Katrina – not just an ill wind
Driving along the freeways abutting on the Gulf of Mexico it comes as a shock to see so many signs announcing that you are travelling a designated evacuation route. For this is a part of America which is well accustomed to the extremes of stormy weather. But Hurricane Katrina was something utterly out of the ordinary. We are still digesting the accounts of the horrors endured by people who were caught in the path of the hurricane and of their suffering since then. What lives they had have been wrecked; what possessions they relied on have disappeared into the floods with the corpses, the rubbish and the sewage; what they saw as their future has been literally blown away. So far there has been no reliable estimate of the loss of life: does it run into hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands? For those who worry themselves about such issues there has been no informed guess of how much the disaster will cost the insurance companies; Merrill Lynch, who know a thing or two about pushing money around, have come up with the figure of ú22 billion. And George Bush, who could once luxuriate behind apparently unassailable ramparts of support, has had to contemplate the erosion of his popularity.
In its destructive power and the misery it unleashed against the people of the Gulf States, Katrina was extraordinary. But in some important respects it was completely normal and predictable. To begin with there was the stampede of politicians – in particular George Bush – to avoid any responsibility for the catastrophe and for the official failure to rush help to the victims. Apart from the damage to roads, buildings and the like, the hurricane’s breach of the levees protecting New Orleans was crucial. Bush told a TV reporter that “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” but that was simply untrue. Business Week newspaper, for example, thought differently: “Engineers have known for years that New Orleans’s levees couldn’t withstand anything above a category 3 hurricane” (Katrina was category 5). In fact as recently as 1998 the category 2 hurricane George forced the water levels up to a foot below the top of the levees. In 2002 a local New Orleans newspaper concluded from its investigation that a major hurricane would devastate the region.
Anticipation of the breach should have led to the levees being heightened and strengthened, saving a lot of lives and preventing untold misery for the people. But before Katrina arrived on the scene the funding which could have improved the levees was cut by $71 million; a previous Secretary of Environmental Quality in Louisiana was angry enough about this to forecast that “a disastrous flood was inevitable”. One local emergency management chief thought that the cuts were imposed because “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq and I suppose that’s the price we pay”. He might have put it differently – for capitalism killing people is more affordable than protecting them from harm.
So what of the people who lived in the path of the storm, of the wind and the flood and whose lives were to be so dramatically affected by decisions on where money was to be spent? In the vast majority they were black and in the lower reaches of poverty. In New Orleans two thirds of the population was African/American, with a quarter of them officially graded as living in poverty. In the Lower Ninth Ward of that city, which suffered particularly badly in the flood, 90 percent were African/American with almost a third of them classified as living in poverty. In a flash of candour which must have caused acute anguish to her minders Barbara Bush, the mother of George Bush and the wife of the former president, shared her thoughts about this: “So many of the people in the area here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. So this [fleeing from the hurricane, from the floods, the fear, the death, then living in the squalor of emergency accommodation] is working well for them”
Typically, the people living at or below the poverty line endure bad housing without proper plumbing, hot and cold water, a shower or a bath. It also means that, crucially in America , they could not afford a car or any other ready means of carrying out the official advice to evacuate the area before Katrina arrived – and that if they did manage to flee they would have no access to ready places of refuge. It seems obvious that such people should help themselves from damaged shops and stores, putting survival before capitalism’s property laws. They would not have been deterred to be told that this was looting, a very serious crime; nor would they have been impressed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s apparent condoning of the same type of activity, when it suited him, in the case of Iraq: “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things”. Perhaps Katrina had informed the looters that to be poor can be to suffer a desperately inadequate life style with miserable prospects and that the poorer you are the worse this is.
Katrina was a disaster of epic scale for the poor of the Gulf States, fleeing the winds and the waters, or cowering in some noxious shelter. There was some bad news also for the other side of the class divide. The firm Deloitte, who are called “consultants” (which does not mean they are readily available to give advice to anyone trying to get by on Social Security of any kind) calculated that the hurricane could have damaged parts of the American economy on a scale comparable to the events of 9/11. One of the firm’s spokespersons warned about the effect on the insurance industry, on tourism, leisure, hospitality and the stock market. In fact the stock markets in London and America hardly fluttered. In any case any tremors were overridden by the good news for the kind of people who may consult Deloitte. Arguing that the damage to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico would cause a shortage, the oil firms were quick to raise their prices. On the assumption that because almost a third of America’s coffee crop would have been stored in New Orleans the price of coffee on the market soared by 11 percent.
The construction industry – notably part of the Haliburton Group, which was once bossed by Vice President Dick Cheney and which prospers so well out of repairing the damage the American forces have done in Iraq – was eagerly preparing bids to reconstruct the damaged cities of the Gulf. Shares in Haliburton did not fall but went up by two percent. In England shares in Aggrreko, who supply portable power generators, soared by 7.5 percent and shares in Wolesley, which supplies plumbing and heating, were up by three percent. One financial adviser, after the obligatory acknowledgement that a lot of people had suffered terribly in the hurricane, had something of a song in his heart :
“The impact of events such as Katrina, while devastating for the
people involved, tend to be quite short-term and you should
be investing in America, or any other region for that matter, for the
long-term – at least five years and probably 10 or more. Over that
period, can you afford to be out of the world’s largest economy
and stock market, which has some of the best companies in the World?”
And how is the reconstruction likely to turn out? If the experience of the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami is any guide, the face of places like New Orleans will be changed for ever as luxury tourism is foisted on the place, leaving one or two small areas where a kind of sanitised memory is allowed to survive. The chairman of the New Orleans Business Council ominously spoke of how “to use this catastrophe as a once-in-an-eon opportunity to change the dynamic” of the city. Well, the people of New Orleans and of the rest of the world have been warned.
Katrina was a disaster of epic proportions which no style of human organisation, even one based on communal ownership and control of the means of life, could have averted or controlled. But such a society would have prevented a calamity on the scale of New Orleans. A classless society, organised on the basis of human interests, would not have misjudged the power of Katrina, nor compromised the safety of its people in its path by undermining the strength of defences because it was financially advisable to do so. It would not have bungled any necessary rescue and support services. And as an open and democratic society it would not have been plagued by politicians disguising their true failures and impotence behind a screen of lies.