Many Thousands Gone

The first disaster was the hurricane. The second was the federal government's response.

New Orleans: They were expendable

No one in a position of authority could say they didn't see this coming, but that did not stop the president from trying. "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," George W. Bush said at the lackluster, hurry-up press event staged last Wednesday after he "cut short his vacation by two days" (every newscast I saw dutifully repeated this absurd little bit of spin) to return to the White House. You could take his words two ways: No one thought this could happen, or no one expected it to happen after the storm had passed. Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff danced round this ambiguity Sunday on Meet the Press as Tim Russert bore down on him.

In the first sense, Bush's words are manifestly false, as anyone with a TV or internet connection learned in the following days. Scientific American published a piece called "Drowning New Orleans" in October 2001. The Times-Picayune followed with a four-part series, "Washing Away," in June 2002. In 2004 FEMA itself conducted a study on the effects of the hypothetical Hurricane Pam. Each envisaged outcomes quite similar to those wrought by Hurricane Katrina. In the second sense, Bush's words were simply meaningless: Thirty-six hours or more after the levee had been breached, it was no longer a matter of anticipating anything, but of responding.

Hurricane survivors pass a body on the sidewalk outside New Orleans Convention Center
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Hurricane survivors pass a body on the sidewalk outside New Orleans Convention Center

So where was the emergency response by the state and federal governments? The best answer I saw all week was an anonymous note forwarded to the Counterpunch mail list by Jeff St. Clair:

"I have refrained from any political commentary thus far, but I will say this: ...The poorest 20 percent (you can argue with the number--10 percent? 18 percent? no one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. Period. And this was the plan.

"Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn't leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in New Orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn't be able to get out. The resources--meaning, the political will--weren't there to get them out. White per capita income in Orleans parish, 2000 census: $31,971 Black per capita: $11,332"

Many were quick to note the role of the Iraq War in the disaster, in terms of both the National Guard personnel and heavy equipment diverted from the region by the war (said to include about one-third of Louisiana and Mississippi's National Guard enlistees) and the cuts to local and federal levee enhancement projects in recent years that have been blamed on the war's costs. Countless sources quoted the words of Jefferson Parish emergency management director Walter Maestri from June 2004: "It appears that the money [for flood-protection and levee-enhancement programs] has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

All true, but it won't do to blame the disastrous federal response entirely on Iraq. What happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast also reflected the transformation of the U.S. government in the generation since Ronald Reagan launched his "new federalism" and both political parties agreed to pretend that, where central government was concerned, there was no alternative to starving the beast and letting the market have its way.

The failure to spend money toward the protection of a major American city, or at least to plan for the emergency evacuation of the greatest possible number of its citizens, is not really different in kind from countless less-dramatic measures undertaken in the name of getting government off people's backs, from Reagan's deregulation blitz to Clinton's dismantling of welfare to GWB's tax cuts; it only looks that way because all the shit has hit the fan at once in this case. The common denominator in each case is the conviction that government should not be in the business of trying to level the playing field or to redress the shortcomings of the marketplace. For a few days last week we saw government lifted entirely off the backs of the people, and those New Orleans residents who survived both the hurricane and their government's response to it no doubt learned an important lesson in personal responsibility. How long before the terrible government response yields calls to privatize disaster management?


The Department of Patronage and Public Relations

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has gone through two iterations under George W. Bush, first as a brazen outlet for political patronage and second as a patronage outlet tucked inside a public relations boondoggle. The résumés of the two directors Bush has appointed say it all. Joe Allbaugh, the first FEMA director appointed by GWB, was Bush-Cheney 2000's campaign manager and a longtime soldier in Bush/Rove's political army. Among his many acts of service, Allbaugh was reportedly the man dispatched to clean out Bush's Texas National Guard file prior to the 2000 presidential campaign. He didn't stay on long at FEMA. In late 2002, Allbaugh left to peddle his connections as a corporate consultant. The chief claim to fame of his replacement, an Allbaugh crony named Michael D. Brown, was having spent nine years as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association--a job Brown thoroughly botched, eventually resigning amid much rancor. Neither Allbaugh nor Brown had a day's experience in disaster management before they were appointed to lead FEMA.

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