Devastation in New Orleans: NOT A "Natural Disaster"

(Article for publication in October 2005 Change Links issue)

by Barry Schier

Although potential natural disasters (including the 1 to 2 dozen hurricanes which occur each year) cannot be prevented, Hurricane Katrina's devastation and death toll was mostly avoidable. The destruction was not product of an "act of God," but a product of acts of decision-makers at federal, state, AND local levels and a system that considers profits, not human lives (especially those of Black and working people whose neighborhoods were most severely affected by the storm).

The water that caused the inundation of New Orleans (which at one point covered 80% of that city of a half million people) was a result of the downpour brought by weather; the flooding was a result of the trickle of funding brought from Washington. "Despite Warnings, Washington Failed to Fund Levee Projects. To cut spending, officials gambled that the worst-case scenario would not come to be," according to a L.A. Times September 6 headline. (Inadequate repairs to levees resulted in re-flooding when Hurricane Rita came 3 weeks later.)

Although details about the approach and consequences of Hurricane Katrina were known at least several days ahead of time, the government issued an evacuation order without providing the means to leave. The hundreds of thousands without cars
(predominantly Black, poor and working class) were stranded for days. The role of the National Guard forces when they finally arrived -- several days AFTER the flooding –- was not to rescue people nor to pull out the floating corpses which had potential for causing a major health hazard, but to prevent "looting."

Police literally stood in the way of those (overwhelmingly Black) people traveling on foot from New Orleans and seeking safe ground from crossing a bridge into the mostly-white suburb of Gretna.

Katrina's high casualties (over 1,000 as Change-Links goes to press) were NOT principally a product of the fury of the storm. Cuba, geographically in the middle of "Hurricane Alley," has experienced many severe storms, but has suffered only property damage and a minimal human toll because its socioeconomic system is not a dog-eat- dog one in which all are left to fend for themselves, whether during daily life or crises.

Although it has less than 1 vehicle per 40 people (contrasted with about 1 per person in the U.S.), Cuba successfully evacuated more than 1.5 million people when hit by Hurricane Ivan last year and this year by Hurricane Dennis. (When Hurricane Rita hit Texas 3 weeks after Katrina, those who had cars to leave Houston were part of 100+- mile-long traffic jam.) Cuba's government, in cooperation with the mass organizations, provided temporary housing, food and other necessities to those affected by the storm; while in the U.S. treatment of those affected by Katrina was to issue "shoot to kill" orders against "looters" who were taking necessities from stores.

The September 6 L.A. Times noted that "Aid offers have poured in from about 90 countries." Because of U.S. government policies, little or none of this aid has arrived. A union leader speaking at a Sept. 24 anti-war rally of 20,000 in Los Angeles, described how 200 volunteers from her union, the California Nurses Association, went to New Orleans at their own expense; they, like other in the U.S. wishing to go to New Orleans to assist get no logistical or financial assistance from either city, state, or governments.

The aid that was given was largely too little, too late -– and even worse in the outlying and rural areas affected by Katrina. Authorities used the claims that there were people with guns as an excuse for not permitting helicopters or rescue personnel to enter certain areas of New Orleans. Thousands of New Orleans residents were housed in makeshift quarters in various places, including the Superdome, which had neither functional toilets, lighting nor food.

Ricardo Alarcon explained in an interview with Amy Goodman: "In the final analysis, it has to do a lot with the concept of a society. I don't want to join what they call here `the blame game.' In a way, it's difficult to be fair, because what is to be blamed I think, is a system. It's more than individuals. … If you have a society that is based on the idea of human solidarity, you may find 1,586 doctors that volunteer to go to a bad place to help others; they have done that before, some of them many times."

Cuba's offer of aid to those in need (including increasing its initial offer of 1,100 doctors to 1,586) is not part of an exception, but the rule. There's a reason for the U.S. government's obsessive hatred of the Cuban Revolution -- it represents internationalism and human solidarity in action.

Cuban internationalists have served in a few dozen Third World countries; in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, dispatched hundreds of doctors to Central America, including to several countries whose governments were (and are) political hostile to Cuba. In Venezuela, there are now more than 20,000 Cuban volunteers (mostly doctors) providing medical services there, often for poor people who had never had a doctor's visit in their lives.

I have frequently written that the ruling rich of this country treat working people and "minorities" worse than dogs. Apparently, that is true both figuratively and literally: A Sept. 12 Associated Press dispatch noted that billionaire T. Boone Pickens chartered a "rescue charter" jet which flew from New Orleans to L.A.; it carried only dogs and (except for the crew) no people.



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