homes had been destroyed or rendered unlivable.

The "refugees" - a much-used word that many of the evacuees resented as demeaning, but that accurately describes their treatment - ended up being scattered to almost every state in the union, some vowing they would never return, and New Orleans has yet to recover from the hurricane and floods. The population of the city, which before Katrina was 485,000, is now about 325,000. Although the famous French Quarter survived and much of the older part of the city has been restored, many thousands of homes in less affluent areas have been torn down; thousands more are still vacant and unlivable.

Many of us followed the news coverage of Katrina and its aftermath closely and with mounting frustration and fury, and the images of suffering in New Orleans should be fresh in our memories. But in the three years since Katrina there have been tsunamis and floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and collapsed bridges and other disasters, natural and unnatural, all covered 24 hours a day on multiple cable news channels, and the mind moves on. That is why the two Katrina documentaries, one brand new and the other of recent vintage, are so valuable.

The smaller of the two documentaries, "Trouble the Water," is a sometimes harrowing, very personal film about a poor black couple who survived Katrina and may have found some degree of personal redemption in its wake. It opens Sept. 26 at the Tivoli.

"Trouble the Water," which won the grand jury prize for a documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, pulls us immediately into late August 2005 on the streets of New Orleans' mostly impoverished lower Ninth Ward. A 24-year-old woman named Kimberly Roberts who aspires to be a rapper has bought a cheap video camera on the street and she and her husband, Scott, are taking us on a tour of her neighborhood, camera swinging wildly. In a running commentary, she explains that the mayor has told everyone to leave, but they don't have a car, and they decide they will stay in their shotgun house. Many of their neighbors make the same decision. One little girl says, "The hurricane is nothing but water. Who's afraid of water?"

As the hurricane arrives, the Roberts and some of their neighbors, including five children, take refuge first in the attic of their house and then on the second floor of a larger house nearby. As the water rises toward them and calls to 911 go unheeded, Kimberly Roberts keeps her camera running and records remarkable footage of survival in the face of disaster. At one point, after the winds have died down, one of their neighbors uses a large punching bag as a floatation device to help the stranded men, women and children reach dry land through waters that are well over their heads.

At one point, the Roberts try to seek shelter in a small Navy base that is above the flood line but the base commander orders them to leave. Finally, after being stranded for days in the flooded city, they are evacuated to central Louisiana, where they meet documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who take up the project. They follow the Roberts through weeks and weeks of frustrating battles with bureaucracy. Some of these scenes are repetitive, although perhaps that's the point. Finally, they return to New Orleans, determined to rebuild their lives. The Roberts narrative is intercut with news coverage of the flood.

"Trouble the Water" effectively brings the story of perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history down to the lives of two people and their friends, and the footage Kimberly Roberts shot of the water rising towards them is riveting, if technically of low quality. The movie is well worth seeing.

But if you choose to see only one movie about Katrina, Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" is one of the best documentary films I've ever seen. It is available on DVD. Originally shown in 2006 on HBO, it is a magisterial, four-hour retelling of the story of Katrina and its aftermath by director Spike Lee. Richly orchestrated by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the documentary is passionate yet deeply grounded in fact, filled with fascinating characters - including the city of New Orleans itself. The film has aptly been described by David Denby of the New Yorker as "the most magnificent and large-souled record of a great American tragedy ever put on film."

Lee, who came to New Orleans several months after the Katrina disaster, clearly had a large enough budget to purchase the most compelling footage of the hurricane and the flood, from trees being bent horizontal by winds to men, women and children swimming toward safety through filthy water littered with debris, including the bodies of people and pets. This footage is intercut with interviews with dozens of people who survived the hurricane, and time and again Lee shows he is not just interested in a good story, or letting people rail at FEMA and President George W. Bush - although there is plenty of that -- he is after the truth.

For example, several people express the widespread belief among New Orleans blacks that explosions were heard just before the water rushed through the Ninth Ward. They accuse the Army Corps of Engineers of blowing up the levees to relieve pressure that threatened more prosperous white neighborhoods. Historian Douglas Brinkley, among others, says no levees were blown up, but he goes on to explain why blacks would think such a thing might happen: In the not-so-distant past, levees protecting impoverished areas of southern Louisiana had been dynamited to protect the holdings of the wealthy. Brinkley, who lives in New Orleans and whose own anger at the way people were treated by various governmental bodies during the flood flashes through his analysis, helps provide a rational underpinning to the passionate condemnations of many of the people interviewed.

The film follows the city well into the following year, past Mardi Gras and into the spring, and finds many survivors still waiting for adequate housing, particularly in the lower Ninth Ward. In New Orleans, FEMA has become, figuratively as well as literally, a four-letter word.

What must be understood is that the lower Ninth Ward may have been largely a poor neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood of small single-family homes owned by hard-working people who paid their mortgages. Many of them had hurricane insurance, but not flood insurance, trusting the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers would hold. Most insurance companies covering homes in New Orleans refused to pay for what they defined as water damage from Katrina. It is estimated that New Orleans suffered between $20 billion and $30 billion in uninsured flood damage.

Many of the former residents of the Ninth Ward, as they see rebuilding in other parts of the city and wait in vain for promised aid from the federal government, believe that powerful men in the city and the nation -- Donald Trump is mentioned -- have plans for redevelopment of the area as either gentrified housing, predominantly for whites, or as an industrial park.

In the end, it is difficult not to agree with those who say that government failed the people of New Orleans, and the greatest failures were by the federal government. As Lee is careful to point out, an exception is the U.S. Coast Guard, whose commanders demonstrated extraordinary courage and foresight by refusing to wait for orders or follow strict protocol before they began to rescue people by boat even before the winds had died down. Other federal agencies, it appears, were waiting for state and local government to beg them to intervene, or perhaps that is merely an excuse.

New Orleans-raised musician Wynton Marsalis, who was interviewed by Lee, calls Katrina "a signature moment in American history."

"In this moment," he says, "we see a lot of what's wrong with us."

Harper Barnes, a regular contributor to the Beacon, is the author of "Never Been a Time," a history of the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis. 

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