The Diaspora, Blowing Down the Road

Katrina and the lessons of the 1927 flood

The beleaguered of New Orleans will be hit as disproportionately hard by the reconstruction as they were by the storm. New Orleans ranked 64th among the 70 biggest U.S. cities in median income before Katrina, and for many of its citizens the situation now is the mirror image of the one that faced sharecroppers in 1927. This time the city's elites are making it clear they don't want the poor back. Topography is demography in New Orleans--the poor are concentrated in the lowest-lying areas, the rich in the highest--and there is talk of letting the Ninth Ward revert to the marsh it once was, to serve as a flood containment pool in storms. Needless to say, there's no talk of compensating the former citizens of the Ninth for their displacement.

The Wall Street Journal, as usual, has been more candid in its coverage than the rest of big media. On September 8, in a page one feature titled "Old-line Families Escape Worst of Flood and Plot the Future," it quotes James Reiss, spawn of a prominent Uptown brood, thus: "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically. I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out." Lest he be thought insensitive, Reiss adds, "We understand that African Americans have had a great deal of influence on the history of New Orleans." The key word there is history. Louisiana Republican Congressman Richard Baker told a group of lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

The displaced will land in places like Baton Rouge, where unemployment ran high before Katrina, and major cities on or near the Gulf Coast such as Houston, Memphis, and Biloxi, where the local median income is already below the national average. They will find the going hard, and make the going harder yet for all the locals working in subsistence-level service sector jobs.

And later they will be caught, like the rest of the country, in the post-Katrina government spending squeeze. George W. Bush reaffirmed over the weekend that he will entertain no tax increases to pay the estimated $200 billion federal tab on Katrina. That means he'll come out of his reconstruction spending spree (about $23 billion of which is now targeted at direct housing aid to the displaced) with a fresh fiscal excuse for permanent cuts to discretionary or not so discretionary domestic spending that he could not touch for political reasons before.

He'll have little trouble with the Democrats. They are once again lying back and hoping to be the beneficiaries of Bush's blunders, the same strategy that worked so spectacularly for John Kerry last fall. Democrats are always whining that somehow they can't manage to get their "message" across. Here is the perfect opening to talk about the specific failings of the Bush government, its sheer cronyism and incompetence, and more generally to question the drift of government since Reagan, away from providing for the common welfare and toward clearing a path for the further conquests of capital. Here is the chance to tout a public works program designed to ensure that some of the people who want to stay in the area can do so by taking part in government-sponsored cleanup and rehab efforts. Forget it. The only difference between the Democrats and the dead of St. Louis #2 Cemetery is that Katrina did not cause the Democrats to float up out of their tombs.

The president, meanwhile, shows signs of regaining his equilibrium. Certainly he is proceeding in his usual manner. A couple of weeks ago, to little fanfare, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that construction contractors working for the federal government pay their employees the prevailing wage in the area. He has no statutory power to suspend the Service Contract Act, which makes similar provision for service workers, but he's looking for a way around that. And the Wall Street Journal reports that contractors in Louisiana are already complaining about the surfeit of initial cleanup and recovery contracts going to firms from out of state, notably Texas.

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