The Big Uneasy

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That and a second independent inquiry, financed by the National Science Foundation, found numerous engineering and organizational failures by the Army Corps of Engineers in the years leading up to Katrina, failures that put the city at risk. When they issued their findings, though, the outcome was sadly predictable: hearings were held, lawsuits were filed — and the investigators were ostracized. He has sued the university for harassment and wrongful termination.

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Maria Garzino, a corps engineer, identifies serious problems with the new pumps that now supposedly support and protect city canals. She has been named public servant of the year by the federal Office of Special Counsel — yet, she says, nothing has been fixed. Shearer breaks up his narrative with lighthearted if poignant interviews with local residents.

But his focus is on why New Orleans was flooded. Opens on Friday in Manhattan. He takes a very serious turn with "The Big Uneasy", aiming to prove that the devastation in New Orleans following the hurricane was not a "natural disaster" but instead an "unnatural disaster caused by people.

The Big Uneasy

The film features interviews with engineers tasked with evaluating post-storm information. Their answers include detailed findings about the shoddy construction of the levees, and the backlash they confronted upon attempting to make these findings public. One of these engineers, Ivor van Heerden, talks about losing his job as deputy director of Louisiana State University's hurricane centre after delivering his report on the many failures presided over by the Army Corps of Engineers in the years leading up to Katrina. Maria Garzino, another engineer, says she told her superiors at the Army Corps of Engineers that the hydraulic pumps installed after the storm were faulty, only to see her reports ignored.

Where films such as "Trouble the Water" and Spike Lee's two four-hour documentaries on the subject—the award-winning "When the Levees Broke" and "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise"—are heavily emotional endeavours that tackle issues of race and class among New Orleans residents, Mr Shearer's film spends more time considering the science and politics behind the mess.

Mr Shearer's film concentrates on interviews with experts about the construction of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal, a waterway designed to shorten shipping routes into the New Orleans' inner harbour.

Why We Wrote This

Critics of the canal, which was built in the mids by the Corps of Engineers, blame it for weakening the Louisiana coastline and so allowing the storm to overwhelm the levees and flood barriers. Occasionally Mr Shearer strays from this course of inquiry. Briefly mentioned is his contention that media coverage of Hurricane Katrina focused largely on poor black people, and overlooked lower-middle class white people who in his words "were nowhere near the Superdome.


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Is this important or an aside? We also spend a lot of time with Mr Shearer and his friends as they ponder such questions as, "Why would you build a city below sea level? The agenda of "The Big Uneasy" is worthwhile.

The fact that the wreckage of Katrina was largely a product of engineering failure is important to recognise, particularly as these problems have not been solved. But as a film it is too heavy with data and light on drama to work as a compelling narrative.

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Perhaps if more residents were given a voice in the film, the statistics might have translated into something more personal. Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today. Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts.

The Big Uneasy documentary 2017