Hurricane Katrina: a disaster for New Orleans' working class, but an opportunity for capitalists

Hurricane Katrina: a disaster for New Orleans’ working class, but an opportunity for capitalists

by The Spark

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina set off one of the worst catastrophes in American history. It was not simply a natural disaster, but rather a social one. Every step taken by the government at every level before, during and after the storm stands as a testament to the consequences of placing the interests of the wealthy before the well-being of the working population.

More than 1800 people lost their lives in the flooding caused when the levees protecting the lowest-lying places, which happened to also be the poorest areas of the city, collapsed. More than 200,000 people from the city of New Orleans alone were displaced from their homes.

The flooding and what followed were no accident, but the result of deliberate policies on the part of the local ruling class and its politicians. Corporations and the government carried out commercial and industrial development along the Mississippi River and its delta, ignoring warnings from engineers that it would cause the disappearance of islands and wetlands that protected the city against hurricanes that regularly hit the Gulf Coast.

The worst flooding hit the poorest areas of the city. The working population had been expelled from the French Quarter decades earlier, and most of the neighborhoods where workers and the poor lived were in the lowest-lying areas. Despite 40 years of warnings from scientists and public agencies about the potential for just such a catastrophe, the bosses’ politicians cut spending for flood controls, levees, storm walls and outlets and allowed them to fall into disrepair. The ruling class decided it wasn’t “cost effective” to prepare for a flood that might happen “only” once in 100 years.

No Evacuation Plan

The government’s evacuation “plan” depended solely on residents leaving in their own cars. That was meaningless for the 100,000 city residents who did not own one. There were no buses, no trains that would enable them to leave. Yet this received nary a mention when people in other parts of the country were led to believe people “refused” to evacuate.

There was no plan to evacuate the elderly from nursing homes, the sick from hospitals, or inmates from the prisons. As a result, many were trapped and died in the flooding.

“Protecting” Wealthy Areas

When the flooding hit, the authorities’ goal became simply to keep the poor from entering areas that weren’t flooded – neighborhoods of the wealthy, the French Quarter and the downtown business district. Instead, the police either left people stranded on highway overpasses, or herded survivors to the Superdome and the Convention Center, which quickly became hellholes without sufficient facilities to house people adequately.

Lies about “Looters”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin jumped in front of TV cameras to raise a hue and cry about criminals looting and running amok. It was all lies. Nagin later claimed it was a desperate attempt to get then-President Bush to send in the military to protect “certain areas of the city.” Unfortunately, very little help of any kind ever came from the federal government to rescue people.

Contrary to the picture the media painted, it was, in fact, the poor who pulled together to rescue most of those trapped in their homes, find food, water and medical supplies, and move the sick.

Who Were the Real Looters?

In the aftermath, the wealthy and the corporations moved to take advantage of the disaster to remake the city for their own aims. A primary example lies in the way they used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to privatize the schools. Prior to the storm, almost all the public schools in New Orleans were under one school board. Now the city has 44 school boards and 91 per cent of the schools have been turned into charters. This has made the schools worse, not better, but allowed private corporations to profit from them and wages and benefits for teachers to be slashed.

Damages from Hurricane Katrina were estimated at 135 billion dollars. The federal government provided 120 billion dollars in spending on the recovery, but 75 billion went simply for emergency relief, leaving only 45 billion to address actual damages. Much of this went not to rebuild homes for the poor, but to enrich corporations and real estate developers. Marathon Oil got more than 1.1 billion dollars. Exxon got 375 million dollars. Real estate developers received money for buying luxury condos near the University of Alabama football stadium or beachfront luxury homes in Mississippi.

Companies like Bechtel, Halliburton, Kenyon International, and even Carnival Cruise Lines also received hundreds of millions of dollars, often with no-bid contracts that allowed them to write their own tickets.

Little Money for Residents

Tens of thousands of working class, and mainly black, residents of New Orleans have been unable to return to their homes. For those who had insurance on their homes, immediately after the storm the insurance companies refused to pay claims, blaming the damage on the “storm surge,” whatever that means, and not on flooding. What a crock!

When insurance companies did pay, mortgage lenders generally took the money to pay off the previous loans on people’s homes. Yet originally, these insurance payouts were subtracted from the amounts people could receive from funds made available by the federal government, leaving residents with little money for rebuilding. As a result, most people accepted the government’s option to not rebuild.

A Lack of Affordable Housing

This meant, however, people needed to find affordable rental housing. This became considerably more difficult after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development chose to demolish local public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income communities and provided housing vouchers to the poor. However, only 40 per cent of the newly built apartments offered traditional public housing rents. So, in a city where 55 per cent of residents rent, rent for a two-bedroom apartment has increased by 41% since 2005.

No wonder two-thirds of former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, a largely black area of New Orleans that was the birthplace to many of the city’s renowned musicians, have not returned.

And who can forget the FEMA trailers that became homes for tens of thousands of displaced residents. The trailers were set up in trailer parks far from where people might find jobs, with little transportation available. The trailers were later found to be contaminated with formaldehyde, a chemical known to cause cancer and breathing problems. Many residents of these trailers ended up homeless and on the streets.

How much of this was “planned” may be in question, but whether planned or simply the consequences of decades of neglect, the outcome is the same. The character of New Orleans has been permanently changed. The tourist areas have been largely rebuilt, though hardly the same as before the storm.

As a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece by Kristen McQueary, wishing for something Katrina-like to come and “clean up” Chicago, indicates, the ruling class looks upon the results of this social disaster as a model for how to transform other large cities.

It all shows the bankruptcy of the capitalist system to provide safe and decent conditions for the majority of the population, and why the system needs to go.

The above first appeared in the August 31-September 14 issue of the US Marxist workers’ fortnightly, The Spark.

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Comments
  1. August Nimtz Jr says:

    Here’s something to compliment this useful article: http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2015/09/katrina-and-lessons-cuba

  2. Admin says:

    Thanks for this August. When I was putting up The Spark piece I was actually thinking about Cuba and how few casualties they have in ‘natural disasters’. If you’d like to write something for us on how much better people fare in ‘natural disasters’ in poor Cuba to how they fare in the rich USA, that would be great.

    • August says:

      Given other commitments, I’m afraid that’s all I can say at the moment. I did write a more extensive piece a decade ago from which this is distilled. Let me know how I can send via an email Thanks.