Many Thousands Gone

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

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.

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.  

In March 2003, the Bush administration degraded matters further by demoting FEMA from a Cabinet-level agency to a division of the freshly spawned Department of Homeland Security. The merger involved a nonsensical split in the government's disaster-response duties: FEMA would remain in charge of disaster response efforts on the ground, but DHS was placed in charge of disaster-response planning. It was practically a recipe for making sure that one hand would not know what the other was doing. Especially when one of those hands was the Department of Homeland Security. One of the points the Katrina disaster has underscored is how little we know about the workings of either FEMA or DHS. The latter in particular has shown every sign of being a PR dirigible from the start. A full year after the department theoretically commenced operations, Homeland Security staffers were still complaining that they did not even have a working e-mail network.


Don't call them "refugees"

The figures bruited around in the last few days are harbingers of a great U.S. internal migration: 10,000-plus dead in New Orleans alone. Thousands more in the Louisiana parishes farther south and along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Eighty percent of New Orleans underwater. Tens of thousands of jobs lost there. Tens of thousands more jobs lost, at least temporarily, in Mississippi and Alabama--15,000 in the floating casinos off Biloxi alone. Damage estimates run to $100 billion and higher.

Presently there are between 220,000 and 250,000 storm survivors being sheltered in Texas; about 20,000 in Arkansas; and 300-400,000 in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, which has doubled in size and is expected to remain Louisiana's largest city going forward. On Sunday night the TV newsreaders were talking about 1 million people temporarily or permanently displaced.


TV news: They came, they saw, they made music videos

The cable networks started running Katrina coverage around the clock on Sunday morning, 24 hours before the hurricane hit. Fox News far outshone its competitors at the outset. The network had two reporters, Shepard Smith and Jeff Goldblatt, inside New Orleans, and they continued their dispatches throughout the hours and first days after the storm passed. Fox reporters, oddly enough, were among the first to level brickbats at federal authorities. In fact, it was the conservatives on cable television who initially led the cries of outrage. Joe Scarborough, the execrable former Florida congressman turned MSNBC host, did an exemplary job of plumbing the disaster-response failures of the first days.

The tenor of the coverage changed dramatically when federal troops and talking heads started to arrive on site at the end of the week. Though reports from the ground made it clear that the aid-and-evac effort was far from consistent or thorough, the hourly drumbeat of TV news stayed on message: The cavalry is here! It was as if the networks had been restored to normalcy after a scary few days in which they were on their own to discern what the stories were and what they meant. By Saturday night the cable news terrain had grown familiar again: live on-camera family reunions staged in CNN studios, and lots of those awful music video montages featuring gloppy, tear-jerker pop songs--because, you know, suffering on this scale is so sad but so cool. NBC took top honors with a soundtrack of Aaron Neville singing a gloppy, denatured version of Randy Newman's absolutely bitter "Louisiana 1927," a song about that year's massive Delta flood.

Over the weekend there was a short fit of self-examination occasioned by a Slate column in which media critic Jack Shafer wondered why newscasts almost never commented on the fact that the vast majority of the people trapped in New Orleans were black and poor. Shafer suggested that perhaps reporters were afraid of saying something insensitive about race, and this quickly became the popular apology. Appearing on NPR Sunday, Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz expounded that newsgatherers were afraid of sounding "politically incorrect" or "stupid."

Shafer's column invoked the specter of Al Campanis, the former Dodgers baseball executive who amassed a long record of signing and promoting black players only to lose his job after musing that blacks might lack the capacity to be managers. The comparison was apt. The kind of racism at issue has little to do with express bigotry and lots to do with blissful ignorance held together by the residue of countless unflattering stereotypes. We've all seen the pair of wire photos from last week of two people wading through water with bags of food, the captions announcing they had "found" (white person) or "looted" (black person) what they were carrying. The media were so quick to condemn the "lawlessness" of people in absolutely desperate straits--yes, of course there were thugs and crooks among them, and what does this unsurprising fact have to do with anything?--because to most of educated white America, "black and poor" is synonymous with "criminal element." The reporters who kept their traps shut were right to fear they would say stupid things. In these matters, they are stupid.  


Some questions going forward

1) Following the evacuation of the 30-50,000 people who gathered at the Superdome and Convention Center, how many other survivors remain in New Orleans now, and how will they be gotten out before disease or dehydration overtakes them?

2) Where and how will refugees be settled after the immediate evacuation crisis of the first week or so? Authorities are saying no one will be able to return for months, but the more salient fact is that a staggering number will have no means to "rebuild" and no reason to come back at all.

3) How many people died in the four or five days between the levees' collapse and the arrival of supplies and evacuation buses, as a consequence of the U.S. government's inaction?

4) How exactly did federal and state disaster preparedness systems devolve to the point witnessed in New Orleans last week? And when can we expect congressional hearings on the subject to begin?

5) What is in the water trapped inside the New Orleans basin? What sorts of chemical and biological toxins, and in what concentration? This bears most directly on the health of the people still trapped there, but also on the cost of cleaning the site after it's drained, and the potential enviro/health risks of living there in the future.

6) Speaking of draining New Orleans, where do they propose to pump the water once they're finally able to do so, and what will be the environmental and epidemiological consequences of putting it there?

7) How much of New Orleans's urban infrastructure--buildings, water systems, sewer and septic systems--is intact, or even repairable, at this point?

8) If the answer to question 7 is "little if any," does it make sense to build another city on that site?


What the parish president said

The concluding portion of Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's appearance on Meet the Press Sunday--the part where he's sobbing uncontrollably--has been played over and over on television. But Broussard had a lot more to say, including some FEMA horror stories from the previous week. Here's a partial transcript:


"We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. I am personally asking our bipartisan congressional delegation here in Louisiana to immediately begin congressional hearings to find out just what happened here. Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership....

"Let me give you just three quick examples. We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA--we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, 'Come get the fuel right away.' When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. 'FEMA says don't give you the fuel.' Yesterday--yesterday--FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, 'No one is getting near these lines.'...  

"The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night."

--Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, Sunday, Meet the Press

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