The Current Disaster

What we see in Katrina is a failure of our government. We've seen this before in our daily lives or in past disasters, blackouts, scandals, and acts of war. But Katrina has provided a set of examples of this failure that are astoundingly clear, well-publicized and deadly.

Time and again in Katrina's wake, we saw people in positions of official authority thwart the initiatives of everyday people that would have saved lives and alleviated suffering. "Bureaucracy has committed murder here," is how the president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard explained it, accusing the Federal Emergency Management Agency of blocking deliveries of water and diesel fuel into the parish.

It is difficult to say why the authorities acted this way. Reflecting on the clearly-incompetent Michael Brown, it almost seems like his idea of competence was centralizing all decisions in him. Instead of pushing resources down to the affected area, he wanted to remain in control of every boat, fireman, and bottle of water under FEMA's auspices. This meant that people who knew what were happening – to some extent the mayor but also the people still inside the city – could not get what they needed to respond without explaining the situation to Brown. Even in the best conditions, that would greatly slow the response. With phones and power lines down, it was impossible.

Beyond structural inefficiencies, the government intentionally withheld aid from the people of New Orleans and other affected areas. There are clear cases of this at a micro-level, where food deliveries or the serving of lunch were delayed so George or Laura Bush could fly in for a photo op. But the number of times that FEMA officials actively prevented aid from arriving – accepting only one truck of a large offer from Chicago, tying up in red tape New Mexico's offer of National Guard troops, turning away 500 local boatsmen ready to search for survivors – would make anyone wonder if they were trying to help.

The only resource the state and city could offer the poor residents of New Orleans was a DVD telling them to leave in the event of a hurricane. "The primary message [of the DVD] is that each person is primarily responsible for themselves, for their own family and friends," community activist Rev. Marshall Truehill said. The title of the DVD was "Preparing for the Big One." It was still on the shelves waiting to be distributed when Katrina struck.

"You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you," local Red Cross executive director Kay Wilkins told The New Orleans Times-Picayune in a pre-Katrina report on the DVD.

As musicologist Ned Sublette observed, "It's as if you had advance notice that mohammed atta's crew was coming to the world trade center and evacuated all but the poor from it." He worried what might happen if the Superdome did not hold up under the storm. "Chronicle of a genocide foretold," he wrote.

One could imagine the government's handling of Katrina as a twenty-first century Tuskegee experiment in disaster response: a chance to study an American city under the kind of stress that war and nature have in store for us. Local residents claim to have heard explosions when the levees ruptured, hearkening back to the intentional flooding of poor, rural areas to save the city of New Orleans during a 1927 flood. But questions about the levees being intentionally dynamited to flood poor neighborhoods and save the French Quarter go past the point.

We don't need an investigation to tell us what we saw. We don't have to split hairs. The government has been withholding aid from poor people in the Gulf Coast region since Reconstruction. People were starving, living in inadequate shelter, and not receiving health care before the storm struck. Why would we think they would receive anything afterwards?

We have to be clear that there are not good authorities and bad authorities among those that were supposed to do something about this disaster. They are all part of a single system that caused the death or suffering of thousands of people.

The media is already working to portray the battle over blame for Katrina as a choice between Democrats and Republicans. Within a week, The Washington Post was writing articles with headlines like "GOP Agenda Shifts as Political Trials Grow: Katrina Puts Estate Tax Repeal on Ice." Only a sadist could stay focused on repealing the estate tax in a time like this. (That's the best way to describe Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who has said he wants to drown government in a bath tub and who issued an immediate statement after Katrina that the repeal of the estate tax was just what Gulf Coast residents needed to rebuild.) Then The New York Times followed with "Democrats Step Up Criticism of White House" and "Katrina Divides Rather Than Unifies U.S." They're right about the divide, but wrong that it's between Republicans and Democracts.

If we allow the response to Katrina to become a partisan battle playing out in Washington DC, we will ensure another catastrophe just like it in the near future and the continued suffering of our nation's poor in the meantime. If we learned anything from the 9/11 Commission, it was that a bi-partisan commission of Washington insiders will find no one to blame. An investigation led by George Bush himself cannot be taken seriously.

If we're going to have a federal government, disaster mitigation and response is definitely one of the responsibilities they should have. A more capable FEMA, like the one headed by James Witt under Clinton, would likely have responded sooner and more effectively. Clinton had cut funding to New Orleans's levees, but not to the extent that Bush did. Bush cancelled Project Impact, the mitigation program created by the Clinton administration.

But no matter what FEMA does, whether it focuses on natural disasters or terrorism, whether it leaves 20,000 to die or 1,000, civilian response will always be the most immediate and significant component of disaster relief. The home page for the 2004 World Disasters Report from The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies tells it plainly: "In the hours after sudden disaster strikes, most lives are saved by the courage and resourcefulness of friends and neighbours." That's why every disaster will reveal the extent of impoverishment and incapacitation at the local level. Watching a disaster offers a window onto the stark imbalances in different communities' health and wealth caused by capitalism and white supremacism.

George Bush may be the worst of the characters in the story of Hurricane Katrina. But put any of the other public officials – Chertoff, Brown, Bianco, or Nagin – in his place and local police departments would still care more about property than people, devastating climate change would proceed, and millions of people in the United States and billions around the world would remain in poverty with their situations getting worse. Fire who you want, fire them all, but we need to address these fundamental problems.

We are ready to argue that our choice is between centralized government and self-government. Having witnessed the clear and utter failure of their government at all levels, millions of people are now ready to hear this. Rather than taking the side of this or that politician, we should adopt the slogan of the popular uprising in Argentina: They all must go.

Of course, this is not to be confused with reducing government in favor of a "reliance on the private sector." In the short term, the most we could expect is that these politicians are merely replaced with others that are more responsive to their constituents and more willing to put resources and decisionmaking power into the hands of local communities, even if it means taking them away from large corporations. But we also need to fully realize what actions we can take without waiting for the approval of any outside authority.

Whether we like it or not, we are in line for more Katrina-like cataclysms. If New Orleans is the city in North America most vulnerable to climate change, which city is number two? While I support the community activists who are calling to rebuild New Orleans, even the most business-oriented development plans strike me as utopian in the face of our new reality. Miles of homes are coated in oil and petrochemicals. The region was already known as Cancer Alley. And the way the toxic floodwaters are being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain is making matters worse. "It will take 10 years to get everything up and running and safe," EPA expert Hugh Kaufman told The Independent.

Our country has the resources to clean up the mess and rebuild the city in any fashion we choose. And regardless of all other factors, we need to proceed with a cleanup; thousands of people are still in the area and plan to live their lives there. We could easily pay for it with the money we are currently using to fight the war in Iraq. Or, as the conservative Heritage Foundation suggests, Congress could redirect the pork barrel funding from their recently-enacted highway bill. Those are just the easy ones.

Billions of dollars are already starting to flow into the region with little oversight. Community involvement in the allocation of those funds is critical, even when they're not directed towards residential areas. It's the only check on the massive graft and patronage that characterize government spending, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, two of the most corrupt states in the nation. War profiteers like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Fluor have already secured rebuilding contracts. Without a doubt, displaced residents need to organize to respond with coordinated power to their current situation.

However, if we take a long, hard look at our situation we see that we will have a hard enough time just holding the line of devastation where it is without trying to push it back to where it was before Katrina. At its heart, rebuilding New Orleans is a conservative response, even if it's also an emotional one. These are radical times. The deep challenges of global climate change, peak oil, massive poverty, fragile health, and continuing racism require our focused attention. While any rebuilding of the Gulf Coast must be community-directed and ecologically-sound, our primary focus must be on mitigating future natural and human-made disasters.

To be ready for the coming disasters, we need massive resources deployed at the most local level throughout the country and, of course, the world. If the government will provide them, great. If not, we need to work to secure them ourselves.

To start, we must put an immediate end to hunger and homelessness in the United States. After Katrina, we can no longer pretend that poverty does not exist within our borders. We have no excuse. Poverty in the United States is like the levees in New Orleans. The warning signs are there and people will die if we do not heed them.

After surveying 27 cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently announced that hunger and homelessness are on the rise in major cities. Nearly half of the cities surveyed reported that emergency food assistance facilities may have to turn away people in need due to lack of resources. "These are not simply statistics," Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who co-chairs the Conference's Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, said. "These are real people, many are families with children, who are hungry and homeless in our cities."

Our country has enough resources to feed, clothe, and house every person in it. Once every person displaced by Katrina has been provided this security, the airdrops of water and MREs should begin in Detroit, Anacostia, Appalachia, and every Native American reservation. I am not naive enough to believe this will happen under our current government. But every day that it doesn't is another Katrina in slow motion.

We must confront the healthcare crisis in the United States, which disproportionately impacts African Americans. More than 50 evacuees have already died in Texas. Officials suggested that many of them, like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown who died in Orange, Texas, after being evacuated from New Orleans, had pre-existing health conditions. In the United States, being Black is a pre-existing health condition. “When it comes to your risk of stroke, you get a penalty for being African American, you get a penalty for living in the South, and you get an ‘extra’ penalty for being an African American living in the South,” Dr. George Howard said after analyzing stroke death data from 1997 through 2001.

The American Heart Association will tell you that African Americans are at increased risk for hypertension and heart disease. The countless stories of stranded New Orleans residents needing insulin exposed what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's statistics had already proven: that Blacks are 30 percent more likely to have diabetes than whites. While the rates of diagnosis for diabetes is declining for both groups, it is declining twice as fast for whites as for Blacks. In short, the poor overall health of New Orleans' African Americans put them at greater risk during the hurricane, flood, and evacuation, just as it puts them at greater risk in everyday life.

Even beyond this systemic level, it is clear that racism directly caused some of the death and suffering in Katrina's wake – again, just as it causes death and suffering everyday. Whether in the Gretna Sheriffs' refusal to allow evacuations on foot or in the media's portrayal of "looters" that helped justify the decision to order police and National Guard to "shoot to kill," American white supremacy brought violence and repression to African Americans in their most desperate moments before it brought them food and water. This, too, happens everyday. Racism is so ingrained in the fabric of America that it is hard to imagine that we could overcome it as a country. Increased community control over resources, decisions, and media would help considerably.

Since catastrophes strike the disenfranchised the hardest, disaster preparedness is a form of redistribution of wealth. The only way to mitigate the effects of a catastrophe is to make sure that everyone has food, clothing, shelter, good health and strong communication networks before it hits. The public awareness following Katrina provides an opportunity for us to make demands of our government officials and to take our own actions to prepare our communities.

Urban centers must immediately publish their full evacuation plans. If they can't do so, they should admit to being unprepared and then they should start getting prepared. The New Orleans plan of "you're on your own" is not acceptable. Security at this level is a primary function of government. Anyone who's in the government should fulfill this part of their job or quit. Every city and region in the country must publish immediately its plan for evacuating every resident in case of a catastrophic emergency.

"A plan should not be some requirement," Florida's emergency management chief, Craig Fugate, told the Palm Beach Post in an article about Louisiana and Mississippi's failed or non-existent hurricane response plans. "It should truly reflect what your real needs are, and what your real resources are."

After seeing the government's response to Katrina, few people trust that it will keep them safe. They want proof, not some bullshit excuse that you won't share the information with the public because then the terrorists will have it. People will no longer accept that. Government incompetence is a bigger danger than any terrorist.

Start investing seriously in public transportation, including light-rail systems that would be capable of handling mass evacuations. At other times, these light rails can replace fuel-inefficient long-haul trucking.

Sign the fucking Kyoto treaty already. And then start figuring out how to cut emissions even further. The state-level pact recently completed in the northeast is a fine strategy, but the world needs to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the air.

Get together with other countries to reduce disasters. The UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction is a good place to start. So is Cuba, where they were able to evacuate 1.5 million people ahead of last year's Hurricane Ivan – a category 5 – with nearly zero lives lost and no looting or curfews. Marjorie Cohn, in an article for Truthout, explains Cuba's success with a quote from Dr. Nelson Valdes, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico and a specialist in Latin America: "The whole civil defense is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go… 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."

Emergency stores of food and water should not be held in FEMA bunkers or National Guard armories. They should be available in every area of 10,000 people as an emergency food and water depot whose location is well-publicized.

The last two weeks have shown that we need more than food and water to survive. We need basic survival skills like first aid, emergency medicine, and fire safety. We have also seen that we need to be able to organize ourselves in times of crisis. In short, we need to be able to survive without government.

This includes setting up communication networks. A major problem in the Gulf Coast was the lack of access to correct information. As with water, food, clothes and shelter, communication is a human right. We need methods for speaking with each other and the ability to adapt those methods to even the worst of circumstances.

This does not mean a Magnetic Acoustic Device, like the prototype that was sent to the Gulf Coast allegedly to provide a "communications infrastructure to get information or instructions out to people," according to Wired News. A MAD can direct sound signals from over a mile away; it can also be used as an "area denial option," using painful sonic blasts to attack and clear crowds.

Rather, we need participatory communications networks, especially in the hands of people that are shut out of traditional broadcast outlets. This might include low-power radio and shortwave radio, text messaging and other phone-based tools. It can also mean websites or newspapers, especially when connected to community organizing efforts, since otherwise those can exclude people who don't read or get online. Sometimes a gathering point or a bulletin board can suffice. Whatever the method, they're available to us right now and we should be implementing them more and more.

So let's make our own DVD, one with real information on how to help your family and neighbors. The possible content of such a DVD is vast, including suturing, morse code, generator maintenance, and water purification. It would be great if it worked in print and audio as well as video, and was in multiple languages. Let's teach each other what to do in a natural disaster. Hell, let's teach each other what to do in the current disaster.

2 Comments

  1. [...] Working in the news media, I’ve been pretty acutely aware that the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was approaching. Like every other media outlet, my show has been planning its coverage for the big day, although I do think we haven’t covered it the way others have. We have reports from around the world, comparing the earthquake in Gujarat to the flooding of New Orleans. We have the voices of evacuees displaced by the storm mixed with stories of street vendors displaced by the World Trade Center bombings. I think these illustrate the idea that Katrina and its mismanaged aftermath, to borrow a phrase, was an extreme example of the current disaster we’ve been in for decades – the disaster of racism, classism, and environmental mismanagement. [...]

  2. [...] (built by The Shaw Group, a large Louisiana firm cozy with Bush, on a no-bid contract after Katrina). The residents are understandably distrustful of outsiders, especially journalists. But there is [...]

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