Watch Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” for the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, When US Racism Was Openly Revealed


The heavily flooded Ninth Ward of New Orleans 10 days after Hurricane Katrina, September 2005 (Photo: Kathy Anderson, Times-Picayune).I remember, ten years ago, being profoundly shocked by the almost indescribably inept response of the Bush administration to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and thinking that it showed two things above all: firstly, that racism remained a horrendous blight on the nation, as it was New Orleans’ poor and black population that suffered the most, and that, I was convinced, would be socially cleansed as the clean-up began; and, secondly, that this is what happens when governments put private profit and the slashing of federal budgets before the common good.

I recall, in particular, the tens of thousands of displaced residents crammed into the Superdome in apocalyptic fashion, as though the US was some sort of failed state, and the incongruous images of soldiers with guns treating citizens as criminal suspects as a humanitarian disaster engulfed the city because of incidences of looting in some of the few parts of the city that were not drowning.

In all, the flooding from Hurricane Katrina led to about 80% of New Orleans being submerged. More than 400,000 residents were displaced out of a total population of about 470,000, and 1,800 people died across the whole of the Gulf Coast hit by the hurricane. The economic cost was around $100bn, but figures don’t reveal the human cost of the destroyed and displaced lives, or, indeed, the cost to the credibility of the Bush administration, which callously showed the American people and the world how little it cared about poor black people in New Orleans.

A year after Katrina, I watched Spike Lee’s magisterial documentary film, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” uninterrupted on BBC4, which was so engrossing that I didn’t leave my seat for the whole of the four hours of the broadcast. Heartwarming in its humanity, as revealed in the recollections of its many residents interviewed by Lee in the weeks after the disaster, the film also shines an unerring light on the cost-cutting and incompetence involved in the city’s woefully insufficient flood protections, and on the incompetence of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose competence had been fatally undermined under George W. Bush and the leadership of its unqualified director Michael D. Brown.

I believe the documentary is not only Spike Lee’s finest work, but one of the most important documentary films ever made about racism, inequality, and corrupt and inept government, and to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen “When the Levees Broke” to watch the documentary below, available in two parts via YouTube.

Ten years on, 100,000 black people have indeed disappeared from New Orleans. Population statistics show that, from 2000 to 2103, the population has changed as follows.

  • In 2000, the white population of New Orleans was 128,871; in 2013, this figure was 117,377
  • In 2000, the Hispanic population of New Orleans was 14,826; in 2013, this figure was 20,849
  • In 2000, the black or African American population of New Orleans was 323,392; in 2013, this figure was 223,742

Reconstruction has, of course, taken place extensively in parts of New Orleans, and tourism has almost returned to pre-Katrina levels, but poorer, predominantly black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward have not recovered. As the Guardian noted in an article about New Orleans’ “uneven recovery and unending divisions,”  which included an interview with Ronald Lewis, a retired streetcar worker who runs the House of Dance and Feathers, “a miniature museum of New Orleans community culture dedicated to the marching groups that form parades for occasions such as Mardi Gras”:

[T]he Lower Ninth is still a section of New Orleans defined by absence. The neighbours who died or never came back. The stores and services that no longer exist. Those who had no savings or were unable to negotiate the labyrinthine insurance and compensation processes and were submerged by bureaucracy.

A walk along Tupelo Street, where Lewis lives, is the Lower Ninth in a nutshell: some repaired houses, some new ones and some that are wooden skeletons, abandoned wrecks buried amid chest-high weeds. The waves subsided long ago but their consequences never did.

The US is a country still wracked by racism. This is discernible in the disproportionate number of black men in prison (around 13% of the US population is African American, but African Americans made up around 40% of the 2.3 million prisoners in the US in 2009), and in the impunity with which black men are killed by the police. Although a black man is president, the legacy of Hurricane Katrina is another reminder of this disturbing and fundamental racism that must be challenged — a need that it is as important and as pressing as it was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Note: Also of interest on this anniversary is the Guardian‘s article, “10 years after the storm: has New Orleans learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina?”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    I couldn’t let the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina pass without commentary, so here are a few of my thoughts about the racism and incompetence with which the Bush administration failed to deal adequately with the crisis. Also included: Spike Lee’s powerful four-hour documentary, ‘When the Levees Broke.’ If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. You know who else did good work on Katrina? Greg Palast. I believe his series was called “Big Easy to Big Empty”. He called many of the abuses that went along with ethnic cleansing and privatization before they were obvious to most people.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elizabeth. Good to hear from you. I must admit that I had missed Greg Palast’s film. The first 20 minutes appears to be on YouTube:

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Greg doesn’t get his due here in the states — almost in the way Pilger is blacked out. It can be read as a badge of honor.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not feeling a million miles way from that particular perspective myself, Elizabeth!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    You all deserve medals. Take good care.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elizabeth! You take care too!

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Greg Palast’s documentary “Big Easy to Big Empty” can be downloaded from his website – for a donation, or for free:

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Tim Chadwick wrote about ‘When the Levees Broke’:

    I too have seen this, and must say that this film about the aftermath of the man made destruction and death from Katrina, is one of the best of many accounts of the human suffering caused by the Elite’s total disregard for other human beings.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Tim, and for your comments. It’s exactly right that the elite have a total disregard for us – and many more people still need to wake up to that fact without further delay.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    A few good links:
    Where Black Lives Matter Began by Jamelle Bouie, Slate:
    Ten Years After Katrina in the New York Times:
    “New Orleans was primed for all-out combat”: Remembering the media’s deadly Hurricane Katrina racism by Heather Digby Parton, Salon:
    Channel 4 News coverage:
    People are still living in FEMA’s toxic Katrina trailers — and they likely have no idea by Heather Smith, Grist:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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