Filmmaker Says Katrina No Natural Disaster
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
It's now five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, a natural disaster, no question about it, but a new documentary argues that the floods that killed hundreds and destroyed much of New Orleans could have and should have been prevented.
Actor, satirist and part-time New Orleans resident Harry Shearer examines what he characterizes as a manmade disaster that stems from systemic failures of the Army Corps of Engineers.
In this excerpt, Ivor van Heerden, the former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, says the Corps made fundamental errors.
(Soundbite of film, "The Big Uneasy")
Dr. IVOR VAN HEERDEN (Former Deputy Director, LSU Hurricane Center): There had obviously been no oversight of the Corps of Engineers in their operation. And as we dug deeper, we found clerical errors, we found misinterpretation of data, mis-scribing data - as we look from bridge to bridge. The kind of mistake at the London Avenue Bridge is what you learn about in second-year engineering.
CONAN: An excerpt from "The Big Uneasy." We want to hear from our listeners along the Gulf Coast and those of you were there five years ago. What went wrong? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a new exhibit shows the story behind the story. We'll talk with the curator of "Covering Katrina" about the news media's coverage of the hurricane.
But first, Harry Shearer joins us from a studio in New Orleans. He's the executive producer, writer, director and narrator of "The Big Uneasy." Harry, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Executive Producer, "The Big Uneasy"): Thanks.
CONAN: And you suggest in this film, that early mischaracterizations of what happened in New Orleans led to persistent misperceptions about the fundamental nature of this disaster.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes I do, Neal. It's one of the reasons I made the film. Four and a half years on, most Americans, I would venture to say, think that what happened in New Orleans was a natural disaster that happened to a city where people shouldn't be living because it's below sea level.
Both of those assertions are incorrect, and when President Obama came to the city last October and had a town hall and said in sort of sidelong reference that the flood was a natural disaster.
I decided that maybe I would try to help the city recapture control of the narrative of its own near destruction.
CONAN: Because a natural disaster suggests nothing could have stopped it, that the flooding was the result, for example, of enormous tidal water that overtopped the walls and the levees, and nothing could have stopped it.
Mr. SHEARER: Right, and that was the original, official explanation, that Dr. van Heerden, whom you heard in that clip, and Dr. Bob Bee(ph) from UC Berkeley, both began to suspect was not correct, as they flew down here and began their preliminary investigation of the scene, of the evidence in the days following the flooding.
And it led that suspicion that the official explanation was not correct led both of those individuals to organize teams to conduct full-on investigations, and that forms the basis of the film.
CONAN: And it's a study of civil engineering. It's a study of the mistakes made repeatedly by the Corps of Engineers. In fact, you concentrate not so much on the terrible problems that people had, the stories of struggle in the disaster but rather on a story of engineering and on the story of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, I don't regard it as the story of engineering. I regard is you know, this week we're all seeing those images of suffering and destruction again, and I think the one unanswered question in all of that, then and now, is why. And so this is a movie about why.
Now, we have to get a little bit into the engineering details to understand that. But we also have to get into what kind of an organization is the Army Corps of Engineers. Why is it the way it is? And I have expert assistance in that regard.
I have to say, Neal, none of this is what I think. I'm in the comedy business. I don't know what I think. But I went to the people who led these investigations. I went to a whistleblower who is inside the Corps of Engineers. I went to people who spent years and years looking at this stuff, and they are the people who tell this story.
CONAN: The whistleblower, hers is an extraordinary story. Maria Garzino, if I'm pronouncing that right, and she is works for the Corps of Engineers - as of the making of the film, she still did and goes on to study a series of pumps that were going to be put in. This is after Katrina.
Mr. SHEARER: That's right.
CONAN: To deal with the situation, well, supposedly for 50 years. And her story documents an incredible litany of mis-design and mischaracterization and -well, it seems like just one horrible mistake after another.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes, it does. And she tries to apprise her superiors of this and goes up the chain of command, eventually files a whistleblower complaint, gets whistleblower status. So that's why she's still working at the Corps of Engineers. And we follow her story from the moment that she arrives in New Orleans to supervise the testing of the pumps down in Florida and then comes back here to try and to try to install them.
CONAN: Just to make clear, she's supervising, or not supervising but attending the tests, and the pumps continue to fail the test. So they continue to reduce the standards. So instead of pumping at 3,500 PSI, per square inch, they were doing 2,500 and see if they could survive that.
And then a piece would break, and they would lower it from that.
Mr. SHEARER: That's right. So it gets less rigorous as time goes on, as they keep trying to attempt to get these pumps to pass the test, and as Maria says in the film, they never did. It's disconcerting to say the least.
CONAN: This is a story that these are not pumps you would have in your basement. These are billion-dollar pumps.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, these are big hydraulic pumps. Their job is the Corps has a new strategy in the post-Katrina era. It's perimeter defense. And so if a storm surge is predicted, they would close these gates that lead into the canals that led to most of the flooding in the Katrina event.
And the pumps would be responsible for pumping out the rainwater that gathers during a hurricane event in these canals. And if the pumps don't work, the rainwater gets to a high level in these canals, these canals are bordered by the floodwalls that failed the last time.
The Corps has not repaired these floodwalls except the particular little piece that breached and because they said we don't need to. It's perimeter defense.
But if these pumps don't work, those walls will be stressed again, and God knows what'll happen.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, his new documentary is "The Big Uneasy," 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Brian(ph), Brian's calling us from Milford in Delaware.
BRIAN (Caller): Hi there. Yeah, my biggest question about this thing, and I haven't heard too many people express it, the biggest mistake of the whole thing was building nine feet below sea level.
Why are you spending millions of dollars on pumps when people don't belong there? That's like building a house in the California forest that hasn't had rain for 10 years.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, this is a question you address directly in the film.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, we're real dumb. New Orleans has been where it is for almost 300 years. It was put here for a very good reason: It's the best place for a port, at the end of a giant river that drains two-thirds of the country that provides the commerce for two-thirds of the country.
And the most recent report by Richard Campanella at Tulane University indicates that after all the subsidence, half of populated New Orleans is still at or above sea level.
And John Barry, author of "Rising Tide," says in the film: Every river delta port city in the world is built at or below sea level. It's just and one other point. Many of the places that were flooded during New Orleans were 10, 12 feet above sea level, but when an 18-foot wall of water from a badly constructed floodwall comes at you, that didn't help.
CONAN: And I don't mean to point fingers, Brian, but Milford, Delaware, may be the highest point might be nine feet above sea level.
BRIAN: How high?
CONAN: Nine feet. It's not the Eastern shore is not very far off the Atlantic.
BRIAN: That's true. I'm five miles from the ocean, and I'm at 28 feet.
CONAN: Twenty-eight feet above sea level, okay. Well, that's...
BRIAN: And I'm hoping that there's enough there to stop any flood surge between me and the ocean.
CONAN: Well, there's a river through Milford, too. So you never know.
BRIAN: Yeah, that river is just a big creek.
CONAN: Creeks can change.
Mr. SHEARER: He's safe, Neal. Give it up.
BRIAN: Thank you very much. I appreciate that explanation.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you.
CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to this is Michael(ph), Michael with us from Fayette in I'm sorry?
MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. It's a real honor to finally meet, at least by phone, Harry Shearer at long last.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you.
MICHAEL: I've got three big, three questions to ask you. I'll make them as quick as possible. Then I will get off the air and let you answer them.
First of all, part the stimulus package and the fact that I heard on the radio a few years ago, before Katrina, that the public radio, I might add -that the levees, docks and other water infrastructure are, go back to 60 or 70 years old, that they go back to the Great Depression and the fact that we have a fishing cabin close to a lock and dam in Alabama that's on the way to Mobile - all made me wonder if Mr. Shearer knows if there are any bills in Washington that will, not only provide stronger safety standards, but also, I hope, more federal dollars for a good FDR-type rebuilding program for this nation's water infrastructure.
The second question is...
CONAN: Very quickly, Michael. We want to leave room for some other people.
MICHAEL: Okay, how can I get in touch with Steven Lisberger? He once did the voice for "Animalympics," and I'll never forget when I was at Alabama School of Fine Art...
CONAN: Michael, Michael...
MICHAEL: But thanks for your time. I'll get you off the air. Thank you.
CONAN: All right, Michael, thank you very much.
Mr. SHEARER: B, I don't know how to get in touch with Steven Lisberger. Sorry.
A, the levees and floodwalls that failed during the Katrina event were started being constructed after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, when Congress told the Corps of Engineers: Make sure this never happens again. Build to defend New Orleans against the maximum probable hurricane.
Over four and a half decades, under administrations of both parties, the Corps continued to do the work that experts have found riddled with defects and misjudgments and mistakes. And it's interesting to note that that system, so-called, was not completed at the time of Katrina, despite being under construction for four and a half decades.
There is and it's noteworthy, I think, that no stimulus money has gone to either the rebuilding of that system in New Orleans or, more crucially, to the rebuilding of the coastal wetlands, which protect New Orleans from hurricane ferocity.
CONAN: And more on that when we come back from a short break. Harry Shearer's new documentary, "The Big Uneasy." More in a moment about why the devastation in New Orleans could not be prevented.
If you live along the Gulf Coast, if you were there five years ago, what went wrong? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
For one night, this coming Monday, you can catch Harry Shearer's documentary on Hurricane Katrina in theaters. The film, "The Big Uneasy," asks why the floods that destroyed much of New Orleans could not be prevented.
After the disaster, a lawsuit was filed in district court against the Army Corps of Engineers. One of the people who appears in the documentary is Judge Stanwood Duval. He sits on the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana and issued a ruling last year that states that the Army Corps of Engineers was negligent in its prevention efforts.
Judge STANWOOD DUVAL (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana): The Corps' lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions.
The Corps' negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood protection measures and billions of dollars in congressional outlays to help this region recover from such a catastrophe. By 1988, it knew that indeed all of the engineering blunders that it made now put the parish of St. Bernard at risk, despite the existence of a levee, which it had spent money to construct.
The Corps cannot mask these failures with the cloak of policy. At some point, simple engineering knowledge, like a wave wake is going to destroy the surrounding habitat and create a hazard, cannot be ignored, and the safety of an entire metropolitan area cannot be compromised.
CONAN: Just Stanwood Duval, U.S. federal district court judge, from Harry Shearer's documentary film "The Big Uneasy."
We want to hear from our listeners along the Gulf Coast and those of you who were there five years ago. What went wrong? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Harry Shearer, your film is not just a story of engineering blunders but a story of dissembling and cover-up and retribution.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes, we get into the story of the consequences for the two lead investigators and for the whistleblower.
The larger point, Neal, is that we bring out in the film is that there were negative career consequences, negative life consequences, for the people who basically looked into this, found what was wrong and stood up and told the public.
There were no negative career consequences for the people inside the Corps of Engineers who made these misjudgments, mistakes and who now are tasked with doing it all again better.
CONAN: Here's an email from Cranford(ph) in Alabama: As I sit in my home and watched the news about New Orleans, I could not figure out why, if a reporter and camera crew could get into that area, where was the help these people needed? Why could someone not take them some water in? How could they not get pictures out?
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, I wondered if they could get Geraldo Rivera in, why couldn't they get something more important in here. But that is about the response.
And, you know, to be fair, the national media covered the failure of the response, I thought, in great detail. What they never really came to grips with was why was there a disaster in the first place. And that's what I'm focusing on here.
The problems of the response, I think, are well-known to most Americans. But what I think most Americans don't know is why this thing happened.
CONAN: Let's go next to Louie(ph), Louie with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.
LOUIE (Caller): Yeah, I just wanted to say that I appreciate what Mr. Shearer is doing. I was there during the storm, evacuated to Charlottesville, where my wife is from.
I have been saying since I moved here, and anytime I'm around the country, if people ask me about it, I am constantly saying that it wasn't a natural disaster. It was the failure of the federal protection system. People don't want to hear that. But that is in fact what exactly happened.
I was we evacuated to Lafayette. I was packing my car up to go home after the storm passed. It was a bright, sunny day. My wife came out and told me that the levees failed and that the city was shut down, and we ended up coming to Charlottesville and stayed there for two weeks until I could sneak back into town.
And that's all I wanted to say. And thanks, and thanks again for Mr. Shearer for telling the truth.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you.
CONAN: All right, Louie, thanks very much for the call. It's interesting. Were you you describe yourself as a part-time resident. Were you in New Orleans five years ago?
Mr. SHEARER: I got here - the first day after the incident was November 5th. I was working in a movie in Los Angeles. So I was glued to every form of communication, calling all my friends, saying how where are you, how are you, what are you doing, looking for my house on Google Earth, you know, all that stuff that everybody did.
But I got here. The first day I got back, I - it was the first day that they served a meal in a certain French Quarter restaurant on actual plates because it was the first day they had hot water.
CONAN: Here's an email from Judy(ph) in Detroit: What provision has been made to close and open the huge sluice gates if there's a power failure? During the greater Midwest ice storm and power outage, we discovered that some big gates operated manually require four people taking turns, four to six hours, to open and close. Ours were about a quarter the size of some in New Orleans.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah, that's one of the questions we get into in the film is the Corps' preferred method for dealing with this, which they have stated publicly, is technically not superior - peculiar - is to have two sets of gates at each end of three different canals, each operated by a person coordinating and communicating during a time of emergency.
Your question gets to the heart of the problem. Time of emergency, simpler and less infrastructure is probably more trustworthy.
CONAN: It's followed by a statement from a representative from the Corps of Engineers whose name I've forgotten, Aguilera, I think.
Mr. SHEARER: Karen Durham-Aguilera.
CONAN: Yes, and at the same time, she says: We have protocols to deal with that. We do this sort of thing all the time. And then you show the decision tree, which resembles, I'm not sure. It may be the family tree of the Joneses.
Mr. SHEARER: It resembles the family tree of an English rock band.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: All right, we'll leave that where it is. This from Ken(ph) in Newton, New Jersey: What about restoring the wetlands, which act like giant sponges? But if...
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: ...lost to bad design by the Army Corps and the building of more casinos.
Mr. SHEARER: Well, no, casinos aren't the problem that hurt the wetlands, the building of thousands of miles of canals and pipelines to get oil from the Gulf of Mexico to the mainland and the leveeing of the Mississippi River, which used to flood every year and deposit sediment to rebuild and replenish the wetlands. Those are the two real causes of the loss of an acre of land per hour that's been going on for 30 years.
It is truly a slow-motion disaster, and your question is correct. The cypress forests in the wetlands have a remarkable capability to absorb and to reduce both wind and storm surge intensity as they approach the city. So they're a very important part of our defense.
CONAN: One thing you do say in the film is that the people in New Orleans used to fear flooding from the Mississippi River but that the Corps of Engineers has built structures to take care of that problem. The problem now comes from open water getting ever closer to the city.
Mr. SHEARER: Yes, which is an indirect result of the leveeing of the river. So, you know, when we look at the way the Corps of Engineers operates - and it's not just in New Orleans. Sacramento, California, is in serious crosshairs of a situation that could resemble what happened in New Orleans, and that would of course implicate the rest of California.
The Corps has a history of building projects that are sort of very narrowly focused and look not very far ahead and don't have a very wide scope of vision as to the ripple of consequences beyond the momentary goal.
And Michael Grunwald, who wrote a groundbreaking series in the Washington Post about the Corps of Engineers, points out it's the only federal agency that nearly all of its budget is earmarked.
We do water policy in this country one pork-barrel program at a time. And we're still doing that, and that's the that decides the narrowness of the vision that the Corps brings to any particular project. And maybe in the 21st century, that's not good enough.
CONAN: Let's go next to Todd(ph), Todd with us from Oakland.
TODD (Caller): Hey, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
TODD: Good. I lived in New Orleans from '98 to 2000, and I remember the first time there was a hurricane warning, everybody who I knew started giggling and laughing because I was packing everything up and flying out of the city.
And then every subsequent hurricane warning, I realized that the hurricanes kept on missing. The hurricanes kept on missing. Well, this one just happened to hit, and I'm wondering if you touch on, at all, the aspect that part of the great loss of life is people who just didn't care to leave.
Mr. SHEARER: It didn't hit. Hurricane Katrina passed by New Orleans to the east. It did not hit New Orleans. It did exactly what Georges and so many other hurricanes did before: It veered east to Mississippi.
The vast majority of the people who stayed in the city were people who were not having hurricane parties. Ninety percent of the metropolitan area cleared out.
The vast majority of the people who were killed or injured during the Katrina event were the old, the sick and the poor.
TODD: That's huge, then. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Here's an email from John(ph) in Baton Rouge: Please make the point that Ivor van Heerden lost his job at LSU because he testified in court against the Corps of Engineers.
Mr. SHEARER: We go into that, the consequences for Ivor, Maria and Bob Bee in great detail in the movie to show that only the people who stood up and told the truth about this have had negative life consequences.
Ivor did not testify in that trial. He was threatened that if he did testify in that trial, he would be fired. And in the event, he was fired anyway.
CONAN: Nevertheless, and we heard part of the judge's ruling earlier, all he could say because it's under appeal was words from his own decision.
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: Where did that stand, at the moment?
Mr. SHEARER: It's on appeal, and it's the only case that has come to trial. It's an anomaly because that case involved the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, this navigation channel that the Corps built against much opposition in the 1950s, and opened in the early 1960s. And the rest of the failures were a part of a flood-control system, and Congress had given the Corps blanket immunity for flood control projects. But since this was a navigation project, that immunity did not cover this particular project.
CONAN: Let's go next to John, and John's calling us from Sacramento.
JOHN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I - you know, I'm actually studying to finish my thesis at UC Berkeley right now, and I'm doing my thesis on the federal emergency framework, kind of the response plan that the federal government enacts when a state of an emergency is declared.
And I found that a lot of the problem that happened in Katrina - and, you know, this isn't necessarily my work, but it happened to be jurisdictional between the local, state and federal levels, and specifically the local and state levels not knowing and understanding who acts first, and that there is absolutely a chain of command that has to be enacted for the federal government.
And by no means, you know, am I, you know, making cover for anything that happened. I mean, it was all a tragedy from top to bottom. But I think it's interesting to see sort of the systemic problem of local and state level not understanding the systems that we have set up.
CONAN: Are you talking specifically about response plans, John?
CONAN: Okay. Harry Shearer, that's not something your film covers...
Mr. SHEARER: That's correct.
CONAN: ...and I - but I wanted to ask about, are there overlapping jurisdictions, or were there in New Orleans? Was the maintenance of some places left to county or parish boards, some other places - pumps run by the city? Were there - was overlapping responsibility, jurisdiction an issue?
Mr. SHEARER: Well, the city has its own set of pumps, which pump out rainwater to keep the city dry during a rain event. It rains very heavily here. But to the caller's question, there was a plan, the National Response Plan, that was signed by President Bush in December of 2004 that specifically said that in a -I believe the phrase is an incident of national significance, the federal government is to respond proactively to assume state and local resources are overwhelmed. That's exactly what happened during the flooding.
The east side of this area was underwater, and people in the main part of town were congratulating ourselves on dodging the bullet because the first thing that happened when 18 feet of floodwater washed over the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans East was that communications were cut off. And communications were cut off all over town as a part of this event. That was the overwhelming of state and local resources. There were plans in effect, but there was no way to communicate what was going on from one part of the city to another.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, John. And we're talking with Harry Shearer about his new film, "The Big Uneasy," five years after Hurricane Katrina. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And there's - let's go next to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth calling us from Miami.
ELIZABETH (Caller): Yes, I am. And I cannot wait to see this documentary. I'm very excited that it was done. I'm actually really, really wondering what, at this point, our federal government has done to mitigate any of these damages, and any sort of real and concerted effort to make sure it doesn't happen again. Living in Miami, I live on a canal that was, funny enough, built by the Corps of Engineers. What's going to happen when my canal decides to fail?
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Look, the Corps, to give them their due, says were building bigger and stronger - by the way, they've trademarked the phrase building strong. And, you know, it is - they have remedied some of the very basic errors that they made the last time around.
Nonetheless, Bob Bea of UC Berkeley says that they're building with the same low factor of safety that they built last time, and, you know, there are other questions concerning this new, improved project. So I would say that we're spending a lot more money. They're building bigger stuff than they ever built before. Some of it is no doubt stronger and more robust. But as to the integrity of the entire system, I admit to being a skeptic.
ELIZABETH: I just - I can't imagine, they're building billion-dollar pumps that can't operate at all.
Mr. SHEARER: Mm-hmm.
ELIZABETH: Okay, so that's fabulous.
Mr. SHEARER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I know. And, you know, if it were just an New Orleans problem - we do, you know, Dr. Ray Seed of UC Berkeley says at one point in the film that there are things that are worse about the New Orleans district of the Corps than other parts of the country. They've been more resistant to outside oversight, independent oversight. But an awful lot of this is the way the Corps just does business, and why we might have to change that.
CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much.
ELIZABETH: Thank you. Have a great day, guys.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you.
CONAN: Email from Kent in - this is - where is he from? Anyway, I don't know. The Dutch, he says, who have spent centuries living slightly below sea level could have been great consultants on New Orleans, but to my knowledge, not only were they not consulted, but their offers of help were rebuffed. Is that true?
Mr. SHEARER: Officially, yeah. I mean, the Corps brandishes a couple of Dutch employees and says, look, we're listening to the Dutch. An architect in New Orleans, David Waggoner, has convened three conferences of Dutch engineers, planners, urban designers, hydrologists, so forth, called the Dutch Dialogues, and we do talk about that in the film, that there is another way of doing all this. And they have - Ivor van Heerden told me the other day, my Dutch friends keep saying: When can we come over and help?
CONAN: Hmm. And a lot of questions, coming in on email and by phone, to saying: Where can we go see this movie? Why one night? One night only?
Mr. SHEARER: One night is because it's the fifth anniversary. It's all over the national media. You will have been treated, if that's the word, to all this footage of suffering and disaster again. And it seemed to me that the prime moment to ask yourself or to ask the country why is the fifth anniversary, August 30th. It will be available in other ways after that, but the one-night-only in theaters across America, which you can find out where it is in your community at thebiguneasy.com, is to sort of take advantage of that moment when it's on the nation's agenda again.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, thanks very much for your time. Good luck with the film.
Mr. SHEARER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, actor, satirist, voice artist and part-time resident of New Orleans, executive producer, writer, director and narrator for "The Big Uneasy."
Coming up next: We know what happened during Hurricane Katrina. We'll talk about how it was covered. A new exhibit looks at the news media's reporting on the disaster.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.