I remember very vividly the first time that I saw what a hurricane could do. I was young, maybe eight or nine, and my entire family had piled into our used minivan to make the journey from upstate New York to the southern coast of North Carolina, to visit my grandparents. A few days before we were set to leave, rumblings of a storm started to make their way across the TV screen, but we had been set to make this trip for a long time and my parents wouldn’t be deterred. Besides, my grandmother gently reminded us, there were always storms. Just a part of living on the coast. We rode on the heels of the hurricane, missing the worst of it and only being showered with the remnants of the storm as we steadily wound down through the state to the southern coast. A few hours from our destination, we started to come across cars flipped upside down in ditches, trees crushing a house in half, felled by winds. The water on the road grew to a few inches deep and everyone in the car held their breath as we glided slowly through the water. It was the closest my father ever came to driving a boat and lost any desire to pilot a real one afterwards. Mailboxes, garbage cans, street signs, and traffic lights all lay strewn about like loose change on the counter. All this from a storm we only heard the first of a week ago. Destruction had been unrelenting and swift.
All these twenty years later, almost all of those structures we drove past are still wrecked. North Carolina charges a hefty fee if you want to raze a building on your own property, which most of the people in my grandmother’s area did not have. Even when some of the land got repossessed by the government, state officials too felt that the cost of removing the debris or rebuilding was too high for such a poor county. What most people ended up doing was building new structures right beside the destroyed ones, forcing them to live in a constant shadow of their own fear– an act of violence by omission of governmental assistance. Driving through an almost-uninhabited area that is littered with residuals of lives once actively lived is a hostile thing. It makes me feel relief that I’ve never had to rely on the government to determine my worth after a life-altering act of nature, and guilt because it feels like, as a viewer of these “abandoned” buildings, I am complicit in their value judgement.
These buildings sit in a state of decay, holding a tether between memory and forgetting that just about smacks you in the face and makes you wonder, who is worthy of a rebuilt home? Who does the government believe is worthy of a rebuilt home? And by extension, who does the US government believe is worthy of the violence of being unhoused, displaced, and never reinstalled?
These are some of the integral questions posed in “When the Levees Broke” directed by Spike Lee, which considers the cause, aftermath, and ultimate consequences of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
In his article “Echoes in the Bone”, Joseph Roach considers, “The binary distinction that creates two categories, dead and alive, simultaneously creates in its interstices a threefold process of living, dying, and being dead. The middle state (dying, or more expressively, “passing”) is the less stable stage of transition between more clearly defined conditions: it is called the “liminal” (literally,”threshold”) stage, and it tends to generate the most intense experiences of ritual expectancy, activity, and meaning.”. A binary must always force us to consider a third option and the middle ground between living and death is, according to Roach, a liminality between tangible existence and shedding of identity. Roach’s conception of “dying” manifests in many ways in Lee’s “When the Levees Broke”.
Lee’s documentary begins with tracking the storm as it forms and approaches New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and underscores the duality of how slow officials were to take it seriously and how reticent inhabitants of New Orleans were to evacuate, both embodying Roach’s “dying” and setting the framework for the government to elucidate us with what and who they consider disposable. When both the inhabitants and officials came to the simultaneous realization of the immediacy and gravity of the storm, there was no way to feasibly get people out of the city or to protect New Orleanians from the wind, rain, flooding, and heat that resulted from the storm.
In her book of post-Katrina poems “Blood Dazzler”, author Patricia Smith writes “I don’t ever have to come down. I can stay hooked to heaven, dictating this blandness. My flyboys memorize flip and soar. They’ll never swoop real enough to resurrect that other country, won’t ever get close enough to give name to tonight’s dreams darkening the water. I understand that somewhere it has rained.” Smith manages to distill the government’s performed indifference and highlight their active choice to not perform caring. A lack of care which resulted in death, destruction, and violence.
As an informed viewer watching the film 17 years post-Katrina, Lee’s pacing seems both too fast and too slow. Lee reveals, in his pacing, the agonizing pressure of anticipation and stark immediacy with which Katrina hit New Orleans. Once a storm of such a magnitude is set in motion, all humans can really do is get out of the way—when given the appropriate tools and incentive. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, most of the multi-generational inhabitants or plucky transplants of New Orleans relied on public transportation and did not have access to private cars nor were complimentary evacuation vehicles provided. The two-day time span for an entire city to evacuate dovetailed with a bred mistrust of the US government’s historically racially and economically motivated bad intentions towards the citizens of New Orleans couldn’t have reasonably been expected to truly evacuate their city. A mandate of evacuation issued two days before Hurricane Katrina’s landfall is where the die is cast and New Orleans transitions from Roach’s conception of dying to death, because many citizens have no other options. Another omission of care by the government, another passive act of violence revealed by the equalizing power of Katrina.
Lee’s interviews with government officials reveal that the administration’s hesitation to act more quickly and intentionally was motivated by worries of financial loss and stands out in hindsight as potently inhumane. The prizing of fiscal incentive over human life undulates as a gritty undertone of Katina, and what turned into a narrative of complexities lain bare by natural catastrophe. In a certain light, it is refreshing to see the governmental exploitation of human lives for consideration of profit margin told plainly. In another light, you hope to God that the lack of care and humanity shown to people in need during Katrina would never happen again.
Nothing about the hurricane is one thing, but the unnecessary violence shown to United States citizens by blatant disregard for their well-being during a catastrophe cannot be overstated. Cruelty from the government manifesting in a lack of care or willingness to perform care during a time of great need cannot be dismissed. Willingness to align with the governmental and social acceptance of loss of life, resources, and memories by passively cosigning the sacrifice of a whole city has revealed itself as far too easy.