DARK WATER RISING, POLITICAL LESSONS FROM THE FRONT LINES IN NEW ORLEANS
By Kim Upham
July 18, 2006
If you only see one film on the subject of Hurricane Katrina, this is the one to see. Dark Water Rising: The Truth About Hurricane Katrina Animal Rescues (www.darkwaterrising.com) chronicles the volunteer efforts to rescue pets left in peril after their owners fled New Orleans and were prevented from returning to retrieve them. Beyond its overt message, that Americans need to take better care of animals, Dark Water Rising is an indictment of what is wrong with our federal government: “compassion” is merely a slogan for political gain, not a modus operandi.
The film documents the plight of thousands of animals who perished in the floods, or who waited hour after hour, day after day for owners or help that never arrived, trapped in homes or braving the toxic streets in 105-degree heat indexes bereft of food, water and shelter. Dark Water Rising underscores the fact that animals suffered because humans failed them. No one can stop a category five hurricane from ravaging a city, but the government’s failure at every level to plan for evacuation ahead of time, as well as its inadequate response to the chaos and crisis afterward, resulted in needless death and prolonged anguish of both humans and animals.
Between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina’s landfall Americans gave the Bush Administration a blank check on Homeland Security, assuming the agency was marshalling resources with the singular purpose of securing us against disaster⎯both natural and manmade. However, the hopelessly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina revealed that any sense of security had been false. The problem stems from the way this Administration views government’s function. If the Administration’s reason for being has less to do with helping people, and more to do with transferring public resources to private interests, it will have no framework for helping, and no idea where to begin when called upon to do so.
This film is the smoking gun that illustrates the government’s callous disregard for the individuals and pets in need. While it may be possible to cynically dismiss the human suffering, claiming that people had the chance to evacuate the city before the hurricane’s landfall and chose not to, our sympathy for the pets is undiluted by such arguments. We recognize that pets are subject to the choices of their owners, and in this case the owners’ hands were tied by government policies. As such, this film resonates emotionally.
The film opens with a post-apocalyptic scene of seemingly endless rubble, and a narration of the obstacles facing animal rescuers, many of whom traveled from far away states at their own expense, putting family, children, pets and jobs on hold. Those obstacles include searing heat, inaccessible homes, packs of loose dogs, bureaucratic red tape, and toxic streets filled with chemicals, raw sewage, and rotting garbage. Filmmaker Mike Shiley in interviews called post-Katrina New Orleans more traumatic than Iraq, the setting of his last documentary film, Inside Iraq.
From the get-go, it’s clear that the rescuers are understaffed and overwhelmed by both the scope of the problem and the time-critical nature of the effort, with some 50,000 pets left behind, by conservative estimates. Despite the odds, and with little regard for their personal safety or comfort, the rescuers worked from dawn until long past dark for over six weeks to meet the need. The rescuers’ story, and that of the stranded pets, has gone largely untold; the mainstream media pulled up stakes after the human drama ended or moved to Houston, while the animal side of the disaster response was just getting under way.
The message of the film ultimately is one of hope, as relieved owners are reunited with their family pets, and other cats and dogs find new loving homes. In one segment dogs are temporarily housed at a prison, giving inmates a chance to care for and bond with them, transforming both man and his best friend. And rail-thin dogs just days from death get a new lease on life as they are saved in the nick of time.
Whether owners chose to leave their pets behind, thought they’d be back after a few days, or were forced by government policies to abandon their pets, the animals paid the price. Compassion and relief came in the form of a small band of dedicated individuals willing to make personal sacrifices to alleviate animal suffering. As one rescuer writes in the film’s epilogue, “Tragedies will happen again, and we will be there with dog food and leashes in hand.” These are the kind of heroes that great films are made of. For that reason, this film is a gripping must-see.
A screening in Congress is being scheduled and the film will be shown at the National Conference for State Legislators (NCSL) and the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington D.C. in August. House party viewings of the film can be scheduled by visiting Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Theaters site (www.bravenewtheaters.com) and the film’s trailer can be viewed at www.darkwaterrising.com.