UC Berkeley Professor Robert Bea in Harry Shearer’s The Big Uneasy

Mr. Go sounds like the name of a comic book superhero, but such is not the case. As we learn from Harry Shearer’s new documentary, The Big Uneasy (opening this Friday, July 8th at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood), Mr. Go is actually a bit of a villain — an anthropomorphized representation of the slow-motion, decades-long disaster that culminated in the inundation of New Orleans on August 29th, 2005.

The scale of the catastrophe is still hard to fathom, but The Big Uneasy uses computer-generated mapping imagery (provided by the former director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, Dr. Ivor van Heerden) to make the truth abundantly clear. When New Orleans’ hurricane defenses failed, huge areas of the city were rapidly inundated, causing approximately 81 billion dollars worth of damage.

The federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went into damage control mode almost immediately: “no one” could have anticipated such a huge storm, which was a once in a lifetime “storm of the century”. Some scientists, however, weren’t satisfied with easy bromides, and two independent investigations — one led by the LSU Hurricane Center, the other by UC Berkeley’s own Robert Bea and Ray Seed — swung into action to determine what actually went wrong.

What they learned reflected extremely poorly on the Army. Not only had the Corps of Engineers downplayed the risks of a major hurricane, they’d constructed levees grossly inadequate to the task and ignored decades-old recommendations to strengthen them. Thanks to what Van Heerden describes as ‘basic second-year engineering mistakes’, almost 2,000 people lost their lives.

Somewhat more controversially, the film also suggests that the levees may have been a bad idea to start with. Louisiana’s coastal wetlands act as a sponge, soaking up the moisture of major storms, but a hundred years of levee construction reversed thousands of years of geologic evolution. Consequently, over one and a half million acres of wetlands were reclaimed by the Gulf of Mexico during the 20th century, severely weakening the region’s natural defenses.

And what about Mr. Go? The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was a pork barrel project intended to shorten the trip from the Gulf to the Port of New Orleans. Constructed by the Corps of Engineers between 1958 and 1968, Mr. Go is a 75-mile long ditch that was obsolete almost as soon as it was completed. Closed to maritime traffic in 2004, it now serves primarily as a funnel through which Gulf of Mexico storm surge speeds its way to the heart of the city, killing seawater-averse delta species along the way.

It was inevitable that someone would lose their job — and perhaps their reputation — once the investigations wrapped up. True to form, Dr. van Heerden was fired by Louisiana State (a school with a long and cozy relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers) and Dr. Bea was dubbed an “enemy of the United States” at a professional conference. (The resultant stress, we’re told, has since damaged his vocal cords.) Meanwhile, the Corps and the feds quickly reverted to “look forward, not back” mode: nothing to see here, folks — move along.

This is Shearer’s first documentary film, and his inexperience occasionally shows. The film features some unnecessary breakaway segments hosted by John Goodman, in which local residents hold forth in best Chamber of Commerce style about the wonders of their hometown, and he relies a little too much on printed text to tell the story. Those are minor gripes, however: The Big Uneasy is a surprisingly effective and thoroughly serious effort from someone who’s made his fortune making us laugh. I suspect Ned Flanders would be very proud indeed.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

John Seal

John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...

Join the Conversation

5 Comments

  1. The talk by Ray Seed that I linked in an earlier comment talks, among other things, about local New Orleans politics.   He points out that there were two mutually antagonistic commissions — one in charge of pumping water out of the basin and the other in charge of levies (logically, since these two parts of the system have the same aim of keeping the city dry, it is odd to divide their management against itself).   Among the many causes of the Katrina disaster was their mutual failure to agree which group should fix some known problems, year after year.  He points out ways in which federal funding also languished far behind known needs, hampering what the Corp could do.

    He points out that the situation is quite similar (in that and other ways) vis a vis the disaster that is the delta.

    California’s water resources management has profound problems with deep roots.   In addition to what Seed has to say about the delta, check out this talk by Gray Brechin about how corrupt water politics shaped California as we know it today:

    “Rotten Foundations: The Reclamation Act and the Urbanization of the West”

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2058915680154645459

    More than you wanted to know about why we are able to live here and why, well, it’s pretty damn precarious.

  2. The talk by Ray Seed that I linked in an earlier comment talks, among other things, about local New Orleans politics.   He points out that there were two mutually antagonistic commissions — one in charge of pumping water out of the basin and the other in charge of levies (logically, since these two parts of the system have the same aim of keeping the city dry, it is odd to divide their management against itself).   Among the many causes of the Katrina disaster was their mutual failure to agree which group should fix some known problems, year after year.  He points out ways in which federal funding also languished far behind known needs, hampering what the Corp could do.

    He points out that the situation is quite similar (in that and other ways) vis a vis the disaster that is the delta.

    California’s water resources management has profound problems with deep roots.   In addition to what Seed has to say about the delta, check out this talk by Gray Brechin about how corrupt water politics shaped California as we know it today:

    “Rotten Foundations: The Reclamation Act and the Urbanization of the West”

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2058915680154645459

    More than you wanted to know about why we are able to live here and why, well, it’s pretty damn precarious.

  3. I can recall people generally being concerned about the levees (both their feared inadequacy AND whether they ought to be there at all) since at least the 1970s (just from my personal memory) and I know there has been concern much longer than that.  Maybe people outside the state were ‘fooled’ by the Corps of Engineers’ self-absolving statements after Katrina, but I don’t know of anyone in my home state of Louisiana who was.  Regardless of which party is in charge (although it has been Dems more often than not) Louisiana has an endemically dysfunctional government (sounds like some other states I know!)…year after year, spending money to shore up the levees (or studying the best way to get rid of them) was shoved aside for things that put more pork in favored pockets.  

  4. On September 12, 2006, Ray Seed (mentioned in the article) gave a talk at the California Colloquium on Water[*].   Seed led a (or the) major study of what went wrong.

    The talk is available on-line.  It presents many striking images of the extent of the damage in New Orleans.  It discusses the many ways in which blame can be passed around.  

    Of local interest and importance the talk draws lessons from New Orleans for the situation in California.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1fMhW2bflU

    [*] The California Colloquium on Water is a lecture series that was hosted by the Water Resources Center Archives (WRCA).   The colloquium took place at Cal where WRCA was then located.   WRCA is the state’s official library archives of water related material.    The colloquium included many excellent talks.

  5. As shown in the The Big Uneasy, the federal govt and the Corps spent a lot of tax payer money convincing the American public that the storm was the culprit in the Katrina flooding, when in fact the culprit was under-designed and under-engineered levees.  

    As noted by Gaye Tuchman, distinguished sociologist and author of Wannabe U, “look behind language that would seem to attribute calamity to unpreventable weather.  This vocabulary,” she warned, “denied human agency. It minimized the individuals and institutions whose actions could often be found hiding behind all the talk of water and wind.”Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org