When the Levees Broke

I have recently watched the movie, “When the Levees Broke”, which is a documentary in four acts discussing the entire Katrina disaster directed by Spike Lee.  The first thing that struck me as odd was the fact that people were unwilling to leave the city of New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the mayor at that time, issued the first ever mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had reached a category 5, and it was no longer safe within the city. There were many people who had automobiles and get out of the city. There were also many people who went to the Superdome, for the Superdome was the only place that could hold large masses of people and withstand category 5 winds. Although, there were many people who stayed in New Orleans, due to lack of transportation, handicap, or just stubbornous. There were many people who had experienced Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and if they could handle that catastrophe, which had been the worst natural disaster in the US until Katrina, they could handle anything coming their way.

When Hurricane Katrina finally made land fall it came with a horrible fury. The one response that was repeated in the movie was that the sound of Katrina was deafening. One man had said, “It was like a freight train in your ears for hours…” The winds were causing glass to break, trees were falling down, houses were being stripped bare, and it even ripped open the roof of the Superdome.

Suddenly, during the storm there were 3 explosions, and when this segment of the movie began to play I knew the 3 explosions were the levees giving way. What I did not expect was many people of New Orleans believed that there were explosives set into the levee. When I heard this I thought was absolutely ridiculous, but in the 1920’s the men of power running New Orleans purposefully blew up the levees and drowned out St. Bernard Parish as to not endanger better areas in the city, and even during Hurricane Betsy there was rumor that they blew the levee to keep the more expensive houses from damage.

Now, the most shocking thing about Hurricane Katrina is, yes, Katrina did do some extensive damage, but the real issue was the levees breaking and the poor engineering. After Hurricane Betsy the levees had started the rebuilding process, and they were still working on the levees in 2005 forty years later. Katrina backed up a category 1 hurricane into the lake and that is what broke the levees. Once the levees broke water started pouring through the manholes, all 27 pumping stations slowly stopped working and 80% of New Orleans was under water.

The first people to respond to Katrina was the United States Coast Guard, and they broke the rules and improvised their rescue missions just to get the people of the Crescent City out and alive. People from the projects all had boats, and everyone from their community was helping one another out. Sean Penn, a famous actor, was even helping his fellow New Orleanaens.

Now, the problems that ensued after Katrina had come and left and the levees broke were extreme. The heat that summer was off the charts. You had 20-30,000 people waiting for help on the highway and at the Superdome. There was no water, no food, and people could not get their medication. The elderly people and the sick were beginning to die. Dead people were being pushed to the side and blankets were tossed over their body with a note pinned to them. Looting started to become a problem. You had people looting for food and water, and then you had people going to electronics bringing big screen TVs out. There were even cops that were grabbing DVDs and looting themselves. Due to the mass chaos people started acting irrationally. People had weapons on them, people were shooting innocent people that they thought were looters such as, Darnel Herrington, who was shot by a shotgun twice. The Superdome started running out of resources, but more and more people were still getting dropped off there.

One thing that became shocking to the people of New Orleans was other nations were willing and able to help before our own government. Canada and Venezuela were just a couple of nations that immediately sent help and resources to New Orleans. The current president at the time was President George W. Bush, and he said he had no idea about Katrina, which  is funny, because there are serveilance cameras that recorded him prior to Katrina hitting that showed him discussing the risk and damage Katrina would cause. The Bush Administration were doing a horrible job at responding to the tragedy. It had become day 4 and 5 after Katrina hit, and the government still hadn’t responded. There was so much political nonsense, and people focussing on Iraq that the people of New Orleans suffered.

Finally, Ray Nagin did an impromtu radio interview with WWL Radio complaining about the lack of resources,  and  government response to the aftermath of the storm. People started listening in after that interview and the President finally brought in reinforcements. One person that sticks out the most is Lt. Honroe, which Nagin describes as, “The Black John Wayne”, who came down and started putting order back into the city. People were beginning to be evacuated from the Superdome. You had thousands of people lining up to get into the Hyatt Hotel, and thousands of people fleeing to the Louis Armstrong Airport.

After the government finally responded more issues began to arise. People wanted and needed to get out of the city, so they went to the airport and got on a plane. Although, they had no idea where they were going, if they knew anyone that could take them in, or where their family members that were with prior to the storm were. People from New Orleans were sent all over the county, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, New York, the list goes on. Parents were being separated from their kids, and families were being displaced.

Now, the US must deal with the clean up of New Orleans and the rebuilding, but of course that can’t go smoothly either. People that were displaced and put up in hotels are now being evicted, for FEMA can’t pay for their hotels anymore. The US is now calling the people of New Orleans, their fellow country men refugees. There are bodies that had been found 6 months after the storm hit within houses that supposedly had been checked. There was a 30% increase in deaths in Louisiana due to post traumatic stress disorder after Katrina.

The most shocking thing that came out of this movie for me was the fact the US government is what really broke and destroyed New Orleans not the storm. “Your whole history under a pile of rubble,” stated by a young man walking around his neighborhood after Katrina. The people of New Orleans are strong and resilient and I praise them for having the strength to endure the hardship and strife caused by the lack of preparation of our government. My heart goes out to you New Orleans.

 “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans

 I miss it both night and day

I know that it’s wrong…this feeling’s  gettin’ stronger

The longer, I stay away”

 ~Louis Armstrong


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“Hollywood South”

Recently, I was given a link to an article on the film industry in Louisiana. I was quite surprised to read that Louisiana played such a huge role within the film industry, but there has been a lot of movie production traffic trailing through and setting up camp in the state. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Expendables” are just a couple of the big name productions that have been shot in Louisiana. 

The reason for the mass numbers of movies being shot in Louisiana is the budget and the actual location for set design. Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the state has been trying to dig itself out of the financial hole it fell into. Therefore, every dollar that you spend in Louisiana you get 30% back in rebate and every person that you hire onto your film from Louisiana you get an additional 5% rebate. (USA Today)

Also, Louisiana itself is such a diverse state that it is easy to create whatever state, country or era in time within its borders. Louisiana can be made to look like Mississippi, France in the 1800’s and just recently it was dressed to play the surroundings in the comic book adaptation of Jonah Hex, which is a western.

I do hope that I like Louisiana when I visit at the end of the month, and I have a feeling I will, for I may be living there following my movie career!


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The True Meaning of Pictures

Recently, I have watched the movie, “The True Meaning of Pictures”, which is based off the photographer Shelby Lee Adams on his photography of the Appalachia people. The issue that is brought up in this movie is the potential for misrepresenting your subjects in your photography.

The movie takes place in the Appalachia area Kentucky. It is a compilation of archive footage and recent footage. The movie allows you to see the people that Adams photographed. You take a look at their homes and their way of life. Throughout the movie you see art critics discussing Adam’s work and how it can be offensive to his subjects. They believe that he misrepresents his subjects by staging events, lighting and positioning them in certain ways.

I find it very difficult to determine what you photograph, or film for that matter, to be misrepresenting. In Adam’s photographs it’s hard to decide what misrepresents his subjects. The dilapidated buildings, torn screens of doors, and overall run-down-looking homes are not put together like a set, but reality. The clothes that the people wear that seem rugged or dirty is not staged, but also a reality. The elements that make up the photographs are very real and not fake. Although, the fact that there is such a large mass of media that has been put out there to describe what the Appalachia people look like, which are “hillbillies”, that makes Adams’ work seem demeaning. The media has not portrayed the Appalachian people’s way of living in a very bright manner. In the movie, “Deliverance”, the “hillbillies” are represented as violent ignorant people, and because we see this theme repeatedly in our media we as a people start to associate the way the Appalachia people act, dress, talk, live, etcetera as “hillbilly” ways.

Now, the question is how can you document through photography or film something that is reality for a people, and not represent them as a certain way to a mass audience. The answer is you can’t. Every single person in the world will view art or media in their own way, and judge it through their eyes. Meaning, that when a person looks at something and analyzes it they analyze through their own personal views and knowledge. For example, if someone viewed Adam’s Appalachia photos and they were from the Appalachia area they would view the photos as normal, but if you have someone from a suburban or upper-class area from the Midwest viewing the photos and the only knowledge they had of these people’s way of life was through the media they would be judged in comparison with the “hillbilly” ways they’ve seen in the media. 

As an inspiring cinematographer/artist I find this issue to be mind-boggling. How can you satisfy everyone? There really isn’t a way to satisfy anyone in your work, so the only way you can remedy the situation is being constantly aware of the message you’re trying to convey, and who will be viewing your work. Another way to prevent misrepresenting someone is constantly talking to your subjects. If you explain exactly what you’re going to be doing with your work involving them it will prevent any confusion or burning of bridges with your subjects.

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American Experience New Orleans

I have recently viewed a documentary called, “The American Experience: New Orleans”, and after viewing this documentary I have found that New Orleans is a city full of diversity, pride and culture. Although, New Orleans cannot be just good, for with good comes the evil. In the paragraphs to follow I will be discussing the evil of racism that has burrowed its way into the heart of the “Crescent City”.

New Orleans has always been a city full of diversity. The first settlers in New Orleans were the French, and still today you can see many of the French’s influence on the city. After, the Louisiana Purchase more and more Americans started flooding into the city.  New Orleans was also a prime place for trade, so people from all over the world would flock to the city to start their new life.

New Orleans had a huge racial mixing among its people. As mentioned in the above paragraph there were many different ethnicities living side by side with one another and mixing together to create a community that you could not tell who was black or white. Yes, there was still racism within the city, but people got along and could coincide with one another. There were Whites, Slaves, free Blacks, Italians, Irish; the list goes on living in harmony.

The city of New Orleans suffered dearly after the Civil War, and would never be the same again. The Civil War soldiers occupied New Orleans for three years, and once the war was over “Reconstruction” was beginning to be implemented. “Reconstruction” was the new law of the constitution giving Blacks absolute equality under the law. Under this law Blacks would be able to flourish, and many of the Blacks in New Orleans were educated people and had been free before the war even began. The most surprising thing to come from this “Reconstruction” was the fact that New Orleans was the first to elect a person of color to office. The governor of New Orleans was a black man named Harper. Now, the elite of New Orleans, which happened to be made up of wealthy white men, did not like this whole idea of Blacks having equal rights, so they formed a secret society called the Pickwick Club. In 1877 the Pickwick Club helped raise a league that was very similar to the Ku Klux Klan called, the Crescent City White League, and this league rallied several thousand white men and raided Harper’s office and took control over the city. After this event New Orleans would slowly start to turn into a city separated from black and white.

After the Crescent City White League raid the Pickwick Club spent their time trying to separate the whites and blacks, but as mentioned before there were so many racial mixing that it was extremely difficult to tell who was white or black. If you didn’t know which race you belonged to when New Orleans had their carnivals whichever group you associated yourself within the carnival was your race. New Orleans began to implement segregation laws such as, the Separate Car Act that separated Blacks and Whites so they could not sit in the same area. On top of segregation acts taking place within the city Blacks were being lynched at a rate as high as 2 Blacks a week. The separate but equal laws and Jim Crowe laws were absolutely ridiculous, and the Blacks that were educated and free before the war wanted a change. Therefore a group of Creole Blacks that worked at a black press that went by the name The Crusaders devised a plan. The leader of this group was a man named De Dune. The plan was to have someone of color got onto the train and sit in a whites only car and refuse to leave when asked. The man that was chosen was 7/8 white and was called Homer Plessy. Plessy went forth with the act and was arrested for breaking the segregation law, and the Crusaders took full action and brought this case to court. The case went all the way to Supreme Court, and in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court chose segregation. It was a huge loss for the Blacks of New Orleans and the nation as a whole, but De Dune still believed that they were right.

New Orleans never really changed its racial views over the years. The segregation laws grew worse and Jim Crowe laws went into affect. It wasn’t until after the Supreme Court case on Brown v. Board of Education in 1955 that allowed racial integration in the schools that some changes started to occur in New Orleans. In 1960 little Ruby Bridges, a black girl, went to school at an all white school. The girl came from the 9th Ward that remained racially mixed. Although, once Bridges had attended school that day the white parents pulled their children from the school in outrage and began to move. New Orleans had created a bridge that crossed the Gulf and lead into a place called, St. Bernard Parish, and this place became a suburban haven for white people escaping integration. Due to the mass sums of middle class white people moving from the urban area it left the schools in horrible condition and the city to suffer from crime and corruption. New Orleans became a predominately black community and the majority of those people lived below the poverty line.

In conclusion, after watching this movie I found that New Orleans has never had the opportunity to overcome racism. If you look at other places in the country they get along fine with one another, because they were allowed to become equals. I now understand why New Orleans is predominately black and why some communities are suffering from poverty. It was a shock to myself that instead of uniting together after the integration the people of New Orleans separated themselves further. Although, it may seem like everyone gets along in current times it is very easy to see the underlying tension between New Orleans’ people.

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NOLA Excitement


This site will be about me, Whitley Hawkins, taking on a huge filming experience, and the journey along the way. A group of Art Institute (Ai) students, including myself, from Minnesota are packing up our bags and traveling down to New Orleans. We go down there carrying video cameras, photography cameras, and just enough equipment on our backs to make a NFL line-backer weary. Our goal is to get some experience with filming and capturing moments with photography in the United States’ “Big Easy”.

We leave on September 24th, and the time spent before that date will be spent on researching ideas, reading, writing, movie screening and much more, and this blog will reflect that work! As you can see, the work involved in this project will be difficult and time-consuming, but rewarding as well. I’m super excited for this experience, and am glad to share this experience with the rest of you.

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