The Big Uneasy is a new feature documentary movie by Harry Shearer. It responds to those (including President Obama) who say that New Orleans was the victim of a terrible natural disaster. That response: No. New Orleans could have handled Hurricane Katrina if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had not wasted billions of taxpayer dollars in projects that ruined wetlands, pushed salt water inland where it degraded the natural plant growth, and installed levies and pumps that it knew would fail. When Hurricane Katrina rolled over New Orleans in 2005, it was a category 3 hurricane — the type one should expect every few decades. The 2005 flooding of New Orleans was a man-made disaster and the greatest failure of civil engineering in American history.
Last night, the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, featured The Big Uneasy. Harry Shearer, USACE whistleblower Maria Garzino (left in photo) and Danielle Brian (center) of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) were present to explain the context of the film and answer some questions. "I hope you enjoy being angry," Shearer said when introducing the film. Shearer explained that he felt compelled to make this film when he heard President Obama speak during his first trip to New Orleans as President. When Obama said that Hurricane Katrina was a "natural disaster," Shearer knew that his blogging (on the Huffington Post) and radio show (Le Show, available as a free podcast) were not enough to get the truth out. The public was unaware of USACE’s role in causing this man-made disaster. This is why, in Shearer’s view, the President could get away with "pandering to ignorance." To me, The Big Uneasy is an example of answering bad speech with more good speech. Harry Shearer uses his extensive knowledge of New Orleans, his show business connections, and his personal funds to present a clear picture of what really happened.
The Big Uneasy reveals the role of Congress, USACE and government contractors in generating civil works projects that serve corporate interests instead of the public interest. Members of Congress get political contributions from the contractors and in turn support USACE projects that lead to more government contracts. The politicians get to boast about their prowess in securing federal dollars for their districts. If USACE screws up, then it will ask Congress for even more money for the fix. In New Orleans, USACE built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (called "Mister GO") to serve navigation needs identified in the 1920’s. By the time it was done in 1970, it was obsolete, but still cost millions of dollars to maintain with constant dredging. The dredging allowed salt water to reach farther inland, further damaging the natural wetlands. Whereas the Mississippi River historically expanded the delta’s land area, USACE projects actually reversed the course of nature. Louisiana is losing land mass at an unprecedented rate.
Maria Garzino works for USACE. When she was assigned to monitor the performance of pumps USACE ordered to drain New Orleans canals into Lake Pontchartrain, she did her job too well. When the pumps failed their tests, she reported that. USACE management decided to reduce the standards for the pumps, and the pumps still failed. USACE installed the pumps anyway, and Garzino reported that the pumps would fail. USACE relieved her of duties. She filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). OSC hired an independent engineer to examine her report. The result: not only were Garzino’s concerns correct, but the whole pumping system suffered additional design flaws.
Professor Robert Bea of the University of California Berkeley spoke about trying to capture data and evidence after the flood. He received a grant to cover expenses for a team of engineering experts to evaluate what happened after Katrina. Once UCASE figured out that he might blame USACE for the catastrophe, he noticed USACE installing fences to keep him and his team out of the levy sites. Working without any salary, living on "our wives charge cards," and enduring the personal discomforts following the flood, his team eventually pieced together how USACE had misled the public. Katrina was not an exceptional storm. The levies did not fail by high water. Instead, USACE had known all along that the levies built on sand would fail. In fact, the contractor who built the levies sued the government to get out of the contract on grounds that the government’s design would fail. The court ruled against the contractor, and ordered that the levies be built as designed by USACE. Now Bea reports that his friends and colleagues in civil engineering won’t talk to him any more. Not very civil, in my opinion.
Ivor Van Heerden used to be the co-‐founder and deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. He raised concerns about the vulnerability of New Orleans to flooding in a hurricane. After Katrina hit, he spoke up about how USACE ignored his warnings. Pressured from above to shut up, he did not. Now the State of Louisiana has fired him.
Over and over again, when whistleblowers speak truth to power, power fights back. With the backdrop of 1,800 fatalities, the story is more somber. After 9/11, Congress responded by creating a needed compensation fund for the victims. New Orleans is dry now, but no one is rushing in with funds for the victims. USACE considered two "options" for fixing the flood control system. It is choosing the one that will leave the defective levies, but spend more money on contractors. Harry Shearer presents a proposal generated by Dutch engineers using the model that makes Amsterdam such a livable city. No one funding that proposal.
The Big Uneasy rises to the challenge of telling a story that makes you angry, and yet lets you enjoy the way it is told. The facts are out now, and have been for years. The bad guys are still covering it up, and refusing to answer for what they did. The heroes suffered for bringing us the truth. I particularly enjoyed the thoughtful artistry of editor Tom Roche. He understood when the story needed time to settle, and when dialogue could be presented quickly. If I was Harry Shearer’s hair and make-up person, however, I might have asked to stay anonymous. Harry is not about presenting himself, but rather his message. I recommend hearing this message. The Big Uneasy is showing now in Dallas and Sacramento. Shearer says it will be available more widely, hopefully this Summer.