Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive cyclone ever to hit the USA, struck the state of Louisiana on 29 August. Within hours, New Orleans’ neglected levees gave way and the city was flooded, causing unprecedented destruction, the displacement of over a million people and a mounting death toll that will probably end up in the thousands.
It was not clear as Proletarian went to press just how many people have died as a result of the hurricane, the ensuing flood and the appalling conditions that those remaining in the city have had to endure. The fatality figures for Hurricane Katrina given out by the bourgeois media, on both sides of the Atlantic, are so disparate as to be meaningless. Is it 347 (BBC) or is it “thousands” (Sky News)? On 9 September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered 50,000 body bags in addition to the 25,000 previously ordered, implying that the official count thus far (of under a thousand deaths) is misleading. FEMA also requested that journalists stop taking pictures of dead bodies.
What is clear is that nearly all the victims were black – and desperately poor. The US Census Bureau estimates the 2004 New Orleans population to be 20 percent white and 67.9 percent black. More than 25 percent live at or below the poverty line. Within the city itself, the poorest tended to live in the lowest parts that are most vulnerable to flooding.
The response of a superpower?
A day before the arrival of the hurricane, all residents were urged to evacuate. However, no proper evacuation was organised; no buses were provided. People were merely told to leave their houses and get out. Those without appropriate means of transport – or anywhere to go – had very little option but to stay in their houses and hope for the best. Several thousand people were let into the Louisiana Superdome, but tens of thousands of people were also turned away. Food aid took days coming, leaving people desperate for food.
Several days into the crisis, the majority still had not been evacuated. As Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, said: “You would think that on day five of the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States, and possibly the world, we would not still be waiting for troops and buses.” (The Observer, 4 September 2005)
Paul Craig Roberts, on the news website www.creators.com, pointed out: “FEMA [the national body with overall responsibility for reacting to events such as Katrina] took no action until three days after the hurricane, delaying the arrival of effective help until five days after 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater … Compare this inexplicable delay with the rapid response to the Florida hurricanes last year.”
Somebody of a suspicious and cynical bent might surmise that the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor black people were simply deemed by the US administration to be not worth saving.
The Louisiana national guard (roughly equivalent to the Territorial Army) won’t have noticed what’s going on at home, even though they’re supposedly in the business of disaster relief, because they’re too busy trying to fight US imperialism’s wars of conquest in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And the military helicopters that could have rescued so many Americans in the early days of the New Orleans crisis are also committed to the losing battle against the Iraqi resistance.
George W, the President you love to hate, belatedly decided that he should make an appearance on the scene to assure his voters that all was good and well. However, his visits were (predictably) more to do with saving face than assisting the situation on the ground. Even Louisiana’s Senator, Mary Landrieu, was forced to admit that the response was outrageously bad: “Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.” (‘Landrieu implores President to “relieve unmitigated suffering”’, www.landrieu.senate.gov)
New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was more explicit and more desperate:
“I need reinforcements, I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man … You got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans … That’s — they’re thinking small, man. And this is a major, major, major deal. And I can’t emphasize it enough, man. This is crazy … I’ve got 15,000 to 20,000 people over at the convention centre. It’s bursting at the seams. The poor people in Plaquemines Parish … We don’t have anything, and we’re sharing with our brothers in Plaquemines Parish …
“This is ridiculous. And I don’t want to see anybody do any more goddamned press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city. And then come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we can’t even count. Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here! They’re not here! It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and let’s do something. And let’s fix the biggest goddamned crisis in the history of this country.” (Interview with WWL radio)
Meanwhile, the media were busily portraying the black population of New Orleans as violent criminals. As Workers World pointed out, “All the racist hysteria about ‘looters’ is a cover-up for the fact that the government has made no provisions to feed the people, and that so many Black people are living in dire poverty.” (‘Hurricane Katrina: US gov’t guilty of criminal neglect’, www.workers.org, 1 September)
Help offers from unexpected quarters
Although the US government seemed entirely unwilling to assist the work of saving the people of New Orleans, offers of assistance were received from a number of countries, including Cuba, Venezuela and China. Tiny Cuba, for example, offered 1,000 volunteer doctors. Unfortunately for the people of New Orleans, however, since the medical help was offered by Cuba, whose health system is unsurpassed throughout the world, but whose determination to keep on pursuing a course of independence and socialism gets right up the nose of the US ruling class, Cuba’s offer was rejected. So no Cuban doctors will be allowed into Louisiana, despite the urgent need of the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
Similarly, Venezeulanalysis.com reported that, in addition to offering $1m in monetary assistance, Venezuela was also offering “two mobile hospital units, each capable of assisting 150 people, 120 specialists in rescue operations, 10 water purifying plants, 18 electricity generators of 850kW each, 20 tons of bottled water, and 50 tons of canned food” . The Washington Times reported a senior State Department official as saying that he was “not aware” of the offer but stated that in any case such offers might be “counterproductive”. So no Venezuelan hospital units or rescue specialists will be allowed into Louisiana, despite the urgent need of the people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
The anti-humanitarian nature of monopoly capital knows no bounds!
Inevitable natural disaster?
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claimed that the disaster was “breathtaking in its surprise”. Comparisons with the tsunami that struck across the Indian Ocean in December 2004 have been forthcoming (in their droves).
What a few commentators have been courageous enough to point out is that Katrina should not have been a surprise at all, and that it bears no comparison with such an unusual occurrence as a tsunami. “A tsunami comes rarely. Hurricanes come to the delta region almost every year. This disaster was not only predictable but predicted. What seems like an inevitable tragedy caused by nature was foreseen long ago by scientists, engineers, government agencies, environmentalists and experts in disaster management.” (Workers World, ibid)
FEMA warned over four years ago that disaster of this type was potentially on the way, and yet did hardly anything to guard against it.
CNN noted on 5 September: “Reuters reported that in 2004, more than 40 state, local and volunteer organisations practiced a scenario in which a massive hurricane struck and levees were breached, allowing water to flood New Orleans. Under the simulation, called ‘Hurricane Pam’, the officials ‘had to deal with an imaginary storm that destroyed more than half a million buildings in New Orleans and forced the evacuation of a million residents’, the Reuters report said.
“In 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a five-part series exploring the vulnerability of the city. The newspaper, and other news media as well, specifically addressed the possibility of massive floods drowning residents, destroying homes and releasing toxic chemicals throughout the city.” (‘Chertoff: Katrina scenario did not exist’, www.cnn.com)
New Orleans is surrounded on three sides by water – the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain and the mighty Mississippi River. Much of it is also below sea level, so some control over potential flooding – and its results – was both obvious and necessary.
Meanwhile, it emerges that the warnings of a catastrophic flood that came from respected scientists as early as 2001 were met by cuts in the budget of FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Bush regime knew that the levees in New Orleans would eventually fail, but it refused to pay for reinforcing them.
It did nothing to rescue the victims until it was too late, and it refused humanitarian assistance from two countries mere miles away, one of which – socialist Cuba – has lower infant mortality and a higher literacy rate than Louisiana itself.
According to Paul Craig Roberts (op cit):
“Funding for the New Orleans levees and for SELA were drastically curtailed despite experts’ protests and warnings, including the hurricane simulation project (Hurricane Pam) conducted in July 2004, when 270 experts spent eight days assessing the impact of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans.
“The simulation predicted that state and local officials would be overwhelmed, that flood waters would overcome the levees and cover most of the city, that more than 1 million people would be uprooted for a year or longer and that deaths would number in the tens of thousands.
“The report reads: ‘The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP) believe that the gravity of the situation calls for an extraordinary level of advance planning to improve government readiness to respond effectively to such an event.’
“Despite these expert warnings, the Bush administration made the decision to redirect the funding for hurricane protection to the ‘war against terrorism’. As Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on 8 June 2004: ‘It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq.’
“As the decisions to deny funding for the Corps of Engineers’ levee projects and SELA and the delayed federal response to Katrina are inexplicable, the Bush administration, realising its criminal negligence, quickly took steps to blame state and local officials.”
In summary, money that should have been spent on defences against natural disasters such as Katrina was in fact diverted to fighting the ‘war on terror’, ie, the man-made disaster that is being rained on the Iraqi people.
A good case for socialism
One cannot avoid drawing parallels with the tiny, resource-poor island of Cuba, which was hit earlier this year by a category 4 hurricane. “Cuba … spares nothing when it comes to moving people from the path of tropical storms, hurricanes and other natural occurrences. This year, Cuba was hit by Hurricane Dennis, a category 4 hurricane. Cuba, through mobilising the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and the popular army and by being prepared to meet the needs of the Cuban people, was able to evacuate 1.5 million people.
“Hurricane Dennis hit the island, sweeping through Havana, and though 16 people were killed, the number would have been higher were it not for the socialist response of revolutionary Cuba, and a head of state who uses his influence to mobilise the Cuban people.” (Larry Hales, ‘Relief for the rich, disaster for the poor’, Workers World, 1 September 2005)
What a difference it makes to have society mobilised for the needs of the people rather than the requirements of profit! In Cuba, whole neighbourhoods are evacuated together, accompanied by their family doctors, so there is no question of medical problems going untended or being misdiagnosed through lack of knowledge of an individual’s history. The Cuban emergency services even evacuate expensive electrical goods, such as fridges, to save unnecessary loss and expense.
An even more sinister side to the tale is slowly emerging as time passes. A considerable number of New Orleans residents have claimed that flooding was deliberately diverted towards the poorer black areas of town. This diversion served two purposes, they claim: first, to protect the more affluent areas, such as the French Quarter; and second, to clear the long-established (but impoverished) black community from highly ‘desirable’ real estate.
The Washington Post of 4 September interviewed a respected New Orleans teacher: “Mullen has a schoolteacher’s kindly demeanour, so it was jarring to hear him say he suspected that the levee breaks had somehow been engineered to keep the wealthy French Quarter and Garden District dry at the expense of poor black neighbourhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward — a suspicion I heard from many other black survivors.”
It is certainly true that the more affluent areas appear to have avoided the kind of devastation that struck the poor neighbourhoods. USA Today contained the following report: “‘It’s like a big hand came down and protected historic buildings,’ says Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
While it may be months before city services are fully restored and New Orleans is in shape for visitors, ‘the most popular and important tourist infrastructure survived and fared very well compared to other parts of the city,’ Perry says.
The picturesque French Quarter is ‘almost completely preserved’, Perry says. Bourbon Street isn’t swamped. Preservation Hall, a shrine for jazz fans, still stands, though it is closed indefinitely.
The Café du Monde — renowned for its café au lait and doughnut-like beignets — rode out the storm. Famed Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street ‘fared well’, Jimmy Brennan told The Australian newspaper.
Johnny White’s Sports Bar, a neighborhood hangout, has been open for business since the hurricane hit. Other opened bars include Molly’s at the Market.” (‘Big Easy spots prove resilient’, USA Today, 8 September)
Meanwhile, everyone has seen the pictures of flood survivors being forced at gunpoint by the US military to leave their homes, even though their area is in no apparent danger. Rufus Johnson, a survivor of the flood, said in an interview: “The army has given me an ultimatum to leave or suffer the consequences of a forced eviction. I do not understand. My entire family and I survived Katrina and now they want to throw me out of the home we have had for generations”. (Cited in ‘The great New Orleans land grab’, www.aztlan.net)
The Observer of 4 September contained the following report: “Williams only left his apartment after the authorities took the decision to flood his district in an apparent attempt to sluice out some of the water that had submerged a neighbouring district. Like hundreds of others he had heard the news of the decision to flood his district on the radio. The authorities had given people in the district until 5.00pm on Tuesday to get out – after that they would open the floodgates.
“‘We thought we could live without electricity for a few weeks because we had food. But then they told us they were opening the floodgates,’ said Arineatta Walker, who fled the area with her daughter and two grandchildren.
“’So about two o’clock we went on to the streets and we asked the army, ‘Where can we go?’. And they said, ‘Just take off because there’s no one going to come back for you.’ They kicked my family out of there. If I knew how to hotwire a car I would have,’ Walker said. ”
One resident determined to return to her house wrote the following in her weblog:
“This is one of the poorest neighbourhoods, but close to the French Quarter – we’ve known for awhile it is slated for gentrification – now, the neighbourhood is deserted – no police, no national guard, no people – primed and waiting for the developers to come in and build new houses for the rich white folks and who cares where the people that used to live there are or if they have a place to come back to.
“There is much fear as to what the intentions are for the poorer neighbourhoods – are there plans to simply bulldoze them to the ground so that a newer, cleaner, disneyfied New Orleans can be established in its place now that poor have been either killed off or forced to leave.” (http://getyouracton.com)
It is clear that the military are desperate to get the remaining residents out of their houses, even describing survivors as ‘insurgents’.
As far-fetched as it may sound, there is a historical precedent.
“In 1927, the Mississippi River broke its banks, depositing water at depths of up to 30ft over 27,000 square miles of land.
“New Orleans’ (mainly white) business class pressured the state to dynamite a levee upstream, releasing water into (mainly black) areas of the delta. Black workers were forced to work on flood relief at gunpoint, like slaves.
“Two parishes, St. Bernard and Plaquemines, which had a combined population of 10,000, were destroyed. Just before Katrina, these parishes had about 10 times the 1927 population. Both parishes are now under many feet of water.” (Post on www.libertyforum.org)
At the very least, we can confidently say that the authorities certainly weren’t pro-active in protecting or reinforcing the levees. The actions of the state to limit the disaster for the impoverished population of New Orleans were suspiciously slow and suspiciously limited in scope. In the radio interview with WWL, Ray Nagin said: “Then they told me that they went overnight, and they built 17 concrete structures and they had the pulleys on them and they were going to drop them … I flew over that thing yesterday, and it’s in the same shape that it was after the storm hit. There is nothing happening. And they’re feeding the public a line of bull and they’re spinning, and people are dying down here.”
The evidence certainly points to deliberate diversion of the floods towards the poorest areas and deliberate foot-dragging in relation to the safeguarding of those areas.
While the monopolists salivate over real estate and reconstruction contracts, their political spokespeople are working round the clock to apportion blame for the deaths onto the victims themselves. Those who could not leave the city are blamed for their poverty. Those who were forced to ransack shops to find food are blamed for their lawlessness. Those who gave quick deaths to critically ill patients rather than leave them to die slowly and painfully in abandoned hospitals are to be prosecuted as murderers. Those whose budgets were cut are to blame for not maintaining proper flood defences and storm preparations. In short, everyone and everything is to blame but the real perpetrator – the monopoly capitalist system, whose only interest is the pursuit of maximum profit.
And the moral of the story is …
The central lesson to be learnt from all this is that imperialism cares not one jot for the quality of life of the working class. It gives handouts here and there when it feels that these are needed to divert confrontation, but, in the final analysis, the only interest of imperialism is profit, and all other considerations must be subservient to this one. Consequently, the US military, instead of being at home ready to respond to natural disasters, is fighting a predatory, illegal war for plunder of the Iraqi people’s wealth, and the US state, instead of launching a national mobilisation for the defence of the poor communities of New Orleans, is busy drawing up plans for ‘regeneration’ (ie, gentrification) and jostling for lucrative demolition and ‘reconstruction’ contracts.
The working class must learn this lesson for once and for all. It must see that the future lies not with grasping for a few crumbs from the imperialist table (in the time-honoured fashion of the opportunism and revisionism that has so plagued the working-class movement in Britain and the US) but with waging a revolutionary struggle against capital and organising society along socialist lines.
The sooner we learn these lessons, the sooner the day will come when workers will be free to organise society to meet the needs of the people. Only then will we begin to live a truly dignified and civilised life.