In my American Studies class, I have been showing Spike Lee’s excellent documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. If you have seen it, you know that it can be very difficult to watch. It is certainly tough for me, but I do think it is important for people to watch. Although I have seen it a couple times previously, there is something completely new for me about watching it with my students here. It is really hard and painful to remember the tragedy in this way because they are seeing much of it for the first time.
They all know about the flood, but the consensus was that they knew very little about its extent. If this was surprising to me, it is probably because of the expectations I have developed about how much my students here do know. They told me they were shocked to learn that 80% of the entire city of New Orleans was under water. The images in the documentary shook them. I also realized, in part, that many people who have lived most of their lives in Egypt do not really understand rain, let alone hurricanes. One student in the class spoke briefly about visiting New Orleans a few months after the hurricane. (He is Egyptian, and transferred from a university in the US where he did volunteer service project on the Gulf coast.)
I have been very impressed with the students’ responses. They asked lots of good questions about the inter-government power struggles that the film documents. They made connections to some of the debates over local versus federal power that we discussed when we read the Constitution. They talked about how many of the towns surrounding New Orleans prevented hurricane victims from entering, and saw it in terms of the restrictions historically placed on African American mobility, which were discussed in Angela Davis’s book. They wondered, along with the film, about how the allocation of government resources to fight the war in Iraq impacted the ability to respond. They asked questions about government responsibility and the seeming disinterest of many political leaders.
The students asked lots of serious questions, and I found them to be engaged and sympathetic. They were also somber in a way that struck me as remarkably mature for late teenagers/early twentysomethings.