As the world watched in horror, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on
Aug. 29, 2005. Declaring that the city had avoided the worst of the
storm, city and state officials were caught off-guard when the levees
that had been designed to protect low-lying areas of the city from
flooding were breached, and the 9th Ward District was inundated.
Like many who watched the unfolding drama on television news, director
Spike Lee was shocked not only by the scale of the disaster, but by the
slow, inept and disorganized response of the emergency and recovery
effort. An estimated 1.5 million displaced residents of the Big Easy
learned the hard way that help was slow in coming, if at all. Watching
his fellow Americans suddenly turned into "refugees" in their own
country, Lee was moved to document this modern American tragedy, a
morality play witnessed by people all around the world.
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS is the result, a
four-hour documentary co-produced by HBO and Spike Lee's 40 Acres & A
Mule Filmworks, with Lee directing and producing. The film is
structured in four acts, each dealing with a different aspect of the
events that preceded and followed Katrina's catastrophic passage
through New Orleans.
Acts I and II debut MONDAY, AUG. 21 (9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO,
followed by Acts III and IV on TUESDAY, AUG. 22 (9:00-11:00 p.m.). All
four acts will be seen Tuesday, Aug. 29 (8:00 p.m.-midnight), the first
anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
See RockOnTV.com for additional air dates:
This intimate, heart-rending portrait of New Orleans in the wake of the
destruction tells the heartbreaking personal stories of those who
endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell the tale of misery,
despair and triumph.
The film also looks at a community that has been through hell and back,
surviving death, devastation and disease at every turn. Yet, somehow,
amidst the ruins, the people of New Orleans are finding new hope and
strength as the city rises from the ashes, buoyed by their own
resilience and a rich cultural legacy.
"New Orleans is fighting for its life," says Lee. "These are not people
who will disappear quietly - they're accustomed to hardship and
slights, and they'll fight for New Orleans. This film will showcase the
struggle for New Orleans by focusing on the profound loss, as well as
the indomitable spirit of New Orleaneans."
Three months after Katrina struck, Lee, cameraman Cliff Charles and a
small crew made the first of eight trips to New Orleans to conduct
interviews and shoot footage for the film. With so many people
affected, Lee had a wide range of subjects and opinions to choose from.
"Spike wanted to offer multiple points of view," says his longtime
editor, Sam Pollard. "He needed to represent the voices from the
community, the different levels of government, activists and the
celebrity element to provide a balanced take on the issues facing New
Lee and his team selected close to 100 people from diverse backgrounds
and representing a wide range of opinions to interview, including
Governor Kathleen Blanco; Mayor Ray Nagin; residents Phyllis Montana
LeBlanc, Kimberly Polk, Shelton "Shakespeare" Alexander and Rev.
Williams; activists Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte; CNN's Soledad
O'Brien; and musicians Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Kanye
The film begins by looking at the efforts made to predict and prepare
for what would become the Katrina disaster. Meteorologist Michael
Schlacter (founder of Weather 2000, which predicts medium and
long-range climate and weather conditions) and his colleagues were
concerned that 2005 "was going to be a very active and intense
hurricane period. No one quite imagined the number of storms and the
intensity of the storms we would have, but we knew we were going to be
in for quite a ride."
According to his colleague Jeff Schultze, "All this information was out
there. Katrina was not something people should have been caught
off-guard with at all." Schultze refers to Hurricane Pam, a study
conducted by Louisiana State University, the National Weather Service,
FEMA and other federal and state agencies, to dissect how a category
three hurricane would impact New Orleans, saying, "Unfortunately, the
second half of the study was cancelled in 2005 because of lack of
funding. But that study foretold a catastrophic flooding event that
would displace hundreds of thousands of people."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for building,
fortifying and upgrading dams and levees throughout the county. The
levee system in New Orleans is under its direct control, and prior to
Katrina, was being built to withstand a category three hurricane.
Professor Robert Bea, a civil and environment engineer, describes the
breaching of the levees as "the most tragic failure of a civil
engineered system in the history of the United States." Colonel
Setliffe, commander of the Task Force Guardian, a U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers organization, recognizes their responsibility for the failure
of the levees, saying, "The Corps of Engineers and their engineers let
them down, and we feel the same way. This floodwall did not perform as
we would have hoped it would have."
Kanye West hit a nerve when he announced, "George Bush doesn't care
about black people," during a national telethon for Katrina victims. "I
felt that we had a President that didn't care as much as our previous
president, and I don't need to know about politics to feel that," says
FEMA and Michael Brown, the agency's head at the time, have taken the
brunt of the criticism for its lack of preparation and its ineptitude
in the dealing with the crisis. "They were supposed to be our people on
the ground that would take care of things. And then they started making
promises. And then, after dealing with them for a day or two, I started
to notice that they weren't delivering on what they said they could
do," says Mayor Nagin. FEMA's reputation was destroyed within days of
the crisis, its mishandling of the disaster shown around the world.
In the days leading up to Aug. 29, when the hurricane finally hit New
Orleans with the force of winds traveling an estimated 175 mph,
Louisiana Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin had ample opportunity to
devise an emergency plan. By the time Mayor Nagin declared a mandatory
evacuation on Aug. 28, it was too late. On Aug. 29, the levees were
breached, leaving 80% of the city under water.
Governor Blanco points to the slow federal response as the deciding
factor leading to the failure of the emergency effort, saying, "As
Governor, I had thrown every asset we had against the fury of the storm
and the aftermath of the storm. We knew that we needed more help,
particularly when people started gathering at the Superdome and the
numbers kept growing. And I still haven't figured out why the response
was slow; it was a big disappointment."
Mayor Nagin feels history will exonerate his actions during the crisis,
observing, "I feel as though I've done everything in my power to save
lives and to get people out of harm's way. And I think history's going
to be okay with that." For Nagin, "the big problem in this catastrophe
was: Who ultimately had the authority to make the final calls? The
federal government was dancing around this whole issue of state rights,
and the state had to call the feds in for the resources that they
needed, and the state was hesitant because the governor wanted to look
like she was in charge and in control."
Mitch Landrieu, Lt. Governor of Louisiana, who would later run against
Nagin in the mayoral election, puts it succinctly: "There was no clear
command and control between the federal, state and local governments.
There was no good coordination. And most importantly, there was no
Lee explores the role played by the media during the crisis. The Times
Picayune newspaper continued to publish throughout the catastrophic
events. Reporter Tramaine Lee, who was motivated personally and
professionally, observes, "I had a great responsibility to bear
witness. Being a black man and seeing my people in that situation, I
knew that the stories were going to get misconstrued. I was there to
try to tell the truth as best I could."
Several days into the crisis, radio personality Garland Robinette had
an impromptu interview with Mayor Nagin, during which Nagin challenged
the people in the White House to "get off your asses..." For Robinette,
the interview triggered the response the city had been waiting for.
"That was the moment I think we started getting help," he says.
"Everybody else was being politically correct, racially correct,
economically correct, class correct, and nobody had the balls to say
what was happening and until he did, nothing did happen."
Four days after Katrina hit New Orleans, O'Brien interviewed FEMA's
Michael Brown. "What he was saying was not matching the pictures," says
O'Brien, as Brown claimed not to know about the 50,000 evacuees in the
Superdome. "At one point I said, 'How can we have better intel than you
have?' Because I have a research file prepared by my 23-year-old
research assistant, a production assistant, and I'm getting better
intelligence than you're getting. How is that possible? It was one of
the more baffling interviews, because they seemed so out of touch with
the reality that a lot of people had been watching day after day after
While the media has been lauded for keeping residents informed, they
have also come under attack for referring to the displaced as
"refugees." Actor and activist Harry Belafonte comments, "Refugees
always means those who are lost and without birthright. These people
were not lost, and they were not without birthright. They were
devastated by something that could happen any place in this country if
it's an act of nature. It's how we responded to it that's made them
less than what they should be as fellow citizens."
One of the stories that gained momentum among residents is that the
levees were blown up intentionally. Many remember hearing loud booms
prior to the levees breaching. Dr. Calvin Mackie, Professor of
Mechanical Engineering, Tulane University, gives no credence to the
rumor, saying, "I don't believe that the levees were blown. People
heard explosions when water gushed through a gaping hole. The levees
gave. All indications now show that the levees were not properly
designed, nor were they properly built. That's what caused the
Intentional or not, the 9th Ward was virtually eradicated when the
levees broke. Robert Rocque, a resident of the area describes the
flooding that followed as "unbelievable. This part of the city was
actually under 18 to 20 feet of water, which means people didn't have a
Residents returned to find their houses flattened, swept across the
street, or, if still standing, uninhabitable. "When I came back into
the city I saw complete devastation. I didn't think I would ever see
anything like that in my life. It looked like someone had dropped a
nuclear bomb," says Dr. Mackie. Residents in those areas had to rely on
themselves in the absence of any organized rescue effort. Individuals
pitched in to help their neighbors, their friends and strangers.
Michael Knight is credited with rescuing more than 200 of his neighbors
in the Lower 9th. For seven days, he used his boat to ferry people from
roofs and treetops to safety. Knight did it without outside help: When
requests for gas were refused, he siphoned gas from other boats to
continue. He did it because, he says, "It's my neighborhood." Today,
Knight is homeless, the house he built from scratch demolished. Others,
like actor Sean Penn, were moved by the scenes on television screens to
travel to New Orleans and offer their help. He left home with the
thought of rescuing an "80-year-old mother who had refused to move
because her whole life was invested in the house, and was still in the
Shelton "Shakespeare" Alexander is one of the estimated 40,000 people
who took refuge at the Louisiana Superdome after a low gas tank and a
lack of funds prevented him from leaving the city. Alexander describes
a chaotic scene that shifted from relief to paranoia and panic as
conditions worsened, comparing the way people were tightly stacked
together to "the middle passage." Inedible food, overflowing toilets,
stale air from unwashed bodies and dirty diapers, and uncaring National
Guard personnel created a recipe for disaster. It wasn't long before
the fragile system failed. Alexander describes how panic set in when
the rain started pouring in through the roof.
One of the film's most memorable voices belongs to Phyllis Montana
LeBlanc, a resident from the 9th Ward who escaped with her husband,
mother, sister and nephew. LeBlanc's impassioned, and at times darkly
comic, account brings the horrific events into focus. After wading
through water and mud, ignored by helicopter rescuers, LeBlanc finally
reached Louis Armstrong Airport. Packed with fellow evacuees, and
forced to stand for 15 hours surrounded by armed and uncaring
personnel, LeBlanc suffered a breakdown.
Back in New Orleans after a brief stay in San Antonio, LeBlanc is
homeless and at the mercy of bureaucratic red tape. "We're living with
relatives, house to house, we're still homeless," she says. A promised
trailer from FEMA takes four months to materialize. Lee shows that this
was not an isolated case with footage of a parking lot filled with
thousands of empty trailers still to be disbursed. The stress of being
displaced has left LeBlanc with "thoughts of suicide. When I'm home
alone in a trailer, I'm thinking different ways of how I could kill
myself." She resists the urge because she's "from strong stock."
It took nine months before Kimberly Polk was able to claim the body of
her five-year-old daughter Sarena. Months of phone calls to
bureaucrats, DNA tests, and false calls to identify bodies compounded
an already unbearable situation. Her haunting story of grief and
devastating loss gives a personal face to the damage inflicted on the
residents of New Orleans. Now in grief counseling, Polk is resolved
never to return to New Orleans, proclaiming, "I blame New Orleans for
her death, so I won't ever come back as far as living in New Orleans,
ever. I hate to visit New Orleans, and I just don't like New Orleans.
And it is not just because of Serena's death. It is just the way they
went about doing things."
The city of New Orleans will survive. That belief is echoed throughout
the film, even among those who vow never to return. Signs of renewal
have already emerged. Six months after Katrina, a scaled down version
of Mardi Gras took to the streets to celebrate its 150th anniversary,
and to demonstrate the city's fighting spirit. For a triumphant
Grayland Banks, director of Safety and Loss Prevention at Hyatt Regency
New Orleans, it's a sign of New Orleans' power to resurrect itself.
"It's an opportunity to show the world we are coming back," he says.
"We're not there yet, but we're coming back."
Governor Blanco also sees Mardi Gras 2006 as a sign of renewal, noting,
"In the past, Mardi Gras was intended to spur the economy and for
people to come and have a good time, but this year it was a homecoming.
You saw families and neighbors reuniting, excited to see each other. It
had a different feeling and a different spirit."
For Lt. Governor Landrieu, the challenge facing New Orleans "is to try
to keep our authenticity, to keep our rich diversity, to keep our
culture, to keep all of those things that people say represents the
soul of America, but at the same time get a business mind about us like
Atlanta, and try to find a way not only to have fun, but to eat, too."
Those are some of the challenges facing the Governor's Louisiana
Recovery Authority. The 26-member board is charged with the recovery of
the state of Louisiana, setting short and long term priorities for the
rebuilding process. Dr. Calvin Mackie, a member of the Recovery
Authority, believes that "the future of black New Orleans is whatever
we make it." He dreams of a changed city in which the residents realize
"that it's our responsibility to save ourselves, and we should have
never put ourselves in a position waiting for someone else to come and
The disaster and its aftermath have politicized residents such as
Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, prompting discussions about local and world
events. "We discuss the issues - 'What can we do about it? What's not
being done about it?' Then, I ask these same people, 'Okay, are you a
registered voter?' 'No, I'm not.' Then your voice is silent because
you're not using your right to vote," says LeBlanc.
Lee uses key elements of New Orleans' cultural legacy to illustrate its
history of surviving against the odds. Long before Hurricane Katrina,
New Orleans and its citizens developed coping strategies for dealing
with tragedy. Its aboveground cemeteries are not only practical, but
evidence of a people used to the sight of death. The traditional jazz
funerals - musical parades that mourn death, and then celebrate life -
serve as testament to that fact.
Musician Wynton Marsalis considers music to be central to the everyday
lives of New Orleaneans, saying, "The reason music came from us is we
had a lot of ceremonies that required music. We have produced great
musicians in every type of form you can think of - jazz, blues. It's
all a part of people's everyday lives."
Fellow New Orleans native and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, a
musician and composer on several of Lee's films, including WHEN THE
LEVEES BROKE, believes artists will find inspiration from Katrina. "Out
of this experience there's going to come some amazing music, because
the musical culture of this city has never been driven by anything
other than pure honesty and pure passion," he notes. "And with the
artists that are from this city, there's going to be some amazing
things that's going to flourish as a result of this."
Like Blanchard, Rev. Williams also sees the benefit of New Orleans'
strong cultural tradition - an advantage he feels bodes well for the
future. "We have a culture here that's second to none worldwide," he
says. "Nowhere have you ever seen cemeteries where people bury people
on top of the ground, or jazz funerals. The food is like nothing else
across the nation. Nowhere else in the world do they have a Mardi Gras
like in New Orleans. Nowhere else in the world can you find a city like
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS is a Spike Lee Film and a
40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks Production. Directed and produced by Spike
Lee; producer and supervising editor, Sam Pollard; cinematography,
Cliff Charles; editors, Geta Gandbhir and Nancy Novack; composer,
Terence Blanchard; line producer, Butch Robinson. For HBO: supervising
producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.