Friday, September 02, 2005

Thoughts on Hurricane Katrina

I'm sure most of you have heard of the "super-storm" Katrina that has blanketed Lousiana in rain and flood water. As far as I can see, federal disaster assistance is doing its (very limited) job, while Bush attempts to get political capital from doing what any President would be lynched for not doing. But this doesn't mean there aren't social issues lurking in the background.

The most obvious one is global warming. All the pundits will undoubtedly be saying "This is a liberal cock-up to harm business! There's no direct proof Katrina was caused by global warming." And the latter bit will be true. That's not the way a chaotic system, like weather (defined as the fact that a small deviation at the start will create large deviations later), works. But the NOAA and numerous experts have been saying that super-storms would increase. Voila, an unprecedented storm. And conservatives have the audacity to trumpet out all their old garbage plus some vitriolic and unscientific comments about Katrina when a prediction of the other side just came true.

Consider for a moment the pro-and-anti-global-warming literature (by which I mean, respectively, the literature that supports the notion of anthropogenic climate change and the literature that tries to rebut it). Pro-global warming folks admit there is a lot of complexity in models and deviation in evidence and provide numerous individual sources of confirmation of what they expect and record; anti-global warming folks utter garbage about maximum entropy in the atmosphere or cite one or two studies that "disprove" global warming (as if a mass of evidence could be disproven by one study). Pro-global warming folks talk about the complex social ramifications of warming (and here I include Robert Kaplan and the Pentagon) considering the vectors of race, inequity, poverty, resource conflicts, and geo-political considerations; anti-global warming folks discuss almost none of this. There is a complex reality out there, and conservatives yelling about how volcanoes produce more greenhouse gasses than humans ever have (obliquely ignoring that volcanoes are cooling factors, not heating factors) do violence to it.

And the security issues are real. Right now, Canada is anticipating the return of the Northwest Passage, committing their military to defend that vital SLOC (sea lane of communication). Kaplan's "Coming Anarchy" discusses how ecological problems may cause untold warfare in the southern part of the horn of Africa, where five countries (thanks to colonial influence) are cut up vertically when the geography runs horizontally. Just some of the heuristic cases of warming.

To return to Katrina specifically: 1/4 of folks have flood insurance, meaning that a number of people may suffer severe financial loss, possibly debilitating loss. As Paul Street points out in his article (linked below), there's more than white folks in New Orleans; in fact, it has a disproportionately large African-American community. But the media seems to think that the population is far more melanin-deprived than it actually is. Another case of the media's wholesale disregard for the browner among us.

But even the white folks without insurance, health or otherwise, will suffer incredible hardship from this disaster. Where is the federal government insurance program to protect them from what is not their fault (and may in fact be the fault of the government itself?) And why does Bill Gates have the GDP of Norway while people suffer heat stroke crammed into stadiums?

Updates (9:42, Friday, September 2nd, 2005)

And the ecological hypothesis gets more evidence. All those levees that busted when the storm surge hit? They have been getting steadily bigger. See, New Orleans is essentially in a giant basin, and similar to Venice, as more and more construction goes on the land actually sinks. Development helped this disaster.

Racial considerations also continue to be vital, as the media racializes (and, as the below articles indicates, class-polarizes) the violence and the looting, making the victims and the heroes white and the villains black, per usual.

My Dad reminded me of "disaster pornography", a quaint little position we'd run in high school debate. Unfortunately, D-Porn is indeed real. The fundamental argument is that the way that the media and the culture pictures and frames disasters is in a pseudo-pornographic fashion, where the entire society is supposed to watch and be titillated (if not in a sexual manner).

Consider how the major catastrophes the media has chosen to highlight (9/11, the Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina) have received nearly constant airplay and analysis. Every second a new horror arrives. Social issues are placed on the backburner in exchange for emotionally potent oversimplification. The entire polity is paralyzed, the news services only able to discuss one thing.

Add in a good dose of hypocrisy, as well. See, coverage of Cuba's successful hurricane aid mission (discussed more fully in the articles below) is non-existant; the Lancet report received little report except for token condemnation; Darfur received some coverage... While Katrina's death toll is incredible, in terms of numbers it is (tragically) not very high up on the list. In particular, those crimes that the US is responsible for or successes that US enemies have done are totally ignored.

And in my local newspaper, The Union, two letters said that the world wasn't giving enough aid, nor were celebrities. In perhaps two minutes total of Google searching, I found that in fact the IAEA is having member countries release oil; the EU is considering whether to send oil or money/food aid (some aid will be sent); international humanitarian organizations are assisting; and numerous celebrities immediately began kicking up donations. Blame the rest of the world or Hollywood liberals. Don't blame Bush, the army, global warming, ecological devastation, development, or yourself. See a pattern?


Two articles from the Z Sustainers system, reprinted for your convenience:

"How the Free Market Killed New Orleans
By Michael Parenti

The free market played a crucial role in the destruction of New Orleans and the death of thousands of its residents. Armed with advanced warning that a momentous (force 5) hurricane was going to hit that city and surrounding areas, what did officials do? They played the free

They announced that everyone should evacuate. Everyone was expected to devise their own way out of the disaster area by private means, just as the free market dictates, just like people do when disaster hits free-market Third World countries.

It is a beautiful thing this free market in which every individual pursues his or her own personal interests and thereby effects an optimal outcome for the entire society. This is the way the invisible hand works its wonders.

There would be none of the collectivistic regimented evacuation as occurred in Cuba. When an especially powerful hurricane hit that island last year, the Castro government, abetted by neighborhood citizen committees and local Communist party cadres, evacuated 1.3 million people, more than 10 percent of the country's population, with not a single life lost, a heartening feat that went largely unmentioned in the U.S. press.

On Day One of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, it was already clear that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives had been lost in New Orleans. Many people had "refused" to evacuate, media reporters explained, because they were just plain "stubborn."

It was not until Day Three that the relatively affluent telecasters began to realize that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the best. In the end, the free market did not work so well for them.

Many of these people were low-income African Americans, along with fewer numbers of poor whites. It should be remembered that most of them had jobs before Katrina's lethal visit. That's what most poor people do in this country: they work, usually quite hard at dismally paying jobs, sometimes more than one job at a time. They are poor not because they're lazy but because they have a hard time surviving on poverty wages while burdened by high prices, high rents, and regressive taxes.

The free market played a role in other ways. Bush's agenda is to cut government services to the bone and make people rely on the private sector for the things they might need. So he sliced $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction. Plans to fortify New Orleans levees and upgrade the system of pumping out water had to be shelved.

Bush took to the airways and said that no one could have foreseen this disaster. Just another lie tumbling from his lips. All sorts of people had been predicting disaster for New Orleans, pointing to the need to strengthen the levees and the pumps, and fortify the coastlands.

In their campaign to starve out the public sector, the Bushite reactionaries also allowed developers to drain vast areas of wetlands. Again, that old invisible hand of the free market would take care of things. The developers, pursuing their own private profit, would devise outcomes that would benefit us all.

But wetlands served as a natural absorbent and barrier between New Orleans and the storms riding in from across the sea. And for some years now, the wetlands have been disappearing at a frightening pace on the Gulf? coast. All this was of no concern to the reactionaries in the White House.

As for the rescue operation, the free-marketeers like to say that relief to the more unfortunate among us should be left to private charity. It was a favorite preachment of President Ronald Reagan that "private charity can do the job." And for the first few days that indeed seemed to be the policy with the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The federal government was nowhere in sight but the Red Cross went into action. Its message: "Don't send food or blankets; send money." Meanwhile Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network---taking a moment off from God's work of pushing John Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court---called for donations and announced "Operation Blessing" which consisted of a highly-publicized but totally inadequate shipment of canned goods and bibles.

By Day Three even the myopic media began to realize the immense failure of the rescue operation. People were dying because relief had not arrived. The authorities seemed more concerned with the looting than with rescuing people. It was property before people, just like the free marketeers always want.

But questions arose that the free market did not seem capable of answering: Who was in charge of the rescue operation? Why so few helicopters and just a scattering of Coast Guard rescuers? Why did it take helicopters five hours to get six people out of one hospital? When would the rescue operation gather some steam? Where were the feds? The state troopers? The National Guard? Where were the buses and trucks? the shelters and portable toilets? The medical supplies and water?

Where was Homeland Security? What has Homeland Security done with the $33.8 billions allocated to it in fiscal 2005? Even ABC-TV evening news (September 1, 2005) quoted local officials as saying that "the federal government's response has been a national disgrace."

In a moment of delicious (and perhaps mischievous) irony, offers of foreign aid were tendered by France, Germany and several other nations. Russia offered to send two plane loads of food and other materials for the victims. Predictably, all these proposals were quickly refused by the White House. America the Beautiful and Powerful, America the Supreme Rescuer and World Leader, America the Purveyor of Global Prosperity could not accept foreign aid from others. That would be a most deflating and insulting role reversal. Were the French looking for another punch in the nose?

Besides, to have accepted foreign aid would have been to admit the truth---that the Bushite reactionaries had neither the desire nor the decency to provide for ordinary citizens, not even those in the most extreme straits. Next thing you know, people would start thinking that George W. Bush was really nothing more than a fulltime agent of Corporate America.

-------Michael Parenti's recent books include Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), both available in paperback. His forthcoming The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press) will be published in the fall. For more information visit: "

"Hurricane Katrina – View From Asia
By Andre Vltchek

More than 8 months ago, one of the worst natural disasters in a human history destroyed substantial part of a province under Indonesian control - Aceh. Although exact number will never be known, close to 250 thousand people lost their lives during the under-ocean earthquake and consequent tsunami; tens of thousands died in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand combined. It is now clear that tens of thousands more people died due to inadequate response of Indonesian government and military, stranded in remote areas with no food, drinking water, shelter and medical care.

Your correspondent went to Thailand and then to Aceh; to cover extend of disaster, almost immediately accusing Indonesian authorities of disorganized, chaotic reaction; of deployment of religious "volunteers" instead of professionals. He accused Indonesian military of sabotaging the aid, of stealing food and water desperately needed for those who managed to survive. In one of his reports he concluded that most of the people in Aceh "died because they were poor": would such a disaster strike in Singapore or in other wealthy nation instead of in Indonesia where tens of millions live in appalling shantytowns, there would be only a fraction of the casualties.

It is now September 2nd, and the cameras of almost all important international news networks are zoomed on the desperate men, women and children, begging for help, abandoned under the brutal sun with almost no food, water and shelter; in one of the greatest historical cities of The United States of America - New Orleans.

Today, one of the reports by Reuters starts with these words: "U.S. troops poured into New Orleans of Friday with shoot-to-kill orders to scare off looting gangs so rescuers can help thousands of people stranded by Hurricane Katrina, find the dead and clean up the carnage." But during the previous days, cameras recorded "looting" by desperate men and women, breaking into the supermarkets and stores, simply trying to survive. Of course there are gangs terrorizing the people in New Orleans area; of course there is shooting and anarchy; but is it the whole story? If the help would arrive sooner; there would be obviously no need for looting and no chance for gangs to organize.

After flying over New Orleans (no doubt great sacrifice and expression of solidarity), President Bush spoke about restoring order. It was obvious that defending private property was higher on his mind than suffering of his fellow citizens. He didn't explain what good is rotting food in partially submerged supermarkets and convenience stores anyway. One wonders whether this is a new and powerful message from his administration: no matter what, the private property is untouchable and defending it is of greater importance than saving human lives.

Why did it take US troops so much time to enter New Orleans? Where was all that heavy, high-tech equipment used all over the world, mainly for shameful deeds? On September 1st, official argument went that the aircraft carrier and several war ships just left East Coast, and it will take them some time to reach Gulf of Mexico. But why didn't they leave earlier; right away; few hours after extend of disaster became known?

Eight months ago reaction of the Republic of Indonesia was similar: while it takes just a few minutes, at most hours, for its military to blow sky-high known positions of the rebels in Aceh or Papua; after the tsunami, for many days, there was suddenly almost no hardware available for the rescue missions. There was "not enough ships in the area"; soldiers and police on the ground were "too overwhelmed". Government refused to take any decisive action, instead relying on the glorification of the "volunteers".

On the other hand, Thai Royal Air Force and navy mobilized almost immediately after tsunami damaged great parts of its Southwest coast. Helicopter crews, some risking their lives, were flying thousands of sorties, trying to save people from the high seas and from affected areas. I encountered several pilots close to the airport of Phuket, late at night, their eyes red from lack of sleep; grabbing something fast to eat before returning to the air - exhausted but determined.

On Thursday, the whole world watched as buses were shuttling people from the Dome in New Orleans (where almost everything collapsed; from air conditioning to the toilets) to Astrodome in Huston, Texas (where thousands of victims of the hurricane were expected to sleep on the military beds and share just a few toilets originally designed for the athletes). It was hard to avoid asking: is this really the best the US government can do for those who are experiencing severe trauma; for those who lost everything? This is not Aceh but Houston, Texas, the center of the US oil industry and space program, with hundreds of hotels and motels spread all over the area!

In Thailand, dozens of hotels (and private homes) opened their doors to survivors and to the family members (local and foreign) who were searching for their loved ones. Was it lack of solidarity of corporate America that prevented this from happening in the United States? And if it was, why didn't the government force these hotel doors open for refugees - through an emergency decree? Or is this just another proof that private sector and private property is sacred; more sacred than human life? Should it be taken as a warning: that from now on things will become this way?

For several days, there were countless images of the Coast Guard helicopters rescuing residents in the flooded areas from their rooftops and from their damaged homes. Helicopters were dropping baskets, pulling victims on board. Most of those rescued did have home as they lived in the residential areas. In the same time, we were learning that people elsewhere were starving, literally dropping dead in the middle of the streets in the centre of New Orleans.
New Orleans is no doubt a segregated city. While it is surrounded by posh neighborhoods (inhabited mainly by the whites), the city center and several suburbs are homes to minorities.

Some people living there are poor; others very poor. Could it be possible that even during the tragedy rescue operations are treating differently rich and poor, black and white? Is there really a lack of helicopters to airlift everyone; to bring them promptly to safety, to give them decent temporary accommodation, private bathrooms and showers?

No matter what are the reasons, response to the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico was inadequate, scandalously slow; unforgivable. The mightiest military power on earth couldn't (or refused to) deploy soldiers right after the tragedy; it stood-by as people were dying in the centre of New Orleans which was just a few hours after the hurricane definitely reachable from the air. The government of the United States failed.

Months ago, your correspondent mistakenly claimed that what happened in Aceh could never happen in any developed country. The government which would show such incompetence would be forced to resign. His analyses were proven wrong by recent events in his own country.
In Washington, there are no calls for impeachment and it seems that no heads will roll as a result of what this outrageous failure which took lives of many men, women and children. Criticism in the US mainstream press is half-hearted and when it appears, it is diluted by the stories (always so much in demand and on offer) about the heroism and self-sacrifice of the rescue workers. It may appear that although some mistakes were made, society is still governed by the sound principles; that in essence everything is correct.

In reality almost nothing went right for the citizens of New Orleans, especially for the poor; and nothing is going right even as these words are being written. White bags are covering corpses of those who recently died on the streets of New Orleans; those who died after the disaster - long after. Men, women and children are spread on the ground, many almost motionless, in the center of the city. They are hungry and thirsty; they have no place to wash and to urinate. And they are supposed to stay where they are; they are not suppose to "loot" and if they, by any chance, decide to break into some store and take food and water, there are orders to shoot and kill them!

Andre Vltchek is a writer, political analyst and filmmaker and he can be reached at:


Blogger Gracie said...

Nice blog.

I found Andre Vltchek's article on Hurricane Katrina one of the best - it left me feeling even angrier at the time which I didn't think possible. I've posted our email exchange on my blog (that isn't a blog either).

Also, he wrote another thought provoking article about W.VA several years ago - it's well worth the read. The recent tragedy reminded me of his observations.

Take a look when you have the time.

8:58 AM  

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