Left Behind to Drown

Decades of official neglect, racism and the impact of global warming magnified the destructive impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and other parts of the South.

The mainstream media focused most on the big-money property losses–for example, the heavily damaged casinos on the Mississippi coast that took a direct hit from Katrina, and the tourist hotels in the French Quarter in New Orleans. But beyond the media spotlight are countless others who don’t have sufficient insurance–or any insurance at all–to rebuild their lives.

As in all “natural” disasters, a far-from-natural logic asserted itself: Those who had the least to begin with stood to lose the most.

Thus, in the Gulf Coast cities of Mississippi that took a direct hit when the hurricane came ashore, the big hotels were left standing, though heavily damaged. Other structures–even whole neighborhoods and communities–were erased from the map. “This is our tsunami,” said one person, drawing a comparison with last December’s disaster around the rim of the Indian Ocean.

A last-minute shift in the path of the storm sent Katrina east of New Orleans, prompting city officials to think that they had avoided a catastrophe. But the day after the hurricane hit, conditions began to deteriorate rapidly. Parts of the levee system that protects the below-sea-level city from flooding gave way–apparently to the north, along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain–leaving up to 80 percent of New Orleans underwater.

With electricity and communications out, little was known about New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods, other than that they–predictably–bore the brunt of the disaster. Rumors spread that corpses could be seen floating in the floodwaters. No one had electrical power–nor much chance of getting it for days, and probably weeks.

The worst may be yet to come. The waters that inundated New Orleans were polluted by garbage and debris. And when the floods finally recede, they will leave behind a breeding ground for disease.

The impact of Katrina was visible even before the storm hit land, most obviously in the images of evacuees lined up to take shelter inside New Orleans’ Superdome–mostly poor and African American people forced to go for refuge to a football stadium for lack of a car or want of money.

“By afternoon [the day before the hurricane struck], the Superdome descended into sweaty chaos,” the Miami Herald reported. “About 30,000 refugees eventually arrived under the vigilance of the Louisiana National Guard. The frustrated line to get into the stadium stretched the length of several football fields. People sucked at empty water bottles, lugged their belongings in plastic grocery bags, fanned themselves in the humid air, brought their beer and cigarettes and braced for what could be a two-day stay as torrents of rain started soaking them about 4 p.m.”

Once inside the Superdome, the evacuees were ordered to stay in their seats after curfew. There were insufficient numbers of toilets, and when electrical power failed, the generators could support lights, but not air conditioning. The storm ripped several holes in the roof, and those below had to scramble away from the rain that poured in.

When the levee system failed and New Orleans started flooding after the hurricane passed, the Superdome became an island surrounded by hip-deep water, polluted by oil and debris. Conditions inside the stadium continued to “deteriorate,” as press reports put it–at least two people had died inside the Superdome within the first 36 hours.

* * *

While New Orleans is inherently vulnerable to hurricanes–much of the city lies below sea level–governments at all levels refused to take necessary precautions to minimize risk or ensure a safe and orderly evacuation procedure.

The levee system, crucial to the survival of a city surrounded on three sides by water, hasn’t been upgraded to withstand a Category 4 or 5 storm. Thanks to George Bush and his “war on terror.” During the 1990s, following floods that killed six people, the federal government established the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (known as SELA). The Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of implementing the project and spent nearly $500 million shoring up levees and building pumping stations.

“But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained,” wrote Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch. “Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security–coming at the same time as federal tax cuts–was the reason for the strainIn early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to [a] Feb. 16 , 2004 article in New Orleans CityBusiness.”

According to Bunch’s research, though 2004 was one of the worst hurricane seasons in history, the federal government this year imposed “the steepest reduction in hurricane- and flood-control funding for New Orleans in history.”

Why the neglect? Though it is best known as a tourist destination, New Orleans is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a population that is 67 percent African American. In the parish, or county, of Orleans, 34 percent of households live below the federal poverty line–an issue that was the focus of a new community coalition at a meeting just a few days before Katrina hit.

The scale of the threat has been well known for years. Oceanographer Joe Suhayda created a detailed model of the impact of a Category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans, showing that much of the city could be plunged under 20 feet of water, causing tens of thousands of casualties. And in 2004, Hurricane Ivan barely missed the city, again highlighting the urgent need for a viable evacuation plan.

“Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less–mainly Black–were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath,” activist Mike Davis wrote of the evacuation plans for Ivan. “New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had 10,000 body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city’s poorest or most infirm residents.”

Global warming is almost certainly to blame for the increasing strength and frequency of hurricanes, Davis told Socialist Worker last year. A number of climatic factors are at work. For example, something known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which involves variations in air pressure and sea temperatures, is a contributing factor to the above-normal number of hurricanes. But global warming caused by air pollution has probably made matters worse.

“Sea temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are higher than normal, thus supplying more energy to hurricanes,” Davis said. “This can’t be directly attributed to global warming, but an intensification of the NAO is exactly what you might expect. Every North Hemisphere summer now seems to guarantee climate disaster of one kind or another.”

But climate disaster can be profitable–if you happen to be a stockholder or executive for a major U.S. oil company. The oil giants were set to use the excuse of Katrina to hike gas prices still further beyond the record pump prices set last month.

The scale of the devastation resulting from the hurricane won’t be known forweeks. But we know already who will suffer the brunt of this tragedy–the poor in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast.

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net




We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


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