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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Big Uneasy

Air Date: Week of

Six years ago Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf of Mexico. The National Weather Service said that Katrina was the deadliest and costliest Hurricane in the U.S. But a new documentary, “The Big Uneasy,” argues that much of the damage could have been prevented with better planning and engineering. Bruce Gellerman speaks with actor Harry Shearer who wrote and directed the film, about major flaws in the New Orleans levee system that led to the flooding of the city.


GELLERMAN: It was 6 years ago In the early morning hours of August 29th 2005, that a monster storm slammed into the Gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina whipped into New Orleans.

NEWSCAST: Worst fears realized. Under water here in New Orleans tonight after the giant storm came the rising waters—over 80% of the city is flooded.

GELLERMAN: According to the National Weather Service, Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and costliest hurricane in US history. In terms of damage it was the nation’s first 100 billion dollar storm, and it killed at least 1800 people. But the new documentary film “The Big Uneasy” investigates why Katrina caused so much destruction, and finds the cataclysm in New Orleans wasn’t a natural catastrophe but an engineering disaster waiting to happen. Comedian, actor, and voice–over artist Harry Shearer wrote and directed "The Big Uneasy." Mr. Shearer, welcome to Living on Earth.

Harry Shearer, director of “The Big Uneasy”, in New Orleans. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

SHEARER: Thanks very much.

GELLERMAN: You know when I think of you I think of you I think of the mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap,” and the comedy film "A Mighty Wind," and of course "The Simpsons." "The Big Uneasy" is a big change of pace for you. Why did you make it?

SHEARER: It is indeed and it was nothing that I planned to do—I didn’t sit down one day and say, “I’m going to do a 180 on a comedy career.” I’m a New Orleans resident, have been for a while and after the flood I came back when the city was still on its knees in every way imaginable. And in the weeks and months afterwards the local media were reporting the interim findings of two independent engineering forensic investigations into what caused the flooding, because the leaders of these two investigations had come down right after it started, looked at the evidence and said to themselves, “the evidence doesn’t match the official explanation of what happened here.”

GELLERMAN: In the film you have Dr. William Freudenberg, did I pronounce that correctly?


GELLERMAN: And he’s from Santa Barbara I guess.

SHEARER: He was from U.C. Santa Barbara, but he passed away earlier this year.

GELLERMAN: Oh. But he’s there and he’s pretty damning.

SHEARER: Yes, the leaders of these investigations both agreed that what happened in New Orleans was not a natural disaster but the greatest manmade engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.

FREUDENBERG: When Hurricane Betsy came in the 1965, when Hurricane Camille came in in 1969, those were major hurricanes; they made the river flow backwards. By some measurements both of them were bigger hurricanes, or worse hurricanes, more intense hurricanes than Katrina. But Betsy flooded 20% of the city and after we built higher, stronger floodwalls, Katrina flooded 80% of the city. Something happened in those 40 years in between.

Logo of the US Army Corps of Engineers as seen from outside their New Orleans offices, on Leake Street. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

GELLERMAN: What changed?

SHEARER: A lot of things changed. First of all the United States Army Corps of Engineers changed. It went from being a corps of engineers to a corps of contract administrators. It was pretty much hallowed out in the 1980s. That changed the organization from the gold standard of American civil engineering to something very different. Something else changed, which is the erosion of the wetlands that surround New Orleans. especially to the south—cypress wetlands help to buffer the incoming wind and storm surge effects of hurricanes so New Orleans is now less protected than it was 40 or 50 years ago as a result of this erosion of the coastal wetlands. And a football field an hour—as we speak.

GELLERMAN: But it’s also the levees. The film features prominently a Dr. Ivor Van Heerden from the LSU Hurricane Center. He’s asked to put a team together to evaluate why the levees gave way.

SHEARER Yes, he was one of the 2 that did. And Bob Bee came from UC Berkeley and he put together a team as well. And they both came to startling similar conclusions based on the fact that the evidence that they looked at was pretty much the same.

Hurricane expert Dr. Ivor Van Heerden pointed out numerous engineering mistakes that led to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans. He was later fired from his position at the LSU Hurricane Center. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

VAN HEERDEN: Now we know sand is about the worst material that you can utilize to build a levee. Because it’s permeable the water can move through very easily.
At London Avenue as I looked at all of those flood walls and I looked at all the sand, I questioned myself as to whether to Corps of Engineers in designing this system had taken into account that there was sand beneath the flood wall.

GELLERMAN: It wasn’t just Van Heerden who knew that something was rotten in the levees, but according to John Berry who wrote a history of the levee system, you have him in the film—the contractor who built the levees, told the Army Corps of Engineers that there design was a disaster. And then it gets worse. You’ve got these pumps—a half billion-dollar storm system—and they’re supposed to pump water out of the canals and the Corps' own tester Maria Garzino, she becomes a whistle-blower.

Maria Garzino, Contract Specialist, US Army Corps Of Engineers, blew the whistle on poor workmanship within the New Orleans hurricane protection system, and was later named Public Servant of the Year by the Federal Office Of Special Council. (Photo: The Big Uneasy)

SHEARER Yes, her job is—this is in the wake of the 2005 flood—this is moving forward now. Her job was to supervise the testing and installation of the pumps that are at the heart of the new 8 billion dollar plus system that we’ve paid for to be installed in
New Orleans built and designed by the Corps of Engineers.

GARZINO: When I was in Florida at the manufacturer's testing facility, the pumps themselves were not holding up to that testing. They were—for lack of a better term—self-destructing.

SHEARER: And she says the pumps were installed anyway, and that they will not function because of design defects in the case of a hurricane storm surge. And that’s what’s sitting “protecting” New Orleans right now.

GELLERMAN: It’s incredible, how is it that something like this gets built?

SHEARER: I can tell you this - that since 1927 when congress gave the Corps blanket immunity from liability in any work that they do that is a flood control project there has been no penalty for failure for the Army Corps of Engineers. I don’t care what organization you’re running, big or small, private or public, if you know there’s no penalty for failure, there’s going to be more failure.

GELLERMAN: What has Congress done about the Army Corps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

SHEARER: We have a journalist in the film who did the authoritative history of the Corps and why it is the way it is—Michael Grunwald—he was at the Washington Post and now he’s with Time Magazine. And he explains that the Corps is the way it is because Congress likes it that way. The Corps basically is the earmark pork machine for Congress. When your congressperson comes back to the district during election time and say, “see that dam, see that spillway, see that bridge, see that levee that got built, that’s because of me.” That’s the business the Corps is in. The Corps is in the business of servicing 434 congressmen and 100 senators to have something to brag about at election time.

GELLERMAN: I want to play you something from your film "The Big Uneasy." First of all his name is Robert Sinkler and he’s the commander of the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office and it’s almost like you casted this guy.

SINKLER: We value all of the constructive criticism that we get and we’ll produce a much better product and serve the American people much better when we take a hard look at all of the constructive criticism that we get from a wide variety of sources. And we do welcome that because we’ll be a better organization as a result of it and we’ll be able to serve the nation and produce a better system here when we take all of that into consideration.

GELLERMAN: Did you try to make him l look bad?

SHEARER: No, no. Nobody in the film was my puppet; I was asking questions and letting them answer them on camera.

GELLERMAN: So I’m starting to think that this was all a joke and having a comedian tell this story kind of makes some sense in a weird sense.

SHEARER: Well, look, There’s no reason in the world why this information should be coming from a guy from "Spinal Tap" and "The Simpsons." And it wouldn’t have been coming form me except that the national news media really dropped the ball on this story. They did their coverage at the time, they built their narrative on the first dusting of the facts and that narrative was: humungous storm, natural disaster, city below sea level, mainly African American victims…see you later. All of which was half-truths at best. They did not ever update that narrative. I was really driven to do this when President Obama came to New Orleans in October 2009 and at a town hall meeting referred to the flooding as a natural disaster. And I said inside my head, “Sir, you know better…and if you don’t I got to do something about it.”

GELLERMAN: well, Mr. Shearer I want to thank you so much.

SHEARER: Well, thank you. My pleasure.



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