Flood City is not about Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, but there are so many similarities between the devastating flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889 and the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 that it is difficult not to draw comparisons.
Written by NOLA Project member Gabrielle Reisman and directed by fellow member Mark Routhier, Flood City focuses on the collapse of the South Fork Dam, which released 20 million tons of water into the Appalachian steel town and killed more than 2,000 people.
The lights come up at the Nims Black Box Theatre at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to reveal wooden buildings in ruins and objects thrown helter-skelter. Val (Ashley Ricord Santos) emerges from a coffin where she had taken refuge as Stacey (Jessica Lozano) gazes over the wreckage. The former believes herself widowed and the latter assumes herself unscathed. Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the women chant poetically about what it was like when the water came.
"Everything went down 'cept me," says Val, who lost her four children.
The story follows survivors and individuals who come either to help or to profit. Hungarian, Slav and Bohemian immigrants are blamed for looting.
The Johnstown flood drew the first major peacetime relief effort of the American Red Cross. Miss Duncan (Amy Alvarez) is an officious nurse who blames forces of nature when, in fact, the disaster was caused by the negligence of an exclusive hunting and fishing club whose membership included industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. Cambria Iron Company workers and townspeople were killed instantly by a wall of water, or survived essentially intact.
You were "on God's list or you weren't," Miss Duncan blithely comments.
Matthew Thompson plays a nonplussed photojournalist who documents the disaster while tourists arrive by rail to gawk. Trey Burvant boldly personifies Mr. Kelly, a financier more interested in investment than cleanup.
"This flood was the best thing to ever happen to this city," Kelly says.
What separates Flood City from many films, books and performances about Hurricane Katrina is humor. Clive (Ian Hoch), a cinderman with a metal pipe blown into his skull, goes on as usual and pursues a new bride in Val. Keith Claverie plays an incompetent trooper trying to enforce bureaucratic rules among the ruins. The story leaps forward in time as the Bethlehem Steel (formerly Cambria Steel) plant is about to close, leaving workers without jobs or security. Bewildered characters from the past wander into a roadhouse where 20th-century workers ponder their futures.
A wonderful set designed by Steve Schepker, effective lighting by Evan Spigelman, sound including Appalachian banjo by Brendan Connelly and period costumes by Hope Bennett make Flood City exciting to watch. Several actors play multiple roles. Under Routhier's direction, uniformly excellent performances paint a portrait of an excruciating event that changed the way the nation viewed corporate responsibility.