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Disaster Capitalism in Post Katrina New Orleans

The following is a transcript of an interview Eric Draitser had with Gilbert Mercier on the Episode 17 of CounterPunch Radio.

Eric Draitser:….We are marking the 10th-year anniversary of Katrina, and I am joined first by Gilbert Mercier, the editor in chief of News Junkie Post. He had some interesting experiences around Katrina and New Orleans. When I came around your piece on Katrina, it is really powerful and it took me back to 10 years ago. Please take us through your personal experiences.

Gilbert Mercier: For me the nightmare of Katrina was completely personal from the get go. I used to own a lovely Victorian house in an area of New Orleans that is called Uptown. When Katrina was starting to form and roam through the Gulf of Mexico, I was in Toronto, Canada working. I made my way back to New Orleans as quickly as I could, and I landed in town the 4th of September. I landed when the people of the mainstream media were already starting to phase out Katrina. I was very lucky my house didn’t have any damage, and I started wondering around in a war zone. There were no traffic lights, nothing… very few civilians. Everybody in the aftermath of Katrina, for at least two weeks, was carrying a gun. You had the guns-for-hire, which our colleague Jeremy Scahill calls the Praetorian Guard of the empire, who were the mercenaries of Blackwater. They were first to come in, and I saw a few. Then, very quickly, they deployed the National Guard. Also, the store owners were heavily armed, and pretty much everybody in New Orleans, including myself, was wearing combat fatigue type of gear. It was a very tricky situation.

ED: Yeah, I think that it is definitely true. Actually you touched on two different important points: on one hand, the collapse of our urban infrastructure, especially in lower income areas; on the other, things you pointed to is the militarization of this country… of the responses. Since Katrina, it has become a routine: we saw it in Boston after the bombing; we saw it in Baltimore and Ferguson…

GM: Absolutely Eric! This is the reflex of the empire…. The reflex of the empire is not to help the helpless, it is to send people with guns: as many as they can. That is the issue. There was a lot of hoopla on mainstream media about the looting… There was barely any looting at all!

ED: Let’s talk about that a little bit…. How did you perceive the media treatment of that issue? Do you think it was constructed for political reasons or do you think that it was the natural racist reaction?

GM: They just covered it…. There are of course the stories of Brian Williams digging up dead bodies, which were complete lies! Because Brian Williams, whom I saw, was staying at the Ritz Carlton in the French Quarter. The French Quarter barely got affected by the flood at all; neither was my area of Uptown or the Garden District. The wealthy areas of New Orleans are on higher ground…. They covered the story the way they cover stories, which is: “it is very sad, we must do something….” Everybody was panicking. Ray Nagin was panicking, and trying to pretend he was doing something…. It is a joke! The government at the time was inept, and so is the government now, because it has not improved. It is just absolutely phenomenal!

ED: Right! It just reminds me of the coverage of looting…. There is a politic behind the way it is covered. I read accounts of armed white people being able to protect their homes, while armed black people were singled out and targeted….

GM: Absolutely! Let’s give the listeners of CounterPunch a few data. We need some data. New Orleans before Katrina had about half of a million inhabitants. In the Katrina aftermath, 50 percent left. Before Katrina, New Orleans was a black town with a black mayor…. It became a white town. There is an anecdote that I must tell…. I was having a drink at a bar in the French Quarter…. There was a Blackwater guy talking with the bartender…. They were using the N word, and were saying: “The wrong people will leave, and that could be a good thing….” See: Katrina, in a sense, it is sort of like ethnic cleansing with a strong socio-economic ingredient. The poor had to leave…. The people who did not carry flood insurance, which was by the way part of a federal program…. Of course I had a flood insurance because I could pay…. But the poor couldn’t, so they lost everything…. In 10 years, New Orleans has lost 100,000 people, mainly blacks who were scattered to the wind… to Texas, Georgia. etc., wherever they had family who could welcome them.

ED: Yes…. It reminds me of Rahm Emmanuel saying: “Never leave a natural disaster go to waste.” The exploitation of Katrina to achieve what the white bourgeois class in that city had wanted for generations….

GM: Look! $120 billions of federal money was allocated to New Orleans; 75 percent of it was spent on “emergency relief,” not to rebuild the city. They had no intention to rebuild…. They had no intention to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward or the Lower 7th Ward…. They had no intention to rebuild the poor areas….

ED: Yes, I want to add to that…. We are not talking about rebuilding structures but about institutions like public education or public low income housing…. They managed, and I am not saying this randomly, to capitalize on Katrina.

GM: Absolutely! You see, Eric…. Katrina is a snapshot of the type of philosophy, if you can call it that, of what I call disaster capitalism. That type of politics is what happened to Detroit, Michigan…. It is a policy of when there is a natural disaster, you don’t rebuild…. You allocate some money that changes hands and disappears,… like for example in Haiti. My esteemed News Junkie Post colleague Dady Chery writes extensively about that. As matter of fact, there is an anecdote about this…. One of the big spending [after Katrina] was to give people the wonderful FEMA trailers manufactured in Florida. Unfortunately, the trailers had a big problem with toxic formaldehyde insulation…. Of course, the infamous New Orleans FEMA trailers were recycled to Haiti in 2010…..

ED: Yeah, exactly right! And just like New Orleans, Haiti is not being rebuilt,…. and it seems to be by design….

GM: Look! Design or complete stupidity, it could be one or the other…. Bottom line, they always seize the opportunity…. Look, you write a lot about Syria, it is the same thing…. You destroy a place like they did in Iraq, you never rebuild it…. That is the model!

ED: I want to touch on your view of the situation in New Orleans now…. Is it forever scarred?

GM: I love New Orleans…. New Orleans is to me the most fabulous city of America! I am a French citizen, and of course New Orleans was French just like Haiti. It was sold by Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson in 1804…. OK, to me, it has culture, jazz, the people are lively, but it is not the same feeling that it used to be…. Midt. own got rebuild…I met wonderful people that did it on their own. The strong did it…. This country is an experiment in Social Darwinism….

ED: I would totally agree with you here. The notion of progress, of “post-racial” America with Obama….

GM: That is nonsense! Since the election of Obama, the core values of policies both foreign and domestic has not changed. Look at Ferguson…

ED:….or Baltimore….

GM: ….This country, since Katrina, has manufactured internal refugees,… internal refugees from disaster capitalism!

ED: New Orleans is not an isolated incident, but emblematic of a clear process….

GM: What happened with Katrina, and people became aware of it worldwide, is the realization that this superpower has a third world country within…. But they quickly forgot, because people are suffering from amnesia. See, that is the problem…. None of the issues that are primary issues have been addressed…. Climate change: NO…. Oil is cheap…. Absolutely nothing! They follow, one way or another, a simple model,… and I am not saying that it is a plan. If it is, it is a crazy plan. They follow a simple model: we wreck everything; we never rebuild, and we extract the resources…. That is it….

ED: In other words… it is colonialism, imperialism and capitalism….