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Crash on the Levee

New Orleans After Katrina

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR And ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Tuesday night, as water rose to 20 feet
through most of New Orleans, CNN relayed an advisory that food
in refrigerators would last only four hours, would have to be
thrown out. The next news item from CNN was an indignant bellow
about "looters" of 7/11s and a Walmart. Making no attempt
to conceal the racist flavor of the coverage, the press openly
describes white survivors as "getting food from a flooded
store," while blacks engaged in the same struggle for survival
are smeared as "looters."

The reverence for property
is now the underlying theme of many newscasts, with defense of
The Gap being almost the first order of duty for the forces of
law and order. But the citizens looking for clothes to wear and
food to eat are made of tougher fiber and are more desperate
than the polite demonstrators who guarded The Gap and kindred
chains in Seattle in 1999. The police in New Orleans are only
patrolling in large armed groups. One spoke of "meeting
some resistance," as if the desperate citizens of New Orleans
were Iraqi insurgents.

Also on Tuesday night the newscasts
were reporting that in a city whose desperate state is akin the
Dacca in Bangladesh a few years ago, there were precisely seven
Coast Guard helicopters in operation. Where are the National
Guard helicopters? Presumably strafing Iraqi citizens on the
roads outside Baghdad and Fallujah.

As the war’s unpopularity soars,
there will be millions asking, Why is the National Guard in Iraq,
instead of helping the afflicted along the Gulf in the first
crucial hours, before New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile turn into
toxic toilet bowls with thousands marooned on the tops of houses.

As thousands of trapped residents
face the real prospect of perishing for lack of a way out of
the flooding city, Bush’s first response was to open the spigots
of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at the request of oil companies
and to order the EPA to eliminate Clean Air standards at power
plants and oil referiners across the nation, supposedly to increase
fuel supplies–a goal long sought by his cronies at the big oil
companies.

In his skittish Rose Garden
press conference, Bush told the imperiled people of the Gulf
Coast not to worry, the Corps of Engineers was on the way to
begin the reconstruction of the Southland. But these are the
same cadre of engineers, who after three years of work, have
yet to get water and electrical power running in Baghdad for
more than three hours a day.

It didn’t have to be this bad.
The entire city of New Orleans needed have been lost. Hundreds
of people need not have perished. Yet, it now seems clear that
the Bush administration sacrificed New Orleans to pursue its
mad war on Iraq.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune
has reported in a devastating series of articles over the last
two years, city and state officials and the Corps of Enginners
had repeatedly requested funding to strengthen the levees along
Lake Pontchartrain that breeched in the wake of the flood. But
the Bush administration rebuffed the requests repeatedly, reprograming
the funding from levee enhancement to Homeland Security and the
war on Iraq.

This year the Bush administration
slashed funding for the New Orleans Corps of Engineers by $71.2
million, a stunning 44.2 percent reduction from its 2001 levels.
A Corps report noted at the time that

"major hurricane and flood protection projects will not
be awarded to

local engineering firms. . . . Also, a study to determine ways
to

protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane has been shelved
for

now."

Work on the 17th Street levee,
which breached on Monday night, came to a halt earlier this summer
for the lack of $2 million.

"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,"
Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish,
Louisiana told the Times-Picayune in June of last year.
"Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished,
and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this
is a security issue for us."

These are damning revelation
that should fuel calls from both parties for Bush’s resignation
or impeachment.

The greatest concern for poor
people in these days has come from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela,
who ­ fresh from a chat with Fidel Castro, has announced
that Venezuela will be offering America’s poor discounted gas
through its Citgo chain. He’s says his price will knock out the
predatory pricing at every American pump. Citgo should issue
to purchasers of each tankful of gas vouchers for free medical
consultations via the internet with the Cuban doctors in Venezuela.

No politician in America has
raised the issue of predatory pricing as gasoline soars above
$3. The last time there was any critical talk about the oil companies
was thirty years ago.

Maybe the terrible disaster
along the Gulf coast will awaken people to the unjust ways in
which our society works. That’s often the effect of natural disasters,
as with the Mexican earthquake, where the laggardly efforts of
the police prompted ordinary citizens to take matters into their
own hands.