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Spike Lee accuses 

Finds many Katrina culprits.

IN NEW ORLEANS: Spike Lee.
  • IN NEW ORLEANS: Spike Lee.

Spike Lee’s extraordinary HBO documentary, “When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” reveals the human effects of one the biggest disasters in American history: Hurricane Katrina.

Made up primarily of interviews with numerous officials, experts and hurricane survivors and woven together with a powerful score by Terence Blanchard, the documentary covers not only the disaster and its aftermath, but also reveals conditions in New Orleans before Katrina — including and especially poverty among African-Americans — and the root causes leading to the disaster; namely, weak levees.

Viewers of this documentary can only conclude that there is enough blame to go around. The Bush administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the oil industry are all shown to be culprits to some degree.

Among the many interviewees in the documentary is historian David Brinkley, who points out that in 1965, the levees were rumored to have been blown up during Hurricane Betsy to prevent flooding in prominent areas of New Orleans, and the predominately black Lower 9th Ward was flooded. The levees did fail after Betsy, he and other scholars say, and were not completely rebuilt.

Many New Orleans residents interviewed during the documentary about Katrina say they heard explosions, like bombs, by the levees. But Calvin Mackie, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tulane University, says he believes these were actually the sounds of the levees breaking.

New Orleans city councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell contends that “Katrina did not destroy New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers destroyed New Orleans.”

Many believe that poor African-Americans could have empowered themselves and improved their condition. On one hand this is true. On the other hand, “When the Levees Broke” points out that these residents were unable to receive the services they needed due to city mismanagement. Mackie and other scholars and researchers interviewed cite an earlier study on the scenario that would occur if a Category 5 hurricane were to hit New Orleans. Even though the study revealed that the city would be wiped out, it was ignored by Bush, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers and Homeland Security.

A spokesman for the Hurricane Center in Miami says the center warned officials that Katrina would possibly head to New Orleans, but the federal government did not respond.

Other sobering comments by those interviewed in the documentary:

“I felt a sense of sadness and anger [about Katrina] that will remain with me for the rest of my life” — President of the National Urban League and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial.

“I watched my mother die while we were waiting for buses to pick us up at the Convention Center.” — Herbert Freeman Jr. of New Orleans.

“Go f*** yourself, go f*** yourself.” — Dr. Ben Marble, emergency-room physician at Biloxi Regional Medical Center (and resident of Gulfport, Miss., who lost his home), to Vice President Cheney in disgust while Cheney talks to reporters in Gulfport.

“It made us [America] see a lot of what’s wrong with us.” — Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

The documentary’s positive moments included seeing actor Sean Penn wading in the water to save flood victims; a man called “Radio” uplifting people in the Superdome by leading spiritual songs; and the effective, take-charge attitude of Army Lt. General Russel Honore, who directed the deployment of about 1,000 National Guard troops in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, to get food and water to the stranded people.

Another uplifting aspect of the documentary was the jazz funeral in the 9th Ward. Jazz funerals start out sad and end happy, reflecting what many hope will be the future of New Orleans.

— Renarda Williams

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