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WHAT WE THINK
Abandoned by Washington:
Will Katrina survivors be victims again?

September 16, 2005 | Page 3

WILL THE needless tragedy of Hurricane Katrina be used to inflict still more suffering on the survivors? That's precisely what will happen if George W. Bush and the Republican Congress get their way.

After finally forcing the resignation of Michael Brown, the inept Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, the White House mounted a full-scale public relations operation, with Bush making a third visit to the Gulf Coast and promising more aid to follow the $52 billion already approved by Congress. The question is: Where will that money go, and for what?

The problems of unemployment and homelessness for working people in the New Orleans area and southern Mississippi are enormous. Yet Republicans in Congress are more concerned with scheming to link relief spending to their right-wing agenda.

All sorts of their pet projects are getting their day--everything from school vouchers for students to funneling government funds to religious groups under guise of emergency aid. "If you're seeing it now, when Congress was on vacation and hadn't had much time to think about it, imagine what you'll see in six weeks when they've had time to sit down and work on it," said Paul Light of New York University.

Money for reconstruction? Among the first in line with its hands out is Halliburton, which has the contracts to repair damaged military installations--adding to the list of sweetheart deals that Vice President Dick Cheney's old company has gotten in Iraq. And Bush managed to make one of his first actions related to reconstruction an executive order that suspended federal prevailing wage laws throughout the region.

Meanwhile, the wealthy white elite of New Orleans are plotting a rebuilding effort that would abandon much of the city, where the bulk of the population--more than two-thirds African American--lived before the storm. In their view, New Orleans should become a Las Vegas-style tourist theme park and home for the rich, whose mansions largely escaped damage. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," James Reiss, an old-money New Orleans business executive, told the Wall Street Journal.

This agenda was evident in brutal highlights just days after the storm, when an Israeli security firm provided security for Reiss and his neighbors, even as National Guard troops, police and U.S. military forces pressured working people--mainly African Americans--to leave their homes, even if the buildings had been spared by floodwaters.

Success for the Republican proposals is far from assured, though. With Bush's job approval ratings plummeting, outrage continues to rise at the bureaucratic mass murder that passed for the government response to the Katrina emergency.

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are becoming not only critical of Bush, but of the entire direction of U.S. society--including the continued bloody occupation of Iraq and a never-ending "war on terror."

The Katrina disaster is certain to be a pivotal political event. Thus, the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks became an occasion for media commentators to note how Katrina had become the "anti-9/11"--a massive loss of faith in the institutions of the U.S. government.

The flash point for this anger with the political status quo was FEMA's utter failure. As articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have detailed, airplanes, helicopters, trucks, ships and buses ready to help with evacuation and relief were all kept waiting by FEMA. Even the Red Cross was turned away.

By contrast, countless people did whatever they could to help in the disaster, creating a grassroots relief response that put the government to shame. All sorts of people with little or no resources did more to relieve suffering and misery than whole government agencies, funded with hundreds of millions of our tax dollars

After four years and tens of billions of dollars spent on "preparedness" for terrorist attacks--including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which absorbed FEMA--the U.S. government was supposed to be better able to respond to an emergency. Instead, FEMA's lethal failure exposed the DHS for what it is--a money-pit to fund a national security state, whose real functions are to repress dissent, whip up fear and provide a government paycheck for Bush's political cronies.

As more New Orleans survivors emerged to tell their stories--of being abandoned to face the worst and treated with racist brutality by the authorities--officials from the White House on down were determined to change the subject.

The problem, they said, was the "looters" and "snipers" supposedly hindering recovery efforts--so top military units like the Army Rangers were sent into the streets. This show of armed force--aimed at restoring "order" rather than providing emergency medical care, food or shelter--is central to Bush's efforts to restore his battered credibility.

Nevertheless, the televised tragedy of tens of thousands of African Americans abandoned in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center compelled the media to discuss racial and class inequality. With the disaster creating the largest displacement of people since the Civil War, the evacuees are a continual reminder not only of the criminally negligent government response to Katrina, but the persistence of racism and poverty that set the stage for the catastrophe to take such an awful toll.

The shift in political mood led Congressional Democrats to call for a moratorium on the new bankruptcy "reform" law that forces people who can't pay their bills into perpetual debt. Others called for expanding eligibility for Medicaid and other aid programs to cover survivors of Katrina.

These are very modest steps in the right direction, but they pale in comparison to what's needed.

Hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast have had their means of livelihood suddenly destroyed--and have little hope of rebuilding a decent future in an economy that currently creates most of its jobs in low-wage sectors. By one estimate, half a million people will need long-term housing--not a camp bed in a city convention center hundreds of miles from where they once called home.

These hard facts must be addressed in any genuine program for reconstruction after Katrina. The plan for New Orleans must include the right of all the people to return to the city, with decent housing and jobs at good wages. The hurricane's impact has also revealed the urgency of addressing an underlying social crisis. That means providing medical coverage to the uninsured, fully funding public education, and creating jobs with at a living wage.

Such a program would be a decisive break from the pro-business, free-market policies pushed not only by Bush, but by Democrats in Congress and the White House since the 1970s. After all, a sizeable number of Democrats have backed Bush on all but the most extreme elements of his program--everything from tax cuts to the Iraq war. And it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who worsened poverty by presiding over the end of welfare.

For untold numbers of people, the hurricane disaster has been a call to action.

This was clear from the largely spontaneous grassroots relief efforts, involving people around the U.S., which did so much to provide aid when the government did nothing. These crucial efforts saved lives and are saving them still.

More initiatives will be launched in the coming weeks--involving, for example, activists in the Campus Antiwar Network, as well as Veterans for Peace, whose members set an example for all by traveling from Cindy Sheehan's antiwar vigil in Crawford, Texas, to set up "in the ditch" in hard-hit Covington, La., north of New Orleans. These show the best instincts of people who want to provide an alternative to the status quo.

At the same time, we need to link these immediate efforts, aimed at alleiviating the suffering of the victims, with a political effort to mobilize pressure for a program of relief and reconstruction in the interests of working people.

The hurricane disaster has exposed the twisted priorities of the U.S. political and economic system. We need to put forward new priorities and a new agenda.

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