‘Trouble the Water’: Surviving Katrina
It has been four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and called the world’s attention to the poverty and neglect that plagued so many of its people. Last year a documentary called Trouble the Water was released by Zeitgeist Films, and I watched it many months ago. It has stayed with me, coming back vividly every time I hear any reference to New Orleans or the tragedy of Katrina. Now that the anniversary has come around again, I want to recommend it to you. Trouble the Water is a powerful, challenging firsthand account of what happened in the Ninth Ward in 2005, and a deeply moving story of faith, hope, and love in action.
A resident of the Ninth Ward named Kimberly Rivers Roberts is the central figure in the film and the source of much of its material. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Roberts had just purchased a video camera, and she took it out into the neighborhood as she watched some neighbors flee and checked in with many others who hoped to ride out the storm in their homes. “Just in case it’s all gone, I’m getting it on tape, see?” she narrates as the camera rolls. “I’m showing the world that we did have a world ’fore the storm come.”
The footage is shaky and amateurish (you can get a taste of it in the trailer, at the end of this post), but its authenticity gives it power. Roberts keeps rolling as she chats with relatives and friends in the neighborhood about what might be coming. Adults try to laugh off their anxiety. Little girls, more excited than alarmed, boast, “I ain’t never scared of a hurricane! Who’s afraid of water?” Roberts herself admits frankly that she would leave if she could, but she has no means of escape. All she has is faith. “I believe Jesus the Lord will send me through this one,” she says. “Whenever the Lord allow it, I’ll be able to tell the story.”
And so Roberts keeps filming as the rain intensifies, and as the waters rushing through the streets swallow the porches, and then the entire first floors, of the homes up and down the block. Soon she and her relatives are huddled in the attic, hoping for rescue. The filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal splice in news footage and audio from 911 calls to paint the bigger picture of how Katrina tore through New Orleans. One desperate caller, trapped by rising waters, is left speechless when the emergency operator says, “There is no rescue team.” Roberts’s neighbor Larry comes to the aid of his stranded neighbors, using a punching bag to stay afloat as he swims from one house to another and carries the people inside to higher ground.
Anger at the failures of the government and the seeming indifference of “this President Bush character,” as Roberts puts it, is, of course, an element of Trouble the Water. (It’s certainly a major part of the emotions the viewer walks away with.) But it is mostly in the background of the movie. That’s the story we know, and Trouble the Water is dedicated to telling the story we don’t know. The protagonists are used to being passed over and forgotten, and where you might expect to hear resentment they instead give voice to hope and extraordinary faith in God.
Documentary filmmakers Lessin and Deal first came to Louisiana to capture the return of National Guard soldiers from Baghdad. That homecoming made it into this film, and it is heartbreaking to see the soldiers confronting a whole new war zone in their own neighborhoods. But when Lessin and Deal met Kim Roberts and her husband Scott at a Red Cross shelter and saw the footage Roberts had captured, they began pursuing a very different story. Trouble the Water follows the couple as they leave New Orleans to find shelter in Memphis—for Scott, it is the first time he’s been out of Louisiana—and, later, as they return to survey the devastation. They join up with another refugee, Brian, a recovering addict who bolsters their own strength with his astounding humility and faith. He lays out the hopelessness of his predicament—he can’t get government aid because, having come from a church-run group home, he can’t prove residency. Then he adds shyly, “There’s a Scripture—you want it? ‘Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.’”
Over and over, the people Kim and the camera crew encounter turn over their problems to Jesus and thank God for carrying them through. Larry, the man who rescued his neighbors with a punching-bag boat, reflects on the experience from the relative safety of a Red Cross shelter. “I thank God for that day,” he says. “You know why? I never thought God could use a man like me.” Days later, Kim and Scott pick up Kim’s little brother from prison, where he and the other inmates had been abandoned when Katrina hit. “They just left us for to die,” he says, shaking his head. Then he adds: “I’m blessed to get out of that.”
In the end the film is full of hope only because its subjects are so personally resilient. The circumstances don’t give anyone an excuse to feel good about the past or future of the Ninth Ward. Kim and Scott and their friends confront a string of indignities and unthinkable setbacks. Toward the end of the film, we see them on the one-year anniversary of the storm, trying to visit their old neighborhood and being stopped along the way by the police, who treat them with suspicion. But as the filmmakers observe in the film’s press materials, these New Orleaners are blessed with “the kind of hope that is based in will rather than experience.” Kim is an aspiring rapper (her performance name is “Black Kold Medina”), and the climax of the film is an impromptu performance of an autobiographical song she has written. “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m amazing,” she raps. And her life story, as laid out in the song, is even more turbulent and remarkable than anyone could have guessed.
The press materials quote Kim’s reaction to the film: “It has helped me see myself in a way that I hadn’t realized until somebody like Tia and Carl came along and put a title on it.” It helped me, too, to see the tragedy of Katrina in a new way. It wasn’t just the storm that made the Ninth Ward a human tragedy. The storm is what made us pay attention to the tragedy in our midst. The film’s producer Danny Glover put it this way: “It did not turn the region into a Third World country…it revealed one.” Trouble the Water exposes that scandal from the inside, and it allows the people who suffered most to tell their story on their own terms.