As the tragedy unfolded, it became blatantly clear that this was not merely a natural disaster, but a man-made calamity of criminal proportions. The word "Katrina" is now associated with the gross negligence and incompetence of the planet’s most powerful government; with the gruesome conditions faced by millions of poor, mostly Black Americans; with corruption, racist indifference, gentrification, and the vast and growing divide between the rich and the poor in the world’s wealthiest country.
As could be expected, many promises were made by the government while the camera’s eye was focused on the catastrophic and embarrassing ruins of one of America’s most celebrated cities. Since then, however, a steady stream of instability, war, and disaster around the planet has re-directed the world’s attention. Sadly, not much has changed for those living at Katrina’s "ground zero". For tens of thousands of working and poor people, the Katrina disaster continues.
As a strategic US port, the city of New Orleans must be rebuilt – but in whose interests? Predictably, the so-called "reconstruction effort" has proceeded with the same degree of negligence, racism, corruption, and inefficiency as before and during the storm. A full year later, the conditions endured by many of those that have been allowed to return resemble the squalid conditions faced by millions of Iraqis under US and British occupation. Just half of New Orleans homes have access to electricity, and power outages are common. Only 18 percent of the public schools are expected to open this fall and just 17 percent of city buses are running. Half the hospitals remain closed. Adult unemployment stands at around 25 percent. Potable water is still not readily available in many areas, and thousands live without air conditioning, refrigerators or even stoves in the oppressive heat and humidity.
Hundreds of thousands of people from the Gulf Coast remain displaced. New Orleans today is roughly half the size it was before the storm hit. The US Post Office estimates that only 170,000 have returned to the city, and that 400,000 have not returned to the metropolitan area. Just one-sixth of New Orleans’ former African-American population has returned, compared with five-sixths of the former white population. Houston, TX, where thousands were forced to flee, is still "home" to some 150,000 former Gulf Coast residents. Of these, 81 percent are Black and 59 percent are unemployed. Another 100,000 Katrina refugees are living in the state of Georgia, with 80,000 in Atlanta alone. Faced with the trauma of long-term displacement and instability, it’s no wonder the rate of serious mental illness in areas hit by Katrina has doubled in the last year.
Over 43,000 rental units were left uninhabitable by the winds and flooding, leading to price increases of as much as 39 percent in the habitable parts of New Orleans. High rents and eminent domain are being used to force out thousands of poor, mostly Black residents. The gentrification of this formerly two-thirds African-American city is proceeding with criminal calculation. Thousands have been physically barred from returning to their homes and 5,000 public housing units are slated for destruction to make room for more tourist areas and casinos. Last May, the City Council passed an ordinance which decreed that those unable to repair their homes by the one-year anniversary of the storm risk having their property seized and bulldozed by the city. Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development told the Houston Chronicle that just 35 to 40 percent of those that return to the city will be African-American: "New Orleans is not going to be as Black as it was for a long time, if ever again." And as U.S. Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge, Louisiana put it in comments to lobbyists after the storm: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did."
Despite all their talk of "patriotism" and "national unity" in times of crisis, this reflects the real attitude of the US ruling class and its representatives in government. The most downtrodden layers of American society: the working poor, the unemployed, single mothers, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and the infirm – not to mention the working class as a whole – are seen only as material fit for exploitation. We are "useful" only if we work for them in increasingly low-wage jobs that raise their profit margins. Otherwise, we are seen as a "burden" on the system, while our homes and neighborhoods are greedily prized as "economic redevelopment zones" – not as centers of family, food, music, culture, and community. The cynical destruction of the birthplace of Jazz is a decisive condemnation of their system.
Although Congress has promised more than $10 billion in Community Development Block Grants, not a single dollar has been distributed directly to the over 100,000 Louisiana homeowners who qualify for this assistance. For their part, major insurance companies have been accused of defrauding Gulf Coast policy holders of billions of dollars in legitimate claims by manipulating engineers’ assessments in order to deny payment.
But this in no way means that there are not vast quantities of money pouring into the area. The blossoming "disaster profiteer" industry is banking big bucks on the basis of human suffering.
One would think that with all the work that needs doing, there would be plenty of jobs to go around for those who live and want to work on the Gulf Coast. But the biggest benefactors of this bonanza have been corporations from other parts of the country. Through their lobbying and political connections to the Bush administration, they have won 90 percent of the highly lucrative, usually no-bid contracts with little to no accountability to anyone.
Many of the same corporations making a killing off the "reconstruction" of Iraq and Afghanistan are also raking in the lion’s share of the $9.69 billion in federal contracts allotted to Gulf Coast reconstruction efforts. As is so often the case, billions of tax dollars – which are paid primarily by working people – are being funneled into corporate handouts with little to show for it.
According to a recent report by CorpWatch: "The Army Corps, Bechtel and Halliburton are using the very same ‘contract vehicles’ in the Gulf Coast as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are ‘indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity’ open-ended ‘contingency’ contracts that are being abused by the contractors on the Gulf Coast to squeeze out local companies. These are also ‘cost-plus’ contracts that allow them to collect a profit on everything they spend, which is an incentive to overspend."
CorpWatch also reports that some of the biggest beneficiaries include San Francisco-based Bechtel with $575 million in contracts; Texas-based Fluor Corp with $1.4 billion; and Florida’s Ashbritt Inc., which received a $579 million contract for debris removal in Mississippi. Incredible but true, The Miami Herald recently reported that Ashbritt does not own a single dump truck – all they do is subcontract out the work. Other companies were given millions to build temporary housing – when they weren’t even licensed to do so.
In an astonishing glimpse at the way capitalism and the profit-making pyramid of the big corporations really works, the UK’s Independent recently reported that Ashbritt’s contract "worked out at $23 per cubic metre of rubbish moved. In turn, it hired C&B Enterprises to do the work for $9 per cubic metre, which in turn hired Amlee Transportation which was paid $8 per cubic metre. Amlee hired another company for $7 a cubic metre. Finally, the work was done at $3 per cubic metre by a haulier from New Jersey."
While the media hyped up the "looting" by Katrina survivors searching for food and clothing, the real looters are the vampire-like corporations that have made off with billions in public money. Let’s also not forget that Bush’s first response to Katrina was to sign an executive order suspending prevailing wage protections for those working for government contractors. From the very beginning, the disaster was seen as an opportunity to "get-rich-quick" on the backs of working people.
So who is actually doing most of this work? Tens of thousands of immigrant workers – at least half of them undocumented – who are now the fastest-growing segment of the "new" New Orleans population. Like so many others that have been forced to flee their countries in search of a better life, these workers are lured to the Gulf Coast by promises of steady work and decent wages. All too often, they only find more of what they left behind: miserable wages and conditions, lies, exploitation, corruption, and racism.
As elsewhere in the US economy, these workers are doing the most back-breaking, dangerous, and lowest-paid work – and often they aren’t even paid at all. Long hours with no benefits, along with constant police harassment and fear of INS raids is the norm. Exposed to toxic waste, lead paint, and fiberglass, they often work without the required safety equipment. But inspired by the national mobilizations of immigrant workers, thousands of New Orleanians came together earlier this year to defend the struggle for immigrant rights, and have resisted efforts to divide working people on the basis of their color or ethnicity.
"Business as usual"
Incredibly, the US Army Corps of Engineers is not at all confident that the 220 miles of levees that protect New Orleans could withstand a direct hit from even a Category 3 hurricane – let alone another Category 5 monster like Katrina. Despite billions handed out to private contractors, the government cannot offer even the most basic guarantees for the safety and well-being of the millions who live on the Gulf Coast, let alone provide decent housing, jobs, health care, education, – or even a steady supply of electricity.
Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic Governor of Louisiana, insists that this is as much rebuilding as can be expected just a year after the storm. She’s absolutely right: this is all we can expect from a system based on profits and exploitation. While the ultra-rich rake in unheard of profits, the poorest of the poor in one of America’s poorest cities have been scattered across the country with little hope of returning to the city they consider their home.
Many shrug their shoulders and write it off as "N’Awlins politics" as usual, but the problem goes far deeper than that. What we see on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans in particular is only a graphic expression of what is really just "business as usual" under capitalism. Like the Iraq War profiteers, the "vulture capitalists" of the Gulf Coast leech off the public trough, lay off thousands, bust unions, pay poverty wages, and cut every corner possible to maximize their profits, no matter how much working people and the poor have to suffer. This is the "democracy" that Bush and his cronies seek to export to the rest of the world.
Their callous disregard for human life and suffering is a far cry from the example of Cuba, which is hit hard by major Caribbean storms nearly every year. Caring for the well-being of the population is a key priority on the island, and even animals and personal belongings are evacuated. These evacuations are prepared for well in advance with detailed and integrated community plans. During previous storms, hundreds of thousands have been efficiently evacuated to pre-arranged locations stocked with food and water, and staffed by medical personnel. In contrast to the experience of New Orleans, they were not abandoned to the surging waters or herded like animals into convention centers or stadiums to languish without food, water, or medicine for days.
The gaping class divide we see in New Orleans was there long before the levees burst. Hurricane Katrina was merely a "historical accident" which served to bring the pent-up contradictions of this society to the surface. As we explained a year ago, this is the real face of "capitalism of the 21st Century" – a system of constant instability, decay, and degradation which threatens to take the whole of humanity down with it. (see The New Orleans Disaster: The Real Face of "Capitalism of the 21st Century)
Another way is possible. The billions of dollars that have stuffed the pockets of the private contractors could be put to far better use. The same goes for the billions of dollars spent in the occupation of Iraq, which is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. What we need is a crash program of public works in order to build impregnable levees, rebuild the wetlands, and provide quality jobs, housing, education, transportation, and health care to everyone on the Gulf Coast – and around the country. These programs must be democratically controlled by those of us actually doing the work, and by our communities as a whole, in order to ensure accountability over every penny spent. Enough of the war and disaster profiteers that control this country’s economy and government!
On the one-year anniversary of this important milestone in the changing consciousness of the American working class, we must redouble our efforts to end the profit-based capitalist system once and for all. Until we do, the next "Katrina" could be just around the corner.
- The death of a city by Charles Boyd (6 Jan. 2006)
- Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana: The United States is now the "Third World" by Michael Hureaux (2 Sep. 2005)
- While Bush prevaricates, Venezuela offers help to US poor by Jorge Martin (2 Sep. 2005)
- The New Orleans Disaster: The real face of "Capitalism of the 21st Century" by John Peterson (2 Sep. 2005)