December 7, 2007

Talking about another city that is below sea level

This post doesn't have much to do with moving to Amsterdam. If you've been following this blog than you probably noticed I've been writing a lot about the documentary I want to make (which is a huge reason for my move to the Netherlands). My inspiration to be a documentary filmmaker only grows stronger when I watch films like Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke. Though Hurricane Katrina is at the center of the story, it's really a film about New Orleans and how that city fits in to the rest of the United States. And that being said, it's a film about the United States that I don't think the rest of the world has ever really seen before.

I was visiting the US (from Paris) and staying with friends in Philadelphia when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I consider myself someone who is relatively familiar with NOLA as a visitor. I've been there three or four times, never to just be a tourist, but always because I had friends who lived there. I've stayed in the real houses and apartments, I knew how to get around, I had my favorite bar (The Funky Butt, which closed several years ago), I knew where I liked to shop, etc.

Watching Katrina destroy New Orleans on the news broke my heart. I knew what it meant to have stagnant water just sitting there in a city that is already below sea level. I thought about the disgusting humidity that all Southerners deal with in the late summer, the mosquitoes, the rats, the snakes.... I knew that NOLA had pretty much become an open sewer. Everyone I knew in New Orleans had air conditioning, even if they lived in a run down, cheap, tiny studio apartment and were making minimum wage. There was just no way to survive that heat and humidity without it. Obviously, the electricity was down for days after Katrina, so there was no relief from the heat. The heat... god, I remember being in New Orleans in the summertime and taking three or four showers a day, changing my clothes all the time, and feeling exhausted just walking down the street to the next air-conditioned restaurant. It can become sweltering - average temperatures for August are 90 (32 celsius), and the humidity often makes it feel like it's over 100 (over 37 celsius). Imagine that type of environment buried under water so deep that it covered houses. It became absolutely toxic.

When I got back to Paris in early September 2005, all of my friends - or even just people in the neighborhood who knew I was American (like the guy who worked at the fruit & vegetable market I frequented) - asked about Katrina right away. They all said the same thing "But... really? Is it really that bad? Are you okay? Did it happen near you?" Their concern was absolutely genuine. Then they would say "But how did it happen? I mean, it's the USA, you are a rich country...and it looks like the whole city was just destroyed.. How is that possible? Are people really left for dead in the street? In the US?"

Yes. THAT is the real United States. That is what my non-American friends don't see in Hollywood movies or on MTV or read about in magazines. People walked for miles and miles in the sweltering heat without food or water to try and leave the city on foot if they didn't have a car... and were told AT GUNPOINT to turn around and go back. Dead bodies of humans, dogs, rats, etc., were left wherever they fell for days. Almost makes it sound like a war, huh? Especially when the media started calling the millions of people - the millions of American citizens who lost their homes - "refugees." The dictionary definition of a refugee is "a person who flees for refuge or safety, esp. to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc."

Political upheaval, war, etc. I guess "a bad hurricane that everyone knew was coming" falls under "etc." This wasn't exactly a surprise. The hurricane was a category five. Scientists knew the levees could break.

Come on! How are we one of the richest countries in the world, with a super powerful army, big enough to go in and invade/occupy other countries, important enough to world politics so that our presidential election is front page news all over the world... how can all that be true, yet we can still call well-educated, tax-paying, American born and raised citizens "refugees?" Well, maybe it's because as I watched these people try to get the bare necessities for survival (food, water, shelter), I realized they couldn't. Maybe because they weren't free to walk across a bridge on American soil, from one town to the next. Maybe because after days and days of being trapped, when people did get out on planes they had no idea where they were flying. Maybe because ... there wasn't much difference between New Orleans residents in 2005 and real refugees in war-torn countries.

The way the US federal government failed to react to Katrina did not surprise me a bit. But I can understand why other people just simply didn't get it, especially if they've never been to the US. I understand the confusion. This documentary explains the history, explains the storm, and shows the aftermath with brutal honesty. My eyes kept welling up with tears when I wasn't fuming with anger.

When the Levees Broke was released by HBO in December 2006. I don't know why I waited so long to watch it, and if anyone reading hasn't already seen this film... put it at the top of your priority list. And if you have already seen the documentary... stay angry.

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