Catastrophic Economics: The Predators of New Orleans
Mark Davis le monde diplomatique, October 2005
THE tempest that destroyed New Orleans was conjured out of tropical seas and an angry atmosphere 250km offshore of the Bahamas. Labelled initially as “tropical depression 12” on 23 August, it quickly intensified into “tropical storm Katrina”, the eleventh named storm in one of the busiest hurricane seasons in history. Making landfall near Miami on 24 August, Katrina had grown into a small hurricane, category one on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, with 125 km/h winds that killed nine people and knocked out power to one million residents. Crossing over Florida to the Gulf of Mexico where it wandered for four days, Katrina underwent a monstrous and largely unexpected transformation. Siphoning vast quantities of energy from the Gulf’s abnormally warm waters, 3°C above their usual August temperature, Katrina mushroomed into an awesome, top-of-the-scale, class five hurricane with 290 km/h winds that propelled tsunami-like storm surges nearly 10m in height. The journal Nature later reported that Katrina absorbed so much heat from the Gulf that “water temperatures dropped dramatically after it had passed, in some regions from 30°C to 26°C” (1). Horrified meteorologists had rarely seen a Caribbean hurricane replenish its power so dramatically, and researchers debated whether or not Katrina’s explosive growth was a portent of global warming’s impact on hurricane intensity. Although Katrina had dropped to category four, with 210-249 km/h winds, by the time it careened ashore in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi river on early 29 August, it was small consolation to the doomed oil ports, fishing camps and Cajun villages in its direct path. In Plaquemines, and again on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, it churned the bayous with relentless wrath, leaving behind a devastated landscape that looked like a watery Hiroshima. Metropolitan New Orleans, with 1.3 million inhabitants, was originally dead centre in Katrina’s way, but the storm veered to the right after landfall and its eye passed 55km to the east of the metropolis. The Big Easy, largely under sea-level and bordered by the salt-water embayments known as Lake Pontchartrain (on the north) and Lake Borgne (on the east), was spared the worst of Katrina’s winds but not its waters. Hurricane-driven storm surges from both lakes broke through the notoriously inadequate levees, not as high as in more affluent areas, which guard black-majority eastern New Orleans as well as adjacent white blue-collar suburbs in St Bernard Parish. There was no warning and the rapidly rising waters trapped and killed hundreds of unevacuated people in their bedrooms, including 34 elderly residents of a nursing home. Later, probably around midday, a more formidable floodwall gave way at the 17th Street Canal, allowing Lake Pontchartrain to pour into low-lying central districts. Although New Orleans’s most famous tourist assets, including the French Quarter and the Garden District, and its most patrician neighbourhoods, such as Audubon Park, are built on high ground and survived the inundation, the rest of the city was flooded to its rooftops or higher, damaging or destroying more than 150,000 housing units. Locals promptly called it “Lake George” after the president who failed to build new levees or come to their aid after the old ones had burst. Inequalities of class and race Bush initially said that “the storm didn’t discriminate”, a claim he was later forced to retract: every aspect of the catastrophe was shaped by inequalities of class and race. Besides unmasking the fraudulent claims of the Department of Homeland Security to make Americans safer, the shock and awe of Katrina also exposed the devastating consequences of federal neglect of majority black and Latino big cities and their vital infrastructures. The incompetence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) demonstrated the folly of entrusting life-and-death public mandates to clueless political appointees and ideological foes of “big government”. The speed with which Washington suspended the prevailing wage standards of the Davis-Bacon Act (2) and swung open the doors of New Orleans to corporate looters such as Halliburton, the Shaw Group and Blackwater Security, already fat from the spoils of the Tigris, contrasted obscenely with Fema’s deadly procrastination over sending water, food and buses to the multitudes trapped in the stinking hell of the Louisiana Superdome. But if New Orleans, as many bitter exiles now believe, was allowed to die as a result of governmental incompetence and neglect, blame also squarely falls on the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, and especially on City Hall on Perdido Street. Mayor C Ray Nagin is a wealthy African-American cable television executive and a Democrat, who was elected in 2002 with 87% of the white vote (3). He was ultimately responsible for the safety of the estimated quarter of the population that was too poor or infirm to own a car. His stunning failure to mobilise resources to evacuate car-less residents and hospital patients, despite warning signals from the city’s botched response to the threat of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, reflected more than personal ineptitude: it was also a symbol of the callous attitude among the city’s elites, both white and black, toward their poor neighbours in backswamp districts and rundown housing projects. Indeed, the ultimate revelation of Katrina was how comprehensively the promise of equal rights for poor African-Americans has been dishonoured and betrayed by every level of government. A death foretold The death of New Orleans had been forewarned; indeed no disaster in American history had been so accurately predicted in advance. Although the Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, would later claim that “the size of the storm was beyond anything his department could have anticipated,” this was flatly untrue. If scientists were surprised by Katrina’s sudden burgeoning to super-storm dimensions, they had grim confidence in exactly what New Orleans could expect from the landfall of a great hurricane. Since the nasty experience of Hurricane Betsy in September 1965 (a category three storm that inundated many eastern parts of Orleans Parish that were drowned by Katrina), the vulnerability of the city to wind-driven storm surges has been intensively studied and widely publicised. In 1998, after a close call with Hurricane Georges, research increased and a sophisticated computer study by Louisiana State University warned of the “virtual destruction” of the city by a category four storm approaching from the southwest (4). The city’s levees and stormwalls are only designed to withstand a category three hurricane, but even that threshold of protection was revealed as illusory in computer simulations last year by the Army Corps of Engineers. The continuous erosion of southern Louisiana’s barrier islands and bayou wetlands (an estimated annual shoreline loss of 60-100 sq km) increases the height of surges as they arrive at New Orleans, while the city, along with its levees, is slowly sinking. As a result even a category three, if slow moving, would flood most of it (5). Global warming and sea-level rise will only make the “Big One”, as folks in New Orleans, like their counterparts in Los Angeles, call the local apocalypse, even bigger. Lest politicians have difficulty understanding the implications of such predictions, other studies modelled the exact extent of flooding as well as the expected casualties of a direct hit. Supercomputers repeatedly cranked out the same horrifying numbers: 160 sq km or more of the city under water with 80-100,000 dead, the worst disaster in United States history. In the light of these studies, Fema warned in 2001 that a hurricane flood in New Orleans was one of the three mega-catastrophes most likely to strike the US in the near future, along with a California earthquake and a terrorist attack on Manhattan. Shortly afterwards, the magazine Scientific American published an account of the flood danger (“Drowning New Orleans”, October 2001) which, like an award-winning series (“The Big One’) in the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, in 2002, was chillingly accurate in its warnings. Last year, after meteorologists predicted a strong upsurge in hurricane activity, federal officials carried out an elaborate disaster drill (“Hurricane Pam”) that re-confirmed that casualties would be likely to be in the tens of thousands. The Bush administration’s response to these frightening forecasts was to rebuff Louisiana’s urgent requests for more flood protection: the crucial Coast 2050 project to revive protective wetlands, the culmination of a decade of research and negotiation, was shelved and levee appropriations, including the completion of defences around Lake Pontchartrain, were repeatedly slashed. Washington at work In part, this was a consequence of new priorities in Washington that squeezed the budget of the Army Corps: a huge tax cut for the rich, the financing of the war in Iraq, and the costs of “Homeland Security”. Yet there was undoubtedly a brazen political motive as well: New Orleans is a black-majority, solidly Democratic city whose voters frequently wield the balance of power in state elections. Why would an administration so relentlessly focused on partisan warfare seek to reward this thorn in Karl Rove’s side by authorising the $2.5bn that senior Corps officials estimated would be required to build a category five protection system around the city? (6). Indeed when the head of the Corps, a former Republican congressman, protested in 2002 against the way that flood-control projects were being short-changed, Bush removed him from office. Last year the administration also pressured Congress to cut $71m from the budget of the Corps’s New Orleans district despite warnings of epic hurricane seasons close at hand. To be fair, Washington has spent a lot of money on Louisiana, but it has been largely on non-hurricane-related public works that benefit shipping interests and hardcore Republican districts (7). Besides underfunding coastline restoration and levee construction, the White House mindlessly vandalised Fema. Under director James Lee Witt (who enjoyed Cabinet rank), Fema had been the showpiece of the Clinton administration, winning bipartisan praise for its efficient dispatch of search and rescue teams and prompt provision of federal aid after the 1993 Mississippi River floods and the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. When Republicans took over the agency in 2001, it was treated as enemy terrain: the new director, former Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, decried disaster assistance as “an oversized entitlement programme” and urged Americans to rely more upon the Salvation Army and other faith-based groups. Allbaugh cut back many key flood and storm mitigation programmes, before resigning in 2003 to become a highly-paid consultant to firms seeking contracts in Iraq. (An inveterate ambulance-chaser, he recently reappeared in Louisiana as an insider broker for firms looking for lucrative reconstruction work in the wake of Katrina.) Since its absorption into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003 (with the loss of its representation in the cabinet), Fema has been repeatedly downsized, and also ensnared in new layers of bureaucracy and patronage. Last year Fema employees wrote to Congress: “Emergency managers at Fema have been supplanted on the job by politically connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge” (8). A new Maginot Line A prime example was Allbaugh’s successor and protégé, Michael Brown, a Republican lawyer with no emergency management experience, whose previous job was representing the wealthy owners of Arabian horses. Under Brown, Fema continued its metamorphosis from an “all hazards” approach to a monomaniacal emphasis on terrorism. Three-quarters of the federal disaster preparedness grants that Fema formerly used to support local earthquake, storm and flood prevention has been diverted to counter-terrorism scenarios. The Bush administration has built a Maginot Line against al-Qaida while neglecting levees, storm walls and pumps. There was every reason for anxiety, if not panic, when the director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Max Mayfield, warned Bush (still vacationing in Texas) and Homeland Security officials in a video-conference on 28 August that Katrina was poised to devastate New Orleans. Yet Brown, faced with the possible death of 100,000 locals,-exuded breathless, arrogant bravado: “We were so ready for this. We planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we’ve always known about New Orleans.” For months Brown, and his boss Chertoff, had trumpeted the new National Response Plan that would ensure unprecedented coordination amongst government agencies during a major disaster. But as floodwaters swallowed New Orleans and its suburbs, it was difficult to find anyone to answer a phone, much less take charge of the relief operation. “A mayor in my district,” an angry Republican congressman told the Wall Street Journal, “tried to get supplies for his constituents, who were hit directly by the hurricane. He called for help and was put on hold for 45 minutes. Eventually, a bureaucrat promised to write a memo to his supervisor” (9). Although state-of-the-art communications were supposedly the backbone of the new plan, frantic rescue workers and city officials were plagued by the breakdown of phone systems and the lack of a common bandwidth. At the same time they faced immediate shortages of the critical food rations, potable water, sandbags, generator fuel, satellite phones, portable toilets, buses, boats, and helicopters, Fema should have pre-positioned in New Orleans. Most fatefully, Chertoff inexplicably waited 24 hours after the city had been flooded to upgrade the disaster to an “incident of national significance”, the legal precondition for moving federal response into high gear. Far more than the reluctance of the president to return to work, or the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, to interrupt a mansion-hunting trip, or the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to end a shoe-buying expedition in Manhattan, it was the dinosaur-like slowness of the brain of Homeland Security to register the magnitude of the disaster that doomed so many to die clinging to their roofs or hospital beds. Lathered in premature, embarrassing praise from Bush for their heroic exertions, Chertoff and Brown were more like sleepwalkers. As late as 2 September, Chertoff astonished an interviewer on National Public Radio by claiming that the scenes of death and desperation inside the Superdome, which the world was watching on television, were just “rumours and anecdotes”. Brown blamed the victims, claiming that most deaths were the fault of “people who did not heed evacuation warnings”, although he knew that “heeding” had nothing to do with the lack of an automobile or confinement in a wheelchair. Despite claims by the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, that the tragedy had nothing to do with Iraq, the absence of more than a third of the Louisiana National Guard and much of its heavy equipment crippled rescue and relief operations from the outset. Fema often obstructed rather than facilitated relief: preventing civilian aircraft from evacuating hospital patients and delaying authorisations for out-of-state National Guard and rescue teams to enter the area. As an embittered representative from devastated St Bernard Parish told the Times-Picayune: “Canadian help arrived before the US Army did” (10). A conservative New Jerusalem New Orleans City Hall could have used Canadian help: the emergency command centre on its ninth floor was put out of operation early in the emergency by a shortage of diesel to run its backup generator. For two days Nagin and his aides were cut off from the outside world by the failure of both their landlines and cellular phones. This collapse of the city’s command-and-control apparatus is puzzling in view of the $18m in federal grants that the city had spent since 2002 in training exercises to deal with such contingencies. Even more mysterious was the relationship between Nagin and his state and federal counterparts. As the mayor later summarised it, the city’s disaster plan was: “Get people to higher ground and have the feds and the state -airlift supplies to them.” Yet Nagin’s Director of Homeland Security, Colonel Terry Ebbert, astonished journalists with the admission that “he never spoke with Fema about the state disaster blueprint” (11). Nagin later ranted with justification about Fema’s failure to pre position supplies or to rush buses and medical supplies promptly to the Superdome. But evacuation planning was, above all, a city responsibility; and earlier planning exercises and surveys had shown that at least a fifth of the population would be unable to leave without assistance (12). In September 2004 Nagin had been roundly criticised for making no effort to evacuate poor residents as their better-off neighbours drove off before category-three Hurricane Ivan (which fortunately veered away from the city at the last moment). In response, the city produced, but never distributed, 30,000 videos targeted at poor neighbourhoods that urged residents “Don’t wait for the city, don’t wait for the state, don’t wait for the Red Cross, leave.” In the absence of official planning to provide buses or better, trains, such advice seem to imply that poor people had to start walking. But when, after the breakdown of sanitation and order in the Superdome, hundreds did attempt to escape the city by walking across a bridge into the white suburb of Gretna, they were turned back by panicky local police who fired over their heads. It is inevitable that many of those left behind in drowning neighbourhoods will interpret City Hall’s unconscionable negligence in the context of the bitter economic and racial schisms that have long made New Orleans the most tragic city in the US. It is no secret that its business elites and their allies in City Hall would like to push the poorest segment of the population, blamed for high crime rates, out of the city. Historic public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. In other housing projects, residents are routinely evicted for offences as trivial as their children’s curfew violations. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme-park New Orleans, Las Vegas on the Mississippi, with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits. Not surprisingly, some advocates of a whiter, safer city see a divine plan in Katrina. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” a leading Louisiana Republican confined to Washington lobbyists. “We couldn’t do it, but God did” (13). Nagin boasted of his empty streets and ruined neighbourhoods: “This city is for the first time free of drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way.” A partial ethnic cleansing of New Orleans will be a fait accompli without massive local and federal efforts to provide affordable housing for tens of thousands of poor renters now dispersed across the country in refugee shelters. Already there is intense debate about transforming some of poorest, low-lying neighbourhoods, such the Lower Ninth Ward (flooded again by Hurricane Rita), into water retention ponds to protect wealthier parts. As the Wall Street Journal has rightly emphasised, “That would mean preventing some of New Orleans’s poorest residents from ever returning to their neighbourhoods” (14). Epic political dogfight As everyone recognises, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the rest of afflicted Gulf region will be an epic political dogfight. Already Nagin has staked out the claims of the local gentrifying class by announcing that he will appoint a 16-member reconstruction commission evenly split between whites and blacks, although the city is more than 75% African-American. Its “white-flight” suburbs (social springboards for neo-Nazi David Duke’s frightening electoral successes in the early 1990s) will fiercely lobby for their cause, while Mississippi’s powerful Republican establishment has already warned that it will not play second fiddle to Big Easy Democrats. In this inevitable clash of interest groups, it is unlikely that the city’s traditional black neighbourhoods, the true hearths of its joyous sensibility and jazz culture, will be able to exercise much clout. The Bush administration hopes to find its own resurrection in a combination of rampant fiscal Keynesianism and fundamentalist social engineering. Katrina’s immediate impact on the Potomac was such a steep fall in Bush’s popularity, and, collaterally, in approval for the US occupation of Iraq, that Republican hegemony seemed suddenly under threat. For the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, “old Democrat” issues such as poverty, racial injustice and public investment temporarily commanded public discourse, and the Wall Street Journal warned that Republicans had “to get back on the political and intellectual offensive” before liberals like Ted Kennedy could revive New Deal nostrums, such as a massive federal agency for flood -control and shoreline restoration along the Gulf coast (15). The Heritage Foundation hosted meetings late into the night at which conservative ideologues, congressional cadres and the ghosts of Republicans past (such as Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s former Attorney General) hashed a strategy to rescue Bush from the toxic aftermath of Fema’s disgrace. New Orleans’s floodlit but empty Jackson Square was the eerie backdrop for Bush’s 15 September speech on reconstruction. It was an extraordinary performance. He sunnily reassured two million victims that the White House would pick up most of the tab for the estimated $200bn flood damage: deficit spending on a scale that would have given Keynes vertigo. (It has not deterred him from proposing another huge tax cut for the super-rich.) Bush wooed his political base with a dream list of long-sought-after conservative social reforms: school and housing vouchers (16), a central role for churches, an urban homestead lottery (17), extensive tax breaks to businesses, the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone (18), and the suspension of annoying government regulations (in the fine print these include prevailing wages in construction and environmental regulations on offshore drilling). For connoisseurs of Bush-speak, the speech was a moment of exquisite déjà vu. Had not similar promises been made on the banks of the Euphrates? As Paul Krugman cruelly pointed out, the White House, having tried and failed to turn Iraq “into a laboratory for conservative economic policies”, would now experiment on traumatised inhabitants of Biloxi and the Ninth Ward (19). Congressman Mike Pence, a leader of the powerful Republican Study Group which helped draft Bush’s reconstruction agenda, emphasised that Republicans would turn the rubble into a capitalist utopia: “We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was” (20). Symptomatically, the Army Corps in New Orleans is now led by the official who formerly oversaw contracts in Iraq (21). The Lower Ninth Ward may never exist again, but already the barroom and strip-joint owners in the French Quarter are relishing the fat days ahead, as the Halliburton workers, Blackwater mercenaries, and Bechtel engineers leave their federal paychecks behind on Bourbon Street. As they say in Cajun, — and no doubt now in the White House too –“laissez les bons temps rouler!” * Mike Davis is the author of ‘The Monster at Our Door. The Global Threat of Avian Flu’ (New Press, New York, 2005), ‘Dead cities, and other tales’ (New Press, 2002), ‘Late Victorian holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the third world’ (Verso, London and New York, 2001), ‘Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster’ (Picador, London, 2000) and many other works. Original text in English (1) Quirin Schiermeier, “The Power of Katrina,” Nature, no 437, London, 8 September 2005. (2) Editorial note: legislation dating from the New Deal obliging public employers to respect the minimum local wage. (3) Though Louisiana voted for Bush in 2004 (56.7%), New Orleans is traditionally Democrat. (4) Study by engineering professor Joseph Suhayda described in Richard Campanella, Time and Place in New Orleans, Gretna, Los Angeles, 2002. (5) John Travis, “Scientists’ Fears Come True as Hurricane Floods New Orleans”, Science, no 309, New York, 9 September 2005. (6) Andrew Revkin and Christopher Drew, “Intricate Flood Protection Long a Focus of Dispute,” New York Times, 1 September 2005. (7) “Katrina’s Message on the Corps,” New York Times, 13 September 2005. (8) “Top Fema Jobs: No Experience Required,” Los Angeles Times, 9 September 2005. (9) Congressman Bobby Jindal, “When Red Tape Trumped Common Sense,” Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2005. (10) Melinda Deslatte, “St Bernard Parish residents overflow the Capital,” Times-Picayune, 12 September 2005. (11) New York Times, 7 and 11 September 2005. (12) Tony Reichhardt, Erika Check and Emma Morris, “After the flood,” Nature, no 437, 8 September 2005. (13) Congressman Richard Baker (Baton Rouge) quoted in “Washington Wire,” Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2005. (14) “As Gulf Prepares to Rebuild, Tensions Mount Over Control,” Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2005. (15) “Hurricane Bush,” Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2005. (16) Editor’s note: rental vouchers were issued, backed by Congress-approved funds, to 20,000 homeless after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake to pay for rent anywhere in the state. (17) Editor’s note: a plan to distribute federal land to those who would pledge to erect a house on it and could afford to do so. It is estimated that this would provide about 4,000 sites for 250,000 displaced people, 125,000 of whom were renting. (18) Editor’s note: a zone in which relief is related to private financial initiatives. (19) “Not the New Deal,” New York Times, 16 September 2005. (20) John Wilke and Brody Mullins, “After Katrina, Republicans Back a Sea of Conservative Ideas,” Wall Street Journal, 15 September 2005. (21) Editorial, “Mr Bush in New Orleans,” New York Times, 16 September 2005.
Junaid Alam, 22, is a journalism student at Northeastern University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.