End Evil

The New Orleans disaster

New Orleans has been brought low by two disasters one natural (Hurricane Katriona), and one man-made (the pathetic inability of the state to protect its citizens). The authorities announced that they would begin to forcibly evacuate the remaining 10,000 residents of New Orleans on Wednesday 31st August. However, even now many still refuse to leave, fearing the loss or damage of their property, and pictures of forcible evictions will not help Bush get through this crisis with his reputation intact. Some citizens already claim to have been forcibly evacuated to the city's wrecked convention centre and Superdome, and essentially prevented from leaving the disaster zone. The government reaction to the crisis constituted a bureaucratic cock-up which left tens of thousands of people stranded for four days or more in New Orleans with no food, water or medical assistance.

The water level in the inundated streets has begun to subside leaving a tide mark of foul muck around buildings. However, army engineers have estimated that it could take as long as three months to drain the streets, and whole area is teeming with hazardous bacteria and chemicals. The early estimate of the death toll was 10,000 people, but rescuers are now hopeful that this was an overestimate. Yet hundreds have lost their lives, and 140,000 to 160,000 homes have been irreparably damaged.

Even Republican Party members have been calling for an investigation into the negligent handling of this natural disaster. Senator Susan Collins (Maine, Republican) complained "If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?"

Where´s Bush?

Who is to blame?

Bush helpfully advised the press that "There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right, and what went wrong. What I´m interested (in) is helping save lives." Really. When he was first told of the disaster, he went for a jog. When he finally made it down to the decimated city, he apparently made jokes about his miss-spent youth in New Orleans, prompting many to complaint that he wasn´t taking the situation seriously.

Then he claimed that no-one could have expected the size of the hurricane or the collapse of the levee system. Well, that´s not strictly true is it George. You may have heard both friends and enemies mention a little problem known as global warming. Professor Kerry Emanuel (MIT) has confirmed that the destructive power of hurricanes has nearly doubled during the thirty year period of his investigations. He considers that manmade climate change is a factor in this and warns that we should expect storms to continue to increase in severity and frequency. In the case of New Orleans, there have been numerous reports over the last few years indicating that the levee would break unless it was reinforced. In fact, even the army had requested money to reinforce the defences, but were offered about a third of the funds required to complete the job. Instead, Bush authorised budget cuts which helped pay for tax cuts for the rich and fund the Iraq war. Typically the Louisiana National Guard who would have been really handy for keeping order and arranging an evacuation were stationed in Iraq.

Bush then blamed the local bureaucracy stating that the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco (Democrat) took too long to declare a state of emergency. However, an emergency was declared on August 26 with little apparent improvement.

Then, he blamed the federal authorities; in particular, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) and the Homeland Security Department (HSD). The HSD was created by Cheney following 9/11 to counter the terrorist threat. However, it has become a bureaucratic monster which absorbed and weakened Fema, and apparently had no plan for handling a much predicted disaster. Cheney was sent in to assess recovery operations, and to remove the bureaucratic obstacles" that he is responsible for. Michael Brown, (the head of Fema) has been recalled to Washington amid claims of incompetence. Apparently Brown´s 10 years organising horse shows for the International Arabian Horse Association hadn´t quite prepared him for a disaster of this scale.

Sound familiar? First, act like nothing is happening. Second, claim that no-one could have anticipated the problem. Third, blame it on the specialised but inept government department that you put in charge of the problem. He is simply re-playing 9/11. Unfortunately for him, there is no-one to bomb to get the US people back on side after this one.

Mob rule

When Iraq´s cities were looted following the US invasion, Donald Rumsfeld explained that this was not lawless-ness, just "the pent-up feelings that result from decades of oppression". Well, you may have a point there Donald. The "looters" in New Orleans were from the predominantly poor, black areas of the city the people who were offered no assistance by the state. The middle-America view seems to be that law abiding citizens left the city of their own accord, leaving behind a criminal element that has hampered the rescue operations. This convenient fantasy may well prove Bush´s lifeline. The victims are to blame for their plight.

While there certainly has been looting (largely of food, water and nappies), New Orleans´ police chief confirmed that they cannot substantiate most of the nasty rumours. There was certainly violence in the conference centre. But, communication is so poor, that it is hard to be sure what is actually going on and rumour becomes fact. We do, however, know that first National Guard convoy who entered the city were warned they may need to defend themselves with lethal force. Instead, they were greeted by a nurse who was protecting sick children trapped by the flood waters. Similarly, residents of nearby Baton Rouge apparently expected the refugees from New Orleans to be dangerous criminals, intent on looting their town. Unsurprisingly, there was no looting, just exhausted survivors in need of support. So where does this idea come from? Is it their poverty, or their colour that causes such a negative view of the victims?

The heart of the matter

The real problem is the every man for himself attitude. The government helpfully suggested people should leave if they could, but did not attempt any large scale evacuation. In contrast, the Cuban government managed to evacuate over one million people when Hurricane Dennis hit their shores a couple of months ago. Only ten people lost their lives.

As is so often the case, the hurricanes worst effects are felt by the poorer citizens of New Orleans the majority of whom are black (and not natural Republican supporters). These people did not have the luxury of an escape route from the hurricane, and could not afford to leave their property to be destroyed or looted. There will be no insurance payout for them.

Bush and his kind have little empathy for these victims. In a moment of awful honesty, his mother, Barbara Bush, told the Public Broadcasting Service that many of the evacuees housed in Texas were underprivileged anyway, so "this is working very well for them." Yeh, I bet they are having a ball.

This gives us a glimpse of the political nature of the problem. The US likes to see itself as the benevolent patron of the world. Yet, their aid payments only amount to 0.16% of their economy, and it is their trade regime which maintains the poverty which enslaves millions of people across the globe. Similarly, the American dream is a nightmare for the huge number of Americans living in poverty within the richest country in the world. This hypocrisy has been exposed once again.

Bush will happily throw money into the reconstruction; after all, his buddies Halliburton got the contract to rebuild the city´s infrastructure, despite the evidence of fraud and overcharging in their operations in Iraq, and they will make a tasty profit from the disaster. However, Bush has little or no interest in protecting the lives of the poorer citizens. They are expendable.

The rapper Kanye West broke from the script on a live NBC television special to say what many have been thinking "Bush doesn´t care about black people. It´s been five days (waiting for help) because most of the people are black. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible."

Bush now admits, "To the extent the federal government didn´t fully do its job right, I take responsibility", a suitably vague response. Of course he rejected suggestions that race played a role in the slow government response noting facetiously " When those coastguard choppers ... were pulling people off roofs, they didn´t check the colour of a person´s skin." Of course its not as simple as that is it; the racial divide is apparent because over 80% of residents living in poverty were black. Wealthy (and majority white) families lived on the higher, safer ground, while poor (majority black) lived on the low ground in cheaper, flimsier structures. Race determined who got hit.

Bush´s failure is quite simply the failure to protect the poorer citizens, again. But, they have never been his priority and he prefers vote-winning tax cuts to properly funded local government. America´s shame is the massive divide between rich and poor, and the fact that race is still an indicator of class.

Posted 14th September 2005

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