The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Hurricane Katrina:
A Natural Force Turned into a Human Catastrophe by a System Based on Profit

Sep 19, 2005

The following text is based on a public meeting given in September in Detroit.

If anyone still thinks there is no class war going on in this country, let them take a good look at the victims of Katrina. 35,000 poor Americans, largely black, trapped five days in a Superdome and convention center with no food, no drinking water, no sanitation — no rescue. Forced to live in their own excrement for days. East along the Gulf Coast through Louisiana and Mississippi, working-class communities wiped out, erased; hundreds of thousands of people homeless, black and white. While one rich President reminisced about his hard-partying days in New Orleans, and joked about sitting with Trent Lott on the porch of his Mississippi mansion that would be rebuilt grander than ever. This is the split-screen shot of American class society: revolting — and accurate.

In the city of New Orleans, most of the poor who were abandoned to the flood were black. In this class society, race and class are always linked. The largest part of the black population has always been kept impoverished. And it was the largest part of New Orleans’ black population that paid an enormous price. If some of the overt racism in this society has been overcome to the extent that we see a few black mayors and a few black businessmen and professionals, this is not the same as having removed the institutional racism which sentences the largest part of the black population to lives of poverty. And to the consequences which come with poverty. Nature doesn’t discriminate — capitalism does!

New Orleans — A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen

Bush tried to say they didn’t know this disaster would happen. Bush is the same liar he’s always been. For years — for decades — they knew this was coming. Even when levees and floodwalls were built in the l970s, they were designed only for a category 3 storm. Even that is false — because the levees were designed for a Category 3 storm, assuming that nothing changed: assuming that New Orleans would not sink any further, when government officials knew perfectly well it was sinking. They acted as though the barrier islands, which lessen a hurricane’s impact, would stay in place — when they knew the islands were continuing to erode; they acted as though the marshes, which absorb a hurricane’s energy, would stay the same — when they knew the marshes were disappearing and would continue to disappear.

For decades, the scientists and engineers knew what work needed to be done to protect New Orleans from the Category 4 or 5 storm that was certain to hit — not likely, but certain. But no congress or president authorized funding to prepare for that certainty. In fact, administration after administration cut funds back to a level that barely supported basic maintenance. As the years passed, the oil and gas continued to be pumped out from beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Sea water under pressure could have been pumped back in to stabilize the new cavities, so New Orleans would not settle lower and lower below sea level. That didn’t happen. Shipping lanes could have been rerouted to allow the barrier islands to build back up. That didn’t happen. Gates could have been installed in the levees along the Mississippi to allow renewal of the vast hurricane-absorbing marshes south of New Orleans. That didn’t happen.

Researchers at Louisiana State University developed scientific models and ran hundreds of storm simulations, all agreeing that a Category 4 hurricane would certainly cause a storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain high enough to overwash the flood wall and then erode its base, making it too weak to hold under pressure — and the city would flood. The day before Katrina hit, one of the researchers said: “New Orleans is definitely going to flood.”

The LSU studies — like other federal and state studies — showed that with the emergency plans then in place, 200,000 to 500,000 people would be trapped without means to evacuate; perhaps one third of them would die. Still no money from Washington. In l998 an emergency plan called Coastal 2050 was worked out for New Orleans and Louisiana’s east coast. Fourteen billion dollars was requested to begin putting the plan into effect. No funding. The general public could read all about the problem in 2001 in Scientific American, in 2002 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, in 2004 in the National Geographic. It was a certainty that at some time New Orleans would be hit severely enough to drown. Nevertheless the Army Corps of Engineers’ funding requests were routinely cut by half, by all administrations. Except for last year, when their request was cut more than 80 per cent, not only for New Orleans but for work all along the Gulf coast.

On every governmental level there was clear understanding of the situation — and those with the power to do something did nothing. It was negligence, criminal negligence on a vast scale!

With Five Days of Warning, Government Stalled

It wasn’t negligence only in the years before. It was criminal negligence in the days and hours before. Louisiana State University scientists warned the government, five days ahead, that Katrina was coming and it would be fierce. A U.S. Navy weather model on the morning of August 23 was forecasting the hurricane’s probable path to New Orleans. Hour after hour, the probabilities grew larger. The hurricane finally hit on August 29.

Officials had advance notice, far more advance notice than disasters usually provide! But they failed to act, and thousands of people died. The resources were all there, waiting to be mobilized. But no politician gave the word.

Fleets of city and school buses were available to be pressed into service. There were Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains. National Guard units from surrounding states, as well as regular army units, were available — some already packed and ready! The 82nd Airborne was on standby. Coast Guard and Air Force bases were close by. Navy amphibious vehicles were a few hours away by cargo plane.

Imagine having five days’ warning to take precautions, to evacuate everyone. Buses could have run block by block, through every neighborhood, around the clock. Passenger trains could have taken carloads of people to way stations north of New Orleans, then returned for more, while trains from other cities mobilized to shuttle people from the way stations further out of harm’s way. Receiving centers could have been designated and warehouses of food and water, diapers and clothing and medicines, could have been requisitioned and trucked there.

Nor would refugees have to be treated like cattle, herded from place to place, dumped in the middle of nowhere. The region’s vast array of private hotels and motels, university dormitories, and military bases could have more than served the refugees, giving them dignified and respectable places to stay. IF these accommodations had been used.

But such things were not done. The buses remained parked until the water rose to their roofs. Amtrak made only its regular two runs each day. And why? Because the officials’ only plan was to put every bit of the responsibility for the evacuation on the backs of the population. Not until the day before Katrina hit, did the New Orleans mayor finally order the city evacuated. But how? He used these words: “Gas up your car and go.”

A reporter asked the mayor how many people in the city didn’t have cars. He answered, “about 100,000.” Yet for those 100,000, nothing moved. The city’s evacuation plan was jokingly known by city workers as the “good Samaritan” plan — people were supposed to offer rides to their car-less neighbors! Of course the wealthy were not sending their chauffeurs to pick up the poor. And how many extra people could workers with families already packed in their cars take? And what about institutions like the nursing homes, even the two major hospitals that flooded — were the patients from the ICU supposed to get lifts in neighbors’ cars?

A mobilized population, given the resources it needs, can accomplish a tremendous amount in five days. It can evacuate a major city in an orderly way, and it can arrange safe and dignified conditions in which to live until an emergency is over. It didn’t happen in New Orleans, because the safety of the population was not the government’s first priority, not even tenth priority. Not on the federal level, nor the state, nor local.

Looters? Which Ones?

In the first several days after the hurricane, the media tried to play up looting, rape and violence in New Orleans.

Violence? When you throw people into such inhumane conditions, it wouldn’t be surprising to see criminal violence. But the violence the media talked about so much was only a tiny part of what happened. So why was there so much focus on it?

Why — if not to excuse the criminal negligence of the government? There were 25,000 people trapped in the Superdome and another 10,000 in the Convention Center. With no food or water, and no way to keep themselves and their babies clean, what’s amazing is how much order they imposed on the place.

In the desperate situation people faced, the stores should have opened their doors and given things away. The government should have provided food, water, and medicine. The convention center wouldn’t open its food service? Someone had to find a forklift and break through the steel doors to distribute its supplies.

Did people take food and water? They damn well did — and they had every right to do it! In fact, the people who looted those stores, bringing back food and water for other people saved many more lives than the government did.

Of course Bush didn’t say anything about the real looters, the gas and oil companies that jacked up prices as far and as fast as they could! There are some big-time, professional looters! But we didn’t see the President sending some National Guard and 82nd Airborne after them! We didn’t hear the governor of Louisiana issuing shoot to kill orders against the thieves who loot every person who puts gas in a tank. There’s already talk that everyone’s home heating bill will jump up another 25 per cent this winter. It amounts to major looting by some of the biggest companies in the country.

There are other thieves on the scene too, the legislatures and presidents past and present who took tax money that should have gone for social infrastructure, including protecting New Orleans. Money that was instead channeled to the legislators’ corporate sponsors. Money that was used to wage wars against other peoples, including today in Iraq and Afghanistan; money that disappeared in endless tax breaks to the biggest of big business. Yes, it would have been costly to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane. But compared to other spending Congress does, the cost actually would have been fairly modest.

The Coastal 2050 emergency plan for the protection of New Orleans and the Gulf coast to the east was to cost 14 billion dollars, in l998. With cost overruns and corruption, probably twice that. Say 25 billion dollars. That’s not so much, these days! Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, from 2002 through 2004, came to 197.3 billion dollars given to the wealthiest 1% of the population. That could have paid for eight Coastal 2050 plans! Or, just last year, adding up the profits of three oil companies — Exxon, Shell, and ChevronTexaco — there was 58 billion dollars right there! Half of that one year’s profit would have paid for protecting New Orleans. Or, by far the most outrageous example, the occupation of Iraq is costing five billion a month. The total spent in the last four years in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan is at least 300 billion dollars — the cost of protecting New Orleans twelve times!

There’s all kinds of money! But it’s diverted from the things like floodwalls that protect the general population. There was and is plenty of money that could be used for disaster prevention, could be used to make sure that workable evacuation plans are in place, could be used to assure all the necessary resources for the refugees. It wasn’t. And that’s looting on a grand scale.

Citizens of the World of Poverty

About the term, “refugees.” Some prominent people, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have objected that people displaced from New Orleans should not be called refugees because they are American citizens. But “refugees” is accurate. They are without a home, without a job, without a school for their children, without a hospital or clinic to go to. They have been cut from their families, from their neighbors, from every thing that made them who and what they are.

If they are citizens, they are more citizens of the world of poverty, trapped in the America of the wealthy. Crowds of them are being treated like cattle, shoved from pen to pen, hearing empty promise after empty promise from the authorities. If and when they are provided with decent conditions and steady jobs and reasonably secure conditions in which to raise families, then they won’t be refugees any more.

The richest, most powerful country on earth has made hundreds of thousands of its own people into refugees inside its borders. It’s the biggest uprooting of a population in this country since the Civil War, when Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea destroyed the economic lifeblood of the South.

The government’s actions toward the refugees continue to show the same indifference as before the hurricane. After more than two weeks, FEMA officials and offices were still inaccessible to the displaced poor. More than two weeks afterward, FEMA had failed to set up a central information clearinghouse for separated families to find each other — a gap so glaring that CBS, to fill it, took to broadcasting messages from family members searching for each other. Only eight help centers were open in the whole state of Louisiana, and not a one inside the city of Baton Rouge, where the largest number of refugees were congregated. To reach FEMA by phone, you had to call at 2 a.m.

Bush’s Plan for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast — Give to the Rich

What does Bush propose to overcome this disaster? He offered tax breaks and incentives to businesses that build or rebuild in New Orleans. He suspended rules requiring government contractors to pay the “prevailing wage” (union scale) to people they hire to do the work, and his administration is pushing to suspend environmental restrictions.

The Bush administration has been doling out contracts at a rate of more than 500 million dollars per day. Perhaps most striking is the government agreement with the engineering and construction giant, Bechtel. Bechtel’s zone of operation is the entire state of Mississippi! Bechtel won’t have to deal with “pesky” government oversight or control, because as the New York Times says, Bechtel has “an informal agreement with no set payment terms, scope of work or designated total value.” In other words, the Bush administration is granting Bechtel a license to steal on a scale as big as the state of Mississippi.

And we can be sure that when the “reconstruction” is done, many working class areas will be gone, razed away and replaced with fancy hotels, clubs, casinos, and condominiums for the wealthy.

The government’s primary disaster plan is to enrich corporate interests, and it has executed that plan with speed and precision, handing out billions of dollars of no-bid, guaranteed-profit contracts to hundreds of companies.

The Victims of the Government’s Negligence Can Rebuild New Orleans

What about working people whose homes were destroyed? For them, Bush proposed to set up a lottery, awarding empty government land to a few winners. A lottery! For everyone else, Bush offered each family a cramped trailer or a rent voucher — $600 a month maximum — in a situation where housing is tight. And he held out the hopes of a voucher for job training.

The survivors from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama don’t need job training and the fool’s gold of a lottery. They know how to work and they need a job RIGHT NOW paying decent wages. They need a way to rebuild their homes — and a way to reestablish the human connections that once made up the fabric of their lives.

What better way for them to do it than to rebuild what has been destroyed. There is a whole world waiting to be put back together, running from New Orleans, through the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts all the way over to Alabama. There are houses to be replaced from the ground up or repaired and rebuilt. There are hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, water systems, public transport systems, electric grids — all needing to be built or rebuilt.

The people turned into refugees by this government’s policies could do that work. Why not? They have lived there all their lives. Who better to put New Orleans and the Gulf back together but them?

They can be the ones who organize new temporary schools, hospitals, clinics. Why not? They were the ones who stayed in the nursing homes and hospitals with the patients when administrators deserted without ever organizing an evacuation.

They can work with the scientists the government ignored to re-establish the barrier islands, replenish the marshes, reconstruct the swamps — all of which once gave some protection from hurricanes. The people of the Gulf Coast have learned by bitter experience the importance of the “environmental restrictions” Bush wants to suspend.

They can work with the engineers the government rebuffed to rebuild the levees to the width and height needed, to reroute the shipping channels. They understand that money can’t be taken from public works, the way Bush has been doing year after year, without creating the potential for tragedy.

And yes, they can help clean up the area — if they are given all the “haz-mat” protections that the big shots got when they toured New Orleans streets.

There are thousands and thousands of people with all sorts of skills from New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands being turned into refugees all over the country. Let them organize the work.

Bush says he is ready to spend 200 billion dollars if need be. Fine, but cancel the contracts already handed out to Bush’s cronies — whose main expertise is in ripping off the government for billions of dollars. If businessmen don’t want to do this work unless they get a multibillion dollar profit, get rid of them. Put ALL the money to good use, giving work and habitation to the people who want to come back to New Orleans, Lafayette, Biloxi, Gulfport and all those little towns in between them. Or set them up with jobs elsewhere, if they don’t. They can do the work — and if they are adequately paid, they can rebuild their lives, right along with New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Government Feared the People of New Orleans — Let It Fear Some More!

Today the million or so refugees have the spotlight. It’s obvious that the government will not give them what they need unless the government is forced to do it. Just like the lady said about the Guard trucks that finally rolled up to the Superdome: “They didn’t come willingly. They had to be pushed.” Those who have the money will have to be pushed — and pushed harder.

It’s also obvious the government is uneasy about what might happen if the refugees were to organize themselves. The fact that the government even makes a pretense of offering aid, or that Bush takes trip after trip to New Orleans shows that the ruling class was frightened at the prospect that the anger of these refugees might continue and spill over into organizing for their rights.

If the refugees are able to organize themselves, if they express their determination not to be shoved aside any longer, they can gain the support of working people all over the country who are already outraged at the government’s criminal negligence. And not only because we all feel in solidarity with the people of the Gulf Coast.

We have our own reasons to push back against this government. What Katrina took suddenly from these people is steadily, stealthily being taken from all the rest of us. Across the country, there are large numbers of workers and poor already extremely angry about all the ways our lives are deteriorating. How many of them might join the refugees if they push to become an organized and insistent political force?

Such a struggle would not be without precedent. During the Great Depression of the l930s, among the unemployed, there were individuals and groups able to organize. They organized links between the unemployed and the employed. It was a foundation for the huge industrial uprising of the later l930s, that forced the wealthy class to yield ground and give to the workers and the poor some of what was needed. Today there is a new social catastrophe that has focused the attention of every working person in the country. It’s a moment from which many things could change.

September 19, 2005