NEW ORLEANS -- In the occupational kaleidoscope that constitutes Harry Shearer
– screenwriter, actor, comedian, novelist, voice on "The Simpsons," host of "Le Show" on public radio -- one obsession stands out. A resident of Santa Monica, Calif., Shearer has for many years had a second home in New Orleans. This city has become his cause in the long ache since Hurricane Katrina.
"What happened in New Orleans was not unique because parts of the town are under sea level," Shearer said by phone from Dallas after a recent screening of his documentary, "The Big Uneasy."
Many coastal and inland cities in America share sub-sea level status, notes Shearer, who was flying out the next day for a screening of the film in Ireland. "The New Orleans defense system broke because the Army Corps of Engineers, which had charge of the levee system, failed and failed again."
He's just getting started. "The disaster is a symptom of the way the country handles water issues that other cities are going to be facing."
Other celebrities have homes here, too, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Francis Ford Coppola, John Goodman, Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren, and Trent Reznor. In various ways, all of them have done something. Brad Pitt actually jumped into recovery work feet first. Pitt's "Make It Right Foundation"
built a cluster of green-friendly homes in the flood-slaughtered Lower Ninth Ward, a laudable effort, which landed the actor on NBC's "Meet the Press" and other national programs.
Shearer took a different path, employing shoe-leather video journalism, mixed with sleek computer graphics and cameos by Goodman and musician Tab Benoit, to convey the city's vulnerability to the erosion of coastal wetlands, once a buffer to hurricanes.
Treating the BP oil spill
as the latest episode in a longer story of the city's threatened survival, "The Big Uneasy" is a passionate piece of muckraking that uses irony like a dagger. The film patina mixes beautiful street scenes by cinematographer Arlene Nelson with episodes of people talking about why they knowingly live in a town trying to beat the odds against rising seas and climate change.
The heart of the film is Shearer's account of why the city flooded in the first place, capturing the stories of three whistle-blowers who exposed the Army Corps of Engineers' past -- and ongoing -- failure. Parts of this story have been told before, but not with Shearer's interactive map sequences using aerial and ground footage to show exactly how and why the flood happened. The drainage canals off Lake Pontchartrain that served upscale neighborhoods like Lakeview had protective walls, and the walls buckled, causing devastation in some parts as bad as in the now-iconic Lower Ninth
. Weeks passed before government investigations determined that Army Corps design flaws were at fault.
"We were being told that we couldn't tell the public what we thought had happened," University of California, Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, a key figure in the government-sponsored investigation, says into the camera. "One of my friends from the Netherlands, he wrote on a piece of paper a note to me, passed it to me...'This is a cover up.'"
Bob Bea is a legendary figure in his field. As a civil engineer in New Orleans, he lost his home to Hurricane Betsy in 1965, moved to California, made a new life in academia. From Bea's wry cynicism on the Army Corps's mistakes, Shearer cuts to Michael Grunwald, who covered the Corps for The Washington Post and Time magazine. Grunwald, in the no-bullcorn tone of a guy who gets the real story of big government, explains that the agency "was cooking the books of its environmental and economic studies to justify these preposterous boondoggles...What really sets [the Army Corps] apart is their penchant to do the wrong thing."
" -- the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet -- was one such boondoggle. A 76-mile canal carved out of pristine marsh in the 1960s to link the river and the Gulf, it was a pet project of the state's congressional delegation, the idea being that it would boost commerce for the port of New Orleans. It did not succeed in that goal, but what "Mr. Go" did do was shred 20,000 acres of wetlands, which left mudflats for Katrina's 20-foot storm surges, like a bowling alley for the water barreling toward the Lower Ninth and outlying St. Bernard parish.
Completed in 1965 for $92 million, "Mr. Go" has cost $900 million just to maintain. Even Sen. David Vitter, no friend of environmental protection, concluded that "Mr. Go" was a disastrous mistake, post-Katrina, and has pushed funding to have the canal filled in. Good luck with that.
"Mr.Go is here forever," engineer Bob Gramling tells Harry Shearer. "They moved more dirt to build this thing than they did the Panama Canal. It will never be filled. So, we have reached the point where we can build projects that are so big that we can't undo them."
Shearer, whose voice is familiar to millions of Americans, ably narrates this tale with stand-ups that guide the story beyond "Mr. Go" as the film cuts between Bob Bea and two other whistle-blowers. One of them, Ivor Van Heerden, directed a hurricane research program in Baton Rouge at Louisiana State University -- and led the charge against the Army Corps in the weeks after Katrina. "LSU called me before two vice-chancellors and basically told me to quit talking to the press," explains Van Heerden, who kept talking -- and lost his job.
As Bea and Van Heerden fed findings on the engineering disaster to the media, Army Corps staffer Maria Garzino wrote reports questioning the hydraulic pump system for large flood-defensive gates built after Katrina. "And it was very detailed," she tells Shearer. "I also tried to explain why there's no way these hydraulic pumps will work."
Shearer, as director of the documentary, working with film editor Tom Roche, both do a splendid job conveying Garzino's descent into bureaucratic hell. The spotlighted language from an array of government reports suggest her Kafkaesque crisis. She also ages through the interviews on screen. Lest we divulge how "The Big Uneasy" ends, the racing tempo and brusque tone of Shearer's phone interview say a lot:
"I made the film to redress the dramatic failure of the news media to stick with the story until it
became evident what the story really was," he says. "The Army Corps lurches from project to project. This is an agency that tilts against change, even as it proclaims a lessons-learned approach. They admitted using I walls, vertical slabs, that were too prone to lateral forces of water, where they should have used T-wall constructions [in the outfall canals.] Well, they are still using I walls in New Orleans East. The Army Corps of Engineers are as stubborn and resistant to change as any human organization on the planet, and that includes the Roman Catholic Church."
"The Big Uneasy" is playing in selected theaters and film festivals, the first route in the long, dicey road toward gaining a TV airdate.