Katrina's Angels

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Get well-versed in Katrina's woes

Date: 10/31/2005

You can feel Katrina's devastation from all angles in two strong documentaries airing Tuesday in unfortunately simultaneous time slots.

One provides the close-up immediacy of a "Cops" ride-along, tracking two New Orleans street officers trying to keep order in what looks like some post-apocalyptic landscape, with no supplies, no police facilities, no homes of their own, and no time off to process it all.

The other is a documentary distillation of the entire event, laying out a two-hour blow-by-blow account of what happened where at every step of the storm. "Inside Hurricane Katrina" is another of National Geographic's just-the-facts-ma'am roundups. Like August's "Inside 9/11," it seeks to comprehensively outline a clear understanding of how the hurricane wreaked such destruction, both physical and personal. At the same time, Court TV's "NOPD: After Katrina" goes for the gut with its cinema-verite plunge into one-on-one empathy. They're so complementary, the timing of the two premieres gets more regrettable. ("Inside" repeats tonight at midnight and tomorrow at 8 and 11 p.m.; "NOPD" repeats tomorrow at 2 a.m. and Friday at 11 p.m.)

"Inside Hurricane Katrina's" more distanced perspective stacks up wide-ranging evidence in a crisp, terse style. (Like "9/11," it's made by Towers Productions.) Starting with the 13-months-earlier computer exercise in which the waste laid by theoretical Hurricane Pam proves eerily prescient, the NatGeo report layers on footage from TV news and local "storm chasers," along with enough maps, charts and science explanations to turn layman viewers into Katrina know-it-alls. We get time-and-date stamps on screen, numerical stats (100,000 New Orleans residents with no means of personal transport) and percent citations (23 percent city poverty rate at twice the national average).

Hopping from scene to scene like some disaster movie - there's fevered music and ominous narration, too - we're alerted to every move of the vacationing President George W. Bush, FEMA fall guy Michael Brown and especially local and state Louisiana officials, heard in emergency conference call recordings. Not slighting hard-hit Mississippi, officials there report their horrors, too. Meanwhile, you-are-there cameras wade inside a hotel as storm waters push a car through the window and chase fleeing occupants up the stairs. How does FEMA work? Where did levees fail and why? Was officials' response swayed by ill-informed early news reports that New Orleans had dodged a bullet? This two-hour report's scope reflects Katrina's. It's overwhelming.

"NOPD," though, chooses to focus tight and stay there. We're along for the ride as two cops patrol the city's dark and shattered streets in Katrina's aftermath, confronted with screaming drunk drivers, gasping ill pedestrians and armed citizens shooting each other. After officers Jonathan Carroll and Oscar Ortiz decipher other officials' markings on ruined houses (whether dead bodies can be found there), they return to a chain-link makeshift jail in the bus-train station with height numbers scribbled on walls for mug shots. Police headquarters was among the structures wrecked.

So were cops' homes. As Carroll surveys what's now mold and muddle, he marvels, "My bed's still made. But it's moved ." Hard as it is to help others, without proper equipment or medical care, it's perhaps harder to help themselves. With 250 of their brothers in blue AWOL, those who remain work more than ever and without the support of family members who've fled the area. Their weariness is palpable. Add Court TV's heart to NatGeo's head-facts, and you've taken a well-rounded trip through this epic tragedy.

INSIDE HURRICANE KATRINA. Two-hour minute-by-minute account of how the disaster took shape, packed with details, dramatic footage, first-person reports. Tonight, 9-11 p.m. on National Geographic.

NOPD: AFTER KATRINA. Cinema-verite ride with New Orleans police trying to restore order in a ruined city. Tonight at 10 on Court TV.