Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

The Bush administration, which is waging wars the world over to protect the "American way of life", stands exposed as it does nothing to prevent Hurricane Katrina from devastating black-dominated New Orleans despite sufficient warnings.

VIJAY PRASHAD in Hartford, Connecticut

AT 11 p.m. on Thursday, August 25, the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, reported that the storm, which it had tracked from Tuesday and named "Katrina", had made landfall. The high winds struck parts of Florida, but this was going to be the prologue. The meteorologists reported, "Katrina is expected to gradually strengthen once in the Gulf of Mexico as suggested by all guidance," and "all indications are that Katrina will be a dangerous hurricane in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico in about three days."

At 4-13 p.m. on August 28, the National Weather Service station in New Orleans provided a chilling forecast of what was to come. The scientists looked at the size of the hurricane and provided this analysis: "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. At least one half of well constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. All gabled roofs will fail leaving homes severely damaged or destroyed. The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional. Partial to complete wall and roof failures is expected. All wood-framed, low-rising apartment buildings will sustain major damage, including some wall and roof failure. High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously... a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out. Airborne debris will be widespread. Power outages will last for weeks as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards." The National Weather Service warned, "Preparations [for evacuations and relief] should be rushed to completion."

President George W. Bush had declared a state of emergency in Louisiana the day before. However, the entire federal structure that should have gone into motion languished. The National Guard, which should have been mobilised immediately to set up relief, was not available. "Where is the National Guard?" asked the Sun Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi). "Why hasn't every able-bodied member of the armed forces in Southern Mississippi been pressed into service?" (August 31). Six thousand members of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard are currently in Iraq.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) experienced a major communications breakdown, and its leader Michael Brown appeared as befuddled at this job as he had been at the helm of the International Arabian Horse Association. The National Situation Update from FEMA's technicians on August 26 had warned of catastrophic consequences, but, according to Leo Bosner of the office, the lack of attention from the government shocked the staff. FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, set up in the wake of 9/11 as the omnibus agency for national defence. The Department floundered, as it became known that it had diverted funds meant for natural disasters towards terrorist attacks.

On August 29, the Category 5 hurricane made landfall near Buras, Louisiana. Before the day was over, the storm had smashed into New Orleans. By nightfall it appeared that the worst had passed, and that the storm had not truly devastated the city. Those who could leave the city had left following a mandatory evacuation order, but many remained trapped. On August 30, a massive storm surge overwhelmed the ancient levees and began to flood the city. The Gulf of Mexico flowed down Canal Street, and those who had to remain in the city rushed towards the Superdome (the sport's stadium) and the Convention Centre. Tens of thousands of people waited for governmental help, trapped as they were in these fragile islands with minimal water and food, and with the winds on high again. Fear and exhaustion created mayhem inside these badly equipped shelters.

On September 2, the New Orleans police superintendent Edwin Compass entered the Superdome and told the 30,000 refugees: "We've got food and water coming. We've got buses that are going to take you out of here." Disbelief and anger flooded the vast space where people had experienced governmental inaction for a week. "Disease, germs," one woman told reporters, "we need help. We don't live like this in America." Another woman yelled out to Compass, "We're ready to go now. We don't need food. Get us out of here."

The palpable anger in the room had cause. The previous evening, Brown admitted on television that he had not known about the refugees in the Superdome and the Convention Centre until that day, despite the widespread media reports. The faith in the government decreased when Brown lied the next day about the well-being of the refugees, "We've provided food to the people at the Convention Centre so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day." How could FEMA have fed the people if it did not know they existed?

The Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana called for federal assistance as the water level rose and the people remained in the city. On August 31, Senator Mary Landrieu told the press that when she asked for federal help, "I started to sense they were thinking I was a little overwrought, that maybe I was exaggerating a little bit." The next day, Mayor Rick Nagin fulminated, "They're thinking small, man. And this is a major, major, major deal." The local administration tried to do what it could, given the paucity of resources, as the federal government and its agencies congratulated each other but produced nothing.

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish (a town within Greater New Orleans), put it bluntly on the National Broadcasting Corporation's (NBC) "Meet the Press". He said: "We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area."

When the levees broke, President Bush said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." The Times-Picayune, New Orleans' main newspaper, now being printed outside the city, quickly retaliated, "No one can say they didn't see it coming. Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation." The Times-Picayune need only have gone into its own archives to show that discussion over the state of the levees had reached fever pitch since 2001, although the problem has a longer history.

New Orleans is an impossible city. Birthed in the Mississippi delta hundreds of years ago, it lives on the goodwill of the natural levees, wetlands and flood plains. It has always been a city in danger, more so as the city expanded into the flood plain and the Gulf of Mexico eroded the coastline. The ingenious work of the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) after a catastrophic flood in 1927 brought stability to the relationship between city and nature. The Corps built floodgates, emergency spillover canals and levees to control surges from the river and the Gulf. When a flood threatened the city in 1973, the Corps went to work and diverted water.

The remarkable power of Hurricane Georges in 1998 endangered the system again, and if it had not veered slightly off course it might have devastated the levees and the city. Alfred Naomi of the Corps told the press at that time: "Had [Georges] hit us directly, our levees would not have protected us. A tidal surge from such a storm would have topped the levees by several feet." The U.S. Congress heeded the warning, and sent money to the Corps to study the problem and fix it.

In October 2001, Mark Fischetti, a contributing editor to Scientific American, wrote in the magazine: "New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. If a big slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. Scientists at Louisiana State University, who have modelled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die." The Corps, Fischetti reported, has a plan to transform the "terminally ill city dependent on non-stop pumping to keep it alive," but nobody wanted to fund the work. Where would the money come from?

The U.S. Congress and other sources had allocated $480 million to the Corps to shore up the levees and build pumping stations. Before the work could be completed, the government sought to cut the funds both to the Corps and to the regional authorities. The cuts are such, Naomi noted, that his team could do no more than pay salaries. During the discussion about the cuts, the Houston Chronicle reported (December 1, 2001) that FEMA had "ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing the country". The other two were an earthquake in San Francisco and a terror attack on New York City.

By 2003, the federal government had essentially frozen any projects to save New Orleans from an inevitable hurricane and storm surge. The government's tax cuts and war on Iraq sucked up any funds needed for domestic infrastructure projects. Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told The Times-Picayune (June 8, 2004): "It appears that the money has been moved in the President's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody, locally, is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Ten days later, Naomi told the same paper, "The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't stay ahead of the settlement. The problem that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise them." The situation deteriorated to such an extent that Louisiana's Governor threatened to sue the federal government. She didn't.

The war in Iraq and the domestic war on terrorism partly account for the lack of funds. Since the Reagan administration, the federal government cut these projects because it has followed a philosophy to scale back government. The government has cut back on social programmes and on infrastructural development at the same time as it has enhanced its military capacity. One of the ideological gurus of this movement, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, once wrote, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." The massive failure of the government in the protection of New Orleans is an indication that the government has drowned along with the people of the city.

On September 4, The Times-Picayune (founded in 1837) published its third print edition since the flood. "We're angry, Mr. President," the editors wrote, "and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame."

The main agency to deal with relief efforts after a natural disaster is FEMA. Created in 1979, FEMA merged a host of governmental agencies that had emerged since the 1930s to confront one disaster after another. With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11, many federal agencies found their work absorbed by the logic of the war on terrorism. FEMA became part of the Department, and its budget priorities moved from response to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters to response to terror attacks. George Haddow, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff, told Miami Herald (September 3): "There are no emergency managers at any level in the Department of Homeland Security. It's all law enforcement."

The Department's July 2005 review dismantled FEMA's Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. In the new dispensation, the Department of Homeland Security centralised power. In the event that the government recognises "that a catastrophic incident condition exists," the Department's own protocol insists, "the Secretary of Homeland Security immediately designates the event an Incident of National Significance and begins, potentially in advance of a formal presidential disaster declaration, implementation of the National Response Plan." No such thing happened. The storm struck, the levees overflowed, and the government watched the television coverage. (The Department of Homeland Security implemented the Plan on August 30.)

When the Mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city, many people left, but tens of thousands remained. In 2003, a Louisiana State University poll found that a third of the city's population would not leave in the event of a Category 4 Hurricane. Stubbornness is not a sufficient explanation for this because those who would not leave could not. They, typically, had little disposable income to evacuate the city (28 per cent live under the federal poverty line), they did not own cars (50,000 households have none) and many of them are disabled (24 per cent of the city's population).

Malik Rahman, a former Black Panther Party member and a New Orleans community activist, reports that the government abandoned those who could not leave as Katrina approached. "If you ain't got no money in America, you're on your own. People were told to go to the Superdome, but they have no food, no water there. And before they could get in, people had to stand in line for four to five hours in the rain because everybody was being searched one by one at the entrance. The Hurricane hit at the end of the month, the time when poor people are most vulnerable. Food stamps don't buy enough but for about three weeks of the month, and by the end of the month everyone runs out. Now they have no way to get their food stamps or any money, so they just have to take what they can to survive."

When Hurricane Ivan approached New Orleans in September 2004, the highways out of the city were rapidly filled up with affluent people, most of whom are white. The poor, who are predominantly black or Latino, could not leave. At that time, The Times-Picayune ran a story about the working poor who lived in congested neighbourhoods, but who had no means to evacuate the city. At the last minute, the Mayor opened the Superdome as a shelter (he prevaricated because in 1998 the 14,000 refugees from Hurricane Georges "nearly did more damage than the storm itself. Countless television sets, seat cushions and bar stools were stolen [from the Superdome], and workers spent months cleaning graffiti off the walls," the Associated Press reported). It is this same population that suffered the most during Katrina.

For most people outside the city, New Orleans is known for its French Quarter. About 11 million tourists visit the city annually, and they enjoy what has come to be called the "Creole Disneyland". In 1999, The Times-Picayune's Coleman Warner wrote, "The quality of residential life in the Quarter seems to wane by the year, residents say. Longtime Quarter residents continue to complain about rowdy drunks, T-shirt shops, crowded sidewalks, loud bar music and a pervasive loss of privacy." None of this was of importance to the city officials, who enjoyed the $5 billion in revenue brought in by the tourists (98 per cent of whom visited the Quarter). Part of the strategy of the city officials has been to ensure that the Quarter maintains its allure, and that every unpleasant element is removed to the other side of the Mississippi. Among that which is unpleasant is poverty, and the city has spent a generation to move the mainly black poor away from the tourist hub.

Blacks make up close to 84 per cent of New Orleans' population, but if you only went to the French Quarter or to the up-market and highland residential districts you would miss this fact. Since the days of slavery, blacks have lived in the battures, the backswamp areas where they have enjoyed neither flood protection nor property ownership. Most of the black population lives in substandard federal housing, and since the 1990s the federal government has sought to evict them from these as well. In the late 1990s, the city went after the St. Thomas Housing Project, which abutted an affluent white neighbourhood. The war against the black poor had rarely seemed so blatant.

The fate of blacks in New Orleans should remind us of other "disposable people" (about 1.5 billion across the planet) who live in slums, work in alternative economies and earn the disdain and fear of the well-heeled. The distance between these people and the aristocrats who run the system became clear when the President's mother, Barbara Bush, faced the nation after her visit with refugees in Houston, Texas. "What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the [Houston Arena] here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." They should, in other words, be pleased that the hurricane has allowed them to live in better conditions than before.

Writing in Los Angeles Times (September 7), Professor Rosa Brooks pointed out, "Today there are two Americas: the First World one, with its Starbucks and SUVs, and the Third World one, which is generally out of sight and out of mind." Professor Cornel West of Princeton University wrote in London Observer: "New Orleans was Third World long before the hurricane... . People were quick to call them refugees because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they were never given high priority when the well-to-do got out and the helicopters came for the few. Almost everyone stuck on the rooftops, in the shelters, and dying by the side of the road was poor black. From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a journey" (September 11).

Among America's poor (13 per cent by the federal rates, about 37 million people), the social indicators are appalling: high infant mortality rates, low literacy rates, high unemployment rates, and low rates of health insurance. This reality accompanied by the decimation of social welfare and of federal relief schemes left a vulnerable population to drown in the Gulf of Mexico. The official death toll is expected to rise into the thousands.

Instead of compassion, the government went on the rampage. When whites scrounged for food, the media pointed to their resilience, whereas blacks were called looters. On August 31, the government ordered the police to stop searching for survivors and to fight against the looting (they were ordered to shoot at sight). Governor Kathleen Blanco, in her most pointed message, noted, "I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will." Two days later, the police killed at least four people.

Meanwhile, the former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Linda Chavez, offered an explanation both for poverty and for the lack of a general evacuation. "In New Orleans you are dealing with the permanently poor people who don't have jobs, are not used to getting up and organising themselves and getting things done and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life. This is a natural disaster that is exacerbated by the problems of the underclass. The chief cause of poverty today among blacks is no longer racism. It is the breakdown of the traditional family." This chief ally of the "compassionate conservative" President provided a way to exculpate the system from its responsibility. Her words are the verbal equivalent of the shoot-at-sight order.

When the shoot-at-sight and the racist frameworks did not work, Bush turned against his own government. "I am satisfied with the response," he said, "I'm not satisfied with all the results." He first praised the head of FEMA, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," only to withdraw his long-time political crony to Washington a few days later (Brown eventually resigned on September 12). Finally, Bush resorted to an old technique, to denounce the "blame game" and to claim to be about results ("One of the things that people want us to do," he sneered on September 6, "is to play a blame game").

The New York Times responded to this with a strong editorial on September 7. It said: "This is not a game. It is critical to know what `things went wrong', as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed, not to humiliate them, but to replace them with competent people."

Even this liberal paper did not ask for a national dialogue over poverty and its causes, surely one of the issues raised by the aftermath of Katrina.

In the midst of all this wrangling, Bush announced the creation of a White House commission to study the failures. Houston Chronicle, the hometown paper of Bush's father, offered a harsh editorial against this proposal. It said: "The President should make every effort to educate himself about what went wrong, a list that would include his own failure to perform effectively as commander-in-chief. However, it doesn't take a doctorate in jurisprudence to realise that a President can't credibly investigate his own administration"(September 9).

While the citizens suffered in the Superdome, the federal government began to plan for the rebuilding of the city. Lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, a former FEMA employee and Bush's campaign manager in 2000, represents two of the main firms that will benefit from the contracts to rebuild the city: the Shaw Group and Halliburton. On September 7, Allbaugh visited the Gulf Coast, where he told reporters, "I don't do government contracts. I'm just trying to lend my shoulder to the wheel trying to coordinate some private-sector support that the government always asks for."

Nevertheless, Halliburton, Vice-President Cheney's former firm and major beneficiary in Iraq, has been tapped to clean up the Navy bases along the Gulf coast (at a cost of $29.8 million). Shaw earned a $100 million from the Corps of Engineers to rebuild homes (Bechtel, another major player, has been called in to build homes). These are all no-bid contracts.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, 40 members of the New Orleans elite (all established, moneyed, white families) met to discuss the fate of their city. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically," said James Reiss to The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper (September 8). "I'm not speaking for myself here," he continued. "The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out." Incidentally, when Reiss fled the city before the storm, he flew in an Israeli security firm by helicopter to protect his Audubon Park mansion.

The government and these established families have tried to remove the black poor from the city for several decades. The hurricane's destructive force has done their job for them. Now they will try to keep the poor blacks out. The federal government has already shipped people across the country. Inside the Houston astrodome, military recruiters went among the refugees. On September 7, the military conducted a Job Fair inside the astrodome "as a blatant effort to exploit the despair of masses of Americans evacuated from the Gulf coast", in the words of a community organiser.

Not only would blacks not have access to the rebuilding of the city, says Sandra Robertson, who heads the Georgia Hunger Coalition, but the scattered resettlement will "dilute the vote that has been traditionally Democratic and ensure that there is nobody here who can vote en mass to punish Bush".

The rich want to cleanse New Orleans ethnically (and politically). Within the Superdome rumours flew that the establishment had diverted the floodwaters from the French Quarter into the Ninth Ward, where the black poor lived. Whether this is true or not, the poor blacks have a very good sense that they are survivors of a system that views them as disposable.

After the 1927 floods in New Orleans, the federal government, led by the Republican Calvin Coolidge, did nothing. Incensed, the populist Huey Long challenged the spirit of the times. He demanded that an accountable government undertake to "share the wealth".

Long revived the morbid Democratic Party, became Governor of Louisiana, and pushed forward the federal interventionist agenda that brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932. FDR's New Deal of the 1930s owes a lot to Huey Long's populism, which itself was partly a reaction to the government's reaction to the floods. Will there be a new New Deal this time? It appears unlikely.

However, a group of community and labour groups from New Orleans hastily called a meeting, formed themselves into Community Labour United, and released a statement. They called for the "formation of the New Orleans People's Committee, composed of hurricane survivors from each of the shelters, which will demand to oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organisations collecting resources on behalf of the black community of New Orleans; demand decision-making power in the long-term redevelopment of New Orleans; and issue a national call for volunteers to assist with housing, health care, education and legal matters for the duration of the displacement."

They have a vision to reshape New Orleans out of its social and natural tragedy, and to create a humane city. The hungry tide has demolished their anchor, but it might yet provide them with the opportunity to build a real ship.

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