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 on 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 the finger at extensive environmental degradation, levees built on sand, and water pumps that couldn't handle the pressure of a big storm.
It might seem odd that the voice of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, the bassist of This Is Spinal Tap, 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 loves the city deeply.
The Big Uneasy features two experts, professors Ivor Van Heerden and Robert Bea, who explored the failures of the Corps 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 segments called "Ask a New Orleanian," where locals talk about how Katrina increased their love and devotion for their city. Because it opens this week at O Cinema, we spoke with the funnyman about the unfunny docx.
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 the way it's
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 not only mean
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 that worked with Team Louisiana to investigate the Corps
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 that you can point to where the U.S. government has screwed up as badly as they 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 either played a role in the disaster?
I think race and more importantly class play a role in peoples' ability
to rebuild. There are numerous examples of pretty poor folks in the
lower 9th who have comeback with the aide 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 developments were 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.
How much faith do you have that New Orleans is protected from the next big storm?
It shouldn't be a faith based enterprise. It should be a facts based
enterprise. The facts that I know make me wary, cautious, and concerned.
I evacuated for a hurricane once in 1999 and that experience led me to
say what many New Orleanians have always said, "I'm stayin' next time."
That's if you're just dealing with a hurricane. If you're dealing with a
faulty infrastructure built by the Army Corps of Engineers, you're not
just dealing with a hurricane, you're dealing with a double whammy.
Do you regret not being in town for Katrina?
I was acting in a film and I got there as soon as the film wrapped. I
don't have any guilt about not having been there for the worst of it. By
the time I got there, it was still pretty bad. There was no electricity
in a lot of parts of town. No phone service, no mail. The only vehicles
on the road were National Guard Humvees. It was a weird, weird, weird
place. So no, I don't feel any regret that I wasn't there when it was
even worse. I admire the hell out of people who got there earlier than I
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The Big Uneasy screens at O Cinema (90 NW 29 Street, Miami) Thursday at 8
p.m., Friday at 7:45 and 10 p.m., Saturday at 3:15, 5:30, 7:45, and 10
p.m. and Sunday 1, 3:15, 5:30, and 7:45 p.m. Visit o-cinema.org.