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How the Gulf Coast catastrophe transformed U.S. politics
Unnatural disaster

September 9, 2005 | Page 3

HURRICANE KATRINA and the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast has ripped the façade off a rotten system.

The darkest secrets of American politics and society have been exposed--racism, class inequality, the callous arrogance of a profit-hungry ruling class, political leaders whose instinctive response to any crisis is military repression.


* Contribute to help disaster relief. Right now, money is needed urgently. Socialist Worker sellers are raising money for several relief funds

-- People's Hurricane Fund: c/o The Young People's Project, 99 Bishop Allen Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139

-- NAACP Disaster Relief Fund:

-- AFL-CIO Hurricane Relief Fund:

* Protest the federal government's inaction. Talk to friends, coworkers, fellow students and neighbors, and organize a demonstration at a FEMA headquarters or other federal building to demand that the Bush administration--in the words of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin--"get off their asses."

The disaster raised huge questions. Why were steps not taken to better protect New Orleans? Why were plans for emergency evacuation and relief in one of the largest cities in the country so inadequate? How will New Orleans be rebuilt--and in whose interests?

Throughout the country, people's concern about the fate of the victims along the Gulf Coast was combined with a renewed questioning about even wider issues--the hold of racism in American society, grinding poverty in U.S. cities, destruction of the environment, corporate giants that put their profits before all else.

August 29--the date that Katrina struck the Gulf Coast--should be etched in memory like September 11. Not only is the death toll almost certainly higher and the damage and impact on people's lives more extensive, but the hurricane disaster represents a political crisis on a scale with September 11.

Only this one has the potential of crippling George Bush's presidency rather than aiding it--the "anti-9/11," as Bush supporter and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called it.

August 29 and September 11 are connected in another way: The U.S. government's response to September 11 played a part in allowing the catastrophe in New Orleans to happen.

The impact of a direct hit from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane on below-sea-level New Orleans has been known for years, and in the mid-1990s, the federal government ordered a massive construction project to shore up levees and build pumping stations. But as of this year, $250 million in crucial projects remained undone, including work on the levee near the 17th Street canal, on the north side of the city--the very point of the main breech that swamped New Orleans.

"[A]fter 2003, the flow of federal dollars...dropped to a trickle," wrote Philadelphia Daily News writer Will Bunch, because of "spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security--coming at the same time as federal tax cuts."

In other words, the real looting happened before the hurricane struck--a thousand miles away, in Washington.

As the disaster unfolded, the administration's arrogance and cold-hearted contempt--from Bush's mile-high flyover of the disaster scene, to Dick Cheney's refusal to end his vacation, to Condoleezza Rice's shopping trip for $7,000 shoes--angered even members of the media.

CBS News' Bob Schieffer--the furthest thing from a radical leftist--wound up last weekend's Face the Nation interview program with a blistering summing-up of "a week in which government at every level failed the people it was created to serve...[O]fficial Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images, but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality. As the flood waters rose, local officials in New Orleans ordered the city evacuated. They might as well have told their citizens to fly to the moon. How do you evacuate when you don't have a car? No hint of intelligent design in any of this. This was just survival of the richest."

U.S. politics has been transformed by a social crisis that will continue for months, if not years. The Gulf Coast disaster has created the greatest number of refugees within the U.S. since the Civil War 140 years ago--and they will be a continual reminder for weeks and months of the incompetent and disinterested government response.

Among the evacuees are New Orleans' poor, abandoned to the nightmare of the Superdome--but also many of the estimated 80 percent of residents who managed to leave before the storm hit. The vast majority of them are working people, who may have had transportation to get out of town and money enough for a few days at a hotel. But their homes are most likely gone, they have no jobs to return to, and they face a desperate challenge to rebuild a future for themselves and their families.

A relief operation to meet all these needs should tap all the resources of the federal government. But of course, the administration is committed to "small" government and private charity. So Bush asked Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. to stop raising money for the victims of last December's tsunami around the rim of the Indian Ocean, and concentrate on the victims of Katrina.

Like all "natural" disasters, the hurricane has exposed completely unnatural social and economic priorities.

Katrina will accelerate the already spreading questioning of the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. As one British newspaper asked, "How can the U.S. take Iraq, a country of 25 million people, in three weeks, but fail to rescue 25,000 of its own citizens from a sports arena in a big American city?

Even more striking was how class and race became acceptable topics in the mainstream political discussion. Cable TV news hosts--prodded out of their usual pro-establishment happy talk by the chaos--demanded to know of their guest "experts" whether racism might have been a factor in who was suffering.

That was obvious to anyone who saw the pictures of who was left behind to face the worst in New Orleans. "Today, when I saw 5,000 African-Americans on the causeway--desperate, perishing, dehydrated, babies dying--it looked like Africans in the hold of a slave ship," said Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Have we missed this catastrophe because of indifference, or ineptitude, or is it a combination of both? Certainly, I think the issue of race as a factor will not go away from this equation."

Though it wasn't always obvious from the media coverage, for every story about looting and violence in New Orleans, survivors told many more about people doing whatever they could--even risking their lives--to save those trapped by the rising flood or to get food and water to those who needed it.

"It's unbelievable how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other," said NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado of the chaotic scene at the New Orleans Convention Center. "They have not started any mêlées, any riots...they just want food and support."

Outside of New Orleans, the instinct to try to help was immediate. Within days after an appeal was posted on the liberal Internet network for families to open their homes to evacuees, some 125,000 beds had been pledged. In North Carolina, people in the town of Shelby met to figure out how they could "adopt" similarly sized Laurel, Miss., which was ravaged by the storm.

Activists--especially in the antiwar movement--reacted quickly as well. Members of Veterans for Peace who participated at the Camp Casey vigil at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, took 10,000 pounds of leftover supplies, and traveled to the poor, African American town of Covington, north of New Orleans--home base for the Louisiana Activist Network, which had been planning a Peace Train through the south for the September 24 antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C.

Last weekend saw pickets and protests in several cities, including New York, where antiwar activists rallied in Times Square for "relief, not war." More protests are planned for the coming days, including a national day of action called by the Campus Antiwar Network set for midweek.

Demonstrations like these will be important in putting pressure on the federal government to come up with real help for the victims of the hurricane disaster.

But there are wider questions raised by this crisis that need to be answered--not only about Bush and his cronies, but the whole direction and character of a system that puts the profits and power of a tiny few before all else.

That system is incapable of functioning to protect the majority of people from the worst in disasters like Katrina--precisely because of its twisted priorities. It needs to be fundamentally transformed--by the mass of the have-nots who suffer the brunt when disasters like Katrina strike.

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