Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Broken Levees, Broken Hearts
I dutifully stayed home these last two nights to watch Spike Lee's documentary, "When the Levees Broke" on HBO. In four heart-wrenching acts, Lee takes us through Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 and its devastating effect on the Gulf Coast, primarily New Orleans.
As a Mississippian by proxy (a Clisby contingent lives on the coast), my first reaction was resentment that the film (like much of the media coverage) did not pay more attention to Mississippi, where the damage was extensive. However, once the film got underway, it was clear that Lee zeroed in one subtle detail in all this mess, something I always point out to folks: The damage to Mississippi resulted from a natural disaster – the damage to New Orleans was the fault of mankind, bureaucrats specifically. It only happened because our government turned its back on the entire scene. Period.
This is the underlying point of Lee's film: This national tragedy did not have to occur. Everyone knew this could happen. The President (we see videotape of him being briefed on August 28 by federal meteorologists.) FEMA. The Governor. The Mayor. The media. And, yes, even the citizens. It was the ‘inconvenient truth’ before Gore showed up to claim the phrase.
No one wanted to foot the bill for capable levees to be built and the Army Corps of Engineers (they and FEMA Director Michael Chertoff are the biggest villains here) are either alarmingly ignorant or modern-day charlatans. Both options chill my spine. This is the crew that is supposed to make our blind little American lives safer?!? It’s like having a gang of mean-spirited pyromaniac teenage boys take care of your cat while you’re on vacation - makes it hard to relax.
The abysmal failure of every level of government in our great hour of need was astounding. A lieutenant from the Corps is caught on film proclaiming that the levees were 17 feet deep and, “We don’t know why the levees failed.” Hmm, could it be because they were actually only 10 feet deep? Half-assed job from an agency that used to boast the world’s best engineering minds and now they are a bunch of lazy liars. Don’t worry though, they promise to get the levees “built back up to pre-Katrina standards.” Great! Will they also be handing out floaties?
I suffered no personal loss and yet the ripple effect of Katrina continues to vex me. Certainly, I feel shame about the pointless war my country stubbornly insists on fighting but this situation takes it to another level– it’s personal. I liken it to the embarrassment you might feel when your asshole husband picks a fight with the neighbors, compared to the sick sensation you’d get watching the same prick admit he forgot to pick up the kids from school - he was simply focused on other things. More of an overall, “Uh-oh”-type feeling, the kind that produces cold sweat.
Wisely, Lee stays out of the film entirely. You never see his face and only hear him in the background once or twice. He leaves the storytelling to the people that were there, lost loved ones, lost everything, are living in FEMA trailers, have scattered families and are just getting by, one day at a time. The best interviews are with key players during that time, including my favorite, the guy who told Cheney “Go fuck yourself!” on live television - twice. I love that guy. (Best part is, the guy's a scientist!)
We hear sad story after sad story and the images are beyond shocking. It’s just hard to get your mind around an entire government (ours, specifically) turning its back on citizens who were drowning and dying in a major urban city. Bush was on vacation and couldn’t be bothered to touch down on ravaged Gulf Coast soil until TWO FUCKING WEEKS LATER. Cheney was fly-fishing in Wyoming, of course. Condi was shoe shopping in Manhattan on Day Three. After that, she caught the Tony-award-winning musical, “Spamalot.” Omigod, such fun!
My anger is endless on this topic so I’ll try to calmly conclude this barbed rant. Bottom line: Please find a way to see this film. Hurricane Katrina is one of the defining moments in our nation’s history, for better or for worse. It will be studied and talked about for years to come but one thing is for sure, America will never, ever be the same.