Hell And High Water: Hurricane Katrina Hits US

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 37


And High Water:
Katrina Hits US



havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina last week in the USA’s Gulf of Mexico
region, and the response by the US government in terms of preparedness, rescue
and relief, has shocked not only the people of the United States but also all
other countries who have watched in disbelief as the world’s richest nation
was seen floundering in the face of a natural disaster. Over one million people
have been displaced across three states by this hurricane which almost
completely destroyed the city of New Orleans in Louisiana state, the tourist
towns of Biloxi, Gulfport and Beachland in Mississippi besides swathes of
countryside in these states and in neighbouring Alabama.


Orleans, with a cosmopolitan heritage, a result partly of its French colonial
past and partly its rich Creole culture, home to jazz and Mardi Gras, the most
vibrant popular street festival outside of Latin America, has been totally
razed. For five whole days after Katrina struck the eastern Gulf coast on the
morning of Monday August 29, TV news channels continuously beamed pictures of a
completely flooded city with hundreds of thousands of helpless citizens
sheltering wherever they could, on deserted highways under the blazing sun, in
sports stadia amidst squalor and filth surrounded by dead bodies, human waste
and rotting garbage –– all without food, drinking water or medical
assistance for days on end. And these were the fortunate ones, for thousands
more died in their homes, unable to escape due to sickness, infirmity or old
age, eventually dying of starvation or drowning as flood waters rose above two-
and three-storey houses. For five horrific days there was no sign of rescue or
relief in the stricken city. In the city’s Convention Centre, a few citizens
set up their own soup kitchen with supplies taken from shops and supermarkets:
some called this looting, most saw it as survival. New Orleans has been through
hell and high water both, and nobody knows what the future holds. 




all this horror was not just because the city was totally cut off, major roads
having been destroyed. More than 25,000 people from New Orleans and nearby areas
who had earlier made it to the Superdome in Houston, Texas, were in virtually
the same state of neglect for days. No medical care, little or no food or
drinking water. There was nobody in charge, no organisation to speak of, no
systematic effort at addressing problems. Emergency agencies were not to be seen
and the only relief being provided was a few random initiatives by concerned

agencies reached nowhere but the media reached everywhere. Not embedded with
official agencies as in Iraq, the media was free and able to report things as
they saw them. Despite the 24-hour coverage, it took several days for media
anchors and invited experts to even notice or comment on what had been on open
display for days: most of the affected people were poor, and black. The question
of whether the response to this disaster would have been different if the racial
profile had been different now looms large over America and will haunt it for
decades. Condoleezza Rice, the Republicans’ showpiece African-American,
promptly denied any colour bias. But a class bias, both deliberate and built-in
to the US system of governance especially under the neo-cons is undeniable. Fact
is, the poor in the US also “happen to be” predominantly black. Inequality
has colour in the US… just as it has caste in India or other ethnic and racial
markers elsewhere.


took almost a week for the Bush administration to begin rescue and relief
operations in New Orleans and nearby areas. And even late Tuesday (September 6)
as this article is being written, the now much-reviled Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) had drawn up no plan for recovery of bodies in the city
leaving the doors open for disease and even more deaths. At one point, New
Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was so desperate that in a radio interview he screamed
out for federal officials to “get off their ass” and a string of profanities
had to be beeped out.


was the world’s only superpower looking helpless, worse-off even than many a
third-world country? Why did it take so many days to get even food and water to
marooned people? Why were emergency agencies so paralysed? Why was there so
little preparedness despite advance warning and why was the response so tardy
and so poor compared to the need?


on the street, in political circles and in the media were asking these and many
more uncomfortable questions this week. So was the rest of the world. And
answers to all questions appeared to converge on a few fundamental truths: the
ugly face of capitalism and the sharp cleavages of race and class in American
society, the roll-back of welfare functions of the state in the US especially
under the neo-conservative dispensation, the growing militarisation of the US
and the extent to which all these have increasingly become a cancer eating away
into the very vitals of American society.




the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and its probable impact were all clearly
predicted, yet there was absolutely no advance preparations by emergency
agencies or the federal government. 


was a Category 5 storm with 250 kmph winds when it hit the Louisiana coast but
had reduced to Category 4 intensity over New Orleans, a city virtually
surrounded by water and set in a low-lying bowl between Lake Pontchartrain in
the north  and the Mississippi river
in the south. Over 80 percent of the city lies a good 10 feet below sea level
and much of the construction has been over land reclaimed from the
Mississippi’s flood plains and coastal wetlands which would have provided some
protection from the storm. Within two hours of Katrina striking, large parts of
the city were already under water up to the rooftops of two-storey houses and
other areas were rapidly flooding. The Lake is surrounded by levees (bunds in
India), walls of mud designed to keep lake waters from the city. The levees
collapsed in three places, the worst breach of over 200 feet being on the south
side of the Lake whose waters totally inundated New Orleans and continued to
rise even three days later. Yet there was no attempt to repair the breach till
the weekend.


Security director Michael Chertoff, rapidly emerging as a major villain of the
piece next only to president George W Bush himself, maintained that the extent
of flooding and the breach of the levees, were “totally unforeseen and
unpredictable”. Bush himself repeated this mantra. Typical of the Bush era,
they were both lying through their teeth, just as the Bush coterie did about
WMDs in Iraq and its links with al Qa’ida


US National Hurricane Centre had warned of the danger of levee breaches in the
wake of Katrina as much as four days in advance! Besides, this nightmare
scenario had been the subject of numerous disaster studies in the US going back
several years. Three most calamitous disaster scenarios have most frequently
been discussed: a gigantic earthquake in San Francisco, a nuclear attack on New
York and a Category-5 hurricane followed by a breach of the levees flooding New
Orleans. The “perfect storm” as it was termed was precisely what happened
with Katrina. The prestigious Scientific
American had predicted these developments in 2001 and had estimated
that a few billion dollars would have rendered New Orleans safe even under a
Category 5 storm. A New Orleans newspaper, The
Picayune, had run an
investigative story in June 2002 on such a scenario based on discussions with
experts: the chilling article reads like a screenplay for the grim reality show
the world witnessed last week.   


funds required for strengthening of the levees were cut back or denied. The Army
Corps of Engineers had sought $500 million to reinforce the levee systems but
the Federal government only released half the amount after much delay and
pressure from Congress. Evidence now suggests that poor construction may have
led to cracks in the levees rather than a simple overflow of lake waters into
the city.




itself was absorbed in 2002 into the Department of Homeland Security whose
attention was turned almost exclusively on “the war on terror” thus
drastically reducing US capacity to handle natural disasters. FEMA was denied
funds to conduct practice drills including in New Orleans and its capabilities
were severely eroded by restricting it to coordinating existing assets of 
other agencies.


again, the degrading of governmental agencies like FEMA was sharply underlined
by George W Bush’s appointment of Michael Brown as Director. Brown for the
previous 10 years was managing an Arabian Horse show agency, even from which
exalted position he was sacked! Surely too much even from a president who
appointed cronies such as John Bolton, with no experience of international
diplomacy or foreign policy, as Ambassador to the UN or leading neo-con
ideologue Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank Director


Republican Right agenda starting with the Reagan years and leading up to the
neo-con Bush administration stridently advocated and worked to bring about
“small government”, withdrawing the State from ever more areas especially of
public welfare. Downgrading of social security, shrinking of public health
services in favour of private hospitals and insurance companies affordable only
by the rich, privatisation of pensions, were all part of the neo-con package.
The disastrous consequences of these policies were painfully visible after
Hurricane Katrina.


poorer countries than the US have responded more promptly and brought rescue and
relief more quickly to disaster-affected people. The response to the recent
Tsunami by governmental agencies in India and Thailand in particular, and even
in SriLanka and Indonesia, for all their weaknesses, stand in stark contrast.
Iran’s government moved quickly after the Bam earthquake. And a shining
example of effective governance combined with public mobilisation was provided
by Cuba recently during Hurricane Ivan when 150,000 people were evacuated saving
countless lives.


in New Orleans, only a simple order to evacuate was given, with no thought as to
how the poor, with no cars or money for fuel or bus fare, or the sick, old and
infirm, could leave the city. No evacuation plans or facilitites, no agency
responsible –– only the survival of the richest. Texas openly declared it
could not take care of Louisiana refugees because it had no public facilities or
funds to do so and asked for federal assistance. President Bush appealed to the
private sector and to charities for help, and offered to pray for the victims!


famous American private sector was completely invisible. Neither Wal Mart nor
MacDonald’s put together food or emergency supplies. Where was the famous
organisational capability and managerial expertise that these multinationals try
to sell to other countries? Where were all the profits they showcased each year
when even a small percentage could have helped the sick, dying and starving in
New Orleans? But of course, corporations are running businesses not charities…
and the Government has left things to market forces.


Reagan, “the great communicator”, brought home to Americans the idea of 
“small government” by spending more days on vacation playing golf
than he did in the White House. The Bush neo-cons have taken this message
several steps further. While Katrina was wreaking havoc and New Orleans was
drowning, president Bush was on holiday playing golf and it took mounting public
criticism that dragged him back after three days. Vice president Cheney was on
holiday in Wyoming and stayed there till Monday, a full week after Katrina
struck. And Condi Rice was watching the Broadway musical Plamalot
and shopping for shoes at $7000 a pair in New York! When the Army was belatedly
called out, the redoubtable Donald Rumsfeld too made his first appearance. In a
flurry of press conferences, Bush team members congratulated each other for the
marvelous job being done!


again, the Bush team has now launched a media offensive led by his key fixer
Karl Rove, also responsible for the systematic disenfranchisement of millions of
poor black and Hispanic citizens to ensure a Bush victory, trying to shift blame
onto the state and local governments who have no resources whatsoever. And Bush
has promised to himself “lead an investigation into what was right and what
was wrong” with the response to Katrina, especially as regards the respective
roles of federal, state and local agencies. The accused has appointed himself
prosecutor and judge, and has prepared a case ensuring that someone else will be




is that the only governmental agency left in the US with resources and assets to
handle such emergencies is the military. But even this strength has been turned
into a weakness due to the Bush Iraq policy and to an escalating politicisation
of the armed forces. More than 40 per cent of state-level National Guard forces
and most of their heavy equipment are in Iraq, as are most of the standing Army
and reservists. Even the military was not pre-positioned to handle Katrina and
Navy hospital ships sailed only on Friday on a five-day voyage to reach the
Louisiana coast. Armed Iraq-returned units arrived to “pacify” the city,
presumably much as they had pacified Fallujah, only to be told by Governor
Kathleen Blanco to send their arms back to the barracks and restrict themselves
to humanitarian tasks since only State Guards are allowed to carry arms. Bush
would like the military to assume an increasingly interventionist role within
the country and has assigned the Northern Command the task of “assisting” a
deliberately weakened FEMA.


Bush administration has also deliberately downplayed climate change, ignored
warnings of extreme weather and have paid more attention to the oil industry
than the refugees from Katrina. One of Bush’s first actions after Katrina was
to relax the pollution norms for US petroleum products!


Bush and the neo-cons, there are only three important policy dimensions:
militarisation, higher corporate profits and individual wealth of the rich, and
weakening of the social safety net. After this, let market forces prevail and
let the devil take the hindmost… as has happened the past week. The storm of
criticism in the US, of the Bush administration, of neo-con policies and of the
capitalist system itself, threatens to match the fury of Hurricane Katrina.