By Juan Barquin
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Many regard Hurricane Katrina as "the big one" thanks to media coverage emphasizing the strength of the storm and the extent of the damage. Comedian, writer, and actor Harry Shearer wrote and directed The Big Uneasy to correct the public's perception of what happened August 29, 2005. It wasn't the storm that destroyed New Orleans; it was years of mismanagement, shoddy workmanship, and negligence by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shearer points a finger at extensive environmental degradation, levees built on sand, and water pumps that couldn't handle the pressure of a large storm.
It might seem odd that the voice of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, bassist of This Is Spinal Tap, and old friend of Christopher Guest would make such a serious film. But Shearer has been a part-time New Orleans resident since 1997, and he deeply loves the city.
The Big Uneasy features two experts — professors Ivor van Heerden and Robert Bea — who explored the Corps's failures immediately after the storm, as well as Corps representatives and area environmentalists. Shearer appears intermittently in the film, as does actor John Goodman, who introduces a recurring segment called "Ask a New Orleanian," in which locals talk about how Katrina increased their love for and devotion to the city.
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Shearer recently spoke with New Times about New Orleans, its comeback following the disaster, and the U.S. government fiasco.
New Times: Did Hurricane Katrina change your relationship with New Orleans?
Harry Shearer: I fell in love with the city the first time I visited it. When it approached the abyss of its own possible end of existence, it deepened my bond with the city, and I'm just very proud of its comeback and the rebuilding. The city's history of almost three centuries is riddled with disasters and coming back from disasters. It's nothing new for New Orleans.
Why did you decide to make this film?
My hope for the film was that I could influence public awareness of what actually happened in New Orleans. That awareness was shaped by a series of mistakes made by the national media when they first did their coverage, which the national media has been highly resistant to correcting or even acknowledging. And by national media I mean not only NBC, CBS, and ABC but also NPR and Fresh Air, The Colbert Report, and John Stewart. It's important for the American people to know what really happened, not only for New Orleans's sake, but because the Corps does this level of work all over the country.
The engineers who worked with Team Louisiana to investigate the Corps's failures come across as heroes in your film. How do you feel about those who didn't have the courage to speak with you?
Given the near-monopoly position that the Corps of Engineers has over engineering work, at least in the realm of water projects in the United States, it's hard to feel critical of anybody who thinks that his or her future in the field is imperiled by public criticism of the Corps. The Corps is historically very, shall we say, testy about criticism either from the inside or outside. They don't respond with gracious appreciation for that kind of criticism.
Is there another instance you can point to where the U.S. government has screwed up as badly as it did in New Orleans?
Well, Dr. Bea, who was coauthor of the report, compared it to Chernobyl. He said that it's on that level. I bow to his expertise in that regard. It's hard for me — just a guy from the comedy world — to think of any example of a government agency tasked with protecting people that has done so much in the opposite direction.
You don't talk about race or class in the film. Do you think either played a role in the disaster?
I think race and, more important, class play a role in people's ability to rebuild. There are numerous examples of pretty poor folks in the Lower Ninth who have come back with the aid of their families, neighbors, or volunteers. So you don't have to be rich or middle class to rebuild. The main effect on class of the disaster was the wiping off the map of about 40,000 rental housing units. It was hard for working-class people to come back to town.
The other major development was the decision by the federal government to close down the four major housing projects even though they were basically undamaged in the flood. That took about 4,500 housing rental units off the market. Those were unrelated to the cause of the disaster, which is the focus of my movie.
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