Longtime “mockumentarian,” who lives part-time in New Orleans, shares his thoughts on the “true story” of why the Crescent City flooded following Hurricane Katrina—a subject he explores in his new project, The Big Uneasy.
Humorist Harry Shearer
Tavis: Pleased to have Harry Shearer back on this program. The actor, activist and host of the weekly public radio show “Le Show” is out now with a new documentary about the government’s role and the response to Hurricane Katrina. The project is called “The Big Uneasy.” Here now, a scene from “The Big Uneasy.”
Tavis: Got to love that South African accent – “To cover their behinds.”
Harry Shearer: “Behinds.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Love that. Harry, good to see you.
Shearer: Thank you, you too.
Tavis: For those who don’t know – I know, but for those who don’t know, what is the Harry Shearer connection to New Orleans?
Shearer: I live there. I’m an adopted son of New Orleans. Brought up in Southern California but fell in love with the place, with New Orleans, and fortunately, so did my wife, and so we have a place there and I try to spend as much time there as possible.
Tavis: You started doing that when, spending time there?
Shearer: Went down first time in 1988 for Jazzfest and then just went, “Ooh, ooh, what have I been missing all my life? Why did I not get here earlier?” My regrets are never saw Professor Longhair live, never saw James Booker live, so I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have any more of those regrets.
Tavis: Regrets, yeah. What’s the point of this documentary? So much has been said and done and written about New Orleans relative to Hurricane Katrina. What’s the point of this particular documentary?
Shearer: That’s it’s not about a hurricane. That a hurricane did hurricane damage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but what damaged New Orleans, what almost killed New Orleans, was not a hurricane. As you saw, Max Mayfield said when it passed by – it never hit New Orleans; when it passed by New Orleans it was only a cat 1 or a weak cat 2 – was the catastrophic failure of the hurricane protection system, which Congress told the Corps of Engineers to build after Betsy in 1965, which it took them four and a half decades to almost complete, and which failed in more than 50 places under storm surge conditions that were less severe than the ones it was supposed to withstand.
It was a catastrophic man-made disaster, and people talked all about the government and the response and all that, but unless you read these reports by these two investigations, which have been on the public record for four years, you don’t know why those people suffered, why a city almost drowned.
Tavis: To this system that you referenced a moment ago that was supposed to work, I heard you say that it took four and a half decades – not four and a half years, four and a half decades -
Tavis: – to almost complete.
Shearer: It was not completed by 2005.
Tavis: I’ve heard of government bureaucracy and government red tape. How does somebody, how does any entity work on a project for four and a half decades and it’s still not completed?
Shearer: And its original budgeted time frame, I think, for construction, the completion, was about eight years. The short answer to what the Corps of Engineers does and the way they do it is that they live in a cocoon of immunity. They are not answerable, they are not responsible, they are not liable for the work they do, and I mean that literally. Congress, in 1927, passed the Flood Control Act and gave the Corps blanket immunity for any flood control project they do.
They’re not responsible. You can’t sue them if they flood out your house by incompetence or malice, even. The only case that’s come to trial in the case of the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 involved the Mississippi River Gulf outlet on the east side of town, which was a canal driven through the wetlands of St. Bernard Parish, killing the wetlands and flooding the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans east and St. Bernard Parish, driving storm surge up from the Gulf.
The only reason that came to trial was because it was a navigation project, not a flood control project. The rest of New Orleans was a flood control project, and those people will never get their day in court. The judge in the Mr. (unintelligible) case called the Corps of Engineers’ behavior criminal negligence.
Tavis: Why did Congress – you keep saying things I want to dig into – why did Congress give them, Harry, this kind of blanket immunity? If you are assigned a task, we expect the task to be done right, particularly if it’s being done with the American people’s money.
So let me get this right – so the American people pay you to do the work, but you’re not held liable if the work -
Shearer: You’re not held responsible or accountable, that’s correct. I think Congress thought that it would free the Corps from concern about nuisance suits or something, but it has freed the Corps from any sense of accountability. They’re answerable to no one. They serve the Congress. The projects they do are not policy-driven. It is the only agency of government which is totally funded by earmarks, so their strategy has been to have a project in every congressional district, thereby getting the loyalty of every congressman.
Now, the modern Corps contracts out most of its work to private contractors who then give money to congresspeople to get elected so that they give money -
Tavis: Are they held accountable, these private contractors, potentially?
Shearer: Well, in a very odd way, in an almost inverse way. We have an example in our film. One of the contractors working on the New Orleans project in the ’90s came to the Corps and said, “Our contract requires us to dig a foundation, a sheet piling, it’s called, under this flood wall that is not sufficiently deep. We’re not hitting solid ground. We’re hitting muck, we’re hitting swamp. We need to dig deeper.”
The Corps said, “You follow the terms of your contract,” and the contractor said, “Mm, we don’t want to do that.” The Corps took the contractor to court (laughter), forced them – seriously – forced them to not go any farther than 17 feet deep. The contractor was court-ordered to do so. That was one of the areas that failed catastrophically in 2005. Today, the Corps is digging 64 feet deep.
Tavis: Mm. It’s obvious from talking to you and from seeing the film that the Corps – my phrase, not yours – takes a beating in this documentary. What’s the Corps got to say about that? To Harry Shearer or to those who have these questions, what’s their response?
Shearer: I worked very hard to get Corps people into the film. I did not want this to be a screed or a one-sided piece. I wanted them to have their say and for people to see how the Corps reacts. Their basic stance is, “We don’t look backwards, we look forwards.”
They had one moment when the then-commander of the Corps stood up in June of 2006 and said, “For the first time in our history, one of our projects catastrophically failed.” Took responsibility. Within two months, he was retired, or had retired. In two months, he was gone. That’s the last time the Corps has looked backward.
I am not a betting man, but I will bet you on June 1st, when the new $15 billion project that replaced the one that failed is ceremonially opened, the Corps will say this: New Orleans has never been safer. That’s like saying after I shot your grandma, your grandfather has never been safer, because I’m in jail now. It’s not very reassuring.
They don’t really – they’ve never really answered, since the film has come out, any of the – and these are not allegations, these are findings by two teams of investigators from major universities, consortiums of the leading investigators and experts in hydrology and geology and water science and coastal science.
Those have been on the public record for three or four years. They’ve never responded to those.
Tavis: Pardon the phrase, but given the drill-down that you’ve done on this particular subject matter do you have reason to believe, are you convinced that when this new system is unveiled ceremoniously – with ceremony, I should say – later this summer, that it is ready to withstand what might come from it?
Shearer: Here’s what I’ll tell you, because I have no opinion worth talking about. I’m a guy from the comedy world, so I concentrated in the film on going to the people who really know what they’re talking about. There’s a whistleblower in the film from within the Corps of Engineers. Her job was to test and install the pumps, the hydraulic pumps that are at the heart of the new system that we’ve just paid $15 billion for.
She said they never passed their testing, even when the testing standards were reduced over and over again. They were installed anyway, and she has said repeatedly they will not work in a hurricane situation. Her allegations were investigated by an independent engineer working for another branch of the federal government who said, “She’s right,” and a letter to that effect has been on the desk of the appropriate Congress committees and the president of the United States since June of 2009, with no action taken.
Tavis: I was just about to ask – I’m not naïve, I understand how this process works and people want to take credit and et cetera, et cetera, but I don’t get – I’m almost speechless because I don’t get how – again, I’m not naïve – how members of Congress, the White House, all these authoritative bodies -
Shearer: Responsible people.
Tavis: – responsible people could have this kind of intel and nobody has said or done anything about it and they’re all going to fly down to New Orleans for the ceremony. I don’t get it. What do you make of that?
Shearer: Look, I wouldn’t have made this film if President Obama hadn’t come to New Orleans in October of 2009, three and a half years after all these reports were on the public record, six months after that letter was on his desk from the whistleblower, and called the flooding of New Orleans a natural disaster in front of a room full of people who loved him, voted for him and knew that that wasn’t the truth. That just made me take this action of making the film.
I can’t tell you why people are ignoring this. I can look to the situation in Japan, where people were warned these nuclear plants are not safe. The cooling systems failed even before the earthquake and the tsunami, and the Japanese government was so in bed with the nuclear industry that they ignored the warnings.
I don’t know what the deal is, but I know as a New Orleanian I’m concerned, and I’m concerned not just because it’s about New Orleans. Sacramento, California is in the bull’s-eye of a similar situation, possibly. The Corps internally says very dire things about Sacramento.
Dallas, Texas was told two years ago oh, the levees along the Trinity River going through downtown, oops, they were built on sand. Sorry about that. More than 100 cities around the country, supposedly protected by Corps levees, have been now informed not what we thought they were going to be.
Tavis: What kind of treatment are these revelations getting in the New Orleans media, because there’s nothing, obviously, that rankles politicians like getting bad press? So what’s happening in the state of Louisiana, specifically in New Orleans, with regard to the press that may or may not have been generated by these revelations?
Shearer: Well, the press covered all this, most of this. The two major investigations looking backwards at the flooding at the time, that’s where we all learned about it. People were plenty rankled.
But the Congress gave sole jurisdiction over the hurricane protection system of New Orleans to the Army Corps of Engineers, so the locals can scream and yell, but the Louisiana congressional delegation doesn’t have the clout it used to in the old days of J Bennett Johnson, all those guys. This is a different era, and they don’t have the clout. They can just get up on their hind legs and make noise, as they’re trying to do.
In the film we have a wonderful sequence where David Vitter, reviled by a lot of liberals, but does a wonderful job of cross-examining the commandant of the Corps and making it clear how unhappy people are in New Orleans with their behavior. The guy in the uniform sits there and takes it and goes home and says, “Well, that was a rough day,” and then they go back about their business.
Tavis: I guess what I come back to at the close of this conversation, I come back to how it is that there is evidence on the table that’s been independently investigated that says the pumps never passed their inspection. We reduced the standard, they still did not pass, and people are oblivious to that, or acting oblivious to that.
Shearer: Well, it’s more than oblivious. The three people that we focus on, the leaders of the two investigations and that whistleblower, are the only three people in this whole story who have been published. Nobody at the Corps of Engineers responsible for the near-killing of New Orleans has lost so much as a parking space, but these three people, one has lost his job, the whistleblower has had four years of shunning and hell and the other investigator has been told by colleagues at major engineering conferences, “You’re an enemy of the United States.” This is what’s going on.
The people who stood up and told the truth, the people profiled in this film, are people of enormous courage and they have been punished for it, and the people who almost killed a major American city got rewarded with $15 billion and told, “Here, go do it again.
Tavis: The project is called “The Big Uneasy,” courtesy of our friend Harry Shearer. Harry, thanks for your work.
Shearer: My pleasure, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you on.
Shearer: Thank you.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.