By Helena Okolicsanyi, Broadside Correspondent
Kimberly Rivers Roberts will always remember where she was on Aug. 29, 2005, and so will thousands of individuals still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, as documented in the film Trouble the Water. Roberts, who was in New Orleans when the storm struck, filmed her experience during and after Hurricane Katrina with a camcorder she bought for $20 just days before the disaster. She transformed the raw footage of her ordeal into Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize-winning and Academy Award nominated documentary Trouble the Water.
Roberts, along with her husband Scott and their 2-year-old daughter, came to George Mason University’s Johnson Center Bistro to discuss what happened to them during Hurricane Katrina.
Kimberly Roberts spoke and then answered questions from both a student panel and audience members. She discussed the role of the media, the lack of government response during and after the storm and how New Orleans is today. The event allowed students and faculty to understand what occurred during Hurricane Katrina and the effects still felt even five years later.
Roberts talked about surviving the hurricane and the legacy the storm still holds in New Orleans and her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, one of the poorest and hardest hit in the city.
While half a decade has passed since Katrina devastated the Gulf coast, the catastrophe is far from old news. Five years after the storm hit, New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward are still struggling to rebuild and still being left behind. While there is a silver lining to the tragedy with new infrastructure being built, Roberts felt that the issue of poverty and tending to the needs of the people had not been addressed.
“No matter how many houses you build, no matter how many investors come, New Orleans will still have not recovered from Katrina,” she said. “[It] won’t be in a better state because you aren’t rebuilding the people.”
Trouble the Water was deemed too controversial and political to be shown in some movie theaters during its limited release nationwide in 2008 because of its criticism of both the United States government and American race relations. The documentary rebuked local and federal government response in the wake of the storm and alleged that the reason for the lack of action was because Roberts and her neighbors were low-income African Americans.
“They let us down,” Roberts said, railing against the government for not providing quick, adequate help for those unable to leave the city. She maintained that the government failed the city, but she refused to dwell on it. Instead, she believed the lack of government helped bring her community to come together.
“I know for a fact that they let us down,” she said. “It’s evident . . . but it’s about how can we stand up for ourselves, how can we grab our communities by the hand and lift them up by ourselves.”
Roberts wanted viewers to think about their own lives after seeing her film.
“I want people to look back on their lives,” she said. “[I want people to] value their lives, value what they have, instead of bickering and crying all the time about what you don’t have . . . use what you’ve got, whatever [you’ve] got — talent, privilege, money, whatever — and [use it] to help somebody . . . That’s just being human: to just help each other.”
Roberts continues to live in New Orleans and will release a rap album, Trouble the Water, in May. She runs a nonprofit organization — Troubled Waters, Waking Minds — that raises money to help people get out of substance abuse in New Orleans.
She is currently the spokeswoman for the New Orleans Festival that will take place from Aug. 24-29, 2010 and will raise money for other nonprofits in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the storm.