Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shock Americans into demanding government attention

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Waseem Shehzad

Sha'ban 27, 1426 2005-10-01


by Waseem Shehzad (World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1426)

As if Hurricane Katrina had not caused quite enough damage, Rita came roaring in and swept across Louisiana and Texas, putting out of action more than 25 percent of the US's oil-refining capacity. Although Hurricane Rita had lost some of its force by the time it hit the mainland early on September 24, it still caused flooding in New Orleans, the devastated city that had just been emptied of three-quarter trillion gallons of water. The toxic brew of water, contaminated by chemicals, human wastes and human remains, was finally pumped out of the city's streets just in time for Rita to roll in and turn them into a swamp all over again. More than 2.8 million people fled their homes in Louisiana and Texas to escape Rita's fury; another million were left without electricity.

The increased frequency with which hurricanes are striking the US's coasts, causing immense suffering to its people, not to mention massive damage to infrastructure, has exposed the criminal indifference of US officials to the welfare of their own people, especially if they happen to be poor and black. Katrina also exposed such gross incompetence on the part of US authorities that it makes most ‘Third World' countries look distinctly efficient by comparison. New Orleans, whose population was less than a million, had no emergency relief for 48 hours, despite prior warnings; instead it was gripped by lawlessness and confusion, with the police using a shoot-to-kill policy to prevent canned food from being taken away by hungry survivors. Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, fought a turf war with federal authorities over who should have overall control of food-distribution; scores of supply trucks were prevented from entering the city.

The US National Guard, created to assist in such situations, could not be mobilised immediately because more than 30 percent of its people are deployed in Iraq (there were reports of mutiny among US soldiers in Iraq, especially those from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the three states hardest hit by Katrina: the mutinous soldiers were demanding that they be sent home to look after their families). For Rita the Guard were somewhat better prepared. Armed troops and private security contractors, especially from the notorious Blackwell Security, whose operatives have honed their murderous skills on Iraqis, patrolled the streets of New Orleans after Katrina. It became a city under occupation, with heavily armed soldiers going from house to house, breaking down doors and ordering people to get out. After Rita, there was nothing to patrol because the city had been emptied of people already.

As recently as November 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the body charged with coordinating such work, had organized a mock exercise to deal with just such a disaster. It predicted a far larger death toll—more than 260,000—because New Orleans is below sea level. Since 2001 FEMA had requested modest sums—US$70 million a year, less than 0.5 percent of what the US spends in a week on the war in Iraq—from the federal government to repair levees that could have prevented sea-water from inundating the city in a storm. But, as Maureen Dowd revealed in the New York Times on September 3, quoting Ron Fournier of the Associated Press: "the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. But President Bush and Congress agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-filled highway bill with 6,000 pet projects, including a $231 million bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island."

New Orleans has a population of whom 68 percent are black and poor; this has much to do with how its residents were treated. Days before the hurricane reached land, both city and state officials had issued orders for people to evacuate. While hundreds of thousands fled in their own vehicles, local authorities shut down all public transportation into and out of the city. Without transportation, the poor had nowhere to go. Even if they had wanted to walk, how far could they have gone?

When the various levels of government eventually acted, the first buses evacuated tourists from expensive hotels, not the elderly, children or the sick, who were herded into stadiums without food, water or even proper sanitary facilities. Here was America's underclass, exposed for the world to see, not on someone else's television screens but on American TV. There was no escaping the fact that there are millions of extremely poor people in America, despite its being the world's self-proclaimed superpower and boasting the largest economy in the world. For the first time even American commentators have been forced to talk about ‘Third World' conditions in America and the millions of desperately poor people who have no means to escape their grinding poverty.

Census figures released after Katrina's devastation have confirmed that the US's poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent in 2004 from 12.5 percent a year earlier, or 37 million people. The poverty rate for blacks, at 24.7 percent, is three times the poverty rate of whites. Racism and class differences have been constants in America for decades; the American establishment, dominated by whites, has historically treated blacks with disdain. The print and broadcast media, run mostly by middle-class whites or owned by the super-rich, do not wish to show the ugly reality of life; only cheering for the "American way of life" is permitted and acceptable.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, for the first time since September 2001, a majority of Americans — 56 per cent — want their government to concentrate on domestic issues. When it asked the same question in January, as Bush began his second term as president, that figure was 40 percent. These figures have led some commentators to express the hope that American officialdom will now address the issues of poverty and racism in earnest. This is unlikely; after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 similar sentiments were expressed, but the blacks were soon forgotten. The rich, who do not even care about the lives of white Americans (especially not if they are poor) are hardly likely to care about blacks. A large number of white soldiers die in Iraq everyday; they were lured into the military with the promise of an education and a better future; instead they have ended up in the deathtrap of Iraq.

The financial losses inflicted by Katrina and Rita – according to most recent estimates – are astronomical: US$380 billion, almost twice the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far. This has led some observers to call Katrina and Rita a divine slap in the face for America. The fact that in the last two years more hurricanes and storms have struck the US than in the previous 20 probably strengthens the assertion of divine retribution. Whatever the reason, the financial losses are immense; a quick comparison with earlier disasters is revealing: the 9/11 attacks cost $20 billion and Hurricane Andrew resulted in losses of $25 billion in total.

Katrina and Rita have caused other disruptions as well: 62 percent of US grain passes through the port of New Orleans, as does 25 percent of its oil; the Gulf coast accounts for 25 percent of the US's refining capacity. Many oil-platforms in the Gulf and refineries in Louisiana and Texas have been damaged or shut down, pushing the price of gasoline (petrol) up sharply. Although the soaring price of crude oil added about 3 or 4 cents per litre to the cost of gasoline, the remainder—20 or 25 cents per litre—was pure gouging. Bush's friends in the oil industry were busy doing what they do best: sucking blood. Several US lawmakers were so angered that they spoke about it in congress. Diane Feinstein, the Democratic senator fromCalifornia, revealed on September 7 that Exxon Mobil had made a profit of $30 billion last year, and BP $12.9 billion. With their prices hiked for any and every excuse, this year their profits will be even more. Even in the face of such exorbitant profits and such barefaced, callous advantage-taking, Bush is unlikely to force the oil giants to reduce their profit margins by cutting prices, or even restoring them to their pre-Katrina or pre-Rita levels. The American way of life, to which he subscribes, is to maximize profits regardless of the suffering it causes to ordinary people. The oil barons are his close allies; if they make huge profits, so will Bush and his neo-con colleagues.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, however, have made the race and class faultlines in the US deeper. They have also exposed America's moral and financial bankruptcy. There may, however, be a silver lining in all this: with such massive losses and clear exposure of official incompetence, it is now less likely that the US will indulge in any more military adventures abroad, at least in the near future.

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