Readers of today’s New Orleans Advocate found this full-page ad in today’s front section, courtesy of Harry Shearer.
Shearer, who has a home in the French Quarter, has played many roles during his career: Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist, Derek Smalls; the megalomaniacal Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons”; and, on last year’s brilliant series “Nixon’s The One,” the 37th president of the United States.
He’s every bit as compelling in his roles as commentator of his syndicated radio program “Le Show,” and as New Orleans homeowner committed to both the ugly truths that underlie the 2005 flood and the beautiful truths that uphold the city’s indigenous culture.
I ran into Shearer a few years ago on St. Joseph’s night, when Mardi Gras Indians come out after dark. It’s my single favorite time to be in the city—for the mystery, odd pageantry and communal spirit of this annual event. And yet, this tradition, too, has met with serious tensions involving New Orleans police. On one St. Jo’s night, Shearer and I got to talking about the things that oppose or impede New Orleans culture—why, for instance, a brass band might get shut down on its usual corner due to a phoned-in complaint.
“This city doesn’t hand out a manual or an informational DVD when you moved here,” Shearer said. “But maybe it should. People need to understand what’s going on so they can learn to respect it.”
On Monday night, Shearer sat in the front row at the Basin St. Station panel discussion I moderated. When it came time for questions, he asked something along these lines (I’m paraphrasing, having not yet transcribed…): “Once these cultural traditions become entertainment commodities doesn’t it demean them or rob them of their spiritual and cultural purpose?” That made me think about a long list of jazz musicians—from Louis Armstrong though Miles Davis and on—who seemed to uphold both functions at once. Yet I’m still wondering if Shearer has a good point when it comes to stuff that grows from and is functional to neighborhoods first and foremost (Louis and Miles were onstage or in recording studios, after all).
Shearer created a documentary for BBC Radio, “New Orleans: The Crescent and the Shadow,” that reflects on the experience of the 2005 flood and its aftermath today: It airs Sat. Aug 29 at 3 pm ET, and can be found here.
On the website, Shearer’s comments include these:
Life has returned to something resembling normal. I was born in Los Angeles, but I fell in love with New Orleans – it’s as simple as that. It starts with the people and the culture in which they live.
We hear the word community a lot these days in reference to bunches of far-flung people with a common interest, sitting around their computers. New Orleans is an actual community. To come from a normal American city – very atomized and very individualized – to a place with this tightly-knit fabric of community is to realize how different it is.
That’s one reason why the disaster was worse in some ways for New Orleans than it would have been for a ‘normal’ American city. Some of those whose parents or grandparents drowned in their attics, trying to escape the water, are still haunted by what happened and cannot return. The tightness of that tapestry of community was totally rent asunder by 2005’s flood.
Yesterday, I was thinking about Shearer’s 2010 documentary, “The Big Uneasy,” which clearly and forthrightly explained why “Katrina” was not a natural disaster. As Shearer explained about his film:
…like the rest of the country I assumed that the obvious explanation was correct: massive hurricane, city below sea level, natural disaster.
Within a few months, both investigations had released their (remarkably similar) findings: the flooding of New Orleans was not a natural disaster, but rather the product of more than four decades of design and construction flaws in a system Congress had ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to build to, ironically, protect New Orleans from serious damage from a hurricane.
As each new piece of the investigatory puzzle was put in place, I blogged about it at the Huffington Post, and I interviewed the lead investigators (as well as a whistleblower from inside the Corps) on my weekly radio broadcast, Le Show. But, in October 2009, as I sat watching President Obama’s town hall appearance in New Orleans on an Internet feed, I heard him describe the flooding as a “natural disaster”, and my head exploded. I realized that blogging and radio had failed to make a dent in the narrative of the disaster that had solidified into the national consciousness. That’s literally the moment when I decided to make a documentary about this story, featuring the investigators, the whistleblower, and everyone else I could contact who actually knew what the hell had happened to New Orleans.
I suppose that 2009 head-explosion is what inspired Shearer’s full-page ad.
I was thinking about Shearer’s film when I showed up at Southern Seaplane, which is located in Belle Chase, La. It’s a 20-minute ride from downtown New Orleans, but might as well be another world. I was there along with colleagues from NPR, USA Today and some foreign press outlets, courtesy of the Greater New Orleans, Inc., which, according to its website, is a “public private regional economic development alliance serving the 10-parish region of Southeast Louisiana.”
Who would turn down a trip in a four-seat seaplane on a cloudless day? Yet I was after more than a cheap thrill. I was hoping for some perspective.
I was also thinking about John Barry’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “Is New Orleans Safe?” wherein Barry writes:
How safe is it?
That question relates not to crime, which is a serious but solvable problem. The question is whether the ocean will engulf the city — whether the city can continue to exist.
The answer is complicated, with important ramifications for other cities, including New York. New Orleans has a new flood-protection system, and unlike the pre-Katrina one, which failed because of mistakes made by the Army Corps of Engineers, the new system should perform as designed. It will protect against a so-called 100-year storm, the same protection New York seeks but does not yet have.
But there are three problems: the 100-year standard itself; geology and sea level rise; and politics. The first two may be solved. The last may be intractable.
After Dicky Toups flew our Cessna 185 floatplane over the Lower Ninth Ward and the West Bank, we soon reached the so-called “Great Wall of New Orleans,” the new 1.8-mile, $1.1 billion Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, which rises 26 feet above sea level. As we flew further, our guide, Inner Harbor Delta Restoration Campaign scientist Alisha Renfro, explained that wherever we saw naturally curved lines of water through the green below, there was nature’s work. The straight cuts were manmade incursions, usually oil companies at work.
There was a lot more straight than curved.
“This would be like one big green carpet 20 years ago when I first started flying,” said Toups.
After we landed, I was thinking about the erosion of coastal wetlands I heard about for so long but now had some visual sense of.
I thought also about Monday night’s discussion of the threats to New Orleans indigenous culture, and something I wrote in a Village Voice piece eight years ago:
Erosion of our coastal wetlands may have paved the way for the natural disaster that hammered this city. But the least- mentioned aspect of the resulting devastation—the erosion of what ethnographer Michael P. Smith once called “America’s cultural wetlands”—is of equal concern. The resilient African-American cultural traditions of New Orleans, famously seminal to everything from jazz to rock to funk to Southern rap, also contain seeds of protest and solidarity that guard against storm surges of a man-made variety. Erasure of these wetlands exposes many to the types of ill winds that shatter souls.
Renfro had explained to me that in order to address the threats to the Louisiana coast “You have to think about protection and restoration together, as things that go hand in hand. One without the other won’t solve the problem.”
That sounded right regarding culture, too.
What I’d seen from that plane—the “Great Wall,” and an equally imposing Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex, the largest drainage pump in the world, I was told, representing another billion in federal dollars—was impressive. Yet I was stuck on Mark Schleifstein’s Times Picayune piece, which includes this passage:
The rebuilt New Orleans area hurricane levee system remains inadequate to protect the heart of the nation’s 45th largest metropolitan area from another Hurricane Katrina or larger storm, nationally-known engineers and scientists said almost a decade after the 2005 storm.
The problem, in part, is the result of a “devil’s bargain” hammered out between the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Flood Insurance Program in Katrina’s wake: Allow residents and businesses within the levee system to remain eligible for federal flood insurance while the corps redesigned and built the system to protect from the insurance program’s so-called 100-year flood event.
That event is storm surges caused by a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, the so-called 100-year storm.
But the surge created by Katrina in St. Bernard Parish was that of a 200-year storm, overtopping levees in that area. The levees along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain saw surge of a 150-year storm, scientists say.
The good news, corps officials say, is that the rebuilt levee system was designed with a requirement to be “resilient.”
That word again. Hard to escape it right now. It’s become an all-purpose adjective, trotted out by politicians, derided by locals, and used as the measurement of success by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Its cousin—the noun, “resilience”—is now a product to be sold.
Back in a conference room after our flight, Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. explained that New Orleans experts had been hired to consult by New York and New Jersey officials after Superstorm Sandy, for sums exceeding $300 million, because “we’ve got a handle on this resilience thing that no one else has.” He talked about it as “the new brand” for New Orleans.
“We’ve pivoted from victims of disaster to masters of disaster,” he said.