Friday, 29 January 2010


On watching Alvin DuVernay in the documentary The Age of Stupid, I realised that this was an exceptional human being whose voice should be heard. And my gut instinct kept telling me "This man can write." My gut instinct was correct as I saw when he sent me his account of what happened when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Subsequently I interviewed him, below. Not many men can charm a jaded cynic like me, but Al managed to. What a guy.

In the documentary "The Making of The Age of Stupid", director Franny Armstrong and  co-producer Lizzie Gillett expressed worry about your taking part in the documentary due to the possible negative psychological effect of making you relive your experiences. Franny agreed, but said you'd be great for the film. In the end you did appear, and the film was titled after one of your quotes.

"In my opinion our use or misuse of resources the last   100 years or so, I'd probably rename that age, something like Th  Age of Ignorance, The Age of Stupid."

Indeed, I was being kind by injecting the word "ignorance". That implies that we didn't know any better.

Did appearing cause you psychological trauma as Lizzie had feared?

Quite the contrary. Spending hours in front of a camera was unfamiliar and a bit unnerving for me but expounding at length about my experiences, thoughts and feelings was actually therapeutic. Fran that ruthless... Lizzie was my guardian angel but never mind all that. Unbeknown to me, they both staged a covert rendezvous at a bar (pub) with a local shrink. We all talked and drank and laughed and the diagnosis, still unbeknown to me, was that my psych trauma could only benefit from the probing. And did. I was a mess plagued with sleeplessness, facial tics and periodic tremors (obvious in the film whilst trying to roll a smoke). By the end of the process, I had stopped taking antidepressants, all the physical manifestations had faded, and in general felt humanoid again. Thanks Frannie! Thanks Lizzie!

Or had the fact that you'd previously written about your experiences in Katrina (read here) already exorcised some of the ghosts?

Writing was one of many things that collaborated in my healing - drugs, physical labor, volunteering, friends, family, motorcycle, boat, etc. In retrospect, I can't point at any one thing. As for the ghosts, I fear they will never be exorcised and perhaps never should. The neighbors who died in their attics that I could have saved had I not been so otherwise focused; some of the people in my boat that I was short with and even cruel to because for some reason my compassion and humanity had evaporated for a few dayz. Those regrets will (and should) stay with me forever. Those are teaching ghosts. I shall do better next time because of them.

Why didn't you talk about this in your written piece about Katrina?

Those ghosts and my subsequent meltdown didn't happen until after I wrote that piece I think.

Are you glad you contributed to the film?

Yes. It was a unique experience for me and I made some friendships that will endure. I also think the film has taken on a life of its own and could be a catalyst for positive change. For that I am proud to have made a small contribution.

Have you spoken to any of the people you rescued since?

No I haven't. I find it so bizarre that in four and a half years, in a place as small as New Orleans, that I wouldn't run into at least one of them. My conclusion is that all of our souls and synapses were on overload those dayz and subsequently wouldn't even recognize each other. Having said that, I have the advantage of multiple photo images. I confess that I often look the pics over and spend considerable energy searching for faces in crowds - Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, grocery stores, nightclubs, etc. I would like to make some contact. Some just to see how they are doing like the gal who went into insulin shock in my boat. Some to caress and offer a mea culpa like the gal I made cry by assuring her that the dog she had left in her home a few blocks away had certainly drowned and we'd have no time to search for the animal. Damn it. I would like to weep with her. I can do that now.  No luck yet.

Alvin rescuing Rusty © Chris Graythen Photography

Indeed, have you stayed in touch with any of the people you rescued?

Thanks Jude - I love the closed focus questions. No. I have however, stayed in touch with Chris Graythen. He's the guy that I met the day of the flood. He's a professional photographer and could have been traversing the city capturing award winning images. He chose otherwise and will be forever in my heart for his help.

You say in The Age of Stupid, "A year or so later, after the event, and not a whole lot has changed."  What is the atmosphere in New Orleans now? How has "not a whole lot" changed?

At the time, I was referring mostly to the physical and political aspects of the city. Demolition, waste removal, rebuilding and the like was going very slowly. The city stunk and the policy makers couldn't have been more ineffectual. The political posturing and personal agendas was abundantly obvious and obscene. The local, state and federal leaders could not get together on anything and their inability to agree on who was going to do what and how was enormously counterproductive. That was then.

How is the rebuilding of the city progressing?

Since then, the citizens have taken charge. Our city is world famous for its laissez faire attitude. We are called the Big Easy or the City that Care Forgot and other such nick names. Well, once the residents realized that those with the wherewithal for recovery were virtually impotent, i.e., government entities with heavy equipment, manpower, money and other resources, that's when we mobilized at the neighborhood level. Neighborhood associations sprouted up all over town and bulldozed thru the log jams of recovery. Additionally, I've never seen my citizenry more politically engaged. We are quite literally calling our policy makers out. We show up in numbers at council meetings and political rallies. We mobilize call-ins and write-ins to shit-can certain legislations and legislators. I myself write no fewer than three or four letters to editors and politicians per week. The numb-nuts politicians for the first time are looking over their shoulders and it's very exciting.

You've said you're in the process of rebuilding your house.Are you having to rebuild it from the foundations up?

My house soaked for three weeks in that disgusting mess from floor to ceiling. I couldn't see trying to salvage any of it so had it demolished down to and including the foundation. We broke ground on the new construction a month or so ago - yes, foundation up.

Who's designed the new house?

I designed the house and hired a draftsmen and engineer to draw it all up according to local codes and such. It's a simple design very typical to old New Orleans called a raised basement home and suits my simple life style. Basically, you raise the whole thing up about ten feet off the ground, enclose the area underneath and use that for garage, storage, workshop, etc. The old timers new what they were doing by building up high on piers in case of flooding. Imagine that.

Are you doing all the building work yourself?

No, I've hired a professional builder to deal with all the headaches and subcontractors and such. I did all the research on hi-performance and energy efficiency, and simply point the builders in the right direction. My goal is to eventually be energy independent.

Your temporary house, is that the camp you've mentioned? 

I'm living in a house that I bought a few months after the storm, not the camp. The intent was for it to be temporary while I rebuild. I did all the renovations and energy efficient upgrades in this temporary house since the storm and that has been good practice. With a few simple upgrades, I've reduced my energy consumption by two thirds. That's the sort of stuff that blows my skirt up. I know. I'm truly a geek. When the new house is complete, I will sell this one and someone is going to get a great deal with all the work I've put into it.

Al and friend Diana Shaw at the camp.

The word camp is a very local reference and has nothing to do with camping. When a South Louisiana person uses it, they mean a permanent structure, a cabin in a remote area usually used for pleasure boating, fishing, and hunting and such. My camp is on Bayou Des Allemands - an ancient crevasse splay/distributary channel of the Mississippi River. There are no roads so access is by boat only - about a half hour truck ride from my house to the launch then twenty minute ride in my boat. A buddy and I hauled everything out there in our little boats and built it in the summer of 1972 with hand tools. Since then the power company ran electricity down the bayou so we are wired and have all the conveniences of home - TV, microwave, A/C, refrigerator, freezer, radio, ceiling fans. We haul propane out there to fire our stove and the water is captured in a cistern with rain run-off from the roof.

Bayou country around here has a very rich history. The Native American Indians built up shell middens on the banks while collecting clams. You can see me in the film walking on one of the middens fingering some of the pottery shards that they left behind so many centuries ago. The bayous were also the highways and hideouts for the pirates that used to do their thing around here.

Al's friend Bruce Gebhart
Is there more of an atmosphere of co-operation and help since Katrina with neighbours and friends who went through the hurricane too?
On a daily basis, cooperation and tolerance has improved by orders of magnitude (if such a thing can me measured). There is a spoken and an unspoken sense of camaraderie; a shared feeling of loss, survival and conquest. We volunteer cleaning up green spaces and planting trees. We volunteer our time demolishing and re-building houses. We cook for each other, dance longer, sing out loud and hug with passion - then we hug som'mo. We will never again take for granted the stuff of life.

What is the most memorable thing that has happened as a result of rescuing people?

I gained a personal sense of mortality and appreciation for psychological trauma. I used to feel quite indestructible. I also used to think that I had great powers of empathy. Not so. Until I had my own meltdown, there's no way I could appreciate the debilitating effect.

What is the most humorous thing that has happened as a result of your experience in Katrina?

In the film, the word hero is used. I've heard that a few times from other sources as well. I think that is literally hilarious. A hero is one who puts him or herself in harms way on purpose - think military, police, firemen, educators. I on the other hand, am a dumb fuck that had two dayz to get out of the way of impending danger, and didn't. Here's some humor:  I'd do it again.

What is the most humorous thing that has happened as a result of your appearing in The Age of Stupid?

Well, I find that a crusty old Creole from South Louisiana being on a British Blog kinda funny.

Did you attend any of the Age of Stupid screenings and speak at Q & As?

I was talked into attending the global premier in New York and was glad that the girls brow beat me into doing so. It was so kool to observe all the inner workings of such a thing. The Stupid team pulled off a Herculean event. Inspirational. I was scheduled for some Q & A and interviews but they never materialized. To many moving parts and pieces to fit it all in.

If so, were you ever challenged about the irony of your appearing in a film about climate change, having previously been employed as a paleontologist  by Shell?

I've been asked that and don't find it ironic. Paleontology by definition is a very holistic discipline. You must be a student of physics, biology, climatology, chemistry, philosophy, astronomy, and planet history to name a few. We are charged with integrating all of that in order to unravel and reconstruct Earth changes through time. Many of the geo-sciences, ergo, my colleagues, are the same. We are a planet friendly lot. Corporations (not just oil) on the other hand are in the business of making money within the confines of government rules and regulations. If we make the governments behave, the corporations will be required to behave and we will pay for the consequences and/or reap the benefits. I did what I did and am proud of my professional and environmental accomplishments from the inside.

What's the most stupid thing you've been asked about The Age of Stupid?

The above question is about the only thing that I've been asked so by default...but seriously, if I were to set out to cure, for example, Nigeria's ills exposed in the film, I would be looking down the government's throat, not the corporations. Shell Nigeria is majority owned by the Nigerian government. Not exactly the Shell that I worked for.

What are your feelings about the film and Franny's campaigning for people to recognise the seriousness of climate change?

I love Franny. I find her energy and passion contagious and think the momentum she has created will have real impact. She is indeed fo' real. But Franny n dem left some huge gaps in the cause and effect issues around the Nigerian scenes. No worries from my side - to be completely objective and pose all the info would take a twenty hour film.

When making a documentary you put stuff in there that supports your message and leave stuff out that contradicts it. E.g., Layefa in Nigeria bless her heart - isn't she a doll. She talks about the pollution and oil spills and fish kills and such and eventually goes into the black market fuel business to make a living. What you will never see in a film like Stupid is that the pirates that raid the oil facilities in order to feed the black market are huge contributors to the spills. Their modus operandi and equipment as you can imagine are not exactly environment friendly. Your everyday tree hugger watching the film would never get that. A tree hugger like me with experience in fuel theft would. The film is not lying, it's simply not documenting all the information.

As for climate change, it is indeed very serious and it is equally and simply what's so. By that I mean geologically speaking (the last thousand years or so) we have been in a warming cycle (inter-glacial, high stand system tract, transgression, bla, bla, bla). The debate raging in the political arena however, is about anthropogenic global climate change. Personally, I think the debate is sophomoric at best and only feeds the illusion that leaders are doing something. The only substance that I get from the debate is how important it is for their respective sides to be right at the expense of the other being wrong. Are we causing climate change? WHO CARES!!! How can anybody be against reducing emissions and pollution, and moving toward energy efficiency/independence? Could it be money? Winning? Power? Ego??? Sorry, what was the question?

You say, "If you multiply what happened to a million people living in this area by the billions on this's gonna be ugly".
Can you elucidate  this point?

In that context I was referring to the inability of our elected officials to react to disasters of that magnitude. Hurricane Katrina was a natural event but the destruction after the storm was a man made, civil engineering disaster caused by poorly designed, constructed and maintained levees compliments of the US Army Corps of Engineers. So here is a perfect example of an unaccountable government agency creating a disaster and the same ineffectual government unable to react to it. Now we add the multiplier of the globe because I'm fairly certain that ours is not the only government that thrives on the indulgence of people's tolerances. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, fires, droughts, floods, famines, freezes... Whether these things can be correlated with human activity or not, I don't see our global leaders having the capacity or will to manage effectively. If further, the incidence rate of these disasters increase because of human activity, that looks very ugly in my minds eye. I could quote some Old Testament here for effect.

 Devil Horse Locust at Al's camp.
We are a resilient species. The Earth is also resilient and historically very patient. Resilience and patience like resources are finite. If we ignore our own power to upset the balance of things, some or all components of life as we know it (physical, political, social, environmental) could experience a step change in the wrong direction. We've seen it happen on a small scale e.g., Katrina, Haiti, and there's no reason to believe that it couldn't happen on a global scale. Again.


...and to finish, here's Al's Gumbo recipe. As he says, "Most of the population eat to live, we live to eat." You can buy Gumbo file on eBay international from the USA...

DuV's Gumbo

About Gumbo – It is the quintessential New Orleans food incorporating the rich diversity of cultures in our area. Indeed, the word has become to mean ‘a mix’ of things. Gumbo is an African word for okra. It kills me when people ask if I’d made an ‘okra’ gumbo or if I use okra in my Gumbo. The short answer is that it ain’t Gumbo if there ain’t okra. Other inputs include but are not limited to:  the roux from the French, Tomatoes from the Spanish, seafood from the Eastern Europeans that settled down River, sausage from the Germans (Des Allemandes), and of course, file’ (Sassafras) from the Native American Indians. The lore in my family is that with each additional vege or spice, you will gain a new friend that year.


Roux - 4 oz butter, 1T olive oil, flour (qty is texture dependant)

Gumbo - 2#'s coarse chop onions, 2 large bell peppers coarse chop, 2 1/2 #'s okra coarse chop, 3/4 head celery (chop leaf & stalk), 1 1/2 bunch green onion, 1 head garlic, 2 - 14oz cans whole tomatoes, 2 whole crabs (clean & break in halves or quarters), 5 - pt jars oysters, 4 #'s peeled shrimp; also may add sausage, crawfish, crab meat, boiled egg, weenies, chicken, duck, nutria, gator, wombat, etc...

Seasoning - 1/3 bottle (~1/2oz) gumbo file (fine ground sassafras)*, 3t basil, 1t thyme, 1t rosemary, 1 1/2t salt, 2t ground red pepper; also may add to taste sage, Tabasco, Tony's (Creole seasoning), etc...


Roux - Heat butter and oil in sauce pan; add flour while stirring until consistency is that of thin pancake mix. Stir roux periodically on very low fire until dark vanilla wafer brown. Your roux should smell as rich as it looks. If you burn it start over or your gumbo will taste like burnt toast.

Rope - Fry onions on medium to hi heat (dash of oil for sticking) stirring often for approx 15 min. Add okra, stir violently until slimy texture.

Gumbo - Add canned tomatoes and fluid, add all juice from oyster jars, add roux very slowly while stirring, add fluid if necessary (beer, wine, stock or water), add crabs, seasoning, garlic, celery, bell peppers & green onion. By now you should need 1 or 2 bottles of beer to make it soupy. Add 2t vinegar if you want to cut the slime. Let cook till desired texture (approx 2 hrs), add shrimp & oysters and let cook 15 min after oyster gills curl or approx 30 min.

– Use fresh veges and spices for some or all above when possible. This gumbo should be prepared the day before you want to eat it so that all the flavors can spamodulate properly. Serve over white rice.

Note – The file is a very powerful spice, compliments of our Native American brethren. It will darken the brew and is the distinguishing flavor of Gumbo. The quantity used however, is typically according to your taste. Many will use none or a small amount when cooking and garnish with it upon serving.

Also – Be gentle with salt and or Tony’s if you’ll have sausage. Depending on the sausage, that can add plenty salt to the mix. Better to let it cook and wait to add salt at the end if needed.

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Best-selling author Jude Calvert-Toulmin interviews creative people. Please choose a user name if making comments.