Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

The tag line of the 2008 documentary film, Trouble the Water is “It’s not about a hurricane. It’s about America.” This is so fitting, because, while the film explores the circumstances surrounding Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, it also tackles issues of race, class and the relationship between the American government and its citizens. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but the problems arose during and after the storm, when the levees, which protect the below-sea level city from flooding, failed. The parts of the city that were most effected by the broken levees and in peril were the lower socioeconomic districts, specifically the Ninth Ward. While most of the city’s population evacuated, many citizens in the Ninth Ward couldn’t afford to leave and since there was no public transportation organized to evacuate the city, many stayed and were forced to gather in the attics of flooded homes until they were rescued. But many died in the process.

Trouble the Water follows Ninth Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott, both in their early twenties and former drug dealers, from the onset of the storm in their attic to the weeks after when they were struggling to obtain support from government programs set up for victims. Between scenes at ground zero, the film displays news headlines and media press conferences held by government leaders as well as interviews with members of the armed forces that were brought down to New Orleans to help with the grave situation. In their PowerPoint, “Race, Class, and Media Framing of Hurricane Katrina,” Bullock and Truong examine how victims were vilified in the media and were framed as criminals and undeserving of support. It’s been almost ten years since Katrina, but America is still scarred by the damage. The issues of race and class bring to mind the “U.S. Commision on Civil Rights” article from class, because Hurricane Katrina pointed out structural discrimination problems.

I remember watching Hurricane Katrina coverage on the news at the time of the event and it was suggested that if it were rich white men sitting in attics, it would have been handled much differently. And then there was the Kanye West debacle in which he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and I thought he was so out of line, but after watching the documentary and seeing the lack of support, I can’t help but think that there was less done, because of the who the victims were and what they looked like and their economic standing. It really puts a damper on my “belief in a just world” and I think that’s why people brushed those suggestions aside.

In the documentary, they showed news headlines that quickly switched from support or concern for victims, to gas prices and how the storm would affect “the pump.” It’s disheartening that the media was more concerned with the economic results of the storm, rather than the fact that people were dying and the survivors hadn’t had food or water in 100 hours. Truong and Bullock concluded that, “Interests of privileged groups were better represented than those of marginalized groups,” in the media following the storm. They also pointed out the victim-blaming that occurred after the storm. The SuperDome, which housed misplaced survivors, was full of trash and human waste, because it was filled beyond capacity, but in the news, it was blamed on victims, who were portrayed as ungrateful and dirty. Truong and Bullock pointed out that in 99 of the articles they looked at, “One-third described survivors as “looters,” “criminals,” or “thugs.”

In the documentary, one of the survivors said, “If you don’t have money, if you don’t have status, you don’t have the government.” The victims became disenchanted with the American government following their ordeal, because they felt that the lack of support and mistreatment had occurred because of their race, rather than the storm. Even a year later, the Ninth Ward was still overwhelmed by destruction, while the areas frequented by tourists, which didn’t have much damage anyway, continued on promoting the city in a positive light. They showed promotional videos for Mardi Gras after Katrina and though the city was still in ruins, the government made sure downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter were as booming as ever. In the U.S Commission on Civil Rights, suggested that, “…they erroneously ‘blame the victims’ of discrimination, instead of examining the past and present context in which their actions are taken…”

“Trouble the Water” is a film that stays with you long after the credits end. It examines the fallout from the damage Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the mistreatment of victims from lower economic statuses. The film tackles issues of race and class in America that became topical once again, following the storm. “Trouble the Water” has dark themes, but it really is a film about redemption and the power of hope and new beginnings.

Truong, S. V., & Bullock, H. E. (2007, August). Race, class, and media framing of Hurricane Katrina. In H. Bullock (Chair),

           Class, race, and gender: Intersections, inequities, and implications for change. Symposium conducted at the 115th

           Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2003). The problem: Discrimination. In Rothberg, P. S. (Ed.),  

         Race, class, and gender in the United States, 6th Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.