The Ninth Ward Revisited
12/25/06 New York Times
, By Bob Herbert ~ Spike Lee, who has made a stunning six-hour documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, was telling me the other day about his first visit to the city's Lower Ninth Ward, which was annihilated by the flood that followed the storm.
After more than a year his voice was still filled with a sense of horrified wonder. "To see it with your own eyes," he said, "and you're doing a 360-degree turn, and you see nothing but devastation. I wasn't born until 1957 but I automatically thought about Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Berlin after the war.
"It looked like someone had dropped a nuclear bomb. All brown, and the smell, stench. Horrible."
His words echoed the comments of a woman I had met on a recent New Orleans trip. She remembered standing in the Ninth Ward after waters had receded. "Everything was covered in brown crud," she said. "There was nothing alive. No birds. No dogs. No sound. And none of the fragrance usually associated with New Orleans, like jasmine and gardenias and sweet olives. It was just all death and destruction."
Said Mr. Lee: "You couldn't believe that this was the United States."
The film, produced by HBO and released in a boxed set of DVDs, is called When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
. It's Mr. Lee's best work, an informative, infuriating and heartbreaking record of a cataclysmic historical event, the loss of a great American city.
What boggles the mind now is the way the nation seems to take this loss in stride. Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half its population is gone and an enormous percentage still in town are suffering. As Mr. Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city's football team, the Saints, is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs.
"They spent money on the Superdome. You can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some conventions are coming back," Mr. Lee said, "so people say that everything's O.K. But that's a lie. They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all still in very deep trouble. They need to get cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or St. Bernard Parish. You'll see that everything is not O.K."
Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.
When the Levees Broke
has a fifth act, only recently completed, in which people reflect on what has happened since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. "What is the government doing?" he asks. "They're trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We're paying taxes, you understand what I'm saying?"
For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee's words, people have "Katrina fatigue." They're not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, "One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied."
Other matters vie for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell are feuding. And, it's Christmas. "You know how Americans are," Mr. Lee said. "We're on to the next thing."