Hell And High Water: Hurricane Katrina Hits US

THE 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.

New 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.


But 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 citizens.

Relief 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.

It 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.

Why 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?

Americans 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.


Shockingly, 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.

Katrina 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.

Homeland 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.

The 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 Times-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.

But 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.


FEMA 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.

Typically 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.

The 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.

Far 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.

But 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!

The 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.

Ronald 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!

Typically 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 convicted!


Fact 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.

The 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!

For 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.