Listening to Hard Lessons of Hurricane Katrina


The anguished crying went on and on, echoing within the walls of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, where hundreds sat in silence.

On the screen at the front of the hall, a mother was walking away from the grave of her five-year-old daughter, who drowned when the levees outside New Orleans broke last August 30, sending the swollen waters of Hurricane Katrina pouring into the streets of the mostly black, mostly poor Ninth Ward.


The camera followed her in a long, long shot, the grief pouring out of her, a man trying to comfort her, a toddler running up to follow her.

The shot went on far past the point of any comfort, far past the sort of time that network television would allocate to the agony of one ordinary citizen.

But this was not network television. This was the third part of Spike Lee's four-part HBO documentary: When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The documentary first aired last week.

On Wednesday evening, people filled every seat in the church hall to watch the screening of the episode, and to listen to a panel and audience members in an event titled Hurricane Katrina: the Aftermath.

The event, sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and HBO, raised $12,000 to help New Orleans residents hit by the hurricane and struggling in its aftermath.


The pain, anger and grief that could be heard in the voices of the people in Mr. Lee's film could be heard again Wednesday in the voices of the people who spoke in the church. The top target for vilification: the government, whose negligence led directly to the breaking of the levees and the unnecessary loss of lives and homes, and whose bungling of the recovery even now prolongs the misery of those hurt by the storm.

But the excoriation did not stop there. There was the media, which quickly began referring to those displaced by the storm as "refugees," as though they had fled some other nation. There was the white-controlled society, more interested in pursuing wars overseas than in addressing the rampant, long-term poverty of New Orleans.

And there was soul-searching on the part of those who filled the hall, many of them affluent, accomplished blacks with homes on or connections to the Vineyard.

In his remarks introducing the film, Mr. Lee, an award-winning film director who has a summer home in Oak Bluffs, had a reminder for those enjoying the season on Martha's Vineyard.

"On the Vineyard . . . high cotton," he said, to appreciative laughter. "Lobster . . . Chardonnay."

Then: "Think about them over in the muck in New Orleans."

The documentary included footage of presidential wife and mother Barbara Bush worrying that New Orleans residents were being treated so well that they would want to stay in Texas; a lawyer realizing that the electric illumination forming a backdrop for President Bush's national address was just a temporary prop; a trumpeter playing a dirge as he walked through his wrecked neighborhood; an elderly woman crying while making her way through the ruined rooms of her home.


A memorable moment: rapper Kanye West departing from a script on national television (and provoking a deer-in-the-headlights stare from comedian Mike Meyers) with the observation that "George Bush doesn't like black people."

Talking about it in the documentary, Mr. West said he realized the statement could cost him record sales and endorsements. But, he said, "I was more concerned about if I were in these people's shoes."

The audience gave Mr. Lee's film a standing ovation.

Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. - who co-hosted the event with Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute - reminded the audience that other parts of the Gulf Coast, and not just New Orleans, were hit by Hurricane Katrina. Then he asked for, and received, a moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the hurricane.

For audience members sweating in the warm church, he told them the hall was an iceberg compared to New Orleans a year ago. And he reminded them that 200,000 New Orleans residents remained displaced through the 48 mainland states.


The panel picked up where the documentary left off.

Despite the continuing existence of gross poverty in the United States, University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson said, it took a hurricane to reveal the tip of what he called a vicious iceberg. Charity, he said, cannot solve what is a structural American problem.

Mr. Dyson also addressed the question of class.

"Most of us just don't like poor people," he said. "Do black people care about poor black people?"

Until affluent blacks with Ivy League degrees take up the cause of poor blacks, Mr. Dyson said, "You and I are committing a kind of class suicide, a suicide going in the wrong direction."

Columbia University professor Manning Marable identified two moments in his life in which he questioned the very essence of his participation in American democracy. One was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The other was Hurricane Katrina.

In a nation where, in 2005, eight U.S. senators refused to sign a Senate apology for the once-widespread American crime of lynching, Mr. Marable said Katrina reinforced the message to African-Americans that they stand outside national life.

Until a national discussion takes place on race, class and poverty, he said, the hole at the center of American democracy will never be fixed.


That drew an ovation. So did the words of Stanford University professor Lawrence D. Bobo, when he blasted the government's lack of interest in non-military, non-defense priorities as crazy.

"It's the wrong way to go," said Mr. Bobo, who also said the nation needs to reopen a dialogue on issues such as race, inequality and poverty.

Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier joined Mr. Dyson is emphasizing the issue of class.

"Michael was right," Ms. Guinier said. "We distance ourselves from poor people" - whether as blacks with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, or as affluent whites.

"I'm talking about all Americans trying to distance ourselves from poor people," she said. "When are we going to link our fate to the fate of the people of New Orleans?"

Harvard University doctoral student Mia Bagneris, who grew up in New Orleans, was visiting the city just before the hurricane when she learned that officials were evacuating animals from the zoo.

"They were able to evacuate elephants, giraffes and lions, but not the residents of the Ninth Ward," said Ms. Bagneris, who left before the storm arrived.


She praised how Mr. Lee's documentary detailed the effect of the storm and its aftermath on the city's schools, which she knew from experience as a teacher already were in bad shape.

Talking about New Orleans, she said, "Stuff broke down long before the levees broke."

But, like other people depicted in Mr. Lee's film, Ms. Bagneris plans to return to the city.

"Once New Orleans is in your blood, it's in your blood," she said. "God willing, I'll finish my Ph.D. and I'll be back, too."