Hurricane Katrina did far more than wreak an enormous amount of human, material, and environmental devastation to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The giant storm violently lifted the curtain that obscures the racial and class divides that constitute American civilization and made plain for the world to see that anti-Black racism continues to shape the reality for millions.
The fatally chaotic and incompetent response of the local, state and federal governments to the disaster called into question their claim to be the organizers of society and will have huge political implications for the remainder of George W. Bush’s administration and for years to come.
The gross and malicious negligence exhibited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, organizationally under the control of Bush’s Homeland Security Agency, as well as the depletion of the National Guard forces of the Gulf Coast states due to the demands of the war in Iraq, places the lion’s share of responsibility for this disaster squarely at the doorstep of the White House.
HURRICANE OF CRISES
New Orleans is one of the most remarkable of American cities. Its long and complicated history stretches back to the periods of French and Spanish power in North America. This heritage was integrated into the American nation state during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and played a huge role in the development of Louisiana through the periods of chattel slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era.
The precarious nature of the physical environment of New Orleans, surrounded by lake, river and swamps and protected from inundation by a complex system of levees and spillways, seemed to contribute to a cultural atmosphere in which music, literature, cuisine and storytelling flourished and enriched the country and the world at large.
Many in New Orleans hoped Hurricane Katrina would proceed like other storms that had threatened the city in the past, only to change course and spare the city their full impact. Those with the means to evacuate poured out of the city onto interstate highways and filled shelters and hotels in Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee. Those without transportation and cash on hand–as well as those too old or too sick to leave–remained behind and hoped for the best.
It initially appeared that New Orleans had been spared once again, as the eye of the hurricane passed to the east of the city and furiously bore down on the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, all but totally destroying the coastal communities as far east as Mobile, Ala. As flood waters began to appear in the streets of New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, however, it became clear that something had gone horribly wrong.
The huge volume of water forced into Lake Pontchartrain by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge had found weak points in several of the levees protecting the city and had made a horrible reality out of the greatest fear of its residents: that the city, almost the entirety of which is below sea level, would be buried under water. The levees of New Orleans failed in places that suddenly forced enormous numbers of poor and Black New Orleans residents into dire danger.
The city’s predominantly Black Ninth Ward flooded, as well as New Orleans East, home to the city’s large Vietnamese immigrant community. The Bywater neighborhood, large parts of the Uptown area and almost every other part of the city with the exception of the French Quarter was submerged. Thousands were forced by the rising waters onto the roofs of their or their neighbor’s homes. Many were trapped in their attics after being surprised by the speed of the water’s rise and were forced to endure days of intense heat.
While areas of predominantly white Jefferson Parish, west of New Orleans, escaped the flooding, the largely white working class St. Bernard Parish was devastated. One of the earliest confirmations of the extent of the tragedy was the discovery of the bodies of 34 nursing home residents in Chalmette, a center of the oil and sugar refining industries. They had not been evacuated and had perished inside the residence.
Those who could not evacuate but left their homes to gather in the city’s designated shelter sites faced a horror perhaps worse than being stranded on rooftops. The Superdome, the football stadium and home of the New Orleans Saints, initially became a refuge for 10,000 residents. Katrina’s strong winds damaged the dome’s roof and let water begin to accumulate on the floor. When the city lost electricity, the thousands inside had to sit in the dim light provided by a backup generator. Water and food ran out and the stadium’s toilets soon stopped working.
The number of those inside increased to 20,000 as people made their way though the flooded streets to a place they mistakenly believed was a refuge. Once inside, they became trapped in what was essentially a dangerous and unhealthy dungeon with no one to provide any formal type of relief. A similar scenario unfolded at the city’s Convention Center, another officially designated place of shelter that quickly became a living hell for the thousands who were abandoned there by representatives of all layers of government.
Those most vulnerable began dying. The elderly, infants, and the chronically ill fell victim to heat, dehydration and the lack of much-needed medicines and perished. With no place to store the bodies, they were simply moved out of the way by survivors who attempted to cover them with whatever was available.
Other vulnerable people were trapped by the flooding. The patients of the city’s hospitals, most notably Charity Hospital, the public hospital of New Orleans, were stranded in their beds with no electricity or running water. The chronically ill were thrown into extreme danger by the lack of medicine and functioning medical equipment. Inside Memorial Medical Center sweltering conditions contributed to the deaths of 40 patients.
Those who had the energy to walk across the Greater New Orleans Bridge to what residents refer to as the West Bank of the Mississippi found that racism made them unwelcome. While the suburban West Bank cities of Jefferson Parish escaped from the storm relatively unscathed, the authorities not only refused to offer Black residents of New Orleans seeking shelter any aid, but forced them at gunpoint to turn around and walk back across the bridge.
Incredibly the situation only began to improve slightly by Thursday, Sept. 1. The evacuation of those crowded into the Superdome went slowly and painfully and the relief of those trapped in the dire conditions of the Convention Center took even longer. Anxiety persisted even as those who made it onto the buses for evacuation headed to conditions unknown to them in Houston, San Antonio and places even more distant.
One revelation after another paints a picture of capitalism and bourgeois rule in the 21st century. The incompetence of the crony appointee heading the agency charged with preparing for disasters, Michael Brown, is only the face of a cynical restructuring of government which has no intention of serving or protecting the public. “A large population of Americans who serve no purpose to the agenda of this administration were allowed to die,” is how an angry woman put it.
Those agencies charged with protecting people and keeping them informed have been eviscerated under Bush. FEMA itself has been greatly reduced. Inept cronies head the defunded Environmental Protection Agency. Pharmaceutical companies have a friend in the Food and Drug Administration, which shows hostility to women by blocking distribution of the Plan B contraceptive, the “morning after” pill. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been handed over to a rightwing propagandist. And Homeland Security has lost counterterrorism experts who see the administration focused not on protecting the country but with waging wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere (Paul Krugman, “All the President’s Friends,” NEW YORK TIMES, 09/12/05).
Covering the endangerment of the public is drumbeat of “states rights” amplified during Bush’s two terms. States rights has been a rationale for cutting spending on social programs federally, throwing the burdens of health, housing and employment on state and local governments in the name of smaller government. What has not shrunk are the military and the apparatuses of domestic control, particularly prisons and Homeland Security.
The sordid history of states rights is rooted in slave states seceding from the union in the 19th century to preserve that peculiar institution. The same states asserted the “right” to continue segregation in the face of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It continues today as religion-based policies, right-to-work laws, and retrenchment against women’s liberation. Of course, the Supreme Court dismissed states rights in 2000 when it discontinued the Florida election recount to put Bush into the White House.
LEFT IN HARM’S WAY
Notwithstanding the administration’s spin, against reports of defunding the Army Corps of Engineers, the fact is that a well-known recipe for disaster persisted through many administrations. Locally whites who fled to Jefferson Parish in the 1950s and 1960s created a fairly reliable system of levees and drainage for themselves. And “generations of New Orleans residents have voluntarily climbed to higher ground as soon as they could afford to do so,” explained Craig Colson author of An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (NEW YORK TIMES, 9/10/05).
Experts beseached FEMA, forewarning natural and social disasters. There were tragic exceptions to FEMA’s torpor, however. Officials blocked AMTRAK from carrying out residents, a flotilla of 500 boats of regional volunteers from rescuing residents, firefighters trained in rescue operations, trucks with food and supplies sent by WalMart and the Red Cross, a Navy vessel equipped with a 600-bed hospital, Coast Guard deliveries of emergency diesel fuel, and teams of doctors from North Carolina and elsewhere.
Not deterred, however, was a deployment of 300 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard recently stationed in Iraq. History will remember Governor Kathleen Blanco’s directive, responding to unsubstantiated rumors of a crime spree: “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
Against the law-and-order response heaped upon inhuman disaster policies, the human response inside New Orleans reflected a different reality. Two paramedics, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, described the self-activity of workers: “The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks… Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators…. the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded” (EMSNetwork.com, 9/6/05).
Grassroots responses were quickly organized outside the befuddled relief bureaucracy. Cindy Sheehan moved to “Camp Casey III” in Covington, La., to spearhead delivery of 10 tons of supplies to New Orleans and Mississippi. Piedmont of North Carolina activists raised money to deliver three busloads of goods to the city and return with as many busloads of evacuees. The Louisiana Environmental Action Network air dropped food, water, and medical supplies to residents. And union coal miners drove four trailer trucks with supplies from Hazard, Ky. to the Gulf Coast. Among the expressions of solidarity internationally were those from Achenese victims of the tsunami last year followed by Indonesia’s chocking off relief efforts.
A HISTORY OF DISASTERS, NEW THINKING
Capitalism’s indifference to the lethal threats of flooding pervades U.S. history. In 1928 Lake Okeechobee in Florida overflowed due to a storm surge from a hurricane, drowning some 1,800 mostly Black field workers. The ecology had been altered by agricultural development and warnings had preceded that disaster. The year before, 1927, saw the Mississippi River overflow from record Midwestern snows. The earlier attempts to engineer controls on the river failed. Hundreds died, mostly Black farmers, sixteen and a half million acres in seven states were inundated, and some two thirds of a million people were dislocated. It also destroyed the chains of farm tenancy holding Black families in servitude for 50 years since Reconstruction. The event spurred a wave of migration to the north by Black families and was part of a new consciousness that continued in Black and labor struggles for decades hence.
What will come of this moment which has exposed the raw, racist, exploitative nature of U.S. capitalism? For the rulers, the preferred direction of recovery was intimated by Condoleezza Rice. Fronting for a malfeasant administration, she promised a war on poverty, capitalist-style, led by “non-governmental organizations” and “the private business sector.” To seed this kind of redevelopment, Bush acted decisively in the week after Katrina. An executive order of Sept. 8 suspended a rule requiring federal contractors to pay wages no lower than locally prevailing wage, always higher than the minimum. Already no-bid contracts are being awarded to contractors like Haliburton who are poised to reap windfalls. Comparisons with the larded contracts for rebuilding Iraq are clear.
However in line with the self-activity seen during the flood, residents have a different vision, reflected in a statement by Community Labor United: “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white districts of New Orleans like the French Quarter and the Garden District. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans.”
A SHAKEN AGENDA
In the two and a half weeks since the floods hit New Orleans, it has become clear that large parts of the country reject the Bush agenda, now that its ramifications have become clear in New Orleans. The anti-war/anti-Bush protest in Washington, D.C. owes much of its success to that emerging sentiment (see <a href=”RVsSep05.doc/#MAKE LEVEES, NOT WAR”>MAKE LEVEES, NOT WAR</a> in this issue). Reporters passionately conveyed the conditions and their ramifications. In communities across the nation, people responded ahead of authorities, many opening homes.
The invitations extended by people have been a far cry from the cynical attitude of ex-First Lady Barbara Bush who uttered what most racist ideologues may not feel free to say openly, that the thousands relocated to the Houston Astrodome never had it so good. Against that attitude, even so conservative a cheerleader for the administration as David Brooks declared that “canning Michael Brown or appointing some tough response czar will not change the endemic failures at the heart of this institutional collapse” (NEW YORK TIMES, 9/11/05).
The Bush agenda is suddenly uncertain, a turnaround from the three years of opportunities provided his administration by the September 11, 2001 attacks, opportunities to start two wars and to exercise police powers at home. Staggering costs of recovery may have eroded plans to privatize Social Security and end the estate taxes for the rich. And the occupation of Iraq, already a massive dump of money and resources while the budget deficit balloons, looks different now, economically and politically. Nevertheless even a pullout from Iraq, partial or total, would not mean an end to the U.S.’s single superpower reach in Iraq or elsewhere.
We cannot be lulled into thinking that the crisis from Hurricane Katrina itself will reverse that agenda. Unlike in the aftermath of 9/11, milked even during the relief efforts to distract from the Gulf Coast crisis, Bush and company will do everything they can to make us forget his culpability. For us to allow New Orleans to be forgotten in six months or six years from now will allow the illusion to endure that capitalism is eternal.
Like the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, New Orleans tore a scab open, exposing the achilles heel of American capitalism, its racism. The difference is that in 2005 the U.S. is at war in Iraq. The internal crisis is seriously threatening to undermine the continuation of an already most unpopular war.
With New Orleans, we have the type of crisis not seen since the 1960s, when urban insurrections by the Black masses gave pause to the Vietnam War. At no time since then have the issues of race, poverty, and war come together in such a threatening way to the rulers. Already nervous about Bush’s reckless wars and economic policies, they are on the threshold of a split in the dominant classes that could create a true opening for thinkers and activists in movements against racism, war, and global capital.
Karl Marx, viewing the endemic economic crises that capitalist development spawned, remarked that the bourgeoisie “is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery.” This is clear in New Orleans, but it is also true of the many “New Orleans” across the country, social crises ready to erupt. Look at persistent poverty in the 21st century. Although many among the working poor fall below the “poverty line,” the truth is that the poor who are at or above the mark cannot make ends meet. Among the supposedly better off, some 45 million have no health insurance and are one health incident away from destitution. The floods tore the veneer of permanence off of this system, showing that crisis is in its heart and soul. Any illusions of stability have been blown away by Hurricane Katrina.
Originally appeared in News & Letters, September-October 2005