Katrina documentary is no laughing matter for Harry Shearer

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 May 2010


NEW ORLEANS — The Big Easy is on a roll. The Saints won the Super Bowl. Crowds packed the French Quarter during a local music festival last month. In every neighborhood devastated by the 2005 Katrina disaster, signs of recovery are popping up like spring blossoms.

Harry Shearer, though, is worried. Worried that tragedy will strike again. Worried that the next Katrina might not happen in his adopted home of New Orleans, but in Sacramento, St. Louis or any of hundreds of cities that are protected by levees.

That’s why Shearer — a satirist best known as Derek Smalls of the mock metal band Spinal Tap and the voice of many “Simpsons” characters — is personally bankrolling a film to sound the alarm.

Shearer, who has divided his time between New Orleans and Los Angeles since 1995, just completed the first edit of his documentary “The Big Uneasy.” He is rushing to finish the film and arrange a live digital premiere in movie theaters across the country on the fifth anniversary of the Katrina disaster.

Sitting in a cafe on the curiously named Leake Avenue — it straddles one of the levees that keep the Mississippi River out of the Crescent City — Shearer recalled the exact moment when he decided to do “The Big Uneasy.” He was in London and watching a webcast of President Barack Obama’s town hall in New Orleans last October.

“The damage from Katrina,” the president declared, “was not caused just by a disaster of nature but also (because) the government wasn’t adequately prepared and we didn’t adequately respond.”

Shearer was stunned. No mention was made of the levees that surrounded New Orleans, whose poor construction led to the flooding of the city’s neighborhoods.

After Shearer got over his initial outrage, “I asked myself, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ That’s when I decided someone should do a feature film about it, and that someone was me.”

One of the first people Shearer decided to interview for his film was journalist Michael Grunwald of Time. While at The Washington Post in 2000, Grunwald wrote an investigative series about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the nation’s levees. Grunwald found that mismanagement throughout the agency had put much of the country at risk of man-made flooding disasters — reporting that turned into prophecy after Katrina.

“The sexy argument about New Orleans is: ‘A city drowned, and look at the government’s incompetent response,’” said Grunwald in an interview. “What Harry understands is that the real scandal is the government’s creation of the disaster. That is a harder story to tell, because the decisions that caused the levees to fail were made over decades.”

Even now, Grunwald said, he thinks most Americans don’t realize that Katrina “was a fairly modest hurricane” and that the flooding happened because, as he put it, “pork-barrel projects were more important than building real hurricane protection.” (Last November, a U.S. District Court judge ruled for homeowners in their lawsuit against the Army Corps. The judge said the agency’s “insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness” led to the levee failures.)

Grunwald said that this part of the Katrina saga “is a really rich and compelling and important story that this guy (Shearer), who has a sense of the dramatic, will be able to bring to light.”

Shearer won’t narrate or appear in his picture. Instead, he plans to let critics build the brief against the government in their own words.

He was able to interview the corps’ New Orleans District commander, Col. Robert Sinkler. But Sinkler (“love the name,” Shearer joked) and other spokesmen are outnumbered in “The Big Uneasy” by critics and whistleblowers who called attention to the corps’ failings before and after Katrina.

The only comic relief will come from an occasional segment during the film called “Ask a New Orleanian,” where actor John Goodman poses questions asked by outsiders to local residents. As it happens, Goodman currently plays a Tulane University professor on the new HBO series “Treme” who colorfully opines that the flooding was “a man-made catastrophe” and “a federal (screw-up) of epic proportions.”

Shearer wants “The Big Uneasy” to hit home with the estimated 43 percent of Americans who live in areas protected by levees. That includes a northern California delta that Sacramento and several fast-growing towns sit on. The Army Corps recently announced a 1.3-mile stretch of levee near St. Louis was leaking, and the government is spending $1 billion to fix a dike around Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.

Shearer is arranging to have “The Big Uneasy” simulcast in theaters nationwide, along with a live panel session. Moviegoers will be able to pose questions to the panelists via Twitter.

About joining the ranks of documentary makers, he said, “The reason we’re all doing this job is because CBS hasn’t found anyone to replace Ed Murrow.”

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