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The Big Uneasy

Harry Shearer’s new doc indicts the Army Corps of Engineers for the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans

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Harry Shearer gets serious in a non-faux documentary.


The Big Uneasy

Directed by Harry Shearer

Screens July 19 at the Charles Theatre; Shearer leads a post-film discussion

In the months after the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, conspiracy theories began to circulate that the levees designed to keep the water out of the low-lying city had been strategically dynamited to protect more affluent neighborhoods at the expense of low-income areas. What actually happened, according to the account presented in new documentary The Big Uneasy, was the result of a series of miscalculations, blithe assumptions, engineering follies, bureaucratic foibles, and plain old human error, largely on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers. As engineering professor Robert Bea states emphatically for director Harry Shearer’s camera, what happened in New Orleans “was not a natural disaster. This was a disaster caused by people.”

Bea is one of three experts Shearer (yes, the Spinal Tap/Simpsons actor, radio host, etc.) uses to frame the enormously complicated story he tells. Louisiana State University professor Ivor van Heerden had been warning city and state officials about the city’s vulnerability to catastrophic flooding since the early ’90s with little avail. Maria Garzino, an engineer who works for the Corps, was sent to inspect massive new pumps designed to keep water out of the city only to find that they could not possibly do the job; they were installed anyway and her attempts to warn her superiors were ignored. Once the city flooded, van Heerden and Bea led teams investigating the cause of the levee failures. They discovered that the levees had not been overtopped by higher than expected storm surges but had failed in ways that could have been predicted and prevented. And when van Heerden, Bea, and Garzino tried to report their findings, each faced career-crippling backlash.

The levee system meant to protect New Orleans has been designed, built, maintained, and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for decades. According to this account, the Corps put in place levees that were poorly designed, inadequate for the kind of stresses they might realistically see, and badly constructed. Once the levee system failed after Katrina, the Corps began limiting the access of van Heerden’s and Bea’s teams to levee sites, and once their findings were announced, The Big Uneasy contends, the powerful Corps began pushing back; van Heerden, once the self-described “golden boy” head of LSU’s Hurricane Center, ultimately lost his job. Meanwhile, the Corps not only escaped any official blame for Katrina’s aftermath (after two self-serving self-investigations), it has been given charge of massive new New Orleans flood-protection projects.

The Corps was also responsible for the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet—aka Mr. GO—a mid-20th-century boondoggle that dug a giant canal along one side of the city of New Orleans. Not only did the waterway eventually provide the water that devastated the heart of the city post-Katrina, such Mr. GO-related flooding was predicted in Corps documents uncovered as part of a post-Katrina lawsuit. That this fact pops up relatively late in Shearer’s account points to the difficulty he has in unpacking this vast mess in an hour-and-a-half-long film.

Shearer is best known as a comic actor, but anyone familiar with his weekly radio program Le Show knows he’s a whip-smart and engaged civic mind too. He limits his on-camera participation to a series of context-establishing walk-and-talk segments, detailing voice-over duties to the likes of The Wire’s Wendell Pierce and Brad Pitt (like Shearer, both at least occasional New Orleanians). As the film’s writer, he displays the diligence of a good investigative reporter; as its director, he makes some excellent choices—an animated computer graphic explains the series of levee collapses and the extent of the flooding better than anything else that’s appeared in popular media. But the sheer mass and complexity of the story he’s trying to tell overwhelms the narrative, and the viewer, in spots. Certain links aren’t made clear or clear enough—the subject of Mississippi River delta erosion is explored in some detail, for example, but it isn’t necessarily evident how it pertains to the Corps issue. And in the film’s only blatant misstep, Shearer interjects “Ask a New Orleanian” segments (introduced by John Goodman, brimming with faux smarm) designed to debunk myths about the situation—maladroit overkill for almost anyone likely to trouble themselves to watch a feature-length doc about the Army Corps of Engineers.

Still, The Big Uneasy makes a compelling argument that the blame for New Orleans’ fate hasn’t found its proper resting place, and that there’s another catastrophe waiting to happen if the Corps, and the rest of us, don’t learn from past mistakes.

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