The Predators of New Orleans: Catastrophic Economics
Le Monde diplomatique
When Hurricane Ivan threatened the Gulf Coast in 2004, Mike Davis wrote of the callousness of officialdom towards the largely black poor of New Orleans*. Ivan missed the coast, but Davis's words came true this year when first Katrina, and then Rita, inundated New Orleans.
After the criticism of his disastrous handling of the Katrina disaster, President George Bush promises a reconstruction programme of $200bn for areas destroyed by the hurricane. But the first and biggest beneficiaries will be businesses that specialise in profiting from disaster, and have already had lucrative contracts in Iraq; they will gentrify New Orleans at the expense of its poor, black citizens.
Although New Orleans’s most famous tourist assets, including the French Quarter and the Garden District, and its most patrician neighbourhoods, such as Audubon Park, are built on high ground and survived the inundation, the rest of the city was flooded to its rooftops or higher, damaging or destroying more than 150,000 housing units. Locals promptly called it “Lake George” after the president who failed to build new levees or come to their aid after the old ones had burst.
Inequalities of class and race
Bush initially said that “the storm didn’t discriminate”, a claim he was later forced to retract: every aspect of the catastrophe was shaped by inequalities of class and race. Besides 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 federal neglect of majority black and Latino big cities and their vital infrastructures. The 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”. The speed with which Washington suspended the prevailing wage standards of the Davis-Bacon Act (2) and swung open the doors of New Orleans to corporate looters such as 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 bitter exiles now believe, was allowed to die as a result of governmental incompetence and neglect, blame also squarely falls on the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, and especially on City Hall on Perdido Street. Mayor C Ray Nagin is a wealthy African-American cable television executive and a Democrat, who was elected in 2002 with 87% of the white vote (3).
He was ultimately responsible for the safety of the estimated quarter of the population that was too poor or infirm to own a car. His stunning failure to mobilise resources to evacuate car-less residents and hospital patients, despite warning signals from the city’s botched response to the threat of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, reflected more than personal ineptitude: it was also a symbol of the callous attitude among the city’s elites, both white and black, toward their poor neighbours in backswamp districts and rundown housing projects. Indeed, the ultimate revelation of Katrina was how comprehensively the promise of equal rights for poor African-Americans has been dishonoured and betrayed by every level of government.
A partial ethnic cleansing of New Orleans will be a fait accompli without massive local and federal efforts to provide affordable housing for tens of thousands of poor renters now dispersed across the country in refugee shelters. Already there is intense debate about transforming some of poorest, low-lying neighbourhoods, such the Lower Ninth Ward (flooded again by Hurricane Rita), into water retention ponds to protect wealthier parts. As the Wall Street Journal has rightly emphasised, “That would mean preventing some of New Orleans’s poorest residents from ever returning to their neighbourhoods” (14).
Epic political dogfight
As everyone recognises, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the rest of afflicted Gulf region will be an epic political dogfight. Already Nagin has staked out the claims of the local gentrifying class by announcing that he will appoint a 16-member reconstruction commission evenly split between whites and blacks, although the city is more than 75% African-American. Its “white-flight” suburbs (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 the city’s traditional black neighbourhoods, the true hearths of its joyous sensibility and jazz culture, will be able to exercise much clout.
The Bush administration hopes to find its own resurrection in a combination of rampant fiscal Keynesianism and fundamentalist social engineering. Katrina’s immediate impact on the Potomac was such a steep fall in Bush’s popularity, and, collaterally, in approval for the US occupation of Iraq, that Republican hegemony seemed suddenly under threat. For the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, “old Democrat” issues such as 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 (15).
The Heritage Foundation hosted meetings late into the night at which conservative ideologues, congressional cadres and the ghosts of Republicans past (such as Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s former Attorney General) hashed a strategy to rescue Bush from the toxic aftermath of Fema’s disgrace. New Orleans’s floodlit but empty Jackson Square was the eerie backdrop for Bush’s 15 September speech on reconstruction. It was an extraordinary performance. He sunnily reassured two million victims that the White House would pick up most of the tab for the estimated $200bn flood damage: deficit spending on a scale that would have given Keynes vertigo. (It has not deterred him from proposing another huge tax cut for the super-rich.)
Bush wooed his political base with a dream list of long-sought-after conservative social reforms: school and housing vouchers (16), a central role for churches, an urban homestead lottery (17), extensive tax breaks to businesses, the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone (18), and the suspension of annoying government regulations (in the fine print these include prevailing wages in construction and environmental regulations on offshore drilling).
For connoisseurs of Bush-speak, the 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 (19). Congressman Mike Pence, a leader of the powerful Republican Study Group which helped draft Bush’s reconstruction agenda, emphasised that Republicans would turn the 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” (20).
Symptomatically, the Army Corps in New Orleans is now led by the official who formerly oversaw contracts in Iraq (21). The Lower Ninth Ward may never exist again, but already the barroom 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 federal paychecks behind on Bourbon Street. As they say in Cajun, — and no doubt now in the White House too — “laissez les bons temps rouler!”
To Read the Entire Article
Also from TomDispatch a report last year about similar problems in regards to Bush's response to Hurricane Ivan:
Mike Davis: Poor, Black, and Left Behind
Commentary No. 169, Sept. 15, 2005
Katrina: The Politics of Incompetence and Decline
The entire world has been following with stupefaction the incredible performance of the U.S. federal government's response to the physical and human disaster of the hurricane Katrina. All the television networks of the U.S. and of many other countries plus all the major newspapers have been following the story in detail. The general reaction has been to ask how could the government of the richest and most powerful country in the world have reacted to this disaster as poorly as, or even much less well than, governments of poor Third World countries? The simple answer is a combination of incompetence and decline. And the results of this disaster will be a further diminution of respect for the president within the United States and a deepened skepticism in other countries about the United States's capacity to put action behind vacuous rhetoric.
The initial reaction of George W. Bush to Katrina was to say, how could anyone have predicted that the levees would be breached and 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded? As a matter of fact, the Houston Chronicle predicted it in 2001. The New Orleans Times-Picayune predicted it in 2002. And the National Geographic, one of America's most widely-read magazines (and one totally apolitical), predicted it in 2004. As a matter of fact as well, such a catastrophe was listed in documents of the government published during Bush's own presidency as one of three potential major catastrophes that were quite possible. In addition, anyone listening to the television two days before Katrina struck heard the mayor of New Orleans warn the citizens of New Orleans (and the world) that this time, this was a really serious storm, and he ordered mandatory evacuation of the city. As everyone knows now very well, only 80% of the residents had the car and the money with which to evacuate. Did the U.S. government think urgently to send in buses before the storm hit and the levees broke, in order to evacuate the other 20 percent? Of course not.
Ten days after the crisis began, the government seemed to get its act together somewhat, but ten days is a long time. This long delay was however not accidental. It is the direct result of how the Bush regime operates--poor judgment and active indifference to anything that isn't high on their list of priorities. They missed the boat at many different points in the almost five years before Katrina. After Sept. 11, they promised to make sure that the government would be prepared for any emergency. This was in fact the whole point of establishing the Dept. of Homeland Security. Obviously, they did not do it. They proved as unprepared for Katrina as they were for 9/11. Just last year, they urged Congress to reduce the amount of money that could have been used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levees that were in bad shape. So the Corps of Engineers had to postpone the work.
There is then the question of predicting a storm of such magnitude. There are currently two competing explanations for the ferocity of the storm. One is global warming, which is said to have created conditions in the Gulf of Mexico that favored intensifying hurricanes. The Bush administration has of course always contended that global warming doesn't exist, or at least is greatly exaggerated. The competing explanation is that hurricane strength is a cyclical phenomenon, and that every thirty years or so, the average strength goes up and then goes down. But even if only the latter explanation is used (one that fits the political position of the Bush regime better), it was easy to see that the thirty-year period of weaker hurricanes had come to an end and therefore something like Katrina was highly likely to occur. So, why wasn't the government on the alert? Incompetence and indifference because preventing hurricane damage to New Orleans (and indeed the rest of the Gulf Coast) was not on the high priority list of an administration which wants to fight a war in Iraq, persuade Congress to allow it to drill for oil in Alaska, and repeal the estate tax so that the 2% wealthiest people in the United States can be relieved of this burden.
Another major factor is the political style of Bush and his associates. They made political appointments to all the top posts in the administration. There is nothing unusual in this, since all U.S. presidents do this. But what was different in the Bush style is that Bush and all his appointees were deeply suspicious of the political tendencies of the experienced bureaucrats in the government agencies. They ignored them, they intimidated them, they overruled them regularly. And so these skilled bureaucrats tended to resign. It has been a veritable exodus, not least in the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the agency in charge of handling such disasters. And this is of course part, a large part, of the explanation of why FEMA did such a bad job--at least until the president finally pulled his incompetent FEMA head, Michael Brown, off the job and turned it over to a Coast Guard Vice-Admiral, who has been handling similar crises for his entire career.
The real question is what now? I am not asking this about the victims, who are suffering in multiple ways and are likely to suffer for some time to come, since they are scattered across the country, without money or jobs or homes. I am asking what now, first for President Bush and secondly for the United States? Bush's ratings, which are already extremely low (by comparison with past presidents), are likely to go lower still. The war in Iraq is every day more unpopular at home and more unwinnable in Iraq. Bush cannot find a way to exit gracefully. The economy is not in good shape at all - oil prices are surging upward, and Katrina surely did not improve things, since New Orleans is a key port in the import and export of U.S. goods, and since both oil wells and natural gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico have been badly damaged. And since the U.S. is now estimated to need to increase its debt by $200 billion to do the necessary reconstruction, the Chinese and other buyers of treasury bonds must be getting more hesitant than ever about subsidizing the improvident Bush regime.
But it is the image of the U.S. that will be the most affected. When El Salvador has to offer troops to help restore order in New Orleans because U.S. troops were so scarce and so slow in arriving, Iran cannot be quaking in its boots about a possible U.S. invasion. When Sweden has its relief planes sitting on the tarmac in Sweden for a week because it cannot get an answer from the U.S. government as to whether to send them, they are not going to be reassured about the ability of the U.S. to handle more serious geopolitical matters. And when conservative U.S. television commentators talk of the U.S. looking like a Third World country, Third World countries may begin to think that maybe there is a grain of truth in the description.
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These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]