Harry Shearer on New Orleans, media error, and not being the funnyman

Harry Shearer may be best known as the comedian who voices a litany of characters on The Simpsons and makes mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, but his new documentary is completely serious. The Big Uneasy, which screens tonight at the Denver FilmCenter at 7 p.m., tells the unsettling story of how the flooding in New Orleans was the result of man made design errors by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We caught up with Shearer about the Corps' lack of response to the film, why the media has virtually ignored this story, and his shift from comedy to documentary.

Westword: You've said in the past that you decided to make the film when you heard President Barack Obama refer to the flooding as a "natural disaster." Do you think the common perception of this has changed since he made that statement?

Harry Shearer: I think it has among people who've seen the movie or who've been stimulated in hearing about the movie to go read up on the matter. I'm not the NSA, I don't know what every American is thinking, but I know that the national media have been very resistant to reporting this story. And that includes not only the commercial media, but NPR. So I think people who depend on those media for their information may still believe that this was a natural disaster, in error.

WW: Why do you think the national media has shied away from this story?

HS: I did a little talk at the National Press Club in February where I sort of laid out my theory. I'd worked in journalism as a kid at, among other places, Newsweek, and I had experience with a story of no real consequence where the editor in New York had a concept of the story and wanted reporters around the country to give examples. I was reporting from Los Angeles and I said "well, there's almost none of that here, but here are the two people involved in it." And when story ran, in the intro in the paragraph about Los Angeles [the article said] that because it was Southern California it was ahead of every trend and it was ahead of this trend, too, and it was all over the place. And my reaction at the time was that the New York editor had gotten his concept of the story and those of us on the ground were basically just quote machines filling in the blanks of the story that he'd already gotten in his head.

Flash forward now many years and we have a big, big hurricane in the Gulf that everybody can see on weather maps and then the hurricane hits the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then New Orleans floods. The editors and producers in New York connect the dots in their heads and say that's the story, and that's what they cover. By the way, they did logistically some very difficult things in getting into the city when even the government apparently couldn't get into the city, so they then congratulated themselves on their coverage. And you know, the hardest thing to retract is a boast. But they left town too early. They left town before the real story started coming out.

I think it has a lot to do with ego. We did this story, we did it right, we did good. And to admit otherwise is I guess painful to them.

WW: Another group that seems to have problems admitting mistakes is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in the film you cite as the cause of the faulty engineering that led to the floods in New Orleans. Have you had any response from them about this film?

HS: No. What you've seen in the film is their response. They say, "We're not looking backwards, we're looking forwards." They don't even respond in public to the allegations of the whistle-blower who's been vindicated by the findings of another U.S. government agency. They plow ahead. They've got the money, they've got the power, they don't need to answer to people like me. WW:What can people who see the film do to take action?

HS: You know, that's a difficult question, and that's why we didn't put a little thing at the end of the film saying "Stop all this, call this 800 number." Because I didn't want to be glib and tell people make one phone call and then you can go back to watching Entertainment Tonight. This is a long process. This thing has developed over 150 years in American history for no really good reason except as I think John McPhee says in the New Yorker piece that's just come out of the archives in time for the Mississippi flood: "They were there." That's why they got this gig, because they were there. But they are very, as we show you in the film, very entrenched in the halls of Congress. Congress likes the Corps of Engineers the way they are, so when people ask me this it's a fairly tentative and lengthy answer I give.

First of all, the Corps is the way it is not because they're bad people, but because they exist in a situation where there are no disincentives for failure. And I don't care what you do for a living or what kind of human you are, if you are not even threatened with penalties for failure we're gonna get more failure. And key to that is in 1927 Congress gave the Corps of Engineers blanket immunity. They cannot be sued for any screw-up they do in any flood control project. Which is why all the lawsuits in the wake of the New Orleans flood were thrown out except the one regarding the MRGO [the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet]. The only reason that survived is that MRGO was built as a navigation channel, not a flood control channel.

This is a very big mule and it's going to take a bunch of two-by-fours to get it's attention. But the first one would be to ask Congress "Don't you think the Corps should be responsible for their work? Don't you think they don't need to be given blanket immunity? Don't you think some degree of accountability is necessary when they're messing about with primal forces?" That would be my first thing.

WW:In the film, you mention that Sacramento has a similar set up to New Orleans before the flood. What can people there do to prevent another disaster?

HS: At this point in time, have a good emergency food and water supply and plans for a place to go, because the way things are in Sacramento it's like New Orleans right before 2005. If we'd known all this then and said "What could the New Orleanians do?" it would've been evacuate because this system is screwed up. If I lived in Sacramento I'd be on the phone every day to my Congressman saying you know, the agency you've tasked to protecting us is not doing the job, maybe we need to rethink this whole structure. Maybe after two centuries we need to say to the Corps of Engineers thanks for your service to our country but could we please have the keys back.

WW:How did working on this project compare to your past work, which is mostly comedic?

HS: When we're doing comedy, we're fooling around. This involves people's lives. When I speak publicly I have to be extremely careful that I'm saying things that I know that reputable and highly esteemed professionals have proven to be true. I haven't proved it. I'm not an investigator. I'm not a journalist. I'm not an engineer. I'm a guy from the comedy world, so I had to be very careful in the film. I wasn't going for laughs; I wasn't going for anything except the most powerful way of letting the people who really know what they're talking about make contact with hopefully a wider audience. I couldn't afford one minute of fooling around or one minute of putting myself in front of the story. I live in a city where these people died. I felt and do feel constrained by that fact. In show business you're supposed to be out in front and calling attention to yourself. I felt the exact opposite impulse in this situation.

Originally I wasn't in the film at all, but the first audiences that saw it said "We need somebody to kind of point out what's next and who's what" and all that. They also said "We want to know who the filmmaker is. It feels strange for this to be an anonymous document." So I thought, okay, I will be there as the filmmaker, but that's it. So you never hear me express an opinion about any of this stuff, you never hear me telling you what's what, or God knows, what to think. I'm on in a very limited role because my priority was to give as much screen time as possible to the people who really know what they're talking about.

WW:What would you like audiences to take away with them after seeing this film?

HS: I would like them to take away the understanding of what really happened in New Orleans and the understanding that New Orleans is a cautionary tale about the rest of the country, because that's how we're dealing with water problems all over the country. Congressional district by congressional district, earmark by earmark, no real policy, no real thought, no real sense of environmental consequences, a sort of one size fits all approach to water problems; basically the Corps of Engineers likes to build things straight and rigid and tall in a curvy and dynamic environment. And that's not a winning formula.

We saw that video of the tsunami in Japan--if there had been a plane over New Orleans at 5:30 on that morning, that's what New Orleans would've looked like. That's exactly what was going on. Water that high, that fast, nothing even like a river flood. Way more powerful, way more velocity, way more height because it had been built up behind these so-called protective structures which then failed catastrophically. If you have the Japanese tsunami in your head, that picture, that's the picture you should imagine when thinking about New Orleans. Except over a much larger territory.

We were told an incomplete story by the national media. The national media I think -- well I don't think, I know because one of the anchors of the networks told me, quote: "We just feel the emotional stories are more compelling for our audiences." So this was sentimentalized and we were shown a lot of victims and a lot of suffering, but the one question the national media never answered is "why did this happen?" and that's the thing I set about to do, was to answer that question.

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Robin Edwards
Contact: Robin Edwards