Survival of the richest:
the Gulf hurricanes crisis

From Detroit Workers' Voice #53, Oct. 17, 2005.
(CV #37, Feb. 2006)

. The tragedy brought on by hurricanes Katrina and Rita offers a glimpse of the true nature of those who run American society.

. In Katrina, thousands of poverty-stricken people, mostly African-American, were left to die, aid was blocked from getting to them, they were demonized and slandered by the media, herded like cattle, threatened and reportedly even killed by the military and police forces. Katrina evacuees are scattered throughout the states; a few have found work and schooling, but thousands more are vegetating with no prospects. And Rita, while sparing Galveston and Houston its worst blows, crushed impoverished rural and coastal communities between Houston and New Orleans. Their inhabitants, too, are struggling for survival. Stung by mass criticism for inaction, the Bush administration has promised $200 billion in aid. But this aid is not going to the suffering masses. Instead, it is being shoveled out to vulturous capitalist businessmen in the form of fat no-bid government contracts for rebuilding businesses and gentrifying New Orleans and the nearby coast.

. The working masses of New Orleans and the Gulf have not taken the disasters and the attacks of the authorities lying down. Crossing color and ethnic lines, they have come to each others' aid and have worked tirelessly to organize themselves and save the lives of the people. And today they are fighting to have aid and rebuilding programs to benefit the poor.

A background of neglect by Republicans and Democrats alike

. Catastrophic hurricanes like Katrina and Rita have long been predicted in the Gulf, and their disastrous effects on New Orleans and the region have frequently been plotted out in grisly detail. It was commonplace knowledge that New Orleans was especially vulnerable; its impoverished, largely African-American population lived mostly in neighborhoods that were below sea level. But did this scientifically proven hazard, threatening hundreds of thousands, move either the Republicans or the Democrats to take energetic measures to protect the people? Hardly. During the Democratic Clinton administration, funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and strengthen the levees that protect New Orleans were sharply and repeatedly cut. The alleged "first Black president" didn't do the Black masses any favors there!

. Following in Clinton's footsteps, G. W. Bush also repeatedly cut funding for the New Orleans levees. Now, following Katrina, evidence has emerged that the existing levees had faulty construction; in places they were not over-topped by the storm surge but simply burst. Moreover, in 2003, Bush dropped protections for the Gulf wetlands from destruction by capitalist developers. Wetlands provide an important buffer against hurricane damage, but development in the New Orleans area was unleashed. And the Bush administration derides any action against global warming, even though it is an established scientific fact and is considered by many to be responsible for the recent intensification of hurricane activity.

. Neglect and under-funding of the New Orleans levees is just another example of the degeneration of the infrastructure that has been taking place nationwide, under both Democratic and Republican local, state and national administrations, for several decades. The insatiable need of big capitalist businesses for ever-increasing profits has demanded that their politicians of both parties drastically slash government regulations as well as spending for social benefits and infrastructure maintenance and improvement, while at the same time handing billions to the fat cats for war contracts and tools of repression. This is the philosophy of present capitalism -- neo-liberalism, a.k.a country-club welfare. Its price may be counted in the dead bodies floating in attics in New Orleans, or of Iraqi and American poor people killing each other in Fallujah, with the money in both cases flowing in to Halliburton.

The poor abandoned to disaster

. As Katrina barreled directly at New Orleans, escalating momentarily to a category 5 hurricane, the poor were abandoned to disaster. Democratic mayor Ray Nagin waited till one day before the hurricane's landfall to order an evacuation, and then provided no means for the poor to evacuate. School and transit buses were not mobilized (they later sat for days, partly submerged), no food, water or medical supplies were provided for. It was strictly a laissez-faire, neo-liberal evacuation -- every person for his or her self. Well-off people with cars, credit cards and solid bank accounts could afford to drive to Jackson or Memphis and stay in hotels and motels for the duration. Workers with cars but little resources fled to relatives or went deeper into debt. 112,000 people in New Orleans did not own cars, and Katrina hit at the end of the month, when many were waiting for their checks. Thus large numbers of the poor, most of them Black, were left to fend for themselves in the face of a hurricane that had reached an incredible peak of destructiveness. This clearly showed the brutal institutional racism of capitalism and its utter disregard the workers and poor.

. Katrina subsided to a level 4 storm and veered slightly, averting a far worse disaster. But the levees broke and 80% of New Orleans was quickly flooded. The politicians' neglect revealed its deadly consequences. Bodies floated in the streets. Days went by without official aid and conditions became more and more desperate. The governor, also a Democrat, called for a day of prayer instead of organizing adequate relief efforts. Incredibly, both FEMA and various military and police forces blocked many people from leaving the city and simultaneously blocked many "unofficial" aid vehicles organized by sympathetic ordinary people from entering. New Orleans people were stranded by the thousands in the Superdome, the Convention Center (next door to several fine hotels, which refused to open their doors), on rooftops, in attics, on bridges and freeways. Hospitals were left unsupplied, their most vulnerable patients only kept alive by medical workers' heroism. Prisoners were left locked in their jail cells; according to surviving prisoners, some drowned. People became dehydrated and were dying on the sidewalks.

Blacks and the poor demonized as 'looters', 'rapists' and 'killers'

. A wave of sympathy for the victims spread widely, and working people everywhere attempted to send help. But the news media, showing the hatred and fear of the capitalist class for the working masses and especially for African-Americans, launched a campaign of lies and slander. Lurid stories of babies raped and killed, women raped, people murdered and shots fired at rescue helicopters were spread, in spite of counter-reports even by some establishment reporters. Later investigation would prove these scare-stories to be a lie. No pictures of criminal gangs were ever produced, no murdered bodies were found, and helicopter pilots denied that they were ever fired at. Dehydrating and starving abandoned people had to break into stores to get supplies. The media labeled the desperate as "looters," "thugs," "criminals" and "criminal gangs." Mayor Nagin ordered the police to "shoot to kill" "looters. In fact, the entire "looting" media firestorm could have been prevented by the mayor and governor. If the authorities had seized the stores and distributed necessities free to the people, there could have been no hypocritical outcry. But protecting capitalist property was more important to them than the lives of the poor. So, instead, slander was piled on top of neglect.

Bush and Democrats fiddle, ordinary people come to the rescue

. As the poor of New Orleans suffered, the Bush administration fiddled. The Monkey Boy himself vacationed at his Crawford ranch, then jetted to Arizona and San Diego to give irrelevant speeches to the rich bourgeois he calls his "base." Condi Rice bought expensive shoes in Manhattan, Cheney hunted elk in Wyoming. FEMA director Mike Brown, experienced only at raising Arabian horses, told his employees to wait two days before reporting to the flood scene. As for the Democrats in charge in Louisiana, Gov. Blanco was useless. New Orleans mayor Nagin, an African-American, denounced Bush, but was responsible for the failure to evacuate poor Blacks and for later demonizing and threatening them.

. While the politicians of both parties fiddled, the working people of New Orleans organized themselves as best they could. People in the Superdome and the Convention Center kept order and attempted to acquire supplies. Workers of all trades used their skills to help the suffering. Groups attempted to walk out of the disaster area. Hundreds of boat owners, black and white, swarmed to rescue people as soon as the flooding took place. People as far away as Wisconsin and Maine organized shipments of aid. The highway from Houston to New Orleans became flooded with cars, trucks and vans bringing help. These rescue and self-rescue efforts were often hindered and blocked by FEMA and local police personnel. Sheriff deputies even fired over the heads of groups of victims to prevent them from crossing a bridge over the Mississippi to higher ground."Unofficial" aid vehicles were blocked from coming in, while government aid still had not arrived. Yet people managed to rescue themselves: the first bus of evacuees to reach Houston was unauthorized, driven by a young black man.

Bush's response:
Aid to his crony capitalists, military occupation for the poor

. Stung by a nationwide wave of criticism for inaction, the Bush administration made a grandstand promise of $200 billion in aid and sent National Guards from various states, the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army and heavily armed private mercenaries from Blackwater Corp. , the same outfit that has supplied killers and torturers to Bush's imperialist war in Iraq. New Orleans was placed, and remains, under military occupation, with a stringent curfew, under which numerous ordinary people have been arrested and jailed for trivial offenses.

. And while Bush makes grand promises of aid, where is the aid going? Before the floodwater had been pumped out of New Orleans, the Bush administration began shoveling out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to Bush's cronies at Halliburton, Bechtel, Shaw Construction of Baton Rouge, etc., for reconstruction. But last week, New Orleans mayor Nagin laid off 3,000 workers, half of the city workforce, citing a lack of revenue. Obviously the aid that Bush brags about is going to the big capitalist firms, often run by his buddies, not to the working class and poor, who are in desperate need. Local people should be housed, get trained and employed, and get financial assistance. As well, they should have a say in the reconstruction. But the Republicans and Democrats offer only token help for the masses. Capitalism, again, provides its neo-liberal solution: survival of the richest.

. To prevent the working class and minorities from benefiting from rebuilding efforts, Bush has taken vicious administrative action. He suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that the prevailing wage be paid for federally funded reconstruction projects. In New Orleans, a non-union area, this wage is already quite low: for a truck driver working on a levee, $9.04 per hour, for an electrician, $14.30. Halliburton and friends must be guaranteed maximum profits! And in a discriminatory measure, Bush suspended the law guaranteeing a certain portion of contracts to minority businesses, to women, the disabled, etc.

. While the masses of the people are supposed to live on crumbs, Bush's oil industry cronies, already swimming in profits, are using the hurricanes as an excuse to jack up gasoline and natural gas prices even higher, thereby looting the masses nationwide.

Recovery for whom?

. A struggle is breaking out over the reconstruction of New Orleans. Will reconstruction benefit only the rich capitalists, or will there be measures to benefit the poor? There is a mass sentiment to return, but returning workers and poor are finding their jobs gone, their schools and neighborhoods devastated. Community and labor groups are demanding a say in recovery, but they face an uphill battle: they are demanding jobs and training for local people, substantial wages, housing, an end to discrimination, etc. But the capitalist agenda of the Bush administration provides little help to the masses but all help to the businesspeople to gentrify, to remove large numbers of poor residents and to subsidize business concerns.

. At the same time, without serious attention to infrastructure and restoring wetlands, some rebuilt neighborhoods may face being flooded again. Indeed, global warming, rising water levels and sinking land raise the question of whether large parts of New Orleans and some other areas of the Gulf Coast will ever be safely habitable again, no matter what type of projects are undertaken.

. Dealing with these problems requires planning. There must be attention to the danger of more environmental catastrophes, and help for the working masses who face either rebuilding their neighborhoods or making new lives elsewhere. But capitalism is allergic to planning. Left to themselves, developers will destroy every last wetland; levees and other river projects will be undertaken only insofar as some company can make a killing off them. Moreover, the Bush administration doesn't take global warming and the problem of environmental change seriously. It will take the devastation of yet more cities, and much more loss of life, for the American bourgeoisie to concede that there is a general problem.

. When the capitalists finally see the problem, they will institute some sort of planning. But just as they are making the reconstruction of New Orleans into a case of little help for the masses and an orgy of profit-making for Bush's cronies, so they will use planning as yet another excuse for swindling the masses. So long as the economy is run for the benefit of the rich capitalist exploiters, there will never be serious planning for the masses of workers and poor. Only when the means of production are owned by the working masses can environmental concerns be thoroughly addressed. Only when capitalist production for profit is replaced by socialist production for the benefit of the masses will there be planning by the people and for the benefit of the people.

Down with heartless capitalist exploitation!

. The tragedy brought on by hurricanes Katrina and Rita shows the anti-people nature of modern capitalism. It shows that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans care about anything but the rich, and that they don't pay serious attention to anything but profit-making.

. And it shows that the workers and the poor have to rely on themselves for relief and reconstruction. The heroism and self-organization of the ordinary masses in this crisis shows that we, the working class, the class which built and carries modern society, have within us the strength and courage to fight against both natural catastrophe and capitalist oppression.  Only when the workers control and run the whole society can the needs of the masses be met and serious attention be given to environmental problems. Let us break free of the Democratic and Republican parties, let us fight for our needs and fight the capitalist system itself! <>

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Last modified: February 17, 2006.