Five years after Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans know to a certainty what so many outsiders still fail to perceive: that the destruction of the city was primarily the result of man-made failures rather than an act of God or nature.
Reporters covering the anniversary understandably continue to focus on the aftermath of the storm, especially the human impact of the slow, painful rebuilding process. All well and good.
But it drives many New Orleanians crazy to hear people talk about the flooding of 80% of the city as a natural disaster. And one of them, comedian Harry Shearer, got so sick of the information gaps that he made “The Big Uneasy,” a hard-hitting documentary on the subject.
I urge everyone to go see the film, which will be screened in theaters all across the nation tomorrow (Monday, Aug. 30) for one night only. In New York City, it will be at the Chelsea Cinemas, Village East Cinemas and College Point Multiplex – go to thebiguneasy.com for full listings.
Best known as the voice of several characters on the long-running “Simpsons” cartoon, Shearer told me he made the film after following the results of two independent university-based studies of the post-Katrina flood.
“It became clear that the official explanations were not right. We all in New Orleans began to be aware that this was a man-made disaster – the worst since Chernobyl,” he told me. “When President Obama came down here and called it a natural disaster at a town hall meeting, that flipped a switch for me.”
Shearer filmed a slew of engineering experts discussing how faulty plans and designs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – and the Corps decision to ignore one warning after another – left the city vulnerable and exposed to catastrophe.
The central problem was the creation of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a man-made ship channel that was virtually obsolete from the day it opened in 1968. Built at the urging of private industry, the MRGO funneled a wave of water with hurricane force into the center of New Orleans, where it blasted through levees and caused the drowning of the city.
That isn’t just academic speculation. As I reported last fall, Federal Judge Stanwood Duval issued a devastating ruling in connection with a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life, and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina,” reads part of the opinion.