When the Levees Broke

There are two ways into Keithsburg, Illinois.  You come in by the cemeteries, one gate for Protestants, one for Catholics, or you come in from the north, and to your left, you see a long, narrow park along the creek that dumps into the Mississippi.

My co-worker’s house was there, on that street.  She lost it when they blew the levee to flood the town, to save the town.  That’s how it worked.  Sacrifice as much as you can stand, to save as much as you’re able.  The town was under water for six weeks.

Even a year later, you could drive around town and see the high water marks on the buildings.

The part that tears me up, even now, to think about it, is how they lost the First Christian Church and my co-worker described how the Amish and the Mennonites showed up to build them a new one.

I get annoyed by a lot of Christian bullshit, but that’s the kind of Christianity that can bring a girl to her knees, strangers coming down the bluff and doing back breaking labor because that’s just what you do.

We took cookies over to the National Guard at Quincy.  I can’t remember if this was right after or right before someone sabotaged the levee on the Missouri side.  It was terrible, but it was so hard to blame folks, if you had seen the water stretching across the highway or if you’d climbed up onto the overpass and saw the roofs of houses under brown water.

It’s not hard to see why those folks would insist the folks on the Missouri side share in the suffering.

I’m trying to decide if I’m going to watch Spike Lee’s Katrina film.  I probably will for a little bit, at least.  It’s hard.  On the one hand, I’ve seen enough already to last me a lifetime.  On the other hand, sometimes you owe it to people to let them spread their sorrows around, so that they don’t have to carry that weight all on their own.

11 thoughts on “When the Levees Broke

  1. I remember taking the cookies too! One of my college roommates moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago and just happened to be back in the Lou when Katrina hit. When she returned home, she was amazed that most of her things were untouched. She’s now working on a clean up crew for the city. A lot of the stuff has to be moved by hand as they cannot get large equipment between the row houses. It takes someone amazingly strong to face that much destruction everyday!

  2. I’ll just copy and paste what I wrote about it over at my place:How do you take such a fractured subject and surreal visuals of the aftermath of Katrina and make it cohesive? Ask Spike Lee, because he did it.In When the Levees Broke,A requiem In Four Parts, Lee examines the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane in American history, and the abysmal failure by the federal government.Acts one and two were last night, with the last two acts this evening. Starting Wednesday, you can see it on HBO on Demand. Seriously, you need to see this.

  3. I didn’t realize that was on already. I’ll have to catch it at OnDemand I guess.As a professional engineer who’s job is flood control, I see a levee and think I shouldn’t build there. But most people see a levee and decide it’s safe to build on the floodplain.In my opinion levees are just a false sense of security. They might keep you dry during a small flood, but there’s always a bigger flood. Do you really want to trust your life and property to a pile of dirt? If you’re lucky the pile of dirt has a bunch of rocks squished together in the middle of it.

  4. My opinion, based on nothing but seeing the ’93 flood and living with folks who lived through it, is that the real job of the levees is to keep the channel open and that flood protection–in most years–is just an added benefit.It’s a lot easier to keep the channel open and to keep it from shifting in a wide shallow river, if the river is not allowed to get wider every summer, as it is naturally want to do.That’s just my two cents. I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on the internet.People who think that the levees are going to protect them in the case of a flood don’t understand rivers.Here is my question for you, though, W. Isn’t there a dam north of New Orleans that keeps the main branch of the Mississippi running through New Orleans instead of down into the gulf west of there? Why, when the flooding started, didn’t they throw open that dam to take some water out of the river and thus out of the town?

  5. How do the Dutch do it? They’ve been living behind levees for several centuries now. They must have some kind of clue. I’ve been watching Spike Lee’s movies for a long time. But I never knew before that he could get out of the way of his material the way he does in this documentary.

  6. I’m staying away from this documentary.Spike’s running around saying Bush blew up the levees to run off all the black people. That isn’t quite establishing the ground work for a reasoned approach to the material.

  7. Yeah, but he doesn’t say that in the documentary, at least not in the first half. Maybe he gets to his conspiracy theories tonight, but last night they talked about folks who thought the levees had been blown, folks who thought it was just the sound of the barge breaking through the sea walls, and Eric Dyson did, of course, a wonderful job of explaining that such rumors circulated during previous disasters and folks have long memories.The person I felt worst about was Harry Belafonte, who seems so desperate to believe that Bush is an evil genius (and perhaps that’s what Lee ends up needing to believe), that he’s rambling on about in a way that seems to suggest grand conspiracy.But the thing is, from what Lee shows, it doesn’t look like some evil genius conspiracy to kill off black folks. It looks like utter incompitence and a failure to act that is so thorough that it may indeed approach evil. But I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around "nothing happened because no one cared enough to make it happen" and easier to wrap their heads around "nothing happened because folks were trying to get rid of you."And I think the other thing Lee does that’s just heartbreaking is show Bush as a PR man, not as any kind of real leader. He’s a talking Head of State.

  8. Pingback: Speaking of Floods « Tiny Cat Pants

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