by Andrew Pollack / March 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
In mid-February a Republican-led House of Representatives committee lashed out at Bush and homeland security chief Michael Chertoff for their response to Hurricane Katrina, calling it “a national failure” and declaring that “all the little pigs built houses of straw.”
Video footage recently released by the Associated Press shows that Bush did not ask a single question during the final briefing before Katrina struck on Aug. 29. He then dismissed the warnings by federal officials of an impending disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf area, assuring them, “We are fully prepared.” Yet those in government who have criticized the Bush administration had little different to offer.
Even today, thousands are being evicted from their hotel rooms, rebuilding is crawling along, and it is becoming increasingly clear that both parties are determined to prevent most evacuees from ever coming back.
On Feb. 7, storm evacuees in 4500 rooms paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were evicted, 20,000 more rooms were emptied on the 12th, and 8000 more were to be emptied March 1. Several hotels in New Orleans brought in armed security squads
to intimidate evictees.
Some evacuees were given $1800 for rent and told to find their own housing—a pitiful sum with New Orleans’ skyrocketing rents and few vacancies. Many will end up sleeping in shelters, in their cars, or in the street—some in New Orleans and others, including those
who had returned, in cities hundreds of miles away.
But this supposedly was all for the evacuees’ good: FEMA told the press it was “time for families to find a more permanent situation,” and said the judge’s ruling allowing evictions recognized “we’re doing the right thing for these people”. to get them out of hotels and into some decent housing.” Of course, “these people” don’t agree.
The judge himself said, “I’m not sure if I’m serving justice but at least I know I’m following the law.” Meanwhile, tens of thousands of house trailers rented by FEMA sit empty in holding areas. In Louisiana, 60 percent of 90,000 trailer requests have not been met. (In Mississippi, 35,000 of about 40,000 requests have been met, due to the greater clout of the state’s
Republican elected officials.) In protest at this delay, members of the St. Bernard Parish Council (near New Orleans) took three trailers and gave them to residents.
The day of the evictions, Chertoff was yukking it up at with state emergency officials, according to the Associated Press. “Looking for a strategy to prevent disasters like Hurricane Katrina? Try regulating the weather,” joked Chertoff. “It seems the problem we have in this country is, we either have too much moisture or too little moisture, depending on whether
you’re on the coast or in the interior. If we could average it out, we could prevent some of the disasters we’ve been faced with.”
If the problems of evacuees were a joke to Chertoff, they didn’t exist in the mind of his boss. In mid-January, Bush returned to New Orleans and declared, “New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to visit. … It’s a heck of a place to bring your family. There’s a little bounce in people’s step.”
A tour of the city’s devastation, which Bush avoided, would have shown that most of the tens of millions of tons of debris have not been cleared; the majority of residents have not returned; many neighborhoods are still uninhabitable—without water, and working street or traffic lights, or electricity.
Unemployment is at around 25 percent; levees as vulnerable as ever; and most fire stations and public transport are out of commission. FEMA can’t even keep track of the diaspora population, with its estimates varying by hundreds of thousands since the storm.
Most schools, businesses, and hospitals remain closed. Cases of stress-related deaths and post-traumatic stress disorder are soaring. Local governments and schools have laid off thousands of workers and face bankruptcy for lack of taxes.
The few schools reopened are mostly charter schools, and when public schools reopen there will be new work rules stripping teachers of their collective power. The bosses clearly hope to use this crisis to smash public-sector unions.
After months of being prevented, often at gunpoint, from seeing their homes to assess the damage, homeowners are finding it next to impossible to get rebuilding loans. Most public housing remains vacant, despite suffering little damage. Returning renters are finding their furniture on the street and strangers in their apartments.
All the above is disproportionately suffered by majority-Black neighborhoods. The effect of these conditions is a vicious circle in which factors preventing return are used as an excuse to keep evacuees out so that a leaner, meaner, more profitable city can be rebuilt.
In December the Urban Land Institute proposed the city’s size be cut in half, and that redevelopment be postponed for hard-hit areas until they proved they could be rebuilt. Most of the targeted areas are Black even though some white areas were equally damaged or are as susceptible to future storms.
The basics of the plan were adopted by the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin and headed by real estate magnate Joe Canizaro, a major Bush donor and ULI leader. The City Council’s unanimous rejection of the plan was ignored.
The Commission did much of its work at closed meetings held without even some of its own members, including the head of the City Council. Those in the know included Canizaro, shipyard magnate Don Bollinger, and Dan Packer, head of local utility Entergy Louisiana.
Canizaro and friends found open forums unhelpful as they “discourage[d] an honest debate over the tough issues of race and class that lie ahead” and became “gripe sessions.”
A New York Times story on the Commission headlined “All Parts of New Orleans Included in Rebuilding Plan,” admitted that neighborhoods that do not “attract a critical mass of residents … will probably not survive.” Half of a neighborhood’s residents have to come back for it to be ruled “viable,” and in the meantime there would be a moratorium on rebuilding.
By August all homes will be destroyed in “unworthy” neighborhoods even if individual homes are structurally sound. And the plan counts on a Catch-22 to ensure most targeted areas end up in developers’ hands: the current lack of services, jobs, and aids mean many Black neighborhoods won’t have the time or resources to prove their “viability.”
The unelected Nagin Commission proposed an unelected board to run the city’s economy, modeled after similar boards which took over New York in the 1970s and others currently doling out money to corporations there for post-9/11 rebuilding (even if it’s happening far away from the “ground-zero” World Trade Center site). This board will arrange for bond issues, which will enrich wealthy bondholders, and the revenue from which will go to developers and other corporations.
Amidst the booing and shouting in open meetings to discuss the plan, a commonly heard phrase was “over my dead body.” Coming in for special buse besides Canizaro was Entergy’s Packer, who took offense at complaints that few Black neighborhoods had power restored (the low power recovery rate resembles that in Iraq). “I’m not going to sit here and take that,”
But Entergy LA will come out OK: its far-from-bankrupt parent company gave it $200 million and is shuffling assets between states to avoid Louisiana taxes—and it has threatened to double rates if it doesn’t get more federal aid.
Urban League President and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial described the proposal as a “massive red-lining plan wrapped around a giant land grab.” The Associated Press called it “the biggest, most brutal urban-renewal project Black America has ever seen.” This is happening in the city with the highest rate of home-ownership among Blacks and the deepest roots of any Black community in the U.S.
Today’s gentrification has bipartisan roots. In the 1990s, Clinton touted the “redevelopment” of the city’s St. Thomas neighborhood, as residents were evicted in favor of upscale housing and stores, and a Wal-Mart. Behind this plan was none other than the ULI, and one of its beneficiaries, to the tune of tens of millions, was a developer named Joseph Canizaro.
During the storm most Black residents were forced out of town—while most whites stayed nearby. Local activist Malik Rahim called at the time for nearby housing to facilitate return and for access to rebuilding jobs (which author Mike Davis points out was the case after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, when victims housed in nearby tent cities were hired at union scale for reconstruction).
On the other hand, Louisiana Republican Rep. Richard Baker gloated that God, through Katrina, had “finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans.” A French Quarter landowner said, “The hurricane drove poor people and criminals out and we hope they don’t come back. The party’s finally over for these people and now they’re going to have to find someplace else to live.”
Others used the Commission’s “objective’ critieria to oppose the right of all to return, including Nagin Commission members Alden McDonald, CEO of the city’s largest Black-owned bank, and Carl Weisbrod, head of real estate for Manhattan’s Trinity Church, one of New York’s biggest landlords.
Sean Reilly, a member of the state’s Louisiana Recovery Authority, said, “Someone has to be tough and tell the truth. Every neighborhood will not be able to come back.” Similarly, Michael Liffmann of Louisiana State University said, “There are parts of New Orleans not fit for human habitation. They never were and never will be.” But he admitted: “These are as much
social calls as they are scientific ones.” And you know who makes those calls under capitalism!
Said The New York Times, “The nation cannot rebuild everywhere in New Orleans, nor should it. … The fact that generations have lived on the same plots of land cannot define the rebuilding process. Some of the blocks farthest below sea level should be turned into parks to allow better drainage.”
Yet in January Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco visited the Netherlands “to learn how the Dutch created the huge flood-control system that protects a land much farther below sea level” (21 feet for the Dutch versus three to five feet in Louisiana).
And what about low-lying Wall Street? New York City issued post-Katrina warnings on what to do in a hurricane, citing the city’s near misses. But while Wall Street is a moral swamp, no one suggests literally returning it to the swamps.
For centuries, buildings have been constructed in flood plains—and technology allowed them to remain there safely despite rising waters. In some parts of the world, including coastal areas and wetlands in the United States, it is common to place houses on stilts. In areas of the Netherlands that may be subject to flooding, houses are being designed to be able to float on top of the water—like houseboats. Certainly, similar solutions could be devised for New Orleans, if need be.
The Black community as a whole has the right to decide whether their neighborhoods are rebuilt on the original sites, or relocated to nearby areas that are less ecologically sensitive. But before they make the decision, they must be given full information about the dangers of remaining in the original area, as well as the alternatives.
Furthermore, whether or not they decide to move, they must be given full say in determining the outcome of rebuilding efforts, so that the new neighborhoods contain well-built, comfortable houses and all the other facilities (schools, shops, recreation centers, public transit, industries, etc.) that are necessary to restore and enhance community life.
Mayor Nagin’s role
Said The Wall Street Journal, “[Mayor Ray] Nagin has emerged as the leading advocate … for Bush’s post-Katrina agenda, helped along by a private dinner aboard an aircraft carrier.” Nagin came out for the White House’s “Gulf Opportunity Zones” (i.e., business tax breaks)—all the while saying that he would “build a levee system around the White House” if legislation didn’t get moving.
This helps us understand Nagin’s “chocolate city” remarks—and the reaction to them. He declared on Martin Luther King Day that New Orleans would once again be a “chocolate [i.e. majority-Black] city.” The media accused him of being racist, but they surely knew he was just covering his behind with constituents outraged at his support for the developers. He soon
apologized, saying, “everybody’s welcome.”
Not surprisingly, his other message that day—that God was upset with Black people for their alleged vices—was ignored, and no apology demanded. Parallel to the Nagin Commission’s efforts were those of the same Congressman Baker who had gloated about God’s ethnic cleansing efforts. He crafted a bill to further God’s handiwork through a corporation to buy
property from desperate homeowners and sell it to developers, and to give tens of billions to banks with “troubled” mortgages. Baker made clear he wanted to prevent banks from ending up “with billions of dollars worth of worthless property on their books.”
Even the 60 percent of their equity that homeowners would get would be on prices already discounted by decades of redlining. Neither Baker nor Nagin have anything to offer renters in their plans.
Bush said that even Baker’s bill was unneeded: why set up a government agency to aid developers when the market can do it? This provoked a mighty whine from Democrats, who had praised the bill to the skies. (The New York Times took the opportunity once again to say
that Black people should never have been living in low-lying areas, so they shouldn’t expect to move back.)
While complaining Mississippi was getting five times more aid per capita, Louisiana politicians made sure their corporate friends got cut in. The Los Angeles Times reported that lobbyists crafted the Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act of Senators Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican. The bill included billions for lobbyists’ clients, including Entergy and canal and highway construction firms. This was despite the fact that the Federal Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act bars aid to for-profit companies. The lobbying firms are, of course, bipartisan campaign donors.
With the forced exodus of Black workers, bosses brought in Latino workers for demolition and
reconstruction tasks, many of them undocumented and all super-exploited. Many are housed in homeless shelters or trailers, or even sleep in the street.
There is no enforcement of health standards, no safety gear and many—perhaps most—are not paid for weeks at a time, if ever. Also making out like a bandit is Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are now used for house demolition from Palestine to Louisiana.
Nagin demagogically played the race card, saying, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”—although his developer friends are the ones profiting from their exploitation.
Democrats have railed at Bush’s supposed incompetence in handling the storm and its aftermath just as they have over his Iraq efforts, but in both places their strategic goals mesh. When evacuees came to DC in early February to protest, Democrats said they planned
to hold Bush “accountable.” “This is a scandal,” said Nancy Pelosi, and Barney Frank decried “ethnic cleansing by inaction.” But they could have been talking about their own inaction.
Labor Party leader Adolph Reed pointed out that “Democratic liberals for the last 25 years have aided and abetted the right in shrinking and privatizing public functions. … The Democrats … will cast as a problem of inadequate management what is fundamentally the product of a combined commitment to vicious, reactionary ideologies and plunder.”
Reed also criticized movement groups who “tail along behind and seem incapable of pushing beyond the limits” of the Democrats’ Republican-Lite ideology, and said “neither wing of the labor movement … has come near probing at the roots of the catastrophe in New Orleans in the last two decades of bipartisan neoliberal policy.”
On Jan. 5, activists from Community Labor United and its offshoot, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, held a press conference to announce a lawsuit against threatened home demolitions, then rushed to the mostly Black Lower 9th Ward upon hearing that bulldozers were already in action. A settlement of the suit was reached after the city claimed they would give homeowners more notice (until then notices were tacked on doors on houses from which most residents had been barred).
CLU, PHRF, and allied groups have held a People’s Assembly in Louisiana and meetings in other cities for evacuees to try to keep them organized and involved in deciding their own fate. They are working to stop evictions and foreclosures, and are demanding emergency housing and the reopening of public housing. They are also demanding protection of evacuees’ voting
rights, including access to the same kind of satellite voting centers set up for Iraqis in the U.S. to vote in Iraqi elections. Needless to say, the city’s rulers are hoping to profit not just in dollars but also at the polls from keeping the city smaller, richer, and whiter.
A new arm of the CLU, its Economic Justice Working Group, focuses on workers’ rights. Given the pitting of Black and Latino workers against each other, they’re looking to emulate the efforts of such groups as Black Workers for Justice, which has been working for years to forge alliances with Latino and Asian workers streaming into the South’s poultry, meatpacking, and fish-processing industries. The EJWG has distributed Spanish-language flyers on workers’ rights, health-clinic information, and other needs.
The EJWG has also discussed how to support transit workers in their contract struggle, in which bosses have demanded concessions for “recovery purposes,” and have discussed new organizing in the hotel/service-sector industry (a task that can piggyback on UNITE-HERE’s recently launched nationwide campaign around hotel contracts expiring this year). The group noted the difficulties they face, as “most people we need to be organizing around … are in the
Diaspora” or come back briefly and find they can’t afford to stay.
Katrina and Iraq
In mid-January, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said he thought the U.S. “should get out [of Iraq] now,” and tell the world that the personnel and money was needed to rebuild from the hurricane. That’s been the argument of antiwar groups ever since the hurricane. In December, U.S. Labor Against War issued a major statement linking Iraq and Katrina, and noted that the meager funds spent on reconstruction were coming at the expense of social programs.
The statement drew the parallels between lack of rebuilding and corporate bonanzas in Iraq and the Gulf, and called instead for massive public works in both areas, and for workers to be involved in decisions about their future.
This link is a theme for an action on the fourth anniversary of the war in March, when a variety of veterans’ and military families’ groups, along with Katrina survivor organizations, are organizing a 135-mile, five-day march from Mobile to New Orleans around the demand: “From the Persian Gulf to the Gulf Coast – Bring Them Home Now!”
The response to Katrina shows once again the capitalist system’s ability to profit from even the most catastrophic events. Rather than being the product of the individual malevolence of Nagin, Bush, or any other individuals, their response is rooted in the system’s drive for profit.
Thus we see the same exact behavior in countries struck by the 2004 tsunami, where victims are being kept from their homes by gun-toting thugs working for developers. The UN reported on Feb. 1 that in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives, and Indonesia, governments “have stood by or been complicit as land has been grabbed and coastal communities pushed aside
in favor of commercial interests.”
There’s certainly no lack of money available for a genuine reconstruction of the kind we outlined in our pamphlet on Katrina (see ad on this page). In addition to the trillions wasted on war, there are huge sums closer to home. In early February, for instance, Gov. Blanco threatened to block oil and gas leases worth hundreds of millions in royalties to the federal
Treasury unless the state received its “fair share.”
This is on top of the hundreds of millions that it was recently revealed the oil and gas companies were already cheating the Feds out of, and the report by ExxonMobil of its annual profits, the biggest ever for any U.S. company. With increasingly dire and frequent warnings from scientists about global warming and the catastrophes it will cause, we can expect this
scenario to be played out over and over again.
Revolutionaries have always warned that the world had “socialism or barbarism” as its options, and pointed to economic crises and wars as leading to the latter unless we achieved the former. Now we can add environmental catastrophes to the list, and must educate and organize ourselves to fight against our bosses’ efforts to put the price of those catastrophes
on our backs, and against the system that gives them the power to do so.