Sunday, September 07, 2008

Maafa 2005 Hurricane Katrina continues

The film "Trouble the Water" made its Bay Area splash this weekend in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Visit There is a trailer and music there also. We sold copies of "Words Upon the Waters" and "Oakland: Outloud" a PEN Oakland collection of poetry featuring many of the same poets. We raised $135.00 which we are sending to Common Ground Relief, an all volunteer organization and first responder to the survivors 3 years ago with medical assistance, housing, food, clothing, legal assistance, and now soil and wetland restoration, housing rehabilitation.... We also are sending money to LIFE of MS, the Biloxi site, which serves the poorer residents along the gulf with disabilities.

The subtitle is: this film is not about post-Katrina victims and survivors, it's about America.

Trouble the Water: Review
By Wanda Sabir

I saw an amazing film this week, Trouble the Water, talk about Amazing Grace…its sweet sound…wretched souls once lost and finding themselves, blinded they now see. Sometimes it takes living through something as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina and busted levees, flood waters and thoughts of dying, to shake one from the stupor one was drifting in for most, if not all, of one’s life.

Trouble the Water is such a story. It’s the story of Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott Roberts, who managed to survive Katrina and save others in their Ninth Ward neighborhood.

Like the debris floating in the flood waters, Kim and Scott were also floating without anchors prior to a challenge that pulled on a strength they knew they possessed, but hadn’t actually utilized to its potential; but death does that—as one’s life passes in front of her eyes…one either sinks or swims.

As one watches the film, Kim with a camera is interviewing her neighbors and asking them if they are leaving as she packs her freezer with ice, goes to the store to buy meat and interviews the proprietor who tells her, he isn’t leaving either. She wakes up her uncle, passed out in a stupor and he wanders off to a place where he’ll be indoors. She calls friends and relatives to alert them to elders who are alone and don’t possess phones so someone will look in on them so they don’t drown.

What’s really sad is the story we see later in the film about one such relative, who drowns in a convalescent home that wasn’t evacuated, and other stories about government's response to the victims: refusing the weary rest at the empty army base--this story juxtaposed with President Bush's advice over the air in Washington, DC, admonishing people in the Gulf that "everything is being done--no resources spared which can help with the recovery." At Frederick Douglass High School, where Scott and Kimberly ended up, the soldiers laughed at the victims--the comments were, "they didn't know basic survival techniques." Excuse me?! These two people had just braved the worse natural disaster in US history!

Trouble the Water, directed by Carl Deal (Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11) with director, Tia Lessin, used the early and priceless footage Kim took prior to their meeting her and Scott, in Alexandria. Kim and Scott had the safe house; their attic supplied with ice, food and cheer. Her cousin Larry, along with Scott, rescued people during the storm floating in without anchors in the storm waters. There they all stayed until the men evacuated them one at a time to higher ground.

As Kim’s footage showed the storm and the people inside the small room, frightened –Kim always positive and cheerful, while other archival footage: radio streaming were voices of other New Orleans residents calling 911 and asking for help. The operators answered the frantic callers with, “When the water level decreases we’ll be able to help you." The distressed caller's response was, “So I’m going to die?” Silence greeted this conclusion.

Once the water receded and the Kim and Scott and the others left the shelter they headed to Alexandria to Kim's favorite uncle's house. The Roberts’ couple packed a truck with 20 people and their pets (cat, and dogs) and headed north. When they arrived, all Kim and her uncle could do was hug. One could feel the relief mixed with sorrow. He told them they could stay in the house as long as they liked. There they stayed the night and then went to an American Red Cross Shelter as there was no electricity or plumbing at the house.

Her uncle had lost his mother, Carrie Mae in the storm. The Convalescent home hadn't evacuated her and the bodies had decomposed. It was hard to identify the remains. That was so sad. Kim and Scott made sure everyone was settled, before continuing on to Memphis; it was the first time Scott had been out of New Orleans. The couple hoped to make a new start.

Throughout the entire crisis, Kim shows how she can think on her feet. It was cool witnessing the extended family taking care of one another; this is how these folks were able to survive.

Early footage of Katrina showed black folks and white folks looking for water and other resources like food to survive, yet the black folks were called thieves and the white folks, survivors. Trouble the Waters is a more balanced look at a population off the radar. As Kimberly says often enough, "no one cares about the 9th Ward and its inhabitants. No one came looking for the dead;" death’s stench is unbearable from the porch where Kim and Scott went into homes of friends and family to see if they’d gotten out. Many hadn’t.

Nor has the recovery been any better, three years later. Just as another friend, adopted along the way, Brian, who couldn’t get any FEMA money because he’d been in a half-way house and didn’t have an address, was told by Kim not to worry, people are still in the streets –those who stayed because the housing supply is insufficient--I saw them--long lines of homeless men crowded on the sidewalks, waiting outside the doors, spilling into the streets at a shelter near Ashe Cultural Center in New Orleans, just this summer when I went home for a family reunion.

On the one year anniversary, Kim and her friends are commemorating the dead and their survival and police roll up and tell everyone to put their hands in the air. Kim is ordered to stop taping. The 9th Ward two years after that looks relatively the same…the neighbors Kim speaks of gone, the neighborhood-- formally occupied homes are, if not gone, are vacant. For miles and miles, all one sees are weed covered foundations where The Road Home and other such programs that penalize the victims, have prevented people from returning. Blight notices are posted on vacant, signaling preemptive demolition. Many of the owners are still in the Diaspora and not able to return.

Kim’s mother died from AIDS when she was 13, yet earlier than this she learned to survive the streets, stealing food to feed the family and then selling drugs to support them. It was a rough life, but not one, one hasn’t heard of before. Often one’s choices are almost made for you….When a child has to take on the responsibilities of an adult, in America; it’s not possible to do this legally when one is a certain age. Kim speaks of the need in her eyes which went unanswered. It is a call she responds to as an adult when she sees it in other's eyes--no more heroically than when the storm approaches and she and her husband are caught, even now in the storm’s aftermath one, two, three years later--she is still advocating for her neighbors, her friends, her relatives, her people.

The 9th Ward was like a world unto itself…similar to other urban enclaves throughout America, South Central, Bayview Hunter’s Point, West Oakland, East Oakland, South Berkeley, North Richmond, East Philly, Southside Chicago, South Bronx…as long as the life didn’t spill into the economically affluent side of town, the folks under siege –the siege of poverty and unrequited opportunities, it was allowed to fester and grow.

Katrina was the headlights on a vehicle left idling too long. It was the vision of all these American citizens drowning, then crowded on highways, outside the Superdome, fainting from heat and exhaustion…dying, that should have created a greater need to address this uneven recovery that continues to this day, even after hurricanes Rita and now Gustav...Ike.

Trouble the Water is troubling, yet it is people like Kimberly, Scott, Larry and Brian that give me hope. I know Kim is not going to let the government sleep on them…they are going to raise hell until the high water is no longer a threat to life and liberty for all, especially the more vulnerable like her little brother who was left to die along with other prisoners in the Parish Prison. His testimony is stunning; especially his comparison of what it was like in those prisons...locked up and left to the slave ships.

He’s still having nightmares.

Kim’s music comforts her. One of the songs on the soundtrack which is played towards the end of the film when Kim and Scott are back in New Orleans, is "Amazing." It’s about her life, which is pretty amazing…amazing that she’s alive and that she’s so upbeat and positive.

When I think about this 24-then, now 27 year old woman and what she has survived I am also reminded of our ancestors and what they survived and witnessed and lived through so we could witness their spirit and keep striving for freedom. Scott talks about this a lot. He wants a job, but doesn’t have a high school diploma and a couple years of college. No one is hiring, even though he wants to work.

The potential for stereotypes cast on Kim and Scott, Brian and others we meet are instructive…if nothing else, it tells us to not believe what we read and see on TV. We need to withhold judgment until we can have a more primary experience, which is what film and theater is so good at. At the end of the film, one loves Kim. She is our sister. She is our daughter. She is our granddaughter.

Watching this film, more so than Fauberg Treme and When the Levees Broke, was like being in the hull of that ship crossing the Atlantic. Second Line (dir.John Magary) came closest to the feelings invoked by Trouble, but even then, the protagonists were in a FEMA trailer park, not in the water. Perhaps because "Trouble" starts the day before and we’re there with the captives in the dank darkness and can hear their thoughts, see their faces, the experience is one that stays with you hours later.

I am dreaming about Kim and Scott. I wake up with them on my mind. When I close my eyes I see them, along with the others stranded. I hope they get away.

At the screening in Berkeley, Saturday evening, I’d hoped they would have had a moment of silence for the departed. I’d planned to mention it and then I forgot. These are people whose lives could have been spared. People are still dying and it is just as much a shame today as it was three years prior. A lot went wrong regarding government’s response to Katrina. Trouble the Water is an excellent organizing and teaching tool

FEMA, the American Red Cross and the state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans needs to watch this and take notes. The opportunity to see other places, to travel to Memphis to start over again, was also an opportunity to see what they left behind…both the good and the bad and make some tough decisions about the direction they want their lives to take post-Katrina, Kim and Scott said.

Scott and Kim were not eager to return to the destructive behaviors of the past. Kim’s writing and belief in God were anchors that held her steady with head above water during and after the storm.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and it will win your heart. Volunteer to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and support the Gulf Coast Recovery Bill, HR 4048, by writing your Congress woman and asking her to do so.

I’m trying to get Kim on my show, Wanda’s Picks at this Friday, Sept. 12, during the first hour, 8-9 AM. The URL is

Wanda Sabir, photographer, all rights reserved.


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