A Calamity Compounded
By Poverty And Neglect
By Joseph Kay
01 September 2005
enormous devastation wreaked upon parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and
Alabama by Hurricane Katrina is only beginning to come to light, even
as the situation in New Orleans grows worse by the hour. Large parts
of the coastal regions of these states along the Gulf of Mexico have
experienced extensive flooding, destruction of buildings and homes,
and loss of life.
As the toll mounts,
it becomes increasingly clear that the city of New Orleans was remarkably
unprepared for such a disaster. That the city of over one million was
spared the direct hit which many at first feared, and nevertheless experienced
such massive damage, only underscores the fact that the systems protecting
the city are entirely inadequate. One can only speculate as to the effects
on the city if the hurricane had passed only ten miles west of where
are in the tens of billions of dollars. At least one million people
in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are without electrical power,
and officials say it may take weeks to fully restore service to all
affected regions. Clean drinking water is scarce, and the flood waters
covering city streets are contaminated with gas from ruptured gas lines,
chemicals and human waste, raising a serious danger of infectious disease.
The reports in the
media paint a tragic and even hellish picture. Hundreds and perhaps
thousands in New Orleans were forced to retreat to their roofs, often
by hacking through their attic ceilings using hatchets and knives. Many
are still stranded. There have been scattered reports of bodies floating
in the flood waters, particularly on the east side of New Orleans and
in the adjacent St Bernard Parish, where some 40,000 homes were flooded.
Parts of Mississippi
on the Gulf coast were hit by the center of the hurricane and destroyed.
Entire neighborhoods were obliterated. Where there were once houses,
now there is only debris and the scattered belongings of residents.
An official with
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Tuesday that at
least 115 people in Mississippi were killed by the hurricane. Vincent
Creel, an official from Biloxi, told Reuters that the death toll is
going to be in the hundreds. He added, [Hurricane]
Camille was 200, and were looking at a lot more than that.
No estimates of
fatalities in the New Orleans metropolitan area have been released.
residents along the coast were trapped in their homes and swept away
by a 30-foot surge that accompanied the hurricane. This is our
tsunami, said the mayor of Biloxi, A.J. Holloway, referring to
the giant tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other parts
of South Asia last December.
After the storm
had passed, many in New Orleans who thought their homes had escaped
relatively unharmed watched with astonishment as the water levels rose
throughout Monday and Tuesday. While initial reports on Monday suggested
that the city was lucky to have escaped a direct hit from the hurricane,
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco told a news conference on Tuesday,
The devastation is greater than our worst fears. Its totally
Sometime on Monday,
a levee on the 17th Street Canal, near Lake Pontchartrain on the north
side, ruptured, flooding much of the city. According to a report in
the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The breach sent a churning sea
of water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing across Lakeview and into Mid-City,
Carrollton, Gentilly, City Park and neighborhoods farther south and
east. Water continued to rise throughout Tuesday and showed no
signs of stopping.
Flood waters covered
the citys famous French Quarter, which escaped serious damage
during the initial impact of the hurricane and is on higher ground than
much of the city. Late on Tuesday the Associated Press was reporting
that a second levee had burst, increasing the flow of water into the
city. It is unclear how long it will take to plug the levees, including
a 200 foot-wide hole in the 17th Street Canal, which, like the water
that surrounds most of New Orleans, is at a higher elevation than most
of the city itself.
The mayor of New
Orleans, Ray Nagin, estimated that 80 percent of the city was flooded.
Our city is in a state of devastation, he told a local television
station. With some sections of our city, the water is as deep
as seven meters... Its almost like a nightmare that I hope we
wake up from.
Nagin said that
the number of deaths was unknown but significant. Later
he said that rescue workers were bypassing the bodies of the dead as
they pushed on to search for stranded survivors.
By Tuesday afternoon,
the rising waters in New Orleans had reached the Superdome, where it
was a meter deep. During the storm, the Superdome served as a refuge
for some 10,000 New Orleans residents, most of them poor, disabled or
without transportation and therefore unable to follow evacuation orders.
Since the storm, thousands more have taken shelter there, and are now
unable to leave because of the dangerous conditions that still prevail
The Superdome has
been without power or air conditioning since early Monday morning. As
many as 30,000 people are crammed into close, hot and extremely humid
quarters. There were reports Tuesday afternoon that one person jumped
to his death from the concourse of the stadium.
The flooding is
also threatening hospitals holding patients whose lives are dependent
on electrical generators, which will fail if the water rises much further.
State officials have announced plans to evacuate 500 people, but the
evacuation itself poses serious risks to the patients.
It is not known
when most of those who have fled the city will be able to return. The
dangers arising from the hot weather and the rising water include pollution
from oil refineries and contamination from dead bodies, including those
from flooded cemeteries. The disease-bearing mosquito population is
growing, and water is covering downed power lines. Officials have also
warned of an infestation of fire ants and poisonous water snakes. Ivor
van Heerden, deputy director for the Louisiana State University Hurricane
Center, told CNN that the city is a wilderness.
The social component of a natural disaster
caused by the hurricane has taken its toll on all sections of the population
in these southern states. Some of the most severe damage in Mississippi
was inflicted on the beach-front houses of the wealthy. In New Orleans,
the flooding from ruptured levees has been indiscriminate.
However, as is so
often the case with natural disasters, those most affected, and least
able to recover, are the poor.
One of the hardest
hit sections of New Orleans is also one of the poorest: the Lower Ninth
Ward, on the eastern side of the city bordering St. Bernard Parish and
the Mississippi River. The storm overpowered levees protecting the region,
producing floods 20 feet high. Hundreds of people were rescued from
their rooftops, while many were still stranded on Tuesday afternoon.
man, its gone, the Times-Picayune quoted City Council President
Oliver Thomas, referring to the Lower Ninth Ward. This is crazy.
Nothing like this has ever happened. It is unlikely that many
of the trailers and small, one-story homes that populate the area will
survive without massive damage.
Many residents of
this ward were among the 100,000 in the city who lacked a car or other
means of leaving the city. According to the 2000 US census, the Lower
Ninth Ward has a poverty level of 36.4 percent. A quarter of households
have an annual income of less than $10,000, while half live on less
than $20,000. Over half of the population in the ward is categorized
as not in the labor force, mainly because they have ceased
looking for work.
Lower Ninth Ward was one of the last regions of the city to be occupied
because of its poor drainage system and its position on what was originally
a cypress swamp. Those who settled there were mainly poor African-Americans
and immigrant laborers with no other place to go.
In 1965, the Lower
Ninth Ward was devastated by Hurricane Betsy, which caused 81 deaths
in New Orleans, mainly in this area of the city. That disaster prompted
calls for greater protection from the dangers posed by the adjacent
Mississippi River. However, as has become clear from the present catastrophe,
the systems that were put in place were entirely inadequate.
impact of the hurricane will also become apparent as residents attempt
to salvage what is left of their homes and rebuild. Property insurance
does not generally cover losses from floods, meaning that many will
be without resources to replace what has been lost. Though the federal
government provides insurance for flood losses, many, and in particular
the poorer residents, do not have this coverage. Particularly in Alabama
and Mississippi, relatively few people have insurance to cover flood
Estimates on insured
losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina range from $9 billion to $25
billion, while total lossesinsured and uninsuredare likely
to be twice that level.
Lack of preparation
As always with a
devastating event like Hurricane Katrina, voices are raised claiming
that nothing could have been done to prevent the catastrophe. Such declarations
are thoroughly false. While it would have been impossible to prevent
all damage from the hurricane, there were definite measures that could
have been taken to minimize the impact.
That such steps
were not taken is despite the fact that the areas devastated by Katrina
lie along a path that has repeatedly suffered massive hurricane damage
in the past. New Orleans is particularly vulnerable. It lies below sea
level, surrounded on three sides by waterthe Gulf of Mexico, the
Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrainfrom which it is protected
only by a network of levees and pumps. For years scientists and engineers
have warned that a major hurricane could inflict catastrophic damage
on the city.
Betsy, the levee system was modified to withstand the force of a category
three hurricane, but Katrina, when it hit land, was strongera
category four storm. It was only a matter of time before a category
four or five storm hit the city, but government officials failed to
commit the resources necessary to shore up the levee system to withstand
an event of that magnitude, including raising the height of the barriers
to prevent the sort of flooding that occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The city depends
on pumps to push water uphill, away from the city and back into the
surrounding lake and river. However, these pumps operate on electricity,
which has been entirely cut off since the hurricane struck. The pumps
have apparently ceased operating.
According to an
article in the New Orleans CityBusiness, from February 7, 2005, the
US Army Corps of Engineers identified millions of dollars in flood
and hurricane protection projects in the New Orleans district,
however chances are... most projects will not be funded in the
presidents 2006 fiscal year budget.
The article noted
that between 2001 and 2005, the amount spent on such projects declined
from $147 million to $82 million. Unfunded projects include widening
drainage canals, flood-proofing bridges and building pumping stations
in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
Officials have deemed
a revamping of the levee system to protect the city against a category
four or five storm prohibitively expensive, but the cost would have
been far less than the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina. That these
resources have not been marshaled to address the pressing needs of social
infrastructure in New Orleans is due to the fact that the priorities
of the government and the American ruling class lie on an entirely different
The attempts by
the city to evacuate the population likewise demonstrated the lack of
preparation in addressing the needs of the residents, particularly the
poorest sections. In spite of an enormous traffic backlog, most residents
with transportation were able to get out before the storm hit. But many
of those without transportation were left stranded.
In 2002, the Times-Picayune
wrote a series entitled Washed Away, in which it discussed
what would happen in the event of a major hurricane. 100,000 people
without transportation will be especially threatened, the newspaper
wrote. A large population of low-income residents do not own cars
and would have to depend on an untested emergency public transportation
system to evacuate them.
The lack of preparation
for the citys poor was revealed in an article that appeared in
Tuesdays Wall Street Journal, which was otherwise devoted to extolling
the efficiency of the citys evacuation measures. Mayor Nagin
urged churches Sunday morning to arrange evacuations for those who might
not have access to a car. He mentioned Amtrak and Greyhound as possibilities...
The mayor encouraged people leaving the city to pick up anyone they
knew who didnt have means to evacuate, but acknowledged that many
poor New Orleans residents lacked a clear way to get out.
Even in the first
days after the hurricane, it has become clear that the tragedy could
have been much reduced if adequate measure had been put in place. As
we learn more about the events, there will no doubt be further revelations
regarding the social components of this disaster.