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Monday, Sept. 5, 2011

Harry Shearer Revisits New Orleans

'The Big Uneasy' tracks pre-Katrina disasters

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No one in America will ever forget the day of Aug. 29, 2005, least of all anyone living in New Orleans. On the day when the force of Hurricane Katrina brought down the levees, an 18-foot wall of water descended on the Lower Ninth Ward. Other districts also went under. Although it's been claimed as the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history since the San Francisco earthquake, the experts interviewed for The Big Uneasy call it an unnatural catastrophe. Katrina may have been the trigger, but the gun was loaded long ago by the unsound policies of a particular federal agency. FEMA got all the blame in the media for its clumsy response, yet the Army Corps of Engineers is called out for compounding Katrina's potential for destruction many times over.

Written, directed and narrated by actor-comedian Harry Shearer, The Big Uneasy examines the inadequacy of the levees themselves before investigating the wider ecological problem that precipitated the flood. The Corps of Engineers continually underestimated the danger and, despite all warnings, glibly assured New Orleans that the levees were high enough and stood on sufficiently solid foundations to withstand any likely hurricane. Katrina proved them wrong on both counts. Not only did the stormwater overspill some of the flood walls, but other levees collapsed from under-seepage. They were built on sand.

The wider problem had to do with the environmental impact of ill-conceived levees and, worse, a stinking slab of pork called the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO). A 75-mile-long ditch conceived to bypass the Big Muddy on the way to New Orleans as a straight line for shipping, MRGO was already too shallow for most oceangoing freighters by the time it was completed in the '60s. To make way for the canal, the cypress forests, a natural windbreak for the Crescent City, were dynamited. The ongoing dredging and the killing kiss of saltwater have resulted in alarming erosion of the marshlands that once absorbed surges from the Gulf of Mexico. By some accounts, Louisiana loses an acre every day to the sea.

One encouraging note: The Big Uneasy shows that many neighborhoods have been rebuilt, often by nonprofit groups and the initiative of local residents determined to maintain their city and its unique heritage against all storms.

The Big Uneasy
plays Sept. 9-13 with a personal appearance by Harry Shearer at the 7 p.m. Sept. 11 screening at Times Cinema.