Storm watch 

Filmmaker Harry Shearer talks New Orleans, Katrina and the Corps

Pop quiz: Which of the following is true about Harry Shearer?

1. He voices more than a dozen characters on The Simpsons, including C. Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, Wayland Smithers, Dr. Hibbert, Otto and Principal Skinner.

2. He is the co–author of most of Spinal Tap’s greatest “hits,” including “Hell Hole,” “Stonehenge” and “Big Bottom.”

3. As a child actor, he played the Eddie Haskell character on the rarely–seen pilot episode of Leave it To Beaver.

Actually, they’re all true. Shearer’s place in Spinal Tap history (he’s bassist Derek Smalls) is assured, and he’s been with The Simpsons for all of its 23 seasons. As for that Beaver thing, well, he doesn’t talk about it much.

You also know him from the mockumentaries A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, or from his satirical – and very political – NPR radio program Le Show.

Shearer wrote and directed the documentary film The Big Uneasy, which will screen Saturday at the Lucas Theatre, courtesy of the Psychotronic Film Society.

Although Shearer won’t be at the Savannah event, he was more than willing to talk to us about his movie, which is an unflinching criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the way it botched the New Orleans levee systems, which failed spectacularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Katrina, the film insists, was not a “natural disaster.”

Shearer is the movie’s on–screen narrator; John Goodman makes a couple of humorous appearances.

The heart of The Big Uneasy, however, are the interviews with independent engineers (working as Team Louisiana) who investigated the levee failures, dutifully criticized the Corps, and subsequently lost their jobs or were publicly chastised (or worse).

Most damning is the story of Army Corps engineer Maria Garzino, who conducted tests on the massive pumping systems the Corps installed after Katrina.

They aren’t going to work very well, the whistleblower told the Corps. Shut up, the Corps told the whistleblower, if you know what’s good for you.

Incredibly, Garzino still has her job.

Other than the fact that you have a home in New Orleans, why were you so passionate about this subject?

Harry Shearer: Well, when you say aside from the fact that I have a home there, that’s a big aside. You know, aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I think that’s a big part of it. I’ve been accepted into this community, and have embraced this community, and I feel very strong about it.

If I saw this happening to another city, one that I didn’t live in? I don’t know, I can’t tell you what I would do. But I feel very strongly about this city, and very strongly about the fact that the national media for whatever reason have failed to tell the actual story of what happened here.

And the fact that it was one of the two major disasters of the first decade of this century sort of centers it in the mind: Maybe that would be worth getting right.

So that’s a point of frustration: If I don’t tell this story, it looks like nobody else is going to do it?

Harry Shearer: Well, I certainly waited long enough. It’s not like I jumped to it. It really was brought to focus for me by President Obama coming here in October 2009. Having his town hall meeting and telling a room full of people who probably adored him and voted for him that the flooding was a natural disaster.

Then I was “OK then! It has spread this far, and gotten this solidly planted as ‘the story’ ..... that a very smart, arguably, and very well–informed person can either be pandering to it, or actually believes it.”

There’s a fascinating theory put forth in the film about the main shipping canal (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or “Mr. Go”) and other man–made canals. Had New Orleans not been carved up the way it was back in the day, is it true that the coastline might well have absorbed what Katrina was dishing out?

Harry Shearer: History is probably the best evidence. New Orleans has been here now for almost three centuries, and there’ve been a lot of hurricanes come down the pike. You can’t say it’s done fine – hurricanes do damage. But it’s recovered pretty well from every one. It survived them pretty well.

New Orleans has been fortunate in its geography in that it’s not received a real head–on hit from a big–ass hurricane. And that record continued through Katrina. Katrina did NOT hit New Orleans directly head–on, it veered to the right as most hurricanes that seem to be aimed for New Orleans tend to do.

Certainly by intervening in the geography, first with the leveeing of the river and then with the carving up of the wetlands for pipelines and canals for the oil industry, we set into motion a chain of events that helped to lead to this disaster.

The government’s failure with FEMA, that’s the stuff we all know about. Why do you think this part of the story hasn’t received the media attention it so obviously warrants?

Harry Shearer: We go from what’s in the film, which is grounded in fact, to what’s my best speculation: Having worked in the news media for a frightening little while, in my youth, I think that the biases that really drive the media are so much subtler and yet so much simpler than “Oh, they’re Democrats, oh, they’re Republicans, they’re liberals, they’re conservatives” that dominate our discussions.

They are: Logistical convenience, ego and money.

So, for example: The African–Americans who suffered in the flooding were conveniently concentrated around an area that was no more than three minutes’ drive from an off–ramp of a major Interstate. You saw the Convention Center and the Superdome. And a bit of the overpass on I–10 itself.

An entire white suburban county, the entirety of the county, was wiped out. St. Bernard Parish. Those people were on their roofs for four and half days with no food, no water, in 100–degree temperatures.

But they didn’t get on television because they weren’t near a freeway off–ramp.

Most of the people who covered this were not from New Orleans, they didn’t know their way around.

So: “Boy, we’ve heard of the Dome, we’ve heard of the Convention Center, it’s nearby, we can park our trucks ... all right, that’s where we are. And look! There’s all these suffering black people. We got our story.”

The fact that hundreds of thousands of white folks 10 miles away were going through the same thing was unknown to them. They didn’t bother. It was difficult to drive around anyway, the geography of the place is confusing ... “this is a place where parallel streets intersect, so let’s stay put.”

Then, you’ve covered the story. You’ve seen the big spiral on the maps, you’ve seen the damage in Mississippi, and you’ve seen New Orleans flood. You connect the dots.

You’re an editor or producer in New York and you think, “It’s a big hurricane story.” And you’re probably a little on the liberal side, and your heart breaks when you see the black people.

So, the story becomes: Big Hurricane, City Below Sea Level, Poor Black People Suffer.

Now, you’ve congratulated yourself for how well you’ve covered the story —“Hey, we stood up to power! We’ve wagged our finger in the face of Senator Mary Landrieu.” The hardest thing to retract is a boast. There’s the ego part.

Certainly there’s intelligent media out there. In your film, Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post appears as a very vocal critic of the Army Corps. The story did get covered.

Harry Shearer: A few people covered it — John Schwartz in the New York Times did and kind of led the pack. But that did nothing to influence how NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN reported it.

This film had a little sneak release on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. Knowing how the media love an anniversary story — “five years ago today, pocket lint was discovered” — I thought they’d be down here, the film would be here, and they’d say “Hey, look what we discovered!”

Instead, they chose to run their old tapes.

I understand you financed this yourself when no studio would do it. Were they that hesitant to criticize the Corps?

Harry Shearer: No, no, no, that was a matter of speed. Because my intent was fired by seeing Obama in October 2009, and I knew that the fifth anniversary was in August 2010, that was a very short time frame. I could either go out and raise money in that time frame, or make the movie in that time frame.

I never went to anybody. I never got turned down by anybody. I just decided I gotta do this, and I gotta do this by this date. And fortunately I have the resources, so that was it.

I was imagining the head of Fox Searchlight or something saying “This guy’s an actor and a humorist. Why should we take him seriously?”

Harry Shearer: No, that never happened. By the same token, we ran into a version of that as we’ve gone about trying to distribute the film. HBO, for example, said “Oh, we’ve done New Orleans.” There’s been some of that.

Because it’s not heavy on emotion, it’s heavy on information, a lot of the same kind of media that prefer to do this kind of story by pushing the emotional button said “We’re going to pass.”

I asked an anchor for a major network, “How come the people that watch your broadcast don’t yet know why New Orleans flooded?”

This was some months after these reports had come out. And his response was, “Quite honestly, we just feel the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience.”

This was said flat out to me. In public.

As David Frost asked you recently, is New Orleans safer than it was?

Harry Shearer: We just passed the date when the new, improved system was declared complete, although it’s not. The Army Corps said “New Orleans is safer than it’s ever been.” Which is like saying after I’ve killed your grandmother and grandfather, your family’s safer than it’s ever been.

If you believe the whistleblower — and an independent engineer who was hired to vet her work validates it — there’s a problem here. A problem that could be very serious.

Using the Corps of Engineers’ timetable, the new pumps will be completed and installed in three years. If you go by their time frame, the system that was not completed at the time of Katrina was supposed to have been completed in 1979.

The faulty pumps were installed on June 1, 2006. That’s five years. Add another three — they will have been rolling the dice on New Orleans’ safety for eight years. Minimum.

That’s all a rational person can say — well, the people that are supposed to be protecting us have been rolling the dice, betting that this set of circumstances doesn’t happen.

Film screening: The Big Uneasy

Where: Lucas Theater, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16

Tickets: $10 at scadboxoffice.com

Info: (912) 525–5050

Official film site: thebiguneasy.com

Addenda: Psychotronic Film Society chief Jim Reed says he is bringing the movie to town “specifically in hopes of starting a serious dialog among folks from all  stratas of greater Savannah and Tybee society about the proposed harbor dredging  of the Savannah River.” The Corps of Engineers, he points out, will do the work if the project is approved. Shearer has videotaped a Savannah–specific introduction to be screened before The Big Uneasy.



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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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