DOASKDOTELL Reviews of Major Documentary Coverage of Hurricane Katrina and Tsunami

The closest thing in the early days after the Katrina hurricane catastrophe in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast is Oprah Winfrey’s two day report on Sept. 1 and 2. Her link is at 

At one point she enters the Superdome and announces that the stench would make anyone vomit. She provides live coverage of various flooded locations in New Orleands and the Mississippi Coast. Actor Matthew McConaughey (from Texas) co-hosts much of the report.

 Her page is

 PBS presented, on Nov. 22 2005, a triple-header based on Hurricane Katrina. NOVA (from WGBH Boston) gave a chronological account of Katrina in “Storm that Drowned a City.”  Frontline followed with “Storm,” with a heavy account on the poor preparations of FEMA, partly because it had been filled by Bush with political appointees. The PBS report downplays the racial demographics exacerbating the relief efforts in the flood.  I would volunteer a bit in a call center for the Red Cross and find them bottlenecked when referring clients to a single number for financial aid. The London Avenue and 17th Street Canal levees failed because they were not entrenched deeply enough in peat-like soils; the Industrial Canal, on the East, was overtopped. But the canals on the north side next to Lake Pontchartrain were designed to meet a Category 2 at best. The water there never came within two inches of the top.

“American Experience” showed an episode “Fatal Flood” about the 1927 lower Mississippi flood, with a great emphasis on racial and class segregation, neglect and exploitation. Part of the story concerns the relationship between Greenville Ms business magnate Leroy Percy and his gay son Will Percy (or William Alexander Percy, well known as a poet); after constant pressure from the Ku Klux Klan Leroy abandoned the town will traveling on business and left his son in charge of the relief, and Will was caught in serious racial tensions, leading eventually to lynchings. African Americans had been assembled on top of the levees, and Will wanted riverboat relief to take them out of the area to safey; but local plantation owners were afraid of loosing their cheap sharecropping labor force. In fact, in the period after the floods, police often "drafted" the blacks into levee work. Landowners pressured Leroy to oppose Will's plan. Will, now 42, in a psychological twist, turned on African Americans himself, giving a notorious sermon in which he maintained that they should be thankful to the white man for saving them. Leroy would die, and Will would settle down, but never write poetry again. This sounds like a moral tragedy, as a man who felt himself born to be different, would implode when pressured by family-centric values of his patriarchal society. Even Leroy, however, was more moderate than most other landowners, as he had opposed the Ku Klux Klan. This whole story sounds like a Greek tragedy, and would lend itself to a feature film in the hands of the right screenwriter.

National Geographic’s Inside Hurricane Katrina (June 22, 2006) is a one hour documentary of the hurricane and especially the levee failure in New Orleans, which now appears to be an engineering failure: The Army Corps of Engineers did not drive the stanchions through the peat layers underneath the levees, so they liquefied, even under a hit from just a Cateogroy 3 Hurriacne.

CNN Presents: Hurricane Katrina (June 11, 2006) is a pretty graphic chronology in a one hour presentation.

Spike Lee has produced a four-hour documentary for HBO: "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" to be aired on Aug 21-22, and repeated on Aug. 29. The first half chronicles the period leading up to the floods quickly, and then documents the week long horror of the Superdome and of the people caught on roofs by the floods. People were actually forbidden to move on their own from one area to another, sometimes at gunpoint. A major city suddenly looks like a city in a third world country. Some residents claim that the Lake Ponchartrain levees broke under Category 1 conditions, and the government has not taken responsibility for the enormous individual real property losses. Why does the Corps of Engineers have no liability? At the end of the first half, Lee shows us images of bodies left lying around in the wreckage, even at the Superdome, for days. I visited New Orleans Feb. 18-20, and saw much of the destruction myself, especially in the northern wards. The French Quarter, however, was hopping and the downtown area was almost "normal."   

The second half continues to analyze the poor federal response, and criticizes calling the victims "refugees." 

The music, by Terence Blanchard, includes a 4/4 dirge theme that somehow reminds one of Britten.

A related film is (IMAX) Hurricane on the Bayou.

A related HBO documentary is Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006, HBO, dir. Bharat Nallui, 180 min), broadcast Dec 10 and 17, 2006 is very much in the tradition that "life happens." The film traces the fates of a few fictional characters in Thailand, mostly vacationing, when the tsunami reached without warning on Dec. 26, 2004, from the earthquake not far from Banda Aceh on the westernmost island of Indonesia. The first vacationers on the beach indeed are quite startled when the "last wave" comes. The second half deals with some of the politics of the medical evacuation and of the eminent domain takeovers of the land by resorts. See also disaster films.

CNBC: Against the Tide: The Battle for New Orleans (2007) Blogger entry here.

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