Racism And Inequality
By Lee Sustar
01 September, 2005
of official neglect, racism and the impact of global warming magnified
the destructive impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and other
parts of the South.
The mainstream media
focused most on the big-money property losses--for example, the heavily
damaged casinos on the Mississippi coast that took a direct hit from
Katrina, and the tourist hotels in the French Quarter in New Orleans.
But beyond the media spotlight are countless others who dont have
sufficient insurance--or any insurance at all--to rebuild their lives.
As in all "natural"
disasters, a far-from-natural logic asserted itself: Those who had the
least to begin with stood to lose the most.
Thus, in the Gulf
Coast cities of Mississippi that took a direct hit when the hurricane
came ashore, the big hotels were left standing, though heavily damaged.
Other structures--even whole neighborhoods and communities--were erased
from the map. "This is our tsunami," said one person, drawing
a comparison with last Decembers disaster around the rim of the
A last-minute shift
in the path of the storm sent Katrina east of New Orleans, prompting
city officials to think that they had avoided a catastrophe. But the
day after the hurricane hit, conditions began to deteriorate rapidly.
Parts of the levee system that protects the below-sea-level city from
flooding gave way--apparently to the north, along the shore of Lake
Pontchartrain--leaving up to 80 percent of New Orleans underwater.
and communications out, little was known about New Orleans poorest
neighborhoods, other than that they--predictably--bore the brunt of
the disaster. Rumors spread that corpses could be seen floating in the
floodwaters. No one had electrical power--nor much chance of getting
it for days, and probably weeks.
The worst may be
yet to come. The waters that inundated New Orleans were polluted by
garbage and debris. And when the floods finally recede, they will leave
behind a breeding ground for disease.
The impact of Katrina
was visible even before the storm hit land, most obviously in the images
of evacuees lined up to take shelter inside New Orleans Superdome--mostly
poor and African American people forced to go for refuge to a football
stadium for lack of a car or want of money.
[the day before the hurricane struck], the Superdome descended into
sweaty chaos," the Miami Herald reported. "About 30,000 refugees
eventually arrived under the vigilance of the Louisiana National Guard.
The frustrated line to get into the stadium stretched the length of
several football fields. People sucked at empty water bottles, lugged
their belongings in plastic grocery bags, fanned themselves in the humid
air, brought their beer and cigarettes and braced for what could be
a two-day stay as torrents of rain started soaking them about 4 p.m."
Once inside the
Superdome, the evacuees were ordered to stay in their seats after curfew.
There were insufficient numbers of toilets, and when electrical power
failed, the generators could support lights, but not air conditioning.
The storm ripped several holes in the roof, and those below had to scramble
away from the rain that poured in.
When the levee system
failed and New Orleans started flooding after the hurricane passed,
the Superdome became an island surrounded by hip-deep water, polluted
by oil and debris. Conditions inside the stadium continued to "deteriorate,"
as press reports put it--at least two people had died inside the Superdome
within the first 36 hours.
While New Orleans is inherently vulnerable to hurricanes--much of the
city lies below sea level--governments at all levels refused to take
necessary precautions to minimize risk or ensure a safe and orderly
The levee system,
crucial to the survival of a city surrounded on three sides by water,
hasnt been upgraded to withstand a Category 4 or 5 storm. Thanks
to George Bush and his "war on terror." During the 1990s,
following floods that killed six people, the federal government established
the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (known as SELA).
The Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of implementing the project
and spent nearly $500 million shoring up levees and building pumping
"But at least
$250 million in crucial projects remained," wrote Philadelphia
Daily News writer Will Bunch. "Yet after 2003, the flow of federal
dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide
the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as
homeland security--coming at the same time as federal tax cuts--was
the reason for the strain
In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict
in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent
of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according
to [a] Feb. 16 , 2004 article in New Orleans CityBusiness."
According to Bunchs
research, though 2004 was one of the worst hurricane seasons in history,
the federal government this year imposed "the steepest reduction
in hurricane- and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history."
Why the neglect?
Though it is best known as a tourist destination, New Orleans is one
of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a population that is 67 percent
African American. In the parish, or county, of Orleans, 34 percent of
households live below the federal poverty line--an issue that was the
focus of a new community coalition at a meeting just a few days before
The scale of the
threat has been well known for years. Oceanographer Joe Suhayda created
a detailed model of the impact of a Category 5 hurricane hitting New
Orleans, showing that much of the city could be plunged under 20 feet
of water, causing tens of thousands of casualties. And in 2004, Hurricane
Ivan barely missed the city, again highlighting the urgent need for
a viable evacuation plan.
people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less--mainly
Black--were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and
aging tenements to face the watery wrath," activist Mike Davis
wrote of the evacuation plans for Ivan. "New Orleans had spent
decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a
class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had 10,000
body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed
to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the citys poorest
or most infirm residents."
Global warming is
almost certainly to blame for the increasing strength and frequency
of hurricanes, Davis told Socialist Worker last year. A number of climatic
factors are at work. For example, something known as the North Atlantic
Oscillation (NAO), which involves variations in air pressure and sea
temperatures, is a contributing factor to the above-normal number of
hurricanes. But global warming caused by air pollution has probably
made matters worse.
in the tropical Atlantic are higher than normal, thus supplying more
energy to hurricanes," Davis said. "This cant be directly
attributed to global warming, but an intensification of the NAO is exactly
what you might expect. Every North Hemisphere summer now seems to guarantee
climate disaster of one kind or another."
But climate disaster
can be profitable--if you happen to be a stockholder or executive for
a major U.S. oil company. The oil giants were set to use the excuse
of Katrina to hike gas prices still further beyond the record pump prices
set last month.
The scale of the
devastation resulting from the hurricane wont be known forweeks.
But we know already who will suffer the brunt of this tragedy--the poor
in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast.