What happened to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina six years ago was, we’ve been told, a natural disaster — but not according to Harry Shearer’s documentary The Big Uneasy.
The actor best known for his performances in comic mockumentaries (This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind) and for his voice work on The Simpsons here turns serious, presenting a meticulous argument that the massive floods that destroyed much of the city were due to human error. “This was a very unnatural disaster. This was a disaster caused by people,” says engineering professor Robert Bea, one of the leaders of an investigation into the flooding. (The investigation would later get Bea labeled by a colleague as “an enemy of the United States.”)
Shearer, who appears in the film sporadically, carefully builds the case that the New Orleans levee system — built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — had serious structural flaws. (Among his witnesses: a whistle-blower within the Army Corps, and a marine scientist and Louisiana State University professor who had warned before Katrina that the city was seriously susceptible to flooding — and who later lost his job.) Things at times get a little technical, as is perhaps inevitable in a narrative that has a lot to do with soil mechanics, but by the end of The Big Uneasy the viewer is convinced that we weren’t told the whole story back in 2005 and appalled by the retaliation faced by some who spoke out.
And we’re charmed by the great affection that Shearer and other New Orleans residents — introduced to us in some lighthearted interview segments that break up the more scientific elements of the film — have for their city. A group of locals, sharing iced tea with Shearer, agree emphatically that they’re never leaving, levee or no levee: home is home.
Director/screenwriter: Harry Shearer.
Running time: 98 minutes. Suitable for general audiences. Playing in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.