The Destruction of New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina, which hit the US port city of New Orleans and surrounding areas in the last week of August, was a major natural disaster, which would have qualified as an emergency in most countries. But what has been even more devastating is the abysmal lack of preparedness and appalling state of disaster relief in the richest country of the world, the imperial superpower.

Not just days, but now nearly two weeks after the hurricane struck, tens of thousands of people in distress have still not been evacuated.  For around a week, hospitals with severely ill patients were left without power, with floodwaters rising on the lower floors and corpses rotting in the corridors and stairwells. Death and the stink of decay are still all over the city. Corpses have been simply left where they were, or allowed to decompose on the streets. The water that continued to submerge the city was full of human excreta.

Pregnant women, children and the old were deprived of any access to food and even water, for days on end. A week after the hurricane had moved on, gangs of armed miscreants roamed the city, shooting at rescue workers, beating and robbing the already devastated residents, raping women and girls. Two weeks after the disaster, basic public order in the city has still not been established, and the US government has still no estimate of the number of dead or dying, which may be in the tens of thousands.

What is amazing is that both the extent of the disaster and the subsequent even worse calamities in New Orleans could have been prevented by relatively modest spending. It was well known that the canals and levees of the city (which is mostly below sea level) need to be reinforced or rebuilt. But the Bush government has steadfastly refused to make available even the small amounts required, and has even repeatedly cut funding for the maintenance and upgrading of the levee system, despite pleas by local and state officials.

Thus, only $2 billion would have provided for immediate reinforcement and upgrading of the levees and canals in and around the city. Longer-term protection against the impact of hurricanes by restoring the ecosystem of the Mississippi delta would have cost only around $14 billion. But Washington has been obsessed by tax cuts and any additional spending has been diverted to the war in Iraq (which has already cost more than $200 billion and is creating similar, but man-made, devastation for the Iraqi people). So even the spending of these tiny amounts proved to be politically impossible.

In fact, it is a symptom of the problem that even as the levees in New Orleans collapsed, the US Congress was returning from its August break to take up, as its first order of business, a bill to make permanent the virtual elimination of the estate tax, a measure which would gift hundreds of billions of dollars to only a few thousand families, the richest of the rich.

But it is not just the Bush administration’s attitude to public policy which has been exposed. The immediate management of the disaster has been so bad that it has shocked the world. For example, it was reported that the US warship, the U.S.S. Bataan, which is equipped with six operating rooms, hundreds of hospital beds and the ability to produce 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day, has been sitting idle off the Gulf Coast since last Monday – without patients.

While the world knew for at least three days about the impending hurricane, there was no attempt at large-scale public evacuation, only calls for people to move on their own. Those who did not have their own transport or had other constraints were not assisted. Instead of quick action to deal with the calamity, there are reports of a “strange paralysis” that had set in among Bush administration officials, who debated lines of authority while thousands died. While the local and state governments were certainly found lacking, the lack of response from the federal government was truly remarkable.

When George Bush finally visited the ravaged area several days later, he reminisced about the wild parties of his youth in New Orleans, and cutely said: “”The good news is that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of (former Congressman) Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”

This is partly reflective of the dynamics of social and political power in the US. The victims of Hurricane Katrina were largely black and almost always poor – the ones who simply did not have the resources to leave the city on their own. These are not the US citizens with voice and political clout – just as this category provides the cannon fodder for the Iraq war, it also has less chance of demanding basic rights of citizens in the wake of a natural disaster.

But the incompetence of the US administration was such that it even ignored the strategic importance of New Orleans. This is not just because of the oil production around the area. One of New Orleans’ two ports is the largest in the United States by tonnage. A large proportion of US agricultural production flows out of the port, huge amounts come in – including not  only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilisers, coal, concrete and basic raw materials for industry. Destruction of this port is likely to have huge impact on the US economy.

Compare this experience to another American natural disaster, in a very different but neighbouring country. A year ago, in September 2004, a Category 5 hurricane battered the small island of Cuba with 160-mile-per-hour winds. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm. Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, no one died. The civil defence system in Cuba is embedded in the community, so everyone knew what to do and where to go. And Cuban government leaders were visibly leading from the front in organising the relief.

In Cuba it would have been unthinkable just to push people into a stadium and leave them there for days, as was done in New Orleans. There are neighbourhood-based shelters, all with medical personnel. The evacuation also involves moving animals, TV sets and refrigerators, so that people are not reluctant to leave their homes.

After Hurricane Ivan, the United Nations International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction cited Cuba as a model for hurricane preparation, saying that “the Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their citizens form natural disaster.” The Cubans have now offered help in the form of doctors and volunteers, to the stricken coastline of the United States.

What a pity for the people of the US, that George Bush would not even consider it.