If An American City Dies

Who cares?

WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS: A Spike Lee Film. 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks Production. Directed and produced by Spike Lee. Producer, editor, Sam Pollard. Cinematographer, Cliff Charles. Editors Greta Gandbhir, Nancy Novack. Composer, Terence Blanchard. Line producer, Butch Robinson. HBO producer, Jacqueline Glover. HBO executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

I used to pore through my daddy’s old Life magazines when I was a kid, fascinated by photographs of the night bombings of London during the Blitz, the firebombing of Tokyo, the bleak, bombedout ruins of Berlin at war’s end and the utter, barren wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bombs in 1945.

Television has covered graphically the death throes by armed conflict of cities such as Beirut, Sarajevo and Baghdad. Several months after Mexico City’s powerful 1987 earthquake, the city’s dead zones were still holes in the city’s center. Aerial photos of the enormous portion of coastal Indonesian erased by a deadly tsunami showed that the earth itself is malleable.

Manmade and natural physical destruction have become familiar, but the fates of whole populations are as unfathomable as the agonies of the frozen figures fleeing Vesuvius’s lethal eruptions. The American people rush to help the victims, but our government often turns its back on human tragedies from distant, Third World countries. We’ve seen many places die piecemeal before our eyes, making it easy to rationalize such disasters as aberrant but human historical experiences.

Growing up in Texas Gulf Coast hurricane country, I never imagined I’d see such unbridled arrogance and neglect by local, state and federal governments following a huge storm as occurred with Hurricane Katrina. While 80 percent of New Orleans lay covered by toxic, murky water, and thousands of people were visibly stranded on freeways, bridges, rooftops and the overcrowded Superdome awaiting rescue, government help did not come. Five days after the storm hit, institutional, organized aid had not reduced the peoples’ suffering, although courageous volunteers were out there doing what they could do to save people from day one.

My outrage has been simmering a long time.

Yet a year later, far too many people are waiting still for a FEMA trailer, an insurance check or some kind of financial assistance to rebuild their destroyed homes and businesses. Again, volunteers, church groups and private charities have tried to fill the void left by government.

New Orleans’s inauspicious geography and the state’s competing political interests were ripe for Katrina, a fierce storm brewed in the cauldron of global warming and made fiercer by the decades-long loss of wetlands to development. Among the storm’s human collaborators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is notable for its criminally shoddy design and negligence of the city’s levees.

Water from the breaching of the 17th Street levee near Lake Pontchartrain began flooding into the lower Ninth Ward in a matter of minutes. In Lee’s documentary, an unidentified man wades across a flooded street to inform a television reporter on higher ground near the French Quarter that he heard the levee break from his house. This may have been the first time anyone outside the impacted area learned of the levee’s catastrophic failure.

Other unforgettable images from Lee’s brilliant film include Condi Rice in New York trying on a pair of peacock blue Ferragamo stilettos (the spendy shoes made famous on “Sex and the City”) while people were dying in N’awlins’ overcrowded shelters and inundated neighborhoods. Aw Shucks! Bush and Who Me? Cheney are caught vacationing during the crucial first days of the city’s plight, with not so much as a word of heartfelt empathy for the storm’s survivors. The best summary of the Bush administration’s attitude came from rapper and comedian Kanye West, who famously remarked to a stunned Mike Meyers on national television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Lee’s stunning, understated and creative HBO documentary presents an excellent overview of New Orleans’ sorry fiasco. Using archival footage as well as contemporary interviews, the director lets the voices and faces of people who were there show us the human picture, which packs an emotional wallop. Many people are mad as hell and unstinting in their condemnation of all the politicians who fiddled while the levees failed.

For Lee’s part, he takes a back seat to let the people speak their own words. The interviewees span the Louisiana political spectrum, with the most passionate voices being those of locals who’ve watched the unfolding of this tragedy. The result is a searing indictment of the Bush government.

Interviewees include Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, resident Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, activist Harry Belafonte, Rev. Al Sharpton, CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien, musician Wynton Marsalis, composer Terence Blanchard and his beautiful, aged mother, actor Sean Penn, Kanye West and dozens of New Orleanean witnesses to the destruction of their city.

Local cablecaster Comcast will carry repeats of When the Levees Broke on HBO On Demand from Aug. 30 through Sept. 27. Check for showtimes. I urge you to see this important, fearless documentary.

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