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Synthesis/Regeneration 39   (Winter 2006)

A Green View of the Katrina Disaster

by Robert Caldwell, Jr.

In New Orleans violent tropical storms are routine and hurricanes are a seasonal reminder of the power of Mother Nature. Hurricane Katrina was the most awesome disaster that residents of Louisiana have ever seen. But the deadly results of Katrina were as much a product of human callousness as an act of nature. The world watched as people were stopped for searches and herded into the Superdome to find themselves in a wretched and unsanitary place with no food, water, or proper medical care.

Those in areas of heavy flooding fled to their rooftops and begged rescue helicopters to airlift them to safety. Many died trapped in their attics or waiting to be rescued. Meanwhile hundreds of police were dispatched to protect property from looters.

At least half the city is at or below sea level, including the Central Business District and much of the housing stock of the city. Under normal conditions, massive pumps drain rainwater from the city. But even under normal conditions, poor areas of the city routinely face some flooding.

Hurricane Katrina promises to be the new textbook case for urban natural disasters, social dislocation, and (lack of) urban planning. It is important to begin to examine the social dimensions of the failed policies that contributed to such a massive disaster.

Misguided priorities

New Orleans is a city underdeveloped by America’s corporations. Social services are chronically underfunded while working people depend on low wage service jobs and send their kids to underfunded, dysfunctional public schools.

Despite its once-massive port, the city has, like a third- world Caribbean island, depended on low-wage labor in the tourism industry. So it may be no surprise that Bush and Congress ignored those who explained that the critical infrastructure that would prevent New Orleans from becoming inundated with floodwaters in the event of a levee break was deteriorating.

According to columnist Sidney Blumenthal, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the US. But in spite of these warnings, the Bush Administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44% to pay for the Iraq war.

Congress did authorize $10.5 billion dollars for Gulf Coast aid. In contrast, affluent Floridians received even more—$16 billion—when hurricanes hit in 2004. The biggest contrast is with the $162 billion Congress appropriated for the first year of the Iraq war.

At the time of Hurricane Katrina, almost half of the Louisiana National Guard was deployed outside the state. Some, like the 3,000 members of the 256th Infantry Brigade, were reportedly with critical high water equipment in Iraq, a desert country.

The race and class dynamics of a planned catastrophe

The poverty and blackness of those bearing the brunt of the hurricane are obvious to anyone watching CNN. The plight of these victims underscores race and class inequalities in New Orleans, and also highlights another facet of the racism that persists in the United States. Poor people were the most ill prepared for a hurricane. Malik Rahim, Green Party candidate for city council and a former Black Panther, explains: The hurricane hit at the end of the month, the time when poor people are most vulnerable. Food stamps only buy enough for about three weeks of the month, and by the end of the month everyone runs out. At the time of the hurricane, people had no way to get their food stamps or any money, so they just had to take what they could find to survive.

…the deadly results of Katrina were as much a product of human callousness as an act of nature.

The poorest people were also without transportation, food, or resources, but no hurricane preparedness plan and none of the doomsday exercises of federal, state, and local agencies made any provision for their evacuation.

Yet disaster-planning officials know that 112,000 people in New Orleans are without any private form of transportation.

It is not enough to order an evacuation without having policies in place to carry out an evacuation. Yet city and public school buses were left to flood while residents were stuck in the city with no way out.

In fact, many institutions that once provided evacuation (like the dormitories of the University of New Orleans) were expected to fend for themselves, a conscious or unconscious continuation of white supremacy.

In an unscripted NBC benefit concert, rapper Kanye West explained, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” America was set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow[ly] as possible.” Tulane Hospital (a private hospital) was evacuated well before Charity Hospital, the region’s trauma hospital whose patients are poor and overwhelmingly black.

As convoys of National Guard reinforcements finally rolled into New Orleans, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco used the occasion to warn looters and assure the whites that troops were under her orders to “shoot to kill” if need be to restore order. “These troops are battle-tested,” she said. “They have M-16s [that] are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”

International response was one of outrage, a fact hidden from American viewers of American mainstream media.

Lackluster response

The response from Federal agencies was too little too late. While the United States has a history of dropping humanitarian relief to famine and disaster areas, media reported that supplies were being diverted because helicopters could not land, or because of a report of hostile gunfire. Critics charged that if the United States is capable of sending planes that can withstand enemy fire to drop bombs in Iraq, certainly it is capable of air dropping supplies into an American city.

Homeland Security Czar Michael Chertoff dismissed an NPR field reporter’s claim that 2,000 or more were at Convention Center without food or water and in unsanitary conditions. Subsequent reports verify that 15,000–20,000 were at the convention center in deplorable conditions including dead bodies. The Convention Center was on dry ground and would have been accessible by military transport ground vehicles or helicopters.

Mayor Ray Nagin blasted the slow response. “They’re not here. It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.” An elected official from New Orleans suburbs (Jefferson Parish) suggested that if New Orleans were to secede from the Unites States perhaps foreign aid would arrive immediately.

Environmental trigger

Looking at this disaster one cannot ignore the ecological component. New Orleans, like many major cities, was built for geopolitical reasons in a place that posed danger to its inhabitants. Global warming and coastal erosion have exacerbated the vulnerability of the city. Marshes and wetlands would help to slow a hurricane’s effect as it approached the city, but erosion over the years has diminished the size and ability of the coastal marshes and swamps to absorb hurricane force winds and rain.

Coastal erosion has two important causes. One is that the rich river silt that built the Mississippi delta is now being directed to deep waters off the continental shelf in order to allow for easier river navigation. The second problem is that salt water intrudes into canals built for oil and natural gas drilling and pipeline needs.

“These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”

Global warming has contributed to a deadly hurricane season. Ross Gelbspan, columnist for the Boston Globe, explains that global warming generates longer droughts, more intense downpours, more frequent heat waves, and more severe storms. While Katrina began as a relatively small hurricane that glanced off south Florida, it became supercharged with an extraordinary intensity by the higher than normal sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.


The Bush Administration fiddled while New Orleans flooded. The Administration and Congress failed to provide and reinforce the basic preventative infrastructure and failed to have a rescue plan in place, choosing instead to cut taxes for the rich and spend for an illegal war in Iraq. It is rightly perceived by minorities as a war at home on poor and Black people.

Many hurricane refugees justifiably feel abandoned. But the ruling class abandoned New Orleans long before Katrina hit. Racism, environmental disregard and corporate deference to the market instead of social planning have long been the hallmarks of New Orleans and other major American cities.

Eventually public money will begin to trickle into the state. But it will likely be hotels, casinos, chain stores and Disneyfied developments that will compete for the sorely needed money and only serve to reinforce a system that was unable to respond to people’s needs before, during and immediately after the hurricane.

But New Orleans can be rebuilt with a different ethos, one with environmentally sustainable planning, a major upgrade of the transportation infrastructure, including a comprehensive public evacuation plan, plus a bolstered public works system, as well as creation of stable union jobs, new public schools, a renewed investment in the public healthcare system, and cultivation of participatory neighborhood councils as incubators for a new, participatory, and genuine democracy among the working class, poor and oppressed.

And the people of the United States can help with an alternative vision. First we should demand that troops deployed in Iraq return to the United States, and we should link this return to a change in national priorities focused on meeting the needs of working and disenfranchised people.

Robert Caldwell is a resident of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He is a member of Solidarity (www.solidarity-us.org) as well as the Greater New Orleans Green Party and Green Party of Louisiana.

[21 feb 06]

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