Hurricane Katrina: A Disaster in the Making for Decades

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by Christine Frank / October 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest ever to strike the United States. In the aftermath of the storm, hundreds were found dead in the rank flood waters, their bloated bodies often unrecognizable. A million people have been left homeless and jobless in a vast diaspora spread out over at least 26 states.

Although Katrina is considered a “natural” disaster, many aspects of the catastrophe are human-made. The devastation has grossly amplified the chronic ills of capitalist society in economic, social, ecological, and human terms.

After leaving the Florida coast in the final days of August, the storm increased in force to a Category 5 as it gathered momentum over the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward Louisiana. The unusually high temperature of the Gulf of Mexico’s water, a result of global warming, fed the hurricane and gave it added force.

New Orleans lies, on average, six feet below sea level in a bowl surrounded by the waters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. Because its flood defenses were designed to handle only a Category 3 hurricane, a state of emergency was declared and the immediate
evacuation of the city was ordered as Katrina built up steam and drew near the coast. Those who had private transport were able to escape. Those who did not were trapped.

New Orleans, with a large percentage of its population living in poverty, has the smallest percentage of car owners of any city in the United States, including New York. Yet neither city and state nor federal authorities made any attempt to get them to safety, even though they were well aware of the dangers facing anyone left behind if the levees were overwhelmed by a storm surge and the city flooded.

Instead of being mobilized onto hundreds of municipal and school buses, military vehicles from local bases, and cars from dealership lots that could have spirited them away to safe havens, the poor were shunted into the Louisiana Superdome as a refuge of last resort. As
time wore on, the stadium became woefully inadequate as a shelter, with no beds, hardly any blankets, few medical supplies, stinking garbage piled up, four feet of water outside the walls, and a shortage of food and potable water.

As provisions ran out, people began to faint from hunger. Several infants died of dehydration. The bodies of those who had perished for lack of proper medical care were left in corridors.

One refugee, Daniel Edwards, commented on the glaring disparities in the way the poor were treated, “You can do everything for other countries, but you can’t do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military, but you can’t get them down here!”

The rest of the nation watched horrified as it became apparent that federal and local governments and the big business interests behind them had abandoned the poor of New Orleans and made only the most token effort to launch rescue and relief operations.

President Bush and his cabinet took their sweet old time returning from vacation and pretending that they cared.

The people of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida felt equally forgotten. James Gibson, a resident of Lakeshore, Miss., bemoaned the small town’s situation: “There’s no FEMA. No Red Cross. No help. People are sick. The water is like toxic gumbo. We’re the forgotten little town that got blown away.”

Racism at the heart of the matter

The Gulf Coast Region has a large population of poor people. This is especially true in New Orleans, which is 67 percent Black, with 5l-57 percent of Black people living below the poverty level.

Historically, there have always been enormous divisions along both race and class lines in New Orleans society. As was pointed out by Steve Kroll-Smith, a sociologist who used to reside there, “The truth is that people living in the Garden District got out, and those in the 9th Ward and other poor neighborhoods didn’t.” The contradictions are clear in the fact that well-off hotel guests were put on buses and driven to safety.

With conventions and tourism being a major industry, many of the worst paid workers are marginally employed as hotel maids, janitors, waiters, kitchen help, cab drivers, and in other service positions, placing them in the lowest rungs of the working class. There has been a huge resistance by employers to raising the minimum wage, so that people can improve their lot. New Orleans bosses prefer to maintain their privileges and the economic status quo.

Urban sprawl and “white flight” has also contributed to the problem. Before that began to occur, New Orleans had been one of the most integrated cities in the South because of the relatively tolerant legacy of French rule in its early history. As the white population left for the suburbs, the Black majority was left to occupy the low-lying areas such as the Ninth Ward and East New Orleans.

Invisible to the rest of the country and never mentioned in the mainstream news coverage is the significant Spanish-speaking population (as many as 125,000 in the New Orleans area), made up largely of Honduran exiles—many of whom survived Hurricane Mitch in 1998 when it ravaged Central America.

It is obvious that George W. Bush and his cohorts share the same views about impoverished Black people as the Louisiana ruling class (both Democrat/Dixiecrat and “southern strategy” Republican). Their lackluster attitude about saving the indigent and their indifference to the hurricane victims’ plight are driven by deep-going racial prejudice.

That is why the relief operation was executed in such a slapdash manner. Bush’s wealthy campaign supporters in the area will be well looked after with plenty of government handouts and subsidies now that the rebuilding of the industries and businesses they own and control has begun.

Disaster relief a disaster

There was an utter lack of planning, and the resources allocated were abysmally inadequate. Rescue teams stood around for hours waiting while those in command couldn’t make up their minds as to where to send them.

With 14 federal agencies involved with what was supposed to be a coordinated relief effort, the right hand barely knew what the left was doing. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown (who has since resigned), and the director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, were unaware that there were 20,000 languishing and dying in the convention center, so they were ignored by the relief drivers. Louis Martin Sr., a refugee at the site stated, “The trucks kept passing us up, they just kept going further east.”

Members of the police force became overwhelmed by the situation. Up to one-third resigned. When a woman asked a cop for help, he flatly refused her and declared, “It’s every man for himself.” The New Orleans police adopted a siege mentality, took over a hotel, commandeered people’s vehicles, and stole food and necessities themselves. Two officers
committed suicide out of despair over the loss of their families and homes.

With huge numbers of National Guard troops waging war against Iraq, the personnel stateside were stretched to the limit, and the Bush administration stubbornly refused to recall any combatants to aid in relief efforts. Likewise, Louisiana’s National Guard is the only state unit with amphibious equipment, which was indispensable in this case, and all of that was in
Iraq. It was only late in Week Two that some Gulf Coast soldiers were allowed to return from the Middle East and reunite with their families.

The 30,000 federal troops promised did not arrive until the end of the first week of the crisis. It took two days before a hospital ship finally set sail from Baltimore.

The Rev. Al Sharpton pointed out the disparities between the haves and have-nots when he compared last year’s experience of Hurricane Ivan in Florida, where a largely white, middle-class area was affected. There, supplies and personnel were prepositioned, and relief agencies had no problem moving in quickly and efficiently.

Insufficient equipment for the job

The three gaping holes in the levees urgently required closing up, so that the pumps could begin expelling the floodwaters. However, the day after the levees broke, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was forced to give up attempts to drop giant sandbags and
concrete blocks from helicopters into the 300-foot breach on the 17th Street Canal because additional equipment needed to complete the task had not arrived.

They lacked 250 slings for holding the materials, which were still sitting at the Baton Rouge airport. Medical teams wandered for days trying to find nonexistent triage centers that had not been placed in readiness. The New York Times reported that the USS Batten hospital ship had been anchored in the Gulf all along, holding 100,000 gallons of fresh drinking water, but it was not deployed in the crucial stages of the crisis.

FEMA blocked aid workers from giving assistance. Red Cross spokesperson Ryland Dodge stated that the reason they had not been in New Orleans when Katrina struck was because DHS officials thought their presence would keep people from evacuating!

When Wal-Mart attempted to deliver basic supplies, they were turned away. Likewise, when the Coast Guard tried to bring in 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel, FEMA prevented them. FEMA also cut the local communication lines, leaving city officials without telephone service. Scores of local volunteers who know their own towns and neighborhoods were also frustrated in their
attempts to help.

After seeing what a mess the United States was in, more than 100 countries offered aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The State Department readily accepted help from the UN and cash donations from about 16 nations. They even took $1 million from Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth, as well as $25,000 from tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka.
Gifts of crude oil were also given. The European Union released 2 million barrels of petroleum per day from strategic reserves, and Kuwait gave $500 million worth of oil. U.S. officials also accepted equipment such as cargo and troop transports, which were not available because they were being used in Iraq.

Assistance in the form of other technical support, personnel, or supplies was often not taken advantage of, however. The tiny nation of Cuba offered to send 1600 doctors with specially equipped medical backpacks. Their offer was rebuffed. The U.S. government’s hostility to the revolutionary and humanitarian policies of that country was the sole reason.

President Hugo Chavez exhibited Venezuela’s generosity when he offered 1 million gallons of free gasoline to be distributed from its nationally-owned Citgo filling stations. He also extended assistance in the way of water-purification plants, rescue volunteers, and 50 tons of canned food and water.

However, instead of giving the fuel straight from the pumps directly to storm victims, the U.S. insisted that it be sold on the market. Obviously, they did not want to set a bad precedent for the greedy North American oil monopolies, who cannot stand any action that threatens their super-profits.

A police state

To draw attention away from the gross default in responsibility on the part of the Bush Administration and FEMA, the corporate media chose to focus on the looting. Although there was some opportunistic grabbing of TV sets, guns, and the like, most people were acting out of dire need and took basic necessities such as food, juice, diapers, medication, and toiletries so they could care for themselves and their families—a fact that was acknowledged by many reporters on the scene.

President Bush set forth a policy of “zero tolerance” for looting. Governor Blanco mercilessly ordered, “Shoot to kill!” She and Mayor Nagin took Louisiana National Guard troops and police officers off vital search-and-rescue missions to protect private property and restore law and order, thus costing even more lives by slowing down the rescue effort.

One-third of the National Guard troops that were deployed from neighboring states were military police, indicating how much more the government values private property over human lives. New Orleans looked like a war zone, with humvees and tanks patrolling the streets and soldiers marching in formation as if they were occupying Baghdad rather than conducting disaster relief.

Instead of using gentle means to persuade people to evacuate New Orleans, by educating them about the health and safety dangers, the chief of police threatened to withhold food and water, thereby starving people out. While sitting on his front porch, a man had a gun put to his head, and in tears he related to the press how he was terrified the soldiers were going to shoot him.

The administration could not bear the truth being told. During Week Two of the disaster, as national disgust with the situation increased and the death toll rose, FEMA began rejecting requests from journalists to ride in rescue boats, and they were told not to photograph the decomposing corpses floating in the water. National Guard troops aimed their weapons at reporters if they digressed from the restrictions. As one journalist put it, “The First Amendment sank with the city.”

New Orleans flood defenses inadequate

A half million people have been displaced from New Orleans—a tragedy that could have been avoided if proper attention had been paid to maintaining the city’s decaying flood-control system. Over two centuries ago, the French Quarter, the historic center of the city, was built on high ground. As a result of steadily pumping out ground water, the delta subsided over time and the city sank lower as the water built up around it, hence the “bowl” much of New Orleans sits in that puts it below sea level.

As settlement progressed, people struggled to halt the periodic natural flooding of the Mississippi River, so an elaborate network, 1200 miles in length, of earthen, concrete, and steel levees, flood walls, and pumps was constructed in the 20th century to hold back the waters of the river, lake, and sea.

The aging levees have been sinking and in need of shoring up for decades, barely able to endure a Category 3 hurricane, let alone one of Katrina’s magnitude. Because the storm veered off toward the east, the city was luckily spared deadly storm surges—this time.

Louisiana Congress members have pleaded for years for adequate funds, warning of the hazards. At its last budget request from Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) fell $71 million short of what it needed to repair the levees. The money went instead to the Department of Homeland Security and the war in Iraq.

The New Orleans flood-control system has always been chronically under-financed. To withstand a Category 5 hurricane, $2.5 billion would have been needed to upgrade it. Despite numerous caveats that the “Big One” was inevitable and if it came the levees would be topped by a storm surge, the Bush administration refused further monies. It claimed that the Corps’s “pork-barrel spending” had to be curtailed.

George Bush lied when he said, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” As Senator Mary Landrieu (D, La.) pointed out, “Everybody anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President, including computer simulations in which this administration participated.”

Environmental consequences of over-engineering

For years, ecologists have been critical of the Corps’s misguided flood-control efforts. The existing Louisiana shoreline is a result of the deposition of Mississippi River sediments over 6000 years and action by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. An important component of the coast is the 6.5 million acres of wetlands (40 percent of the nation’s marsh ecosystem).
The Louisiana bayous play an indispensable role in filtering out pollutants and limiting storm
destruction. Plus, they provide habitats for many species of fish, waterfowl, migratory birds, and songbirds as well as a nursery for shellfish larvae important to the seafood industry.

For 200 years, humans have been trying to reign in the “Big Muddy.” The thoughtless construction of canals and shipping channels, largely for the benefit of the oil industry, has greatly impeded the natural process of the river overflowing its banks every spring and
depositing tons of sediment and nutrients required to maintain the marshes.

Since the 1930s, a million acres of wetlands have disappeared (at the rate of a football field every half hour), thereby diminishing a natural buffer against hurricanes and other storms that routinely pummel the region. Urban sprawl has contributed to the problem. Every four miles of wetlands can absorb enough water to reduce the height of a storm surge by one foot. There is wisdom in conserving them.

At Biloxi, Miss., the salt marshes have been replaced by floating casinos, which, as we have seen, do not make for good storm barriers. All of them were destroyed by the surge, which swept over the coast.

The National Wildlife Federation has been campaigning for the “Greening of the Corps,” to get them to use their powers for good instead of evil by conducting restoration projects to save the wetlands. The plan, named Coast 2050, was launched by a broad coalition of environmentalists, fisher folk, sportspeople, businesses, and politicians. Although the project had been making some progress, it had fallen short of funds. Once again, the federal government is to blame for the lack of money by reducing the Corps’s marsh restoration budget from $14 to $2 billion.

A toxic brew

There are 66 chemical plants and petroleum refineries in the 10 Louisiana parishes hardest hit by Katrina. The area is referred to as “Cancer Alley” and is populated by many poor people who have been afflicted with various environmental illnesses over the years.

Many of these facilities were breached by the floodwaters, causing a poisonous soup to be released. Dead rats were seen floating in the water.

Taking samples in Week Two, the EPA found 100 different chemicals present in New Orleans flood water and reported that lead levels were 10 times higher than what is safe. Included are PCBs, hormone-disrupting chemicals that alter fetal development in animals and humans in such a way that fertility is affected.

In Mississippi, there are nearly 400 chemical sites located in the counties declared disaster areas. A spokeswoman for the Sierra Club at Oceans Springs, Miss., stated that at least five major chemical factories were flooded by the storm surge.

Near St. Louis Bay, the DuPont plant sustained extensive damage from high winds and flooding. It is among 290 places in the four Gulf States that produce dioxins, deadly chemicals that cause cancer and function as hormone disrupters. Nearly 2000 lawsuits
are pending against the plant, and a jury recently awarded $14 million to a local oyster fisherman with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

Company officials and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality claim none of the toxins escaped. However, people exposed to contaminated waters have already been experiencing severe inflammation and lesions of the skin.

In New Orleans, the Agriculture Street Landfill, located next to the Lower Ninth Ward and in the process of being cleaned up before the storm hit, was inundated. Remaining toxins could easily leach out of the ground from the 95-acre Superfund site. There are also two toxic dumpsites in Mississippi that were damaged and could be leaking heavy metals and other
carcinogens.

The engineers responsible for pumping the floodwater back into Lake Pontchartrain claim it is impossible to filter out the sewage and toxins. Plus, the EPA has exempted them from having to do so. Therefore, all of that poisonous gunk will enter the Pontchartrain Basin
ecosystem. Whatever dangerous toxins are present will settle and concentrate in the layers of sediment and resurface later through the food chain.

During the storm, several oil storage tanks burst open, spilling 5.4 million gallons of crude oil. The U.S. Coast Guard counted six major spills and other smaller incidents south of New Orleans and along the Louisiana coast that came from storage facilities owned by Chevron, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Murphy Oil. At Meraux, La., oil sludge has spread across an area
of three square miles. Because it is sinking into the ground faster than clean-up can occur, 4000 homes will have to be razed and two to three feet of soil removed before the land is fit for rehabilitation.

The estimated volume of the spills is about half that of the Exxon Valdez, which killed huge numbers of wildlife, when it was dumped into Prince William Sound on the Alaskan coastline in 1989. That crude is now making its way back up through the sand on the shoreline. It is safe to assume that the consequences for the ecology of the Gulf Coast will last decades
into the future.

Katrina a product of global warming

With greenhouse gas concentrations rising, earth’s atmosphere and oceans have been steadily warming. Hurricanes rely on huge pools of warm surface waters in which to grow and expand. When the waters of the Gulf of Mexico reach a temperature of 80 degrees
Fahrenheit, they generate tremendous power for storms like Katrina.

Climatologist Kerry Emanuel recently published a study in Nature magazine, in which he demonstrated that tropical storms, hurricanes, and typhoons have doubled in frequency and increased in duration and intensity by 50 percent since 1970. He was a greenhouse skeptic,
who now believes that the Atlantic storm record fits into a larger pattern of unusual weather around the globe, which indicates climate change.

As seawater warms, it expands. This thermal expansion is what contributed to the volume of the 28-foot storm surge that flattened the houses in Pass Christian, Miss. In addition, as the planet’s ice sheets melt, sea levels are rising. This means more shoreline erosion and further imperilment of coastal populations.

Instead of halting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by switching to clean wind and solar energy to power industry and transport, the Bush administration, in collusion with the Energy Giants, is hell bent on the continued use of fossil fuels. This insane reliance upon deadly hydrocarbons is rushing us all down the path of destruction in spite of what the rest of the world thinks or desires. Yet they persist, because under capitalism it’s “Profits first and human and environmental needs be damned!”

A million lose their jobs

According to The New York Times financial pages, a million workers in eight Louisiana parishes and four Mississippi counties were thrown out of work by Hurricane Katrina. The majority of the working population that has been dispersed is less skilled than in other parts of the country. Fewer than 43 percent of adults from the Gulf Coast region are college educated, and employers in other states are using that as an excuse not to hire people.

Some employers have extended pay to their employees—but not all. UPS granted wages retroactive to Aug. 29, but whatever pay has been extended will run out long before people can be taken back. For instance, the military contractor Northrop Grumman stopped paying its 19,000 workers at the end of Week Two. Many skilled construction workers want to return
home to help in rebuilding their communities. In the meantime, they need public assistance in order to survive.

There is only one solution to the problem. Until people who cannot find temporary work are permanently settled either back in the Gulf region or elsewhere, they should be given full unemployment benefits at union scale along with food stamps, so they can feed, shelter, and clothe their families. That includes those workers who were chronically unemployed before
the storm struck.

Free child care should be provided to all working parents as well as free medical care for all refugees and psychological counseling for those traumatized by the storm.

Some 950 Jamaicans were employed at Biloxi casinos on guest worker visas and nine-month contracts, which had not yet expired. Without any income and consequently any money for plane fare, they have been unable to return to their home island. Also there are approximately 145,000 Mexican citizens who were reported missing in the storm. Their government has
been trying to locate them through two temporary consulates set up in Mobile and Baton Rouge.

Another significant group of Latino workers are the Hondurans, most of whom are still in Louisiana. They fear using the shelters there because of the border patrol being active in the disaster area. Many only stay to sleep at night and leave early in the morning to avoid being caught without papers, and with all the destruction, who has papers?

The union movement must come to their defense and demand that they be given the same assistance as citizen refugees and displaced citizens and that the INS must stop harassing them.

Rebuilding New Orleans — how and for whom? In exile in Baton Rouge, the city’s well-heeled power brokers have been meeting late into the night to plot New Orleans’ renaissance, with visions of football games and a scaled-down Mardi Gras dancing in their heads. They have even gone on flights of fancy over putting in a bid for one of the 2008 presidential
nominating conventions. The tourist industry brings in $7-8 billion annually, and they cannot afford to lose a penny of those revenues.

With the French Quarter, the main attraction, having suffered very little flood damage, the major players hope to have it and the historic warehouse district reopened in 90 days. While the effort would reemploy over 120,000 workers, business leaders are moving ahead without the least thought as to how to provide housing for workers, since many lived in the lowest-lying, most heavily flooded, most polluted sectors of the city.

Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge (R-La.) was jubilant over the destruction of poor people’s homes when he told lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did it.” As far as the rulers are concerned, the workers of the region can live in mobile homes, while Trent Lott was assured by President Bush that his
rebuilt house in Mobile, Ala., would be “fantastic” and restored to its former palatial splendor.

On the other hand, the Community Labor United coalition has demanded that a committee made up of evacuees “oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations collecting resources on behalf of our people. … We are calling for evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans.”

Grassroots organizations are absolutely right to claim control over the reconstruction funds. Otherwise, the money will get into the hands of ambitious developers, who will put up more luxury accommodations and ice the city’s poor out of a decent, affordable place to live
while keeping wages and taxes low.

Rebuilding workers’ housing and much needed schools and hospitals that were previously in a state of dilapidation, while putting people back to work in the process, are what is really needed.

Congress voted over $62 billion for relief and rebuilding efforts, and is expected to open its purse even wider, with aid climbing to over $100 billion. Unfortunately, it took no time for lobbyists to be falling all over one another, so that their clients could belly up to the reconstruction buffet and chow down. Washington favor seeker James Albertine gleefully exclaimed, “They are throwing money out, they are shoveling it out the door!”

Familiar names such as Halliburton and Bechtel have already received no-bid contracts to rebuild Gulf naval bases, repair flood-control systems, and erect housing. The situation is already descending into the same mire of cronyism, abuses, and waste as exists in the Iraq War.

On Sept. 9, President Bush signed an executive order allowing federal contractors to underpay workers on rebuilding projects. This is in violation of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that at least the prevailing wage of an area be paid. The trade-union movement must unite to demand that all workers be paid at union scale on all reconstruction efforts.

Congress hopes to exploit the disaster to drive through more of its neo-con agenda by instituting student vouchers for private school tuition with the goal of undermining school desegregation in particular and public education in general. They want to provide more lucrative tax credits for businesses and investors and scale back industry and environmental
regulations.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) complained about the FEMA rule that forbids funds to churches. For reactionary ideological reasons, they would like to see a way to skirt that too.

While the U.S. government does not hesitate to spend trillions on a war for oil in Iraq, causing the deaths of thousands on both sides, it could not and would not take the necessary measures to protect the people of the Gulf Coast from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Nor, due to its own criminal neglect, could it or would it get the lead out and help them after
the disaster occurred.

Only a socialist society based on a democratically run, planned economy that puts human and planetary needs before profits could have prevented such a catastrophe. Similar future disasters, because of global warming and climate change, are sure to occur. It is essential for the sake of human survival that the working people of this country make a fundamental
change in how our society runs and in whose interests it operates. We now have no other choice.

In the meantime, working people must come to the aid of the Katrina refugees and defend their right to jobs, economic aid, decent housing, health care, child care, and other vital social services. By expressing our solidarity, we can support their struggle to refashion their lives for the better and do so free of racial discrimination, political corruption, and bureaucratic obstacles.

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