In 1989, I produced a documentary for the National Association of Independent Insurers about the aftereffects of Hurricane Elena on the US Gulf Coast. And in 2006, in the process of writing a non-fiction book about Port Arthur, Texas called Searching for the Seagull Motel, I interviewed survivors of Hurricane Katrina’s neglected successor Rita, which had re-flooded New Orleans’ most devastated neighborhoods, caused billions of dollars worth of damage to Texas and Louisiana, and necessitated the largest civilian evacuation in US history.
In both cases, I passed through New Orleans in the course of my research, and was surprised to discover on my 2006 visit that the most visible parts of the city were in distinctly better shape than they had been 17 years earlier. This, remember, was just one year after the consensus that New Orleans was finished forever as a great American city. And yet Bourbon Street was wilder than ever, the restaurants and clubs of the French Quarter were packed, and there was a beautiful new casino within walking (or staggering) distance.
This is exactly why Trouble the Water is such a valuable document. For pretty much anybody outside of New Orleans, the city is defined solely by these tourist attractions, with everything else surrounding it, and in particular the places where the people of New Orleans actually live, completely invisible. A walk down Bourbon Street, for most tourists, is like taking a nighttime stroll down a wharf bedecked with lights and crowded with revelers; hardly anyone bothers to look off to either side and see the murky waters that swirl around them.
Kimberly Roberts, a 24-year-old New Orleans resident who was trapped in the city during Katrina because of a lack of transportation, had the presence of mind to depict those raging waters as they destroyed her neighborhood and killed friends and family. Her video footage of the storm and its aftermath has been incorporated into a more broad-ranging documentary by director/producers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who remind us that New Orleans isn’t just a brand, or a tourist destination, but a living, breathing city even though, in the wake of Katrina, it is hardly breathing at all.
As they follow Roberts and her husband through the painfully slow process of recovery from Katrina, Lessin and Deal create an impressionistic portrait of good cheer in the face of natural disaster and official disdain. The disdain is suggested with grim hilarity by a pair of signs we glimpse briefly on a chain-link fence: On the left, a sign reads “FEMA Disaster Assistance”. On the right, the sign reads, “Gate B: Cattle Entrance”. I had to pause the video to make sure it wasn’t a cruel joke, because the scene passes so quickly. In general, the documentary dwells rather lightly on the cavalier treatment of the citizens of New Orleans by many government officials, rather than attempting to score polemical points, but the point is very clear, nonetheless.
That good cheer, on the part of Roberts and her husband and their extended circle, is a beautiful thing to witness but also a bit disturbing; sometimes their passivity in the face of the government’s maddening stupidity can be frustrating, and raises the question of whether they might have fared better, both before and after the storm, if they had been more aggressive about the direction of their lives.
But make no mistake: The failings of the storm’s victims pale in comparison to the failings of their putative rescuers. And it’s worse than you think. This documentary’s focus on New Orleans, which also was the predominant focus of the media coverage of Katrina, has created an impression that the government’s non-response was “merely” racist in nature. But other parts of Louisiana as well as Mississippi were also devastated by Katrina, and many of these areas were primarily white, and equally neglected: The ecumenical incompetence on display after Katrina respected no boundaries of race.
Class, of course, is a different matter. Needless to say, the reason that Bourbon Street was so bubbly when I visited it just a year after the storm is that all of the initial redevelopment money went to existing businesses and tourist attractions already in place. To some extent, and in some circumstances, this kind of trickle-down approach can make sense, but in the case of the most-neglected and lowest-lying neighborhoods of New Orleans where the infrastructure, including the infamous levees, had been neglected for many decades, a trickle is powerless before a deluge.
Or, as one of the subjects of this documentary puts it, “the hood’s always gonna be the last to be fixed.”
Today, parts of New Orleans have recovered well, as Federal aid finally beings to deliver on its promise. The city’s population has returned to more than 75 percent of its pre-Katrina total, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the city’s unemployment rate is currently below the national average. But some areas, like the Lower Ninth Ward, where less than 20 percent of the houses are occupied, are as bad as they have ever been, or worse. That means, as Trouble the Water shows in graphic detail, entire neighborhoods and blocks look as bad as anything on offer in a third-world slum.
Over the years, New Orleans has withstood countless hurricanes, floods and fires, and, beginning with its earliest habitation, has been ravaged time and again by epidemics of cholera, malaria, smallpox, yellow fever and other diseases. Each time it bounced back. And each time, no doubt, the suffering was greater than it needed to be because some proportion of those who are paid and honor-bound to help their fellow citizens failed to discharge their duties properly.
Katrina was probably no different in this regard, except that this time, there was an enterprising young woman named Kimberly Roberts around to record what happened. Her work, as seen in this documentary, may play a small role in improving our collective response to the next major disaster we face.
The extras here are fairly interesting, especially an encounter between Kimberly Roberts and a smooth-as-silk and ever-so-slightly disdainful Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans.