By Tim Hall
(CV #37, Feb. 2006)
The environmental catastrophe
Rebuilding New Orleans on a shaky basis
The situation of the masses
. Reprinted here (see pages 11-13) is a leaflet issued by Detroit Workers' Voice in September 2005 exposing the brutal mistreatment of the poor, and especially African Americans, of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
. Now, five months later, neither the Bush administration nor the Democrats are telling the people the truth about the difficulties of protecting and re-building New Orleans and the Gulf, nor are they making a major commitment to the well-being of the disaster victims wherever they may choose to reside. Instead, the two parties plan to hand a few meager crumbs to the masses while turning over much of New Orleans' flood-damaged neighborhoods to the voracious capitalist developers to exploit for profit. Meanwhile, big corporations are reveling in an orgy of profit-making for clean-up and re-building of business concerns. But the masses remain abandoned. Thousands of evacuees still languish in faraway hotels, many in the disaster area are living in tents and cheap trailers, and returning New Orleans residents are finding desperate conditions.
. The Gulf remains a hell for the poor.
The environmental catastrophe
. The response of the American bourgeoisie to the tragedy of New Orleans shows that it still doesn't take environmental issues seriously. Yet the flooding of New Orleans suggests that more towns and cities may be in danger if attention isn't paid to environmental devastation and to the new problems caused by climate change.
. It is a serious issue what has to be done to protect New Orleans, and there is even a question whether New Orleans, or major sections of it, can be safely rebuilt at all. The next annual hurricane season is coming. It's a matter of chance whether New Orleans will be hit again in the next few years, but it isn't presently ready for a repetition of Katrina.
. There is the matter of the levees. The Bush admission promises $2. 9 billion to enable the levees to withstand a category 3 hurricane. But Katrina was a category 4 storm when it hit New Orleans. Moreover, it was a category 5 over the ocean. There is talk of relying on reinforcing at their base with rocks levees designed for a category 3 storm, in the hope that a higher-category hurricane would only overtop them, not blow them out.
. At the same time, the land on which New Orleans rests is sinking due to the lack of silt due to the existing levees as well as the pumping out of oil and natural gas. This, too, renders levee projects more difficult. As well, this subsidence, along with unrestrained capitalist land development and the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita themselves, has led to a radical decline in the wetlands, which act as a natural buffer against storms.
. New Orleans is also affected by climate change. Ocean levels are rising due to the melting of ice resulting from global warming, and to the warming of the ocean itself. Any rise in ocean levels makes protecting New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast all the harder. Global warming is also suspected of helping making hurricanes more severe.
. So New Orleans doesn't simply face rebuilding a few levees. The protection of New Orleans would require a multi-pronged approach, dealing with wetlands, the health of the nearby waterways, and the protection not just of New Orleans but of nearby coastal areas. Indeed, whether New Orleans is still viable at its present location, such a major program is necessary. But so far no such major program is in the works.
. So it's not surprising that several magazine articles and TV programs have raised serious questions about the viability of New Orleans. At least one small community to the west of New Orleans is debating moving its location further inland. Several magazine articles and TV programs have raised serious questions about the possibility of safe reconstruction.
. Meanwhile the government has shown an incredible disregard for the problems of the poor and
minority masses, who are regarded as an inconvenience. This is a bad precedent for future
disasters. And it makes it impossible to deal carefully with environmental issues, because this
will require the conscious action of the masses, and not simply a contract or two for some
Rebuilding New Orleans on a shaky basis
' The bourgeoisie, their heads in the sand, are moving towards a business-as-usual reconstruction of New Orleans, without seriously dealing with the major questions involved. This is the nature of the federal and locally-planned redevelopment program for New Orleans that the Bush administration and the Democrats are coming to agreement on. The local New Orleans politicians, led by the Democratic mayor Ray Nagin, are going ahead with rebuilding plans on this shaky basis, even scheduling a Mardi Gras. These plans favor big business and the big capitalist developers, while handing crumbs or nothing to the workers and poor.
. The tens of thousands of evacuees still residing outside of the state are not being financed, offered jobs and livable housing to either come back or to successfully re-locate elsewhere. The refusal to return the evacuees is not the result of concern for their safety; local officials openly state their intention to cut the city's pre-Katrina population in half. Only the better-off are being restored. The rest will have to fend for themselves. A recent estimate is that one-third of white former New Orleans residents will not return, while a shocking 82% of Black residents are not expected to return. This clearly shows that the abandonment of the New Orleans poor has a vicious racist nature.
. Many Republicans and Democrats are uniting to support a bill before Congress this Spring, the Louisiana Recovery Corporation Act, sponsored by Baton Rouge Republican Richard Baker. This bill would create a federal authority which would purchase property from homeowners and lenders and re-sell it to developers. The terms of these transactions reveal that this bill would amount to a typical big-business land-grab. Property owners would be guaranteed only 60% of their pre-Katrina equity (and what can you buy with that, if you have any?). Since no one else will buy these properties, the purchase prices will not exceed 60% of equity. Then the authority will not immediately sell the properties but will finance restoration of their infrastructure. These improvements will not be made before the sale, since that would improve the prospects of the original owners, who then might not sell at all. Here we see the government using the pressure of the disaster's effects to force the homeowner to sell.
. Under Baker's bill, once the homeowner has thus been effectively forced to sell, and their property has been improved, the authority would then sell the property to a developer. The sale price would supposedly be determined by competitive bidding, but the act contains a series of provisions limiting the qualifications of the prospective bidders which would result in only a few big capitalist firms qualifying to bid. Surely these "good old boys" could arrive at a comfortable sales price. Voila! revitalized New Orleans property on the cheap!
. An earlier version of this act, defeated in Congress last Fall, provided for the authority to exercise the power of eminent domain. In the current version, sales by property owners are being touted as "voluntary." But since these transactions would be the only way an owner lacking flood insurance could re-coup any of their losses, these sales would be about as voluntary as whether a worker agrees to work for a member of the capitalist class. But even this land-grab bill may not make it past Bush, who recently stated that it was too generous.
. Most mortgage lenders gave homeowners hit by Katrina a 90-day grace period with no payments due, but that has now passed, creating heavy pressure on them to sell. A further pressure on homeowners to sell to the proposed authority results from a decision by the city's Bring Back New Orleans Commission set up by mayor Nagin. The Commission decided to allow residents to return in June to all sections of the city but within one year would close neighborhoods that did not achieve a certain percentage of residents. This means that homeowners who did not sell to the proposed authority would have to go on paying their mortgage while living elsewhere until June, then return without any infrastructure repairs and continue to pay while unsure not only of the future of their neighborhood but of the physical future of New Orleans itself.
. Rebuilding New Orleans is shaping up as a bonanza for the capitalist developers and a rip-off
for the workers and the poor -- all under the shadow of possible future disasters.
The Situation of the Masses
. Among the masses of working-class and poor New Orleans residents there is a powerful sentiment to return and re-build. Many are coming back. This is their home, and they're not abandoning it. Some former residents, however, are leaving. They have little means to live given the destruction of their neighborhoods and the callousness of the government; and they may have doubts about the viability of the city.
. In fact, lacking major help from the government, the majority of evacuees do not have the resources to return. Many are living in hotels in Houston and elsewhere and their FEMA rent subsidies are scheduled to run out soon. These folks may be abandoned once more, they may go from New Orleans rooftops to homeless in Houston, if Bush and the other capitalist authorities have their way. Local politicians promise that apartments and further subsidies will be found, but even the politicians admit that they do not know where the necessary funds will come from. In the disaster area, FEMA has provided 24,000 trailers, apparently intended as a long-term solution, though they are cheaply made and extremely cramped. They have already been snapped up and 10,000 more are needed but are slow in coming, leaving thousands of people living in tents. The poor are being abandoned once more, by both political parties.
. Those workers and poor who have been able to return to New Orleans are facing great difficulties. Homeowners are finding that the FEMA aid, which is capped at $26,200, is insufficient to rebuild or to buy elsewhere. As mentioned, the projected Louisiana Recovery Corporation Act would only compensate them for 60% of their equity. At the same time, 82% of applicants to the Small Business Administration for home loans are being turned down; the approvals are mainly going to white, upper-middle class applicants. Returning renters are finding rents multiplied two and three times and many find their apartments have been rented out to others in their absence. Evictions are averaging 335 per day, equal to a month's total pre-Katrina. Renters in public housing, which suffered little flooding or physical damage, have faced eviction orders anyway from local officials. The residents of West Iberville public housing defeated the first eviction attempts by rallying and demonstrating, but face further threats.
. To assist in the "cleansing" of New Orleans, the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to offer tax incentives for local rebuilding comparable to those that were offered in New York after 9-11. Still worse, the Republican House of Representatives leadership is only supporting aid that helps develop the private sector, and then only by taking money out of the safety net via cuts in food stamps, Medicaid and student loans. Like Bush, some of them view Baker's Recovery Act as too generous to the masses. Once again we are treated to country-club welfare for Halliburton, and crumbs for the poor.
. Some politicians, including New Orleans mayor Nagin, are scapegoating migrant workers who have been brought in to work on clean-up, blaming them for the failure to restore and hire the evacuees. These migrants are not only scapegoated by the media and politicians but are brutally exploited by the capitalist employers at the lowest possible wages and reportedly often not even paid at all. If the capitalists had any concern for either the evacuees or the migrants they would bring the evacuees back and employ both groups, since there is plenty of work to be done. But it is more profitable to leave the evacuees stranded, employ and exploit and cheat the migrants and then blame the migrants for the misery of the evacuees, thus keeping the working class divided, powerless and poor.
. In terms of housing, the neo-liberal housing policies introduced under Clinton are being advocated by some as one element of an ethnically cleansed, gentrified New Orleans. In 1996, a program to convert the public housing project St. Thomas to a supposedly mixed-race, mixed-income settlement was launched. It was to be a pilot project to point the way to replacing the voucher system in New Orleans public housing. It called for about 700 low-income units, 200 median-income units and 200 luxury units. In 2002, despite protests, the New Orleans city council approved an alteration to the St. Thomas plan to radically increase to about 700 the number of luxury units in the plan. The St. Thomas plan in fact led in two steps to the expulsion of many of the poor -- it became a yuppified version of the good old "Negro Removal" (Urban Renewal) of the 1960's. On October 11-18, 2005, a conference of architects and city planners, held in the area to discuss re-building New Orleans, adopted St. Thomas as its model for supposedly "greening" the city. This vision is called "New Urbanism," but it really means gentrification and expulsion of the poor, especially of Blacks. Mayor Nagin recently cited the St. Thomas project as a model for redevelopment of the city's housing. Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and scion of an old slave-owner/segregationist family, co-sponsored the New Urbanism conference, symbolizing the wedding of Republicans and Democrats over the dead bodies of the poor.
. New Orleans and the Gulf are a test case of how the American bourgeoisie responds to the
needs of the masses and to the pressing problems brought on by a great natural disaster. Its
political servants, the Republicans and Democrats, get a grade of "F". They have learned nothing
from Katrina, and they are using the disaster to squeeze the working and poor masses of New
Orleans while giving big profits to the construction firms, real estate speculators, and others.
There must be struggle to ensure that relief really goes to the masses of workers and poor. But the
problem of rebuilding the New Orleans area, the major environmental problems building up in
the Gulf, and the new problems of climate change and global warming, can't be dealt with simply
by giving money to big contractors, real estate speculators, and politicians. Ultimately it requires
of replacing free-market fanaticism with social planning to deal with the environmental and
social problems. It requires the masses being involved with the planning and execution and
oversight of the programs. It involves replacing the capitalist system of production for profit with
the socialist system of ownership of the means of production by society as a whole, and
production for the needs of the masses.
March 9, 2006.