By Mike Davis
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New Orleans, Old Prejudices

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Mike Davis finds that every aspect of the response to Hurricane Katrina disaster was shaped by race and class.
Issue 300

The tempest which destroyed New Orleans was conjured out of tropical seas and an angry atmosphere 125 miles offshore of the Bahamas. Labelled initially as ‘Tropical Depression 12’ on 23 August, it quickly intensified into ‘Tropical Storm Katrina’. Making landfall near Miami on 24 August, Katrina had grown into a small hurricane – ‘Category 1’ on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Crossing over Florida to the Gulf of Mexico where it wandered for four days, Katrina underwent a monstrous and largely unexpected transformation. Siphoning vast quantities of energy from the Gulf’s abnormally warm waters – 3 degrees centigrade above their usual August temperature – Katrina mushroomed into an awesome, top of the scale ‘class 5’ hurricane with 290 kph winds. (Nature later reported that Katrina absorbed so much heat from the Gulf that ‘water temperatures dropped dramatically after it had passed, in some regions from 30 degrees Celsius to 26 degrees Celsius’.) Horrified meteorologists had rarely seen a Caribbean hurricane replenish its power so dramatically, and researchers debated whether or not Katrina’s explosive growth was a portent of global warming’s impact on hurricane intensity.

Although Katrina had dropped to ‘Category 4’ (210 to 249 kph winds) by the time it careened ashore in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi river on early Monday, 29 August, it was small consolation to the doomed oil ports, fishing camps and Cajun villages in its direct path. In Plaquemines, and then again on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, Katrina churned the bayous with relentless wrath. Metropolitan New Orleans, with its 1.3 million inhabitants, was originally dead centre in Katrina’s way, but the hurricane veered to the right after landfall and its eye passed 55 kilometres to the east of the metropolis. The Big Easy – largely under sea level and bordered by the salt-water embayments known as Lake Pontchartrain (to the north) and Lake Borgne (to the east) – was spared the worst of Katrina’s winds but not its waters.

Hurricane-driven storm surges from both lakes broke through the notoriously inadequate levees – not as tall as in more affluent areas – which guard black-majority eastern New Orleans as well as adjacent white blue-collar suburbs in St Bernard Parish. There was no warning and the rapidly rising waters trapped and killed hundreds of unevacuated people in their bedrooms, including 34 elderly residents of a nursing home. Later, probably around midday, a more formidable floodwall gave way at the 17th Street Canal, allowing Lake Pontchartrain to pour into the city’s low-lying central districts. Although New Orleans’s most famous tourist assets, including the French Quarter and the Garden District, are built on high ground and survived the inundation, the rest of the city was flooded to its rooftops or higher, damaging or destroying about 150,000 housing units. Locals promptly dubbed it ‘Lake George’ after the president who failed to build new levees or come to their aid after the old ones had burst.

Although Bush later claimed that ‘the storm didn’t discriminate’, every aspect of the catastrophe was in fact shaped by inequalities of class and race. In addition to unmasking the fraudulent claims of the Department of Homeland Security to make Americans safer, the ‘shock and awe’ of Katrina also exposed the devastating consequences of the federal neglect of majority black and Latino big cities and their vital infrastructures. The staggering incompetence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) demonstrated the folly of entrusting life and death public mandates to clueless political appointees and ideological foes of ‘big government’. And the speed with which Washington suspended the prevailing wage standards of the Davis-Bacon Act and swung open the doors of New Orleans to corporate looters like Halliburton, the Shaw Group, and Blackwater Security – already fat from the spoils of the Tigris – contrasted obscenely with FEMA’s deadly procrastination over sending water, food and buses to the multitudes trapped in the stinking hell of the Louisiana Superdome.

But if New Orleans – as many of its bitter exiles now believe – was allowed to die as a result of governmental incompetence and neglect, the blame also falls squarely on the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge and, especially, City Hall on Perdido Street. Mayor C Ray Nagin – a wealthy African-American cable television executive who was elected in 2002 with 87 percent of the white vote – was ultimately responsible for the safety of the estimated one quarter of the population that was too poor or infirm to own a car. His stunning failure to mobilise resources to evacuate carless residents and hospital patients reflected more than personal ineptitude: it was also a symbol of the callous attitude among New Orleans’s elites, both white and black, towards their poor neighbours in the backswamp districts and run-down housing projects.

Where’s the cavalry?

No disaster in American history had been so accurately predicted in advance. Although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would later claim that ‘the size of the storm was beyond anything his department could have anticipated’, this was flatly untrue. ‘The sad part’, one researcher lamented after Katrina had passed, ‘is that we called this 100 percent.’ The vulnerability of New Orleans to wind-driven storm surges has been intensively studied and widely publicised. In 1998, a sophisticated computer study by Louisiana State University warned of the ‘virtual destruction’ of the city by a Category 4 storm approaching from the south west. The continuous erosion of southern Louisiana’s barrier islands and bayou wetlands increases the height of storm surges as they arrive at New Orleans, while the city itself, along with its levees, is slowly sinking. As a result even a Category 3 hurricane, if slow moving, would now flood most of the city.

The Bush administration’s response to these frightening forecasts was to rebuff Louisiana’s urgent requests for more flood protection: the crucial Coast 2050 project to revive protective wetlands was shelved and levee appropriations, including the completion of defences around Lake Pontchartrain, were repeatedly slashed. In part, this was a consequence of new priorities in Washington that squeezed the budget of the Army Corps: a huge tax cut for the rich, the financing of the war in Iraq, and, ironically, the costs of ‘Homeland Security’. Yet there is undoubtedly a brazen political motive as well: New Orleans is a black-majority, solidly Democratic city. Why would an administration so relentlessly focused on partisan warfare seek to reward this thorn in Karl Rove’s side by authorising the $2.5 billion that senior Army Corps officials estimate would be required to build a Category 5 protection system around New Orleans?

In addition to underfunding coastline restoration and levee construction, the White House also mindlessly vandalised the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under director James Lee Witt (who enjoyed cabinet rank), FEMA had been the showpiece of the Clinton administration, winning bipartisan praise for its efficient dispatch of search and rescue teams. When Republicans took over the agency in 2001, however, it was treated as enemy terrain: the new director, former Bush campaign manager Joe M Allbaugh, decried disaster assistance as ‘an oversized entitlement programme’ and urged Americans to rely more upon the Salvation Army and other faith-based groups. Since its absorption into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003, FEMA has been repeatedly downsized as well as ensnared in new layers of bureaucracy and patronage.

Thus there was every reason for anxiety, if not panic, when Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, warned President Bush (still vacationing in Texas) and homeland security officials in a video-conference on Sunday, 28 August, that Katrina was poised to devastate New Orleans. Yet FEMA director Brown – faced with the possible death of 100,000 locals – exuded breathless, arrogant bravado: ‘We were so ready for this. We planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we’ve always known about New Orleans.’ For months Brown and his boss, homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, had trumpeted the new National Response Plan that would ensure unprecedented coordination among government agencies during a major disaster.

But as the floodwaters swallowed New Orleans and its suburbs, it was difficult to find anyone to answer a phone, much less take charge of the relief operation. ‘A mayor in my district’, an angry Republican congressman told the Wall Street Journal, ‘tried to get supplies for his constituents, who were hit directly by the hurricane. He called for help and was put on hold for 45 minutes. Eventually, a bureaucrat promised to write a memo to his supervisor.’ Frantic rescue workers and city officials were plagued by the breakdown of phone systems and the lack of a common bandwidth. At the same time they faced shortages of food rations, potable water, sandbags, generator fuel, satellite phones, portable toilets, buses, boats, and helicopters. Most fatefully, homeland security secretary Chertoff inexplicably waited a full 24 hours after New Orleans had been flooded to upgrade the disaster to an ‘incident of national significance’ – the legal precondition for moving the federal response into high gear.

Far more than the reluctance of the president to return to work, or the vice-president to interrupt his mansion-hunting trip, or the secretary of state to end her shoe-buying expedition in Manhattan – it was the dinosaur-like slowness of the brain of Homeland Security to register the magnitude of the disaster that doomed so many to die. Lathered in premature and embarrassing praise from the president for their heroic exertions, both Chertoff and Brown were more like sleepwalkers. As late as 2 September, Chertoff astonished an interviewer on National Public Radio by claiming that the scenes of death and desperation inside the Superdome, which the entire world was watching on television, were just ‘rumours and anecdotes’. FEMA director Brown, meanwhile, was blaming the victims, claiming that most deaths were the fault of ‘people who did not heed evacuation warnings’, although he knew that heeding had nothing to do with the lack of an automobile or confinement in a wheelchair. The absence of more than one third of the Louisiana National Guard and much of its heavy equipment crippled rescue and relief operations from the outset. As an embittered representative from devastated St Bernard Parish told the Times-Picayune, ‘Canadian help arrived before the US Army did.’

A conservative new Jerusalem

New Orleans City Hall could have used Canadian help as well: the emergency command centre was put out of operation early in the emergency by a shortage of diesel fuel to run its backup generator. Indeed for two days Mayor Nagin and his aides were utterly cut off from the outside world by the failure of both their land lines and cellular phones. Nagin later ranted with justification about FEMA’s failure to pre-position supplies or to promptly rush buses and medical supplies to the Superdome.

It is inevitable that many of those left behind in their drowning neighbourhoods will interpret City Hall’s unconscionable negligence in the context of the bitter economic and racial schisms that have long made New Orleans the most tragic city in the US. It is no secret that New Orleans business elites and their allies in City Hall would like to push the poorest segment of the population – blamed for the city’s high crime rates – out of the city. Historic public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme park New Orleans – Las Vegas on the Mississippi – with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits.

Not surprisingly, some advocates of a whiter, safer New Orleans see a divine plan in Katrina. ‘We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,’ a leading Louisiana Republican confided to Washington lobbyists. Likewise, Mayor Nagin boasted of his empty streets and ruined neighbourhoods, ‘This city is for the first time free of drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way.’ Indeed a partial ethnic cleansing of New Orleans will be a fait accompli without massive local and federal efforts to provide affordable housing for the tens of thousands of poor renters who are now dispersed across the country in refugee shelters.

As everyone recognises, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the rest of the afflicted Gulf region will be an epic political dogfight. New Orleans’ ‘white-flight’ suburbs (the social springboards for neo-Nazi David Duke’s frightening electoral successes in the early 1990s), will fiercely lobby for their cause, while Mississippi’s powerful Republican establishment has already warned that it will not play second fiddle to Big Easy Democrats. In this inevitable clash of interest groups, it is unlikely that New Orleans’s traditional black neighbourhoods – the true hearts of the city’s joyous sensibility and jazz culture – will be able to exercise much clout.

The Bush administration meanwhile hopes to find its own resurrection in a combination of rampant fiscal Keynesianism and fundamentalist social engineering. Katrina’s immediate impact on the Potomac, of course, was such a steep fall in the president’s popularity – and collaterally, of the US occupation of Iraq – that Republican hegemony itself seemed suddenly under threat. For the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, ‘Old Democrat’ issues like poverty, racial injustice and public investment temporarily commanded public discourse, and the Wall Street Journal warned that Republicans had ‘to get back on the political and intellectual offensive’ before liberals like Ted Kennedy could revive New Deal nostrums such as a massive federal agency for flood control and shoreline restoration along the Gulf Coast.

New Orleans’s floodlit but empty Jackson Square became the eerie backdrop for the president’s 15 September speech on hurricane reconstruction. It was an extraordinary performance. Bush sunnily reassured the 2 million victims of Katrina that the White House would pick up most of the tab for the estimated $200 billion worth of flood damage: deficit spending on a scale that would have given even Keynes vertigo. He then wooed his political base with a dream list of long sought after conservative social reforms: school and housing vouchers, a central role for churches, an ‘urban homestead’ lottery, extensive tax breaks to businesses, the creation of a gulf opportunity zone, and the suspension of annoying government regulations.

For connoisseurs of Bush-speak, the Jackson Square speech was a moment of exquisite déjà vu: had not similar promises been made on the banks of the Euphrates? As Paul Krugman cruelly pointed out, the White House, having tried and failed to turn Iraq ‘into a laboratory for conservative economic policies’ would now experiment on traumatised inhabitants of Biloxi and the Ninth Ward. Congressman Mike Pence, a leader of the powerful Republican Study Group which helped draft the president’s reconstruction agenda, emphasised that Republicans would turn the storm rubble into a capitalist utopia: ‘We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was.’

Symptomatically, as the New York Times pointed out, the Army Corps in New Orleans is now led by the same official who formerly oversaw contracts in Iraq. The Lower Ninth Ward may never exist again, but already the bar-room and strip-joint owners in the French Quarter are relishing the fat days ahead, as the Halliburton workers, Blackwater mercenaries, and Bechtel engineers leave their paychecks behind on Bourbon Street. As they say, both in the Vieux Carre and the White House: Laissez les bons temps rouler! [Let the good times roll].

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