The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 18, 2009

Book review: Documentary shows struggle of Katrina recovery

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore the U.S. Gulf Coast, causing widespread damage and an estimated 1,836 deaths. The most severe losses occurred in New Orleans, after the levees gave way and floodwaters swallowed 80 percent of the city.

While many people obeyed the mandatory evacuation order, others stayed behind. Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, a young married couple, opted to ride out the storm in their Ninth Ward home.

As their ordeal unfolded, Kimberly captured it with her video camera; she later turned the footage over to filmmakers she met by chance. The result is the riveting “Trouble the Water,” documentary winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

As the film opens, it’s the day before Katrina makes landfall, and Kimberly is walking around her nearly deserted neighborhood, checking in with friends and family who have stayed. The sky is heavy with clouds, and the wind is picking up ominously.

The next time she turns on the camera, the storm has arrived in all its fury.

Floodwaters spilling into their home force Kimberly, Scott and their neighbors up to the attic. Upon learning that the levees have been breached, Kimberly looks out the attic window at her neighborhood, now engulfed by surging water.

“We under siege,” she says. “Truly, we under siege.”

Chilling and heartbreaking 911 calls play over images of the violent storm. Person after person begs for help, only to be told that “at this time we are not rescuing.”

A woman trapped in her attic while water continues to rise is instructed to break through the roof to escape, but she is unable to do so. “So I’m gonna die,” she tells the dispatcher plaintively. “Hello? I can’t get out.”

After the storm, Kimberly and Scott’s struggle is just beginning. They wade through the water, pushing a boat loaded with children and a disabled neighbor, seeking shelter somewhere, anywhere.

Four days after the storm, they acquire a moving van, load 30 of their friends into it, and drive out of New Orleans. Kimberly and Scott stay with family for the next few months and attempt to put their lives back together.

Like many, their losses are devastating. Katrina has taken their home, their belongings, their family. Returning to the Ninth Ward after the floodwaters recede, Kimberly steps into her uncle’s house and discovers his decomposing body. She also learns that her hospitalized grandmother has died, abandoned by staff fleeing the storm.

However, Kimberly manages to find solace in seemingly small things, such as discovering a picture of her mother still hanging on the wall of her wrecked house.

“I longed for this, I longed for this,” she says, clutching the treasured photo. “I’m still here, still sane, still in the flesh, healthy and looking for a better tomorrow.”

The heroism and generosity displayed in “Trouble the Water” is truly inspiring. Kimberly and Scott take responsibility for their neighbors, sheltering them during the storm and getting them to safety afterward.

Their friend rescues people from the floodwaters by carrying them to safety on his back and on a floating punching bag. Kimberly patiently persists in maneuvering endless red tape as she and Scott seek Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, and she helps friends and family do the same.

Kimberly and Scott openly admit that their life pre-Katrina was neither law-abiding nor admirable, but they are determined to make a fresh start of things. “I want to see how it is to do it right from the beginning,” Scott says. The last few minutes of the documentary let you know how he’s doing in his quest to better himself.

As for Kimberly, she, too, uses Katrina to turn her life around, taking on the role of community activist and pursuing her dream of being a rapper. “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m amazing,” she raps toward the end of the film. “Come on and take a look and know that I’m amazing.”

To see an amazing documentary, check out “Trouble the Water” from the Joplin Public Library.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at Joplin Public Library.