The Big Uneasy will make you squirm in your chair for two reasons: one good, one bad.

The sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is fast approaching, and New Orleans has little more protection against storm surges than it did before the monster hurricane struck. Yet few people living outside southeastern Louisiana seem to care. Filmmaker and New Orleans resident Harry Shearer cares, and his muckraking documentary The Big Uneasy will debut on video-on-demand television and Web channels nationwide on August 16.

You will learn a lot in this 96-minute video. If you can stick with it.

Although Shearer appears on camera occasionally to narrate, much of the film consists of talking heads, and the head talking the most belongs to Ivor van Heerden. The geologist-cum-storm-expert tells so much of the story, from his point of view, that the film almost comes across as his documentary.

That’s not necessarily bad. Van Heerden was deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center before Katrina, and was a pioneer in developing models that showed that if such a hurricane were to cut across the Gulf of Mexico the way Katrina did, New Orleans and much of southeastern Louisiana would be under many feet of water. No one listened. Indeed, van Heerden was an important source for my 2001 article in Scientific American that explained the models and quoted numerous experts who predicted a Katrina-like event almost exactly the way it ended up happening. No one listened to that either.

As the movie chronicles, investigations after the disaster by van Heerden and several other key experts concluded that poor design and engineering by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was to blame for the floodwalls within the city that collapsed, inundating many neighborhoods and killing hundreds upon hundred of people. The documentary relies on three experts in particular to explain the evidence that was found—experts who were ultimately stonewalled and blacklisted. The trio includes: van Heerden, of course, who was ultimately fired by LSU in 2009; Robert Bea, a geotechnical engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, who headed up the National Science Foundation’s independent team that investigated the cause of flooding and who was subsequently painted by certain colleagues as an American traitor; and Maria Garzino, an engineer inside the Corps who tried to tell her superiors and then Congress that water pumps the Corps was installing after the hurricane to better protect the city against futures storms would fail. She had to seek official whistleblower status to prevent herself from being fired, and the Corps has shipped her off to what she describes as a meaningless job just to dispense with her.

The three rebels, as well as other experts, make a case that the Corps’ floodwall designs were inadequate for a Katrina-like storm, that the Corps knew the walls were inadequate, that the Corps’ explanation for why the walls failed is baloney, and that the Corps thwarted outside investigators after the accident and refused to accept any blame for failures as part of its own investigation. The film also claims that the few improvements that have been made to floodwalls and levees in the six longs years since the storm are also inadequate, and that Congress has failed to hold the Corps accountable—because large appropriations to the more than 100 Corps projects currently underway nationwide are an easy way for Congresspeople to move lots of pork money to their districts.

The film explains well why floodwalls failed, and why pumps designed to now protect the city won’t. It also explains well why thick, healthy wetlands are the best protection against storm surges, and why their destruction by walling off the Mississippi River and by constant dredging and other manmade activities—done largely by the Corps—are rapidly killing those wetlands all around southeastern Louisiana. As one commentator says near the end of the film, “This was not a natural disaster. This was a disaster caused by people.” Having written a second Scientific American article soon after Katrina, about better ways to protect New Orleans, as well as a separate piece on how floodwalls fail, I can say that the film’s explanations on these issues are quite good. If you are interested in learning, the film is worth the time.

Unfortunately, if you’d also like to be entertained by the film, you may be disappointed. The talking heads consume many minutes, so the movie moves a lot more slowly than the trailer would lead one to believe, and it occasionally feels repetitive. It could have addressed the 2005 floodwall failures more efficiently and thus spent more time on the lame “improvements” made to flood protection since, as well as the continuing lack of a long-term plan to robustly defend the city and the Mississippi delta against future storms. Shearer also could have amped up the tension with more minutes of obfuscating comments from people at the Corps, but he only shows them sparingly, which at times makes it feel like they’re not being allowed to tell their side. Then again, their attitudes on camera make it pretty clear that they had little interest in talking to Shearer in the first place.

Though a bit plodding, the three whistleblowers know their stuff. Strangely, I found myself not feeling completely sorry for them—until near the end, when they explain the personal insults and professional blackballing they have weathered in their still-ongoing attempt to reveal truth.

The promotion of the film claims that the media has never reported the hard truth about why the levees failed, and that The Big Uneasy finally reveals the engineering failures and their alleged cover-ups. That’s a stretch. The New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, has documented all sorts of mistakes, as has The New York Times, various national magazines including Scientific American, as well as engineering journals. Perhaps Shearer is more annoyed that the press has not continued to keep up the pressure on the Corps, and on Congress, to implement better long-term solutions. On that score, he is certainly right.


Movie poster, courtesy of FilmBuff