The Devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast— Product of Capitalist Greed

Joint Statement on the Hurricane Katrina Disaster by Socialist Action and Labor Standard (Sept. 5)


The devastation and human suffering wrought by Katrina is not just a so-called natural disaster. It is above all else a crime perpetrated against the people of this country.

Everything evil and barbaric in capitalism is being exposed as this crisis unfolds, from the long-term environmental degradation and disrepair that has been accumulating for decades to the immediate failure to mobilize the full power of the federal government to meet human needs.

In the weeks and months ahead, many will come to understand that this catastrophe was magnified by capitalism’s subordination of human needs to profit and plunder.

The immediate victims of the disaster are the poor, mostly Black, citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, who did not have the means and money needed to escape the devastation, in what has been described as a “free market” evacuation plan.

If people had money, like the 700 guests of the Hyatt Hotel who rode out in buses or the better-off citizens of the New Orleans suburbs, they were able to leave the area. Meanwhile, working people and the poor of New Orleans and other coastal communities were condemned to their fate.

Many survived only by clinging to roofs or hiding in attics as the water rose around them. But others, who were infirm or elderly, confined to beds or wheelchairs, or young children were not able to hold on and died.

Tens of thousands who were subsequently “rescued” were then consigned to camps such as those in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, or they were dumped into the middle of highways that had escaped the flooding. They then languished for days in squalid conditions—often without food, water, medical care, and shade—waiting for the authorities to move them to more adequate housing.

“We are out here like pure animals. We don’t have help,” the Rev. Isaac Clarke told the Toronto Star (Sept. 2) while outside the Convention Center. A corpse lay nearby in the dirt.

Even when airplanes and helicopters at last came to carry them out of the area, some people were deemed too close to death to make the journey, and were left behind. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands. All of these people could have been saved.

Government turns its back on the victims

As the hurricane approached the Gulf Coast, the federal and state governments did nothing to provide evacuation assistance to those who needed it in areas likely to be hit.

The many military bases in the region were never called upon to use their vehicles to help ferry people out of the path of the hurricane. Public transit systems and school buses that might have aided in evacuating citizens were never made use of.

In the aftermath of the storm, when the nature of the tragedy had become clear, the government again did nothing. President Bush, who was on vacation during the first days of the crisis, delayed making a response to the issue on national TV until three days after the hurricane. At that time, he chose to emphasize the role of private charity to help the mounting number of victims.

Finally, four days after the hurricane hit the coast and as anger was swelling around the world against the U.S. government’s inaction, Bush toured a portion of the stricken area. His major promise at the time was to send in more troops, with orders to shoot-to-kill “looters” and protect private property.

Bush’s “zero tolerance” message was echoed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who told NBC’s “Today” show (Sept. 1), “We’re trying to deal with looters as ruthlessly as we can get our hands on them.”

Television news shows helped to whip up hysteria about looters and snipers “taking over” the streets of New Orleans. Again and again, they broadcast footage of people smashing windows and lugging TVs and jewelry out of abandoned stores.

Other news clips showed troops with automatic weapons, grimly patrolling the New Orleans streets in Humvees.

The scenes were quite similar to those of the U.S. troops in occupied Baghdad—except for the water in the streets.

But the vast majority of these troops found no looters. Instead, they met desperately thirsty, sick, and hungry people whose homes had been destroyed—and some of whom were searching buildings and rubble for food and fresh water.

One of these people was Jimmy Dubreuil, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., who told an AP reporter that he had tried to enter a Dollar Store in his town but was chased out by a police officer who pistol-whipped him, gashing open a wound on his head. “They started telling us we’re thieves,” he cried. “We’re not thieves. We just wanted to feed the babies.”

Some reports, however, revealed that quite a few residents of the Gulf Coast had undertaken great acts of kindness and even heroism, rescuing neighbors from flooded houses and sharing food and water when they had almost nothing themselves. One TV news program showed a young man who had commandeered a school bus, and used it to deliver food supplies from abandoned shops to stranded people in his New Orleans neighborhood.

Black leaders have pointed out that African Americans in New Orleans and the region, who are the primary victims of the hurricane and its aftermath, have been singled out in the media as being “looters” and “thugs.” Jesse Jackson commented, “With a Black person, it is called looting; with a white person, it is called finding food.”

Bruce Gordon, president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), complained about conditions in shelters in Louisiana and in Texas, where many poor African American people have been sent. “People don’t want to live like this; they don’t have to live like this,” said Gordon, after he visited packed evacuee holding centers in Baton Rouge.

He charged that Black people in places like Biloxi, Miss., heavily hit by Hurricane Katrina, were being ignored: “I see no signs of the Red Cross. I see no signs of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, dismissed claims that Black people were ignored or discriminated against in the rescue. “I don’t believe for one minute that anybody allowed people to suffer because they were African Americans,” Rice said during a visit to her native Alabama to survey the damage.

Rice has served as the major face of the Bush administration in its frantic attempts to explain away its inaction in the crisis. But in this case, racist discrimination cannot be easily covered up; its effects are seen in the polluted floodwaters that cover most of New Orleans—particularly the former Black neighborhoods.

As in much of the U.S., environmental degradation and pollution is concentrated in areas where large numbers of Blacks and other minorities live. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are one of the most contaminated regions in the country—from oil and natural gas production and refining, from chemical plants, and from the polluted waters of the Mississippi, which carries toxic run-off from the industrial Midwest and the agricultural heartland of this country to the Gulf.

The Gulf Coast disaster has resulted, in large part, from a series of actions, and failures to act, since the 1960s. Urban sprawl has destroyed many acres of wetlands, an important natural protection against flooding. Access canals have been cut for oil companies and barge traffic; these canals speeded up soil erosion and retarded the build-up of sediment in the delta.

Louisiana loses approximately 50 square miles of land every year because of this erosion and the failure of sediments to be deposited in the delta. The loss of coastal marshes and islands is especially important in accounting for this disaster, since these natural barriers slow hurricanes and help prevent surges of water. Each mile of intact coastal marsh reduces a storm surge by one inch (see John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature).

New Orleans was built on a marsh. Because it was so close to sea level, rainfall had nowhere to go and often caused flooding. Consequently, water had to be pumped out of the ground underneath the city. This pumping caused the ground to subside (a problem also occurring out West as we deplete the water in aquifers).

New Orleans has been sinking, as a consequence, and the more it sinks, the more important it is to pump out the ground water and to build levees to keep water out. The levees and pumps have been inadequate, given the likely dangers of hurricanes and flooding, for a long time now, and most sensible people knew this.

Louisiana politicians developed a well-thought-out solution in 1998, called “Coast 2050,” to improve the levees, build sea gates, and protect the natural barriers to hurricanes and flooding such as marshes and islands. The cost for this solution was $14 billion over 10 years, a relatively small sum for the federal government, which spends billions every month in the occupation of Iraq. Yet Bush vetoed funding for the “Coast 2050” plan in the early years of his administration after it had been approved by Congress.

Since taking office, the Bush administration has repeatedly slashed funding for hurricane and flood programs. The administration has also gutted FEMA, turning it into a source of political patronage and pork for Bush’s corporate supporters.

Bush lied through his teeth when he told Diane Sawyer on national television, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levee.” In a special series in June 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune warned of the dangers of flooding and hurricanes to the city and Gulf Coast. FEMA and the Bush administration ignored the public outcry and diverted FEMA funds to counter-terrorism projects.

Just this year, the administration cut the funds for levees and flood control in the New Orleans region by $71.2 million, a reduction of 44 percent of the budget. The money was cut to fund the war in Iraq.

Earlier this summer, repair work was halted on the 17th Street Levee, the levee that was breached after the hurricane and flooded much of New Orleans. The project did not have the mere $2 million needed for completion.

U.S. dismisses global warming

Global warming has increased the frequency of hurricanes; the more the water in the Gulf and the Atlantic heats up, the more hurricanes are generated.

In the 2004 hurricane season, there were 16 named storms (the number of named storms is an excellent and fairly precise measure), significantly above the average of almost 10 storms per year between 1944 and 1996.

The current storm season has not yet ended (it ends in November). This season is expected to be very severe, with an estimated 20 named storms, double the 1944–1996 average.

Since 1996, the two-year rolling average of storm frequency (two-year rolling averages minimize the random variation in yearly statistics used in a time series) has risen from 11.5 per year to 18 per year, a clear consequence of global warming.

For a president who believes in God but not global warming, it looks like God is sending him a pretty clear message.

Global warming is the result of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. capitalists and their politicians have in the main refused to do anything about this catastrophic problem.

Bush and the U.S. Congress failed even to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a weak response to the planet-wide problem of global warming.

A crisis stemming from capitalist greed

The immediate victims will need help for a long time; their homes, communities, and jobs have been destroyed. The effects are going to be felt for a long time across the country as well. Where will the estimated 1 million refugees go? How will the Gulf Coast deal with the estimated 25 percent unemployment that will result from the hurricane?

How will the unemployed feed their families and pay for health care? How will the country pay for the estimated $100 billion and rising in damages, only a quarter of which is covered by insurance?

Also, how will we deal with the economically chilling effects of a spike in oil and natural gas prices? This year the price per barrel of oil has climbed 40 percent. In the wake of the hurricane, the price per gallon rose to over $3 in much of the U.S.

These are dire times, when tens of thousands of human beings are being made to pay the price of capitalism’s horrific default. Tens of thousands stand exposed to the system’s fundamental failure to immediately prioritize human needs.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast today are a taste of what capitalism has in store for this country and the world as it ignores the coming horror that is inherent in the capitalist-induced global warming of the entire planet. Then, as now, the first to pay the price will be the poor and oppressed, while those who have the money will flee the initial results of a catastrophe that could dwarf what is now faced in New Orleans.

It is instructive to contrast the current massive loss of lives in the capitalist United States with what took place in Cuba a year ago, when a Category 5 hurricane battered the island with 160 mile-an-hour winds. Although the storm destroyed 20,000 houses on the island, not a single person died.

According to Dr. Nelson Valdez (quoted in Marjorie Cohn’s article, “The Two Americas,” posted on the Truthout web site, Sept. 3), the civil defense system in revolutionary Cuba is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go. “Cuba’s leaders go on TV and take charge,” he pointed out. “Merely sticking people in a stadium is unthinkable…Shelters all have medical personnel, from the neighborhood. They have family doctors in Cuba who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know, for example, who needs insulin.”

Cuban rescue workers also evacuate animals and veterinarians, TV sets and refrigerators, “so that people aren’t reluctant to leave because people might steal their stuff,” Valdez observed.

Mourn—and organize!

What is to be done in the face of this disaster?

First and foremost, we demand that the federal government—the only force capable of intervening with the resources necessary to avert a further compounding of the horror that is occurring—stop the foot-dragging and take immediate action to bring massive aid and relief to the tens of thousands suffering in New Orleans and elsewhere as the result of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

We demand that the federal government spend billions and trillions, if necessary, for New Orleans and all other affected areas now. The real needs of human beings must be met immediately!

The government has no hesitation about spending trillions of dollars on mass murder (war) and the attempt to subjugate Iraq, where it is spending an estimated $4 to 5 billion per month. We demand billions to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, not to the Iraq War!

What is needed is a massive relief effort on the scale of the so-called Marshall Plan that was organized to help war-ravaged Europe after World War II. We demand the massive mobilization of the nation’s resources, not to pursue imperialist war aims, but to serve the immediate and long-term needs of working people, mostly Black and poor, in New Orleans and adjacent areas.

We demand the immediate shipment of food, drinking water, and medical supplies by any means necessary to save the lives of those who are in danger. This must be followed by the massive, temporary evacuation of everyone in danger from the flood, the provision to them of safe, hygienic shelter, and their return to their home areas as soon as those areas are livable.

We demand the allocation of everything required to restore New Orleans and other affected areas to full and safe operation, especially the enactment of flood-control measures sufficient to withstand Category 5 hurricanes in the future.

We demand jobs at union wages for all who have lost them and for all who are needed to work on the reconstruction, repair, and rebuilding of the homes and basic infrastructure that have been destroyed.

This must be undertaken at federal government expense, and it must include immediate measures to reverse the decades of environmental destruction that stand as a backdrop and a magnifying factor of the present catastrophe.

We call on trade-union sisters and brothers and their organizations to aid this effort and reach out in solidarity with working people in distress as never before. We applaud trade unions such as the Fire Fighters, Air Traffic Controllers, Service Employees, California Nurses Association, and many others, which have already taken such action.

We demand that massive U.S. military forces be immediately sent to help with the rescue effort and the reconstruction of destroyed areas—not to shoot down the desperate victims of capitalism’s racism and oppression. NO to the “zero tolerance” advocated by the national government (Bush) as well as state and local officials. They worry about “protecting private property” when the lives of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, are in immediate danger.

Bring the Troops Home Now from Iraq, and use them for rescue and reconstruction. For this purpose, turn military units into civilian job corps to be paid at union wages.

Return all Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama National Guard forces from Iraq and elsewhere—with all necessary safety, medical, and search-and-rescue equipment—to their home states immediately! They know their home areas better and can more effectively provide aid to those who need it than can National Guard troops being sent from other states.

As opposed to “zero tolerance,” we demand zero racism!

Provide aid to all people who need it, regardless of race or the amount of money they have.