Spike Lee: 'People Are Dead Now' Because Bush Bungled Katrina Response

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Spike Lee slammed the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, saying "people are dead now because they did not do what they needed to do."

In an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley, the provocative film director said the infamously slow response to the Gulf hurricane disaster would go "on [Bush's] tombstone." In particular, he blasted former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"People are dead now because he didn't do his job," Lee said.


Lee has made two acclaimed HBO documentaries about Hurricane Katrina. The first movie, "When the Levees Broke," won three Emmys in 2007. The follow-up, "If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise," came out this past summer. Brinkley told Lee he considered the movies "the greatest oral history of what happened at Katrina."

Lee was in Venice for a film festival when the hurricane hit and the levees broke. He said he couldn't leave his hotel room because he was transfixed by the coverage on television. He started work on the project almost immediately after returning to New York.

Responding to Brinkley's questions, Lee spent most of the interview blasting the Bush administration for its failure to respond swiftly to the flooding catastrophe.

"When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, we were there two days later," he said, of the 2004 Indian Ocean crisis. "Nobody has explained why it took five days for the United States government to come to the help of its own citizens on the continent of the United States of America. People are dead. Lives have been changed forever, because the U.S. government did not come to the aid of its own citizens."

Lee had some sympathy for FEMA's Michael Brown, dubbed "Brownie" in President Bush's infamous "helluva job" comment. "I had a feeling like Brown was a scapegoat, and the real villain was Chertoff," he said.

But for Chertoff, Lee pulled no punches. "People are dead now because he didn't do his job. He wasn't equipped to do the job," he said. Lee said he thought Chertoff used his friendly relationship with Bush administration officials to snatch a position that was too big for his capabilities. If he's going to be in the administration, "let him be ambassador of Luxembourg or something," he said.

In 2010, another catastrophe struck the Gulf: the BP oil spill. In filming interviews about the oil spill, Lee said his biggest eye opener was how powerful the oil and gas industry was. "It's more powerful than the most powerful country on this planet. BP dictated how [the clean-up] was going to be run."

Lee said that while he is upset about the economy, he still supports President Obama, who famously went on his first date with Michelle to see Lee's breakout movie "Do the Right Thing."

As for the Tea Party, he called them "fanatics."

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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