Over Labor Day weekend, a major hurricane seems to have just missed New Orleans. But exactly three years ago, when another strong-but-not-record-breaking storm just missed New Orleans, much of the city was under water a day later. The national lack of curiosity about how and why that happened, after the arrival of a storm that was well beneath the supposed limits of the levee system, is astounding. When they speak about it publicly, government officials most often blame Mother Nature while critics of those government officials blame the lack of leadership in a time of crisis.
If you drove your car at 75 miles per hour down the highway and the wheels flew off sending your family into the ditch, you'd expect a better answer than, "Well, 75 is really fast." Or: "It's horrible that the ambulance took an hour to arrive." Yes, but. Nearly every American lives within reach of a major piece of infrastructure built by the same group who designed and built those levees, the Army Corps of Engineers. So you can even set aside compassion, if you want, and tether your inquiry to good old fashioned self-interest. Our mysterious national lethargy doesn't arise from either impulse.
Trouble the Water, a documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, exposes one small part of the tragedy and highlights the fact that the storm was just one chapter in a story that continues to this day. It's the story of Kimberly and Scott Roberts who didn't have the means to get out of New Orleans before the hurricane arrived. They rode out the storm, and the movie's buzz has centered around the footage that Kimberly shot as the water rose to the rafters of her Ninth Ward home. It's a compelling eye-witness account, even though the picture is as jerky as a video camera in a hurricane, but the footage serves mostly as the introduction to a movie whose heart lies beyond the storm and beyond New Orleans proper.
While the movie touches on the government's mismanagement of the disaster and includes a few swipes at FEMA director Michael Brown, the emphasis remains on Kimberly and Scott. As we learn from interviews and a tag-along camera, they're among the people forcibly turned away from a dry and empty Navy base a few blocks from their flooded home, their FEMA check is long delayed, and the lack of public transit before and after the storm makes it difficult for them to move around, much less evacuate. But they're also determined and generous people whose dignity the film never doubts. We see them helping their neighbors, taking jobs in Texas, and trying to rebuild their lives. Whether that happens in New Orleans or elsewhere is always an open and emotional question. By deigning to follow the Scotts for months and years as they seek first safety then stability, the movie draws a larger narrative about people whom the system does not serve, does not see, and frankly does not want.
Like the films about America's involvement in Iraq, Trouble the Water is not a comprehensive course in everything you need to know about the impact of institutional failure. For information about what happened to the levees, what happened to FEMA, what happened to the schools and jobs and houses of New Orleans over many decades, you'll need to watch more than one movie. But anyone who's constructing a view of New Orleans and a view of America, past and present, should consider Trouble the Water as part of the mosaic.
Deal and Lessin begin the film with a somewhat confusing timeline that bounces between past and present, Wimbledon style. It's an inelegant way to integrate Kimberly's footage with their own. But they do get one thing right: the text that occasionally appears on the screen throughout the film marks time not by Katrina's landfall but by the levee failure. "3 months since the levees failed," the text reads, placing the emphasis exactly where it belongs. Storms will always be with us; it's the institutions -- and the structures we've asked them to build for us -- that deserve our wrath and our support.