There is a pattern starting to develop here in the way the Bush administration deals with urban crises.
Look at New Orleans and at Baghdad.
In both cases, you had a city that was facing imminent destruction-from a record-breaking hurricane in one case, and a well-planned mass bombing attack and invasion in the other.
In both cases, it was clear, and experts were warning, that there would be total destruction of the infrastructure and a need for a well-organized recovery program or the cities would descend into chaos and anarchy, with massive loss of life.
In both cases, the administration did nothing.
And in both cases, the cities did in fact descend into an orgy of anarchy, looting and needless and avoidable death.
We know the record in Baghdad. The Bush administration had American troops stand idly by as Iraqis-both forces from the defeated regime of the deposed Saddam Hussein and ordinary citizens-looted museums, stores, government buildings and schools, only taking steps to restore a semblance of order after even the outlets had been removed from classroom walls.
Now look at the record in New Orleans.
With meteorologists and climatologists warning for several years that a warming ocean was making hurricanes stronger, and that it was only a matter of time before a dike-busting category 5 hurricane would clobber New Orleans, the Bush administration first overruled development regulations that were designed to protect the wetlands south of the city that for centuries worked to blunt the storm surge of these typhoons. Then it proceeded to cut the federal funding for dike repair and improvement on the levies that hold the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain out of the city, most of which is 10-20 feet below sea level. To make matters worse, the White House didn’t only divert dike funding to its Iraq War; it also diverted a third of Louisiana’s National Guard troops, as well as almost all their amphibious vehicles, which would have proved invaluable at getting into the flooded area to rescue victims quickly, to the Iraqi desert. Finally, just as Bush ignored the 9/11 attack warnings and then dithered about reacting to those attacks, just he and his administration dithered around and did nothing during the chaos in post-bombing Baghdad, he waited crucial days before responding to the New Orleans crisis, actually flying off from his vacation in Crawford, TX to a political rally in California before heading back to Washington and making a symbolic fly-by of the stricken city.
Not to justify the orgy of looting that has swept the ruined city of New Orleans, but just what did federal officials expect to happen? Fully 20 percent of the city’s poorest population, mostly black, was left to fend for itself by emergency management officials. These were people with no cars and no money for a bus out of town. Had the government reacted to the approach of Katrina with a massive caravan of military trucks, all these people, and the patients in the city’s charity hospitals, too, could have been safely evacuated. Food could have been stockpiled out of the city at military bases and other assembly points to care for the evacuees.
Instead, they were all left to their own devices.
With no food and no water, and no rescue in site, the survivors in New Orleans did what anyone would do under those circumstances: the went to the local markets, which were flooded and closed, their food about to rot or rust away anyhow, and helped themselves.
Is that looting, or is that taking the initiative and surviving? (At the AP, apparently, it depends upon what race you are. One AP photo, of a black man wading through waste-deep water with a garbage bag full of food, described him as having “looted a grocery store.” Another AP photo, of two whites wading through waste-deep water carrying similar bags, referred to them as “gathering food from a flooded grocery store.”)
There are conspiracy theorists who speculate that the Bush administration and the Pentagon deliberately allowed Baghdad to descend into chaos, in hopes that this would thoroughly demoralize the Iraqis and make their subjugation under a government of occupation that much easier.
Perhaps this latest case of federal detachment and delayed response was also intentional-a way of having a Democratic bastion in the South self-destruct.
If so, it would be as gross a miscalculation as was the abandonment of Baghdad. But unlike Baghdad, and the War in Iraq, which have had little direct, obvious impact on the lives of ordinary Americans (unless they were are that minority who have relatives in the armed services), the crisis in New Orleans will affect us all quite dramatically. With Americans now paying well over $3/gallon for gas and heating oil, posing the threat of a new economic recession because of those higher energy prices, and with one of America’s grandest cities destroyed and uninhabitable well into 2006, Hurricane Katrina could prove to be President Bush’s Waterloo.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org