Katrina: A Preventable Social Disaster
by Rosa Ana Duenas Granma International Sept. 6 2005
AS the true horror of the social disaster in the Gulf Coast left in Katrina’s wake becomes more evident with each passing day, two questions are being asked: Was the flooding inevitable? Why did the government fail to prevent so much suffering? Unfortunately, the answers are not surprising for a society where profits come before human lives, and where working-class people – especially the most vulnerable – are expected to bear the brunt of the resulting consequences.
LACK OF PREPARATION: “I SUPPOSE THAT’S THE PRICE WE PAY”
Commentators on all sides are now debating whether or not the deadly flooding in New Orleans could have been prevented. A September 1 AP article notes that scientists had predicted the worst: “experts repeatedly cautioned that the protective system was unlikely to prevail if a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane like Katrina hit the city.” Despite the 2004 hurricane season being the worst in decades, however, the federal government made the biggest cuts in hurricane and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history, preventing millions of dollars’ worth of necessary work from being completed, according to a September 2 Editor & Publisher article: “On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, told the Times-Picayune: ‘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.’” The idea that there was no money to make the city safe because of the imperialist occupation of Iraq is absurd. It’s not that the funds were being used elsewhere; it’s that the potential threat to Gulf Coast residents simply was not a priority. The real priority for the imperialist rulers is ensuring their resources and markets throughout the world at gunpoint, not protecting workers and farmers and their homes and livelihoods, at home or abroad.
FAILURE TO EVACUATE
The flooding around New Orleans the day after the hurricane hit was responsible for the most deaths. Many critics are focusing on the lack of troops and vehicles to rescue people from the floodwaters. But why did tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of mostly working-class Black people remain in the area throughout the storm? On Thursday, August 25, when Katrina hit Florida, it was already clearly a threat to the region, but New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not urge residents to leave until Saturday, later changing it to a “mandatory” evacuation on Sunday. And while the federal government declared an “emergency” for the region, residents were on their own to get out and find somewhere else to say. As in any class-divided society, those with more economic resources fared better. In an August 30 interview on the August 30 CNN television program “Larry King Live,” Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco stated that commercial airlines stopped flying into New Orleans a day before Katrina hit because they would lose money without any passengers coming in, even though the airline companies could have sent planes to evacuate people for another 24 hours. However, even as standstill traffic jams filled every road leading out of the area, neither the state nor federal governments took steps to ensure the commercial flights continued or to use military aircraft in their place. And while the city apparently provided some buses to shelters, it did not mobilize hundreds of school buses that could have been used to take people to safety. In a region where so many live in poverty – 25% in New Orleans, for example –, the hurricane came at the end of the month, when many people had run out of money. State vehicles could have been used; the government could have called on privately owned buses, trains and airlines to take people out of harm’s way. None of that happened. “Many people didn’t have the financial means to get out,” Alan LeBreton, 41, an apartment superintendent from Biloxi told a Reuters reporter. “That’s a crime and people are angry about it.”
“WE’RE JUST A BUNCH OF RATS”
Before Katrina hit, thousands of people flocked to the Superdome and New Orleans convention center, designated as shelters. Countless news reports have described the inhuman, degrading conditions at both places: no food, water, electricity, hygiene or medical care; dead bodies abandoned for days; people fainting in 90-degree heat waiting for transportation that didn’t come; robberies in the darkness at night. This was New Orleans: in the richest country in the world; a favorite tourist destination; with revenues generated from one of the nation’s biggest ports; where 20% of the nation’s oil and gas are produced, yet nothing had been prepared. People went from being trapped in the water to being trapped at the “shelters.” On Friday, September 2, refugees at the convention center quoted by the New York Times said they had been told, even by police officers in squad cars, that buses were on the way. But the buses didn’t come for days. “We’ve been lied to so much,” said Raymond Whitfield, 51, who works at a coffee processing plant. “This is a freaking setup,” said Lela Mosgrove, a nurse who was sent there after the nursing home where she worked was evacuated. She told the AP that she had not eaten in 24 hours. “I don’t know if they are trying to kill us or what.” “We’re just a bunch of rats,” Earle Young, 31, a cook who stood waiting in a throng of perhaps 10,000 outside the Superdome, told the NYT. “That’s how they’ve been treating us.”
THE VICTIM BECOMES THE CRIMINAL
As people became desperate, some began breaking into stores and warehouses looking for food, water, medicine, anything. While some anti-social elements took advantage of the disaster to rob people and even hospitals, the government and media tried to play up “crime and lawlessness” as the biggest problem, instead of the tens of thousands of hungry, homeless and sick people. A September 1 Reuters article reported that, while victims, dead and alive, were still being found by rescuers, Mayor Nagin declared a state of martial law and “ordered police to drop their search-and-rescue operations to concentrate on stopping widespread looting and violence.” That same day, Governor Blanco told reporters, “We will do what it takes to bring law and order to our area. I’m furious. It’s intolerable.” The U.S. President chimed in, also on September 1, when thousands of people had been sleeping on the ground with no food or water, surrounded by filth, for four full days. George W. Bush declared on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this…” Boat searches for survivors had been stopped “in areas where our employees have been determined to potentially be in danger,” stated Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, blaming gunshots, to the Los Angeles Times. One news photo showed a U.S. Army helicopter refusing to land amidst evacuees at the convention center because of the “danger” of a “riot” by desperate refugees below; instead, troops dropped supplies to the ground and flew away – the one and only deposit of food and water there since Katrina hit, according to a Saturday, September 3 LAT article. The helicopter did not return. When thousands of armed troops and military vehicles began pouring into the area by the end of the week, their mission was above all to “control” people. On Saturday at the convention center, about a dozen people who headed down the street to look for food and water were turned back by a soldier who pulled a gun, an AP article reported. “We had to get something to eat. What are they doing pulling a gun?” said Richard Johnson, 28. In another telling scene that same day at the Superdome described by the Houston Chronicle, evacuees were told to move aside as 700 guests and staff at the adjoining Hyatt Regency hotel went to the front of a line for buses. “How does this work?” exclaimed Howard Blue, 22. “They are clean, they are dry, and they get out ahead of us?” When he tried to get into the hotel line, he was returned to his original spot by Guardsmen, who assisted hotel guests and staff with their luggage.
LIVES BEFORE PROFITS
Even big-business media commentators have had to compare the unfolding social catastrophe to the very different response in Cuba to natural disasters. In a September 1 Chicago Sun-Times column, Michael Sneed wrote: “…A top Sneed source who has lived in Cuba on and off for 20 years” told him “When a hurricane is approaching Cuba, Castro has set up a system to bus everybody out of harm’s way before disaster hits. We knew the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans and Mississippi hard. Why didn’t we send buses in to get the poor people out before disaster hit? We spend millions on recovery and rescue AFTERWARDS . . . when we could have alleviated so much death BEFORE?” In a 2001 Guardian article titled, “Socialism and storms: Cuba’s success in minimising loss of life during Hurricane Michelle highlights the social dimension of coping with natural disasters,” writer Ben Wisner, a disaster expert from Ohio, notes that when Michelle hit Cuba that year, authorities evacuated 700,000 of the country’s 11 million people, “quite a feat given Cuba’s dilapidated fleet of vehicles, fuel shortage and poor road system. It was possible only because of advance preparations and planning, a cadre of local personnel, trust in warnings given and cooperation with the Red Cross,” he notes. The same kinds of mobilizations took place in 2004 and 2005 for two devastating hurricanes, Ivan and Denns. Dennis caused $1 billion in destruction, demolished 70,000 homes, and even razed entire mountaintops, but only 16 lives were lost. Cuba, a poor Third World nation with a 45-year economic embargo against it, does what the richest imperial nation in the world cannot, because of its very nature. Capitalism puts profits first. The Revolution puts lives first.