It’s difficult to imagine that there could be any more horrific images of the damage and destruction done to the lower ninth ward by Hurricane Katrina, yet the new documentary, Trouble the Water, does just that. Thanks to the enterprising work of Kim and Scott Roberts, footage shot of the disaster from the inside out made it into the hands of documentary filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal.
Trouble the Water doesn’t so much capture the havoc nature can wreak upon unsuspecting populations; rather, it is a first-hand account of the how badly the government failed its citizens, from its inability to send National Guard troops to rescue stranded residents to its inability to provide shelter, sanitary conditions, or safety. We knew this already from the news reports and the various documentaries that have been made already, but we’ve never spent time with people who lived it.
Kim Roberts managed to have the presence of mind during the hurricane to film it. She and her husband, like so many others in the ninth ward, had nowhere to go. Her mother, a crack addict, died when she was 13. She had to take care of her brother who is in prison when the film begins. Somehow, at 24 years old, though, Roberts is a natural artist, someone with a filmmaker’s eye and an ability to follow the story.
We watch helplessly as water pours down her street, into her yard, into her home, and then threatens the attic where she and many of her neighbors are hiding. Kim and her husband provide food and shelter and help. No one else ever comes. 911 calls are met with the kind of answers no white person anywhere in America would ever tolerate. A 911 operator tells one woman that there are no rescue workers coming to get you, no police, no helicopters and the woman pleads, “I’m just going to die?”
Roberts and her small crew of survivors find a boat and manage to get to safety and are told to go to a local military base, where they are treated like an angry mob, forced to retreat as soldiers aim their weapons and threaten to fire.
The movie shifts between Roberts’ footage and footage taken of Roberts as she and her husband return to New Orleans to survey the damage. By some miracle they find their two dogs who had been waiting for them to return. They find, of all things, an eviction notice on their door. It’s just as well; they have nothing to go back to. Eventually they find their way to a cousin’s house where they are able to recover and wait for the FEMA money to come through.
We eventually learn about Kim Roberts through her music. She’s written songs about her experience and her life. One says that she doesn’t need us to tell her she’s amazing; she already knows. And it’s true, you know. She is amazing. Suddenly it becomes clear that Trouble the Water isn’t so much about that nasty hurricane but about poverty in America, entire populations who were washed away in the flood except those who somehow clung on. It’s also about the real heroes during the hurricane – neighborhood folks who stuck together and helped each other out. Maybe it is, ultimately, about survival, not in getting out of the water’s way but in getting out of the trap of a nowhere life. Kim and her husband did it even before the levees broke. Unfortunately it had to take a hurricane, and many lost lives, for the world to find out about it.