Personnel Profile: Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer is an actor known for his work in “This is Spinal Tap” and for playing several characters on “The Simpsons.” He’s also a musician and radio show host. His latest work is “The Big Uneasy,” a documentary about the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina.

What are you outraged about with the current administration?
Their absolute inaction regarding what they now are provably cognizant of with regards to the new, improved New Orleans flood protection system. What that tells a sentient being about the Corps of Engineers in general – hello Sacramento – and also the war in Afghanistan shows they don’t read history very well.

For somebody who’s known for comedy, it’s a pretty serious, technical film.

There has been now more than five years of media, shall we say, non-information about what happened – I’m being kind – I knew I had 90 minutes to counteract that. There was no time for fooling around. I didn’t think the audience deserved for it to be dumbed down. I thought they deserved as complete of an explanation of a complicated event as possible.

On the other hand, it had to look good. It couldn’t look like an educational film. It had to have good music. I put in those breaks with the New Orleanians as little breathers. All of that was conscious and deliberate, because I thought pretentiously enough that my mission was to do what institutional journalism used to do: gather the facts and present them as attractively, comprehensively and clearly.

The flooding of New Orleans was not a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster on the Mississippi Gulf Coast but an entirely different event happened in New Orleans: the catastrophic breaching in more than 50 locations of a quote “hurricane protection system” built over four-and-a-half decades by administrations of both parties by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under their sole supervision and direction. That system failed due to a series of some very basic and some rather arcane engineering mistakes, miscalculations and misjudgments.

These are not my conclusions but the conclusions of two different forensic engineering investigations, one undertaken out of UC Berkeley and the other out of LSU. The reports of these investigations have been on the public record since 2006. The other message of the film is that there is a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers who says that some of the same behavior is leading to some of the same mistakes in the new, improved system, costing you, me and every other taxpayer at last count $14 billion. And finally, that New Orleans is not unique, that communities nationwide, including Sacramento, could be next.

It’s not the height of the levees, it’s what’s underneath.

It’s basic second-year engineering stuff in many cases. Congress, after ordering the system to be built after a hurricane did hit New Orleans in 1965, said “protect the city against a maximum probable hurricane.” The Corps almost immediately defined that down to what they call a standard project hurricane, which threw out the most severe recent hurricanes as improbable outliers.  They were told to recalculate that by their own people, and they refused to do it.

How did the Corps get to this state of affairs?
They have a monopoly on large-scale public works having to do with water in America. It’s a little peculiar I think that an agency that’s supposed to be protecting people is housed inside a department that’s got the job of killing people. I think we’re now paying the price.

I wrote a speech for President Obama when he came here last year for the fifth anniversary of the flooding. I would say we’re dealing with a 21st century problem, too much water or not enough water, in a 19th century way. That’s not good enough. There are people in the world who have centuries of expertise at this stuff, mainly the Dutch. We [should] go through a crash program of incorporating what they have to teach us into a new agency that has a new mandate to do this not on the basis of one congressional district’s little boondoggle at a time, but a nationwide policy-based way of dealing with water issues.

Lay out the case that the U.S. taxpayer should help continue the existence of New Orleans, facing the obvious problem of climate change.  

John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide,” makes the climate change case very well. He says New Orleans is built on a marsh. If you stop starving the marsh of fresh water and sediment, which we have been starving it of since leveeing the Mississippi River, and there are ways to overcome that, the marsh is organic. It grows. If the sea rises, the marsh will rise, as opposed to New York City, which is built on a rock. It has no capacity to grow upwards. It’s far less improbable to think about saving a city like New Orleans than it is to think about saving a city like New York.

But you can make the issue in a number of ways. There was fairness. This was done to New Orleans by the taxpayers of the United States. If your refrigerator repairman or your plumber did this to you, you would look to them for restitution.   

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: