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Friday, July 8, 2011

Harry Shearer Talks About Tearing Down the Army Corps of Engineers in The Big Uneasy

Posted By on Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Hyphenate extraordinaire Harry Shearer
  • Hyphenate extraordinaire Harry Shearer
The actor, musician, voice artist, radio host, and writer Harry Shearer adds documentarian to his exhaustive CV with The Big Uneasy, a film about the levee failures that caused widespread destruction in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Unlike Shearer's work for The Simpsons and as Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, The Big Uneasy tackles a serious subject with a straight face. Shearer's film shows how national attention was diverted from mounting evidence that the New Orleans levee failures resulted from errors of judgment and negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shearer focuses on research conducted by Robert Bea of U.C. Berkeley and Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University, as well as revelations provided by whistle-blowing Army Corps of Engineers technician Maria Garzino.

We spoke with Shearer -- a part-time New Orleans resident for more than a decade -- in advance of his appearance with the film at the Roxie Theater on Sunday, July 10.

What led you to do a documentary on the levee failures?
I was here [in New Orleans] much of the time, seeing local reports of these two parallel investigations, and blogging about it. I was interviewing the two leaders of these investigations [Bea and van Heerden] on my radio show. I was learning the story day by day. That was the long part of the process. The short part is that in October 2009, President Obama came to town and referred to the flooding as a "natural disaster." And my head figuratively exploded. The national media had never accurately told the story of what happened here. That was the moment I decided that something more than radio and blogging had to be done.

As far as the president referring to the floods as a "natural disaster" as recently as 2009 --
And again in 2010 -- on the fifth anniversary!

-- how much of this characterization is a result of the news media, which focused on the storm itself as the leading factor in the flooding?
An anchor for one of the three major network newscasts told me months afterward, when I asked how come viewers didn't know why the city had flooded, quote, "Quite honestly, we just feel that the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience." So they really weren't that interested. You saw that when they came back down on the fifth anniversary, which would have been the perfect opportunity to say, "Here's what we've learned in the intervening five years." Instead, they ran their old tapes.

Why did it take Bea, van Heerden, and Garzino to shed light on this story?
The Army Corps of Engineers, as an institution, is not very receptive to criticism, from inside or outside. It dominates the market for engineering certain kinds of projects, mainly to do with water. So the engineering profession is filled with people whose attitude is, "Better not rock the boat." And inside [the corps], it's arguably worse. It exists in a bubble of impunity. Because, as we lay out in the film, Congress likes the corps the way it is, and it doesn't really give it effective oversight. And it doesn't get punished when it screws up. I don't care what kind of organization you're running -- if you don't disincentivize failure, you're going to get more failure.

The White House recently attempted to institute some reforms within the corps, but this was essentially rebuffed by Congress.
In terms of civilian work, the corps is the major pork machine in this country in terms of earmark legislation. What's in it for Congress is that they get to go home and buttress their argument for re-election with, "Hey, I brought you this dam! I brought you this bridge!" And, since the modern corps doesn't do most of its own work and contracts it out, this means that people in Congress get hefty contributions from the firms that hope to gain those contracts. It's known in the trade as "the Iron Triangle."

Engineered by the corps
  • Engineered by the corps
In the film, someone who worked for the corps says the levees' failure was unavoidable because we're human beings and human beings make mistakes. [Members of the corps don't] say that when they're going up and asking for money. They don't say, "You can't out-engineer Mother Nature" when they're going up and proposing a billion-dollar project. The only time they tell you, "Oh, we're human. We make mistakes," is when they fuck up big time. They "made mistakes" that killed thousands of people! That is a series of errors, deep and broad, over a period of four and a half decades, under administrations of both political parties -- despite people in their own organization saying, "Uh-uh -- don't do this."

There's a lot of hope and positive feeling in the movie coming from the New Orleans residents you interviewed.
New Orleans has survived a lot of disasters in its three centuries on the planet. That has helped to build the particular kind of culture this place has. There's been a very active and vibrant cultural response [following Katrina], not just to the event, but to the ongoing story of the city. Tremé [a TV series about the storm's aftermath named for a New Orleans neighborhood] is one example, on a highly visible and commercial level. There's been explosive growth in the art community. There are dozens of new galleries and art spaces, as well as the musical culture that everybody knows is here. The political culture has been reformed in a number of ways by citizen action.

The film also highlights the damage done to the Louisiana wetlands over the years as a factor that exacerbated the damage done by the floods. Are there any updates on the effort to restore the wetlands around New Orleans?
The bad news is that there was not a dollar for it in the stimulus package, even though it was shovel-ready. The good news is that the two Louisiana senators are trying to push through a bill that would direct 80 percent of the fines paid by BP [for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster] to coastal wetlands restoration. That [oil spill] last year may help alleviate the long-term disaster of the destruction of the wetlands. And that is a little thing called irony.

I'd like to add for Northern California audiences and readers that this is not just a story about New Orleans. This is a story about more than 100 cities around the country that supposedly enjoy levee protection -- most notably Sacramento. So this is a national story. New Orleans should have been the wakeup call, but thanks to the media, we hit the snooze button instead.

Shearer appears on Sunday after the 7 p.m. screening and before the 9 p.m. screening of The Big Uneasy at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia). Admission is $15. The film continues at the Roxie through Monday, July 11. Admission to other screenings is $10.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
For information about the film and Shearer's appearance at the Roxie, visit
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Casey Burchby


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