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Review: 'Frontline: The Old Man and the Storm'

January 5, 2009 |  4:48 pm

Herbertgettridge Three and a half years after the floodwaters rose and swallowed New Orleans, popular culture doesn't quite know what to do with Hurricane Katrina and its ongoing effect on the city's and the country's identity.

The diminishing news reports vacillate between patly hopeful -- Mardi Gras is back! -- and numerically dispiriting as the city faces funding issues and the overwhelming challenge of recalling a diaspora.

Attempts to explore Katrina artistically have been less than wildly successful. “K-ville,” Fox's 2007 attempt to set a cop drama amid the reconstruction, fell flat, and even the most delirious reviews of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” note that the screenwriter's decision to set the modern portion of the film in New Orleans as the hurricane approaches seems out of place and manipulative.

“The Old Man and the Storm,” a " Frontline" documentary by June Cross that premieres tonight, tries to construct a middle-ground narrative, with mixed results. As Cross notes in the film's opening, "you could fill this building with all of the studies done since Hurricane Katrina, you could read them all and still not comprehend what it means when 500,000 families are displaced; what it means to lose 200,000 homes, 220,000 jobs, 600 congregations. You wouldn't understand what it means to lose even one neighborhood."

Like many journalists before her, Cross attempts to combat the mental lockdown that often occurs when trying to comprehend an event of this magnitude and enormity by telling the story of one man and his family. The old man of the title is Herbert Gettridge, father of nine, seven of whom are still living, grandfather, great-grandfather and a 65-year fixture in the city's now famous Lower 9th Ward.

Though his close-knit family was spread across the country by the storm, Gettridge returned to the ruins of his home. While the rest of the city attempted to celebrate the 2006 Mardi Gras, Gettridge got on with the Sisyphean task of rebuilding brick by brick.

He became a bit of a media star in those early years, and no wonder. In 2006, he was 82, possessed a no-nonsense approach to the tragedy that had befallen him and could still push a wheelbarrow. His short-term goal was to rebuild his home so his wife, Lydia, who was living with their daughter in Wisconsin, could return to him. His long-term goal was to rebuild the life he knew, in which his yard and house were full of chatter and laughter and all his children. Even Billy Crystal could not stay away.

Cross, who understands the value of persistence almost as much as her subject does, follows Gettridge long after CNN and Comic Relief have gone home, watches as he and three of his children go about the backbreaking, soul-wrenching, bureaucracy-stalled process of excavating their homes from the mud and mold and rebuilding them.

At times the narrative moves to larger political issues -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency's continued miscalculations, the questions raised about the company running the rebuilding program -- and larger social ones as well. The suicide rate in New Orleans skyrocketed along with the demand for psychiatric services of all kinds while the number of beds in psychiatric hospitals dropped to 20.

Cross uses these departures judiciously, but still, they mostly dilute the power of "The Old Man and the Storm," which comes from the Gettridge family: From one son who breaks down as he tries to explain how difficult it is to work so hard and accomplish so little every day. From a daughter's attempt to describe how unmoored she feels having gone from being surrounded by family to living in a strange city alone. From the increasing realization that after an event like this, life really is never the same again no matter how much pluck or determination you have.

There are no big happy endings here, no moment when the music swells and the audience can sit back and bask in a state of well-earned catharsis, which is probably why Katrina remains a problematic topic. Lydia does come home, but she has suffered a stroke in the meantime that makes it difficult for her to understand what has happened, why her house looks so different, smells so different, why her bed no longer fits her and only some of her children are present.

Herbert Gettridge is a hero, but, as we learn again and again, heroism is not synonymous with triumph, at least not in the brass-bolstered it-was-all-worth-it moment we too often expect. What happened in New Orleans in August 2005 was a tragedy, and, by its very definition, a tragedy cannot be undone. It can only be survived.

The Gettridge family, like thousands of other families, remains physically and emotionally torn apart, and there's nothing anyone, not even a quietly determined, unbelievably stoic American icon like Herbert Gettridge, can do to fix it. There is only, as he says, life before the storm and life after the storm. The bridge between them, on the ground and in the collective imagination, has yet to be built.

-- Mary McNamara

(Photo by Jennifer Zdon for the Times-Picayune)