United States

Lessons of Katrina

Working People’s Voice
New York, New York

If you are poor, and especially if you are Black and poor, even if you are in the richest country in the world, the government does not care whether you live or die.

The devastation that occurred after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans, was what people only expected to see in a ‘Third World’ country. Many died of thirst, hunger and treatable diseases, while many volunteers, including doctors, were turned away. The government sent troops in, not primarily to provide food, water or medical assistance, but to ‘regain control’ of the area, as if there was an insurgency there. This has opened many people’s eyes to the nature of the U.S. government and ruling class.

Katrina was the most severe (category 5) hurricane to hit the U.S. The levees protecting the city from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain broke, leaving 80% of the city flooded. The budget for the Army Corps of Engineers to construct and repair levees in New Orleans had been cut by $71.2 million, a 44% reduction. The government has slashed funds for social services in general. It is only spending more for its war of occupation of Iraq, while it cuts taxes for the wealthy.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the area, but an unknown number of those with no means to leave, probably in the thousands, died. The government has stopped searching for bodies in Louisiana after counting 972 dead there, with another 221 killed in Mississippi. They seem to treat the actual number of dead the way they do the number of civilian casualties from the war against Iraq – it is not a figure that they are concerned about.

A Case of Criminal Racist Neglect

There was no procedure for the evacuation of those without means to leave on their own. New Orleans is in the heart of the Black Belt (the old plantation region of the South), the territory of the African-American nation in the U.S. Its population is about 70% Black, with about 28% of the people living below the poverty line. Many people, Black and white, had no car or money to buy a bus ticket or to find a place to stay outside of the area. The government made no provisions for these people.

The centres of evacuation that were set up for those who could reach them, such as the Superdome or the Convention Centre in New Orleans, had no provisions of food, water, electric generators, medical supplies, etc. The U.S. government is able to provide these immediately for its troops in combat missions abroad, such as in Iraq, but it did not do so for civilians in its own country until days later. Barbara Bush’s comment on the poor, Black people stuck in the Superdome was an embarrassment for the government because of her open class arrogance and racism: ‘So many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this is working very well for them.’

In areas such as the New Orleans airport that were turned into a hospital, people who could not be immediately treated were left to die (as shown in Oprah Winfrey’s special report), while others reported doctors being turned away because they were not registered with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Focus on Repression, Not Rescue

Man carries unconscious child outside of Superdome past National Guard troops there on "rescue" mission.

When troops first arrived in the Gulf Coast, and particularly in New Orleans, their first order of business was to ‘restore order.’ The racist, capitalist media, reinforcing the government’s line, portrayed starving people trying to get food and water from stores as ‘looters.’ Many people who tried to enter the area to bring aid or report on the real conditions were turned away. When supplies finally came, they were too little and too late for many. The areas was treated as if there was an insurgency, with a ‘state of siege,’ curfews and a lockdown. The commander of Louisiana’s National Guard Joint Task Force, Brigadier General Gary Jones, told the Army Times on September 2: ‘This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.’

When evacuations finally did take place many days late, they were carried out in the most callous manner. As Malcolm Suber, an African-American working class leader from New Orleans, said: ‘I compare what happened to us in New Orleans to what happened to my ancestors when we were kidnapped and stolen from Africa. The method and means that they got us out was like us on the auction block once again. Men and women, mothers and children, sisters and brothers were split up. When you got on the bus, you didn't know where you were going. They had officers with guns and soldiers with guns on the bus. You couldn't get off of the bus.’

Rebuilding – For Whom?

As the region moves to reconstruction, the monopoly corporations are looking at the devastation caused by Katrina as an opportunity for huge profits. Already major companies, seeing the $50 billion appropriated so far as a feeding trough, are getting in on no-bid contracts. This is corporate looting on a mass scale. Many of these companies are the same war profiteers in Iraq – Halliburton (Vice President Cheney’s old corporation) and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, Bechtel and the Fluor Corporation. While these monopolies are getting rich, New Orleans is laying off half its workforce, some 3,000 people, because of a lack of funds.

The real estate speculators are using Katrina to rebuild the city in their own interests. The French Quarter in New Orleans had been a centre of the tourism industry, gambling casinos, etc. The real estate companies had already started tearing down housing projects, centres of concentration of the mostly Black working class in the city. They had already torn down the entire St. Thomas complex, located along the riverfront, and were trying to evict people from the Iberville projects, just outside of the French Quarter, where they were meeting strong resistance from organised tenants and from others throughout the city. After Katrina, some residents of the projects were evicted at gunpoint, and all residents have been barred from returning by new reinforced steel doors on their apartments. As a Baton Rouge Congressperson, Richard Baker, cynically stated: ‘We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.

People’s Efforts

From the day that Katrina struck the area to now, there were heroic efforts by people, individually and collectively, to fight the effects of the hurricane and the government’s attacks. Many people helped neighbours trapped in their houses or on roofs of flooded buildings to evacuate. People shared food and medicines that they were able to get from supermarkets, stores and pharmacies. An independent progressive news team interviewed four young African-American men at the Astrodome in Houston. They had first used an air mattress and then a commandeered boat to rescue hundreds of people in their neighbourhood in New Orleans, at a time when the government was still doing nothing.

In the reconstruction phase, the Black working class population is fighting to stop the capitalist plunder and take control of the rebuilding of the region. Organisations like Community Labour United, a coalition of progressive grass-roots organizations in New Orleans, are demanding the right of return of all those who were evacuated from the affected areas and deliberately separated from their families by the U.S. government and scattered throughout the country. They are calling for their right to participate in the reconstruction process with and the setting up of a vast public works programme, at union wages, overseen by local groups, for the rebuilding of the gulf region. For this purpose they have set up the People’s Hurricane Relief Committee.

For a Socialist System of the Working Class

In times of crisis, the true nature of the system of U.S. monopoly capitalism (imperialism) is made clear. The war against Iraq is showing the true face of the government abroad – that it functions as the Board of Directors of the oil and other monopoly corporations to loot the labour and resources of the world. Similarly, Katrina has blown away the mask that the government has worn at home, showing the reality of a regime that has no concern for the poor and oppressed except as a source of cheap labour. But another world is not only possible; it is necessary.

Revolutionary democratic Cuba, even though it is not a rich country, is an example of a government that is able to provide the basic necessities for its people, even in the face of a 45-year long embargo by the U.S. government. Its education and healthcare system are the envy of most people in the world. It has a higher literacy rate and lower infant mortality rate than even the United States. When Hurricane Ivan (also a category 5 storm) struck Cuba in 2004, it was able to evacuate 1.5 million people without any dead, despite having much fewer material resources including transportation. The evacuation was carried out through the Committees in Defence of the Revolution, neighbourhood organizations elected throughout the country.

The U.S. is the richest country in the world, not because of some divine grace that has blessed its rulers, as they would have us believe. They have been looting the natural resources of much of the world, from the robbery of the land and genocide against the native peoples of this country, to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, to the exploitation of the labour of the workers of all nationalities in the U.S., to the super-exploitation of immigrant workers who have come here from the same countries whose labour and resources have been plundered by the big U.S. monopolies. This wealth does not go to the benefit of those who have produced it, but only to the rich monopolists who run this country. And Katrina has shown the utter contempt that these rulers have for the oppressed and working people.

The capitalist system in this country rests on the twin pillars of class exploitation and national oppression. It will be Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, immigrants, whites, all members of the working class, who can overturn this system and set up a socialist system, in which the resources will be used in the interest of all working people.

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