Sep 26, 2005
Could it happen in Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington, D.C. or New York? What about St. Louis or Cleveland or Pittsburgh? Could a Katrina-style catastrophe happen elsewhere in the country?
You bet! Because the same preconditions that turned a million people from Louisiana and Mississippi into refugees exist throughout the country.
We may not all be threatened by hurricanes. But we are all put at risk by official decisions not to keep the country's infrastructure in good repair. The country's roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, water systems, sewer systems, ports, public transport, medical systems have all been left to rot – every bit as much as were Louisiana's levees. All it would take is a fairly sizeable natural or man-made disaster to create as big a catastrophe as Katrina – or bigger.
California has been expecting the big earthquake for years now. St. Louis could be flooded every bit as badly as New Orleans if just one important dam or set of locks on the Mississippi gave way. There are factories handling highly toxic materials without sufficient safeguards, nuclear power plants that have already teetered close to meltdown.
But it's not these "once-in-a-100-year" disasters that really pose the biggest threat. If Katrina's levees and the infrastructure around the river and the port had been kept up, Katrina would not have buried New Orleans in water. What puts all of us truly at risk is the terrible degrading of this nation's infrastructure – both physical and social.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it would take 1.6 trillion dollars over the next five years just to keep things from getting worse. But only 900 billion dollars is now allotted, not enough to prevent this infrastructure from degenerating further, much less to improve the situation. Government at every level has abdicated all responsibility for ensuring the safety of the population.
We don't have to wait for the big catastrophe to pay a big price. According to highway studies, about 13,000 people die every year in auto accidents caused by inadequate maintenance of highways and roads. Almost every city would be as log-jammed as Houston in an attempt to evacuate, many would be worse. Over one-third of major urban roads are so congested under ordinary circumstances that 60 billion or so dollars is wasted in extra fuel costs every year.
More than 3500 dams are considered so unsafe they could collapse with little notice – in the past two years, 29 dams did give way. The government is spending less than 10% of what needs to be spent to keep drinking water in public systems sanitary, causing the deaths of unknown numbers of infants, the elderly and other people in weakened conditions. Sewer lines break all the time, dumping 850 billion gallons of raw, untreated sewage into rivers, streams and lakes. There are 350,000 chemically contaminated sites that need to be cleaned up – meanwhile, tens of millions of people living nearby have their health compromised.
It's not a lack of money that has created this disastrous situation we live in. The U.S. gross domestic product adds up to 12.4 trillion dollars this year. The federal government spends about 2.5 trillion dollars, with state and local governments themselves spending 1.3 trillion more.
There's money in this country. As Bush frequently likes to remind us, it's the richest country in the world.
But its riches aren't being spent on the population. Bush, in the tax cuts enacted in just four short years managed to hand over 1.1 trillion dollars to the wealthiest one-fifth of the population – nearly enough to cover the nation's repair bill. And Bush was just continuing what presidents before him, Democrat and Republican, started.
Money that should have gone to New Orleans' levees, to the nation's highways and public transport, to our water and sewage systems has gone, instead, to the wealthy.
Bush, this hypocrite, says Katrina gave a wake-up call. Yes, it did – and the warning says that we are all potential victims if we don't begin to insist that our needs be met. We have the forces and the potential power to do that. Don't let Bush or other apologists for the wealthy tell us any different.