US:: Hurricane Katrina – A Disaster Worsened by Capitalism

Hundreds of thousands are left homeless. Tens of thousands have been shipped to Texas as refugees. Buildings have collapsed. Entire communities have been reduced to rubble. The city of New Orleans, one of the centres of history and culture in the US, will likely be uninhabitable for months. The death toll from Katrina is certainly in the hundreds, and it will probably reach the thousands. Some commentators say this was all unavoidable, but that is a lie.

Even the Wall Street Journal printed an article entitled, “Evacuation was a model of efficiency—for those who had a car.” The Deep South in the USA is riddled with extreme poverty nearly comparable to a Third World country, and New Orleans, despite all the flashy tourism, is no exception.

For the over 100,000 poor residents of New Orleans without any access to cars, there were few options. You could cough up the few pennies you have to take a bus out of town, leaving your belongings, friends, and community behind in order to end up sleeping on the street in some other city. Or you could go to the Superdome, where over 23,000 people decided to wait out the storm in an arena intended for watching American football, only to eventually be shipped (after a dangerous evacuation) to the Astrodome in not-so-nearby Houston, Texas.

Or, as thousands of people decided (or were forced to decide) you could wait it out on your roofs or in your attics, surrounded by destruction and floating dead bodies; you could only hope not to become one of those floating by. The working class and poor have the least stable housing, so it is disproportionately the houses of workers that were destroyed.

New Orleans (and other places throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, etc.) have no clean drinking water, and food supplies have been desecrated. Desperate working class and poor people have resorted to “looting” in order to get a hold of food. People have restored to get food, water, and other necessities, people should not be punished for the tragedy they are experienced. WalMart can afford to give up some food; working people faced with disaster can’t.

As this crisis hits, over 6,000 National Guardsmen from Louisiana and Mississippi are in Iraq helping the US ruling elite’s attempts to occupy the country for the benefit of Halliburton, Texaco, Bechtel, and other US corporations. Theoretically, the National Guard is supposed to deal with domestic emergencies (they’re often used to break strikes). If there was ever a time that real, dedicated civil servants were needed for a domestic emergency, this is it. The priorities of big business and their two parties are really exposed here

It is currently estimated that damage done to New Orleans alone will amount to tens of billions of dollars. This sounds like an unattainable sum. But think about it: in just a few months, Bush and his buddies spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq. Now the occupation of Iraq is costing $5.6 billion a month.

Clearly, in the minds of the millionaires and billionaires who rule this country, war and profits come before relief for ordinary people faced with the most difficult of situations. Partially due to the huge amount of resources devoted to a war for oil, profits, and prestige, state and local governments have implemented viscous budget cuts that have caused, amongst other things, less money to be devoted to dealing with natural disasters.

Prevention: Profits over People

Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of hurricanes and other major natural disasters, some of which the probably the result of climate change. Of course, it would have been impossible to prevent all the damage done by Katrina, but much of the damage was preventable. New Orleans, surrounded on three sides by water (Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico) has a record of flooding during hurricanes.

The city is built below sea level, and it is kept from constant flooding by a system of levees and pumps. The levees are set up to withstand some “level three” hurricanes, but Katrina was a level four hurricane. There is plenty of technology to create levees that withstand even level five hurricanes.

Also, the system of pumps that gets water out of the areas furthest below sea level runs on electricity, not generators. Of course, electricity has been knocked out not only in New Orleans, but throughout the Gulf Coast. The system could have been run on generators, but this would have cost money, money that big business politicians weren’t willing to spend.

In an interesting article in New Orleans City Business from February 7th, 2005, the US Army Corps stated that millions were needed for flood and hurricane protection in New Orleans, but “most projects will not be funded in the President’s 2006 fiscal year budget.” From 2001 to 2005, government spending on projects to protect New Orleans from massive flooding dropped drastically from $147 million to $82 million.

The Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for maintaining flood defences and in June last year its project manager, Al Naomi, went before the East Jefferson levee authority to request $2 million for “urgent work” that Washington was not paying for. “The levees are sinking,” he said “Everything is sinking, and if we don’t get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can’t stay ahead of any settlement.”

Study after study has shown that working class and poor areas, like the destitute “Lower Ninth Ward” of New Orleans are hit the worst by flooding due to the lack of investment in prevention.

They claimed there was no money for prevention, but United Airlines was just given billions in corporate bailouts from the federal government. Billions are spent on destruction, occupation, and oppression in Iraq. And they can’t fund projects to minimize damage from inevitable disasters? Ridiculous.

With big business controlling the relief strategy, the situation looks bad for the poor masses of the Gulf Coast. Even if the water level subsides, the dead bodies, rancid food and raw sewage would lead to a massive outbreak of sickness and disease for anybody who goes back to the region. Electricity and drinking water won’t be ready for mass use either.

Right now, Wall Street isn’t worried about the dire situation faced by millions due to this disaster. They’re worried about the bottom line: profits. Specifically, they’re worried about oil. The Gulf Coast has many, if not most, of the oil refineries in the USA. With skyrocketing gas prices and a looming energy crisis in many areas, the big shots on Wall Street are worried about “investor confidence” and a “knock on effect” in the fall of stocks.

They should be worried. The US economy and the world economy will be massively affected by these events. Working people have already been hit hard. Workers can’t let big business put the burden of the economic problems on our backs; that’s what they’ll try to do by calling on us to “tighten our belts.”

Bush and his gang are worried. Anger is mounting against Bush on many issues, ranging the war in Iraq, the unstable income and his massive tax cuts for the rich. Already suffering his lowest ever approval ratings Bush fears that this disaster will further undermine him as the realization sets in that his government cut the spending on flood defences and sent the National Guard to Iraq. Hurricane Katrina could be a turning point in which passive anger turns into active opposition.

We need to fight back to make big business for a disaster that they helped to bring about and worsen. We should demand worker and community control of all relief resources. We should demand billions in spending on relief from and prevention of natural disasters. The Federal government must provide full unrestricted maintenance for all those who have lost their jobs, there must be an emergency program to build good public housing for all those now homeless, interest-free loans must be given to small businesses and farmers to enable to rebuild and the States must be given Federal finance to replace their lost tax income. We need to organise mass movements of demonstrations, strikes, and direct actions to reverse the budget cuts, tax the rich, and get funding for programs like universal healthcare, decent education, and public works programmes that provide decent jobs.

The capitalist system has its priorities: making stockholders happy by making more profits. To make profits, they want to keep our wages low. The big corporations don’t want to be taxed to pay for our social programmes, so they pay off politicians to pass laws and budgets that benefit the super-rich. We need a party that represents working people, a party with a programme to end poverty, war, racism, and environmental destruction. We need a workers’ party with a socialist programme that will fight big business to the very end.

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September 2005