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When the Levees Broke - A Requiem In Four Acts

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When the Levees Broke -- well made, well presented

  • Oct 13, 2010

Before I go into the review of Spike Lee’s 4 hour documentary When the Levees Broke I need to explain a couple of things for the sake of full disclosure. First, since the election horror story of 2000, I have gotten nearly 0% of my news from television—I watched some coverage of September 11, but no more than 2 hours worth and I watched election results for a couple of hours last November because I was excited that a change was coming. The second thing I need to disclose is that I am no fan of New Orleans. I understand why it is popular. It is similar to two other places on the planet (possibly others) that I have been to: Savannah, Georgia and Amsterdam, Holland. Each of these cities values a level of calmness and easiness that should be infectious. I am immune to the supposed allure of New Orleans and Savannah, but am totally addicted to Amsterdam. It is from this that I can understand the reason so many people so far away from New Orleans could mourn something more than the tragedy.

When the Levees Broke is subtitled “A Requiem in 4 Acts.” This is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t really a requiem in the true sense. A requiem assumes death; this documentary ended with something that was quite the opposite of death. Everyone who is informed knows something about it. On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the American Gulf Coast. It devastated the hell out of Mississippi; it caused extensive but only Purgatory level damage in Alabama, and a similar amount of damage in south Florida when the hurricane left Atlantic waters for the Gulf. The day after, the levees protecting New Orleans failed and 80% of the city was flooded. The documentary covers the events in 4 parts as the subtitle implies: 1) Storm Warning, Storm Landing 2) Aftermath and what I will call a pre-Holocaust 3) Realization, Anger, Movement towards Normalization 4) Specific Anger and the Will of the Natives.

I saw none of this coverage on television. I listened to NPR and got print news from The New York Times. Nothing I saw was ‘news’ in that sense, but I saw the horror of the time between. The time between the storm and any organized effort at evacuation was something unreal.

Mr. Lee, not known for balanced storytelling or keeping himself out of the limelight, did something surprising to me. He chose a group of people, about 30 in all, to tell the whole story. Included in this were Mayor Nagen, Governor Blanco, African American residents of various parts of the city, white residents of various parts of the city, and a few people in St. Barnard Parish, which was essentially erased from the map. He let them say their piece with a minimum of interference. He gave small voice to people who believed the levees had been blown so that wealthier neighborhoods were not flooded. He handled this deftly—he let a few people address it, let one or two people who are residents and not members of any government refute it, then left the story alone.

I disagree that race played a significant part in what happened. I say this because of what happened with the other Bush was in the White house. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo ate up half of South Carolina, including the very white city of Charleston—the swath went up the state and did significant damage as far north as Charlotte (4 hours from the water); either Bush’s have no idea what to do when hurricanes hit, or the Feds, except under Clinton, are just hopeless at it. I say that from the distance that not watching television news allows. Mr. Lee points out fairly plainly what the problems were with the Act II pre-Holocaust. There were three levels of government and what, under Mr. Clinton had been a fourth part. The Federal government was looking to the state for information; the state looked to the city. The only information coming from the city was coming from television news (those prettified vultures who show and tell, then leave—apparently Anderson Cooper was slightly different as was Brian Williams, but I didn’t witness it first hand). The state cannot take information from television reporters as facts. The mayor was in a position to know but not to speak—political issues or just plain shock. Either way, the communication from local to Federal level was fouled up.

Let’s assume it wasn’t. Because FEMA had no experts in any position of power anymore since Bush used it as a dumping ground of political patronage (undoing the work of Mr. Clinton), nothing was happening because no one knew who had the authority to launch which part of the plan—assuming there was one. The blame pretty clearly at the time, and even more so today, rests on the narrow and ugly shoulders of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He knew that NYC was the place of potentially the worst disaster because of another terrorist attack, that San Francisco was number two due to massive earthquake, and that New Orleans was number 3 due to hurricane. Nothing was done to prepare any of these places for the likelihood of the events.

Because of this scores of people died because no one knew who had the authority to launch an effort just to provide food, water, and medicine. As Soledad O’Brien of CNN made plain, those things were in Indonesia 2 days after the 2004 tsunami, and at day 5, none of those things were in New Orleans. This is due to Federal governmental incompetence that was not incompetent during the Clinton years—thank you very very very much James Lee Witt.

Bashing this government though is like hitting a pinata without wearing a blindfold—it is too easy and the payoff isn’t that great. I hope to be one of the essayist and historians who prove that this is the worst administration ever visited on this nation, but this essay is not the time for it.

Where the documentary fell apart a bit for me was when people started pointing fingers. This is a natural thing, but cameras in peoples’ faces tend to lead them to perhaps say things they wouldn’t without the cameras. There is NO doubt that FEMA is to blame for the worst of the post disaster problems. Michael Brown and Michael Chertoff need to be charged with involuntary manslaughter for every person who died past the second day after the storm. Ms. Blanco and Mr. Nagen need to be charged with either negligent homicide or reckless endangerment for the same number of bodies. They couldn’t get a fair trial in any part of the country, but it would be worth it for them just to have a bench trial, in my mind.

The problem after FEMA is that so many began to blame the Army Corps of Engineers. Here is the problem. New Orleans sits in a bowl and the vast majority of that bowl is below sea level. The problem was not the ACE, the problem was complacency of the city, parish, and state officials in dealing with the ACE. If you live in San Francisco and the ACE puts up some structure or other meant to keep one building from falling. You get a horrific, mind blowing earthquake, the building falls. Whose fault is this? The ACE does what it does based on engineering science which is getting better and better as time goes on. The fault is the quake and the people who live there despite this risk. I absolutely adore San Francisco—it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I would hate to have it fall just as Big Easy fans hated to see the city they loved flooded. The old saw “if you play with fire you will eventually get burned” comes into play here. Living in an earthquake zone, living in a floodplain, living along a coast prone to hurricanes, living in tornado alleys are all very different than living in a place that might see a tornado or minor flood once every decade. I sympathize with the people who fell into the complacency that comes from a lack of disasters in an area that is, nevertheless, likely to face one. However, the blame does not rest with the ACE, it belongs with the state and local governments who knew the levees were likely not safe. It is within their authority to raise funds to pay for the ACE, or have their representatives in DC push through funding to shore up the levees. The Federal government has a large parcel of land to keep an eye on and defend as best as possible. It is up to the locals to tell Washington from time to time that something needs attention—or lean on representatives to do that. Representative government exists and is structured like that on purpose.

The poor planning for the mandatory evacuation is to blame for much. The lack of communication, ownership, and simple authority failed the people of the Gulf for anywhere from 5 to 10 days just for initial relief; another several weeks to get families together that were scattered to the wind in an extremely disorganized evacuation; and months more for housing. There are still people fighting the government for housing, or loans or other issues now almost 2 years later. All of that is deplorable. However, the blame rests with the people who saw the devastation and failed to act in a manner that even approaches professional, let alone empathetic. That is the lasting thing I will take from this well made documentary.


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More When the Levees Broke - A Requ... reviews
review by . October 12, 2008
"When the Levees Broke"    An American Tragedy    Amos Lassen    Hurricanes Katrina changed many lives and ravaged a great American city. As I sat down to watch Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke", many images were still in my mind as I did not evacuate New Orleans until a full week and a day after the storm hit. I so wanted to be able to see what I did not have a chance to while without electricity and stranded on the fourth floor of my …
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Paul Savage ()
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Director Spike Lee'sWhen the Levees Brokeis the definitive document of the unmitigated disaster that was, and is, Hurricane Katrina. It's also a contemporary manifestation of an ancient tradition: an oral history, told by the people who lived it, with no narration and only the occasional use of archival cable and broadcast news footage in addition to Lee's own film. And a grim tale it is, an "American tragedy" subtitled "a Requiem in Four Acts," each of them about an hour long ("Act V," appearing on the third of the set's three discs, is a lengthy epilogue with new material not included in the original HBO broadcast) and focusing almost exclusively on New Orleans, as opposed to the Gulf Coast region in general.

Act I sets the scene; as the hurricane nears the Crescent City, some residents leave town, while others stay behind, figuring they'll just ride the storm out (Mayor Ray Nagin's "mandatory evacuation" order rings fairly hollow, as there's no public transportation provided for the many who don't own vehicles and thus couldn't get out even if they wanted to). The real problems begin after Katrina makes landfall on August 29, 2005. Displaced New Orleaneans crowd into the Superdome, soon to become a living hell for those stuck there; the incredibly poorly engineered levees break, flooding some 80 percent of the city; and people start dying by the hundreds, victims of drowning, lack of food, water, ...

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Studio: HBO Home Video
DVD Release Date: December 19, 2006

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"An American Tragedy"
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