Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans

Greg Palast’s half-hour documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans is being released as the social and political lessons of that city’s devastation, a lesson needed, as what happened in August 2005 seems to be already disappearing from America’s consciousness. Unfortunately, Big Easy to Big Empty is not strong enough to reinvigorate those badly needed lessons, or to start the “national dialogue” on poverty that was widely predicted after Katrina tore the veil off the American Dream. This is tragic, because as those lessons fade, so does a chance for America to rethink and rectify its brutal neglect of the monetary underclass.

Big Easy to Big Empty is an unfocused and disjointed patchwork of interviews conducted with New Orleanins nearly one-year after the storm. Palast’s buried thesis is that Katrina’s victims are being kept from retuning, thus enabling the emergence of a “new New Orleans – stripped down, downsized, not too black, just right for tourists. You could call it “Six Flags Over Louisiana.’”

The politics of rebuilding New Orleans, and the possibility of its radical gentrification, are certainly rich topics, perhaps too rich for a 30-minute documentary to fully capture. But Palast, better known as an investigative journalist and author, goes further, trying to fit in all the politics, science, and human tragedy of Katrina. His poorly woven net is cast too wide. And, frustratingly, he provides us with little evidence supporting his claims of a scheme to “whiten” New Orleans.

The subjects interviewed for the documentary evince Big Easy to Big Empty‘s (over)ambition: a young man who was stranded in the flood for three days; Ivor van Heerden, a Louisiana State University hurricane expert used to much better effect in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke; a woman trying to return to her barred public housing unit; a New Orleans city official; and a member of a radical relief organization. They’re all people with interesting stories, but their stories don’t add up to an overarching narrative or argument.

Palast’s excellent investigative skills are utilized only in the segment where he reports on Innovative Emergency Management (IEM), a private company awarded a half-million dollar contract from FEMA to develop New Orleans’ evacuation plan. A plan they never came up with. Arriving unannounced at IEM headquarters, Palast grills the CEO’s flustered assistant, asking her whether her boss’ strong Republican ties might have anything to do with receiving the evacuation plan contract. Big Easy to Big Emptyends with Palast’s revelation that, after Katrina, IEM was awarded another federal contract — this time to analyze the failings of the response to the storm.

So what does IEM have to do with Palast’s whiter, tourist friendly “Six Flags Over Louisiana” concern? That’s the problem. Palast doesn’t make satisfying connections between Big Easy to Big Empty‘s segments and fails to present a coherent defense of his argument, leaving viewers with an unproductive, nebulous impression of conspiracy.

Rather than being the direct handiwork of some omnipotent power structure, the suffering of New Orleans resulted from, as one Big Easy to Big Emptyinterviewee put it, “reckless negligence.” To be sure, this negligence is political in nature. President Bush was shocked when he realized the American public considered domestic disaster relief his responsibility. The pain and desperation of Katrina’s stranded victims was due to the hegemony of a conservative philosophy holding the only responsibilities of government to be war and policing (or funneling money to private companies like IEM).

Not that Palast is incapable of drawing these political and historical connections himself. In a reading from his book Armed Madhouse, included as a DVD extra, Palast compares Bush’s ineffectual, seemingly uncaring response to Republican president Calvin Coolidge’s similar reaction to the 1927 New Orleans flood. He then holds out the depression-era public work programs of Louisiana’s populist governor, Huey Long, as a positive alterative.

But this sort of sharp analysis is missing from Palast’s rather, let’s be generous, “impressionistic” video report. To be fair, some of those impressions are striking. There’s isolated, sprawling “Renaissance Village”, a FEMA trailer park 100 miles north of New Orleans, from which only one bus a day leaves – to go to Wal-Mart. (Palast bombastically refers to Renaissance Village as “Guantanamo on wheels”). There’s IEM. There’s also Malik Rahim, an intense, almost biblical-looking man with graying dreadlocks, working with the Common Ground collective to rebuild homes when the federal government won’t.

An extended interview with Rahim is found among the DVD extras, which collectively double Big Easy to Big Empty‘s running time, as well as its intellectual and political value. Also included is an interesting conversation between Palast and journalist Amy Goodman and the full Ivor van Heerden interview.

While nice, these extras are unable to make up for the feature’s failings. You’re better off rewatching When the Levees Broke or reading Armed Madhouse’s passages on Katrina.

RATING 4 / 10