Stealing from FEMA on the eve of Florence

September 17, 2018

The stories of past hurricanes show how natural disasters are compounded by unnatural factors like climate change, austerity and social inequality, writes Joe Andrews.

WHILE HURRICANE Florence was brewing off the southeastern U.S. coast, reports began to surface that funds were being diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In other words, in the months leading up to yet another predictably deadly hurricane season, the Trump administration thought it would be a good idea to further weaken an already underfunded agency that responds to disasters and emergencies — and transfer nearly $10 million of its funding to an agency whose mission is to terrorize, detain and deport the most vulnerable people in U.S. society.

And now, Hurricane Florence has brought catastrophic flooding, mudslides and massive damage, not only along the coast of the Carolinas, but hundreds of miles inland as the storm churns across the Southeast.

Florence, of course, is only the latest in a series of worsening disasters that have pummeled all parts of the U.S., from the wildfires raging across California to “storm of the century”-level hurricanes.

Disastrous flooding from Hurricane Florence
Disastrous flooding from Hurricane Florence

It’s undeniable that climate disasters in the U.S. are on the rise — both in frequency and intensity. Yet the Trump administration is in outright denial of this reality, and it has pushed for the defunding of any agency that might help combat it — or at the very least, keep people safe from its consequences.

Due to the transferred funds, FEMA will be cutting back on training, IT security and infrastructure investments, according to a U.S. Homeland Security document that was sent to Congress and recently released to the public by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

In a briefing following the document’s release, FEMA told reporters that the transfer and its subsequent cuts “ha[ve] not impacted our situation whatsoever,” and that the agency still has “plenty of resources.”

But the victims of a long list of catastrophes would surely ask: Has there ever been enough resources to adequately respond to disasters that the U.S. faces on an accelerating basis? The history of past deadly hurricanes shows that FEMA ought to be named the Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency.


THIRTEEN YEARS ago, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the entire Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas, with the area around New Orleans bearing the brunt of its destruction.

The federal government was well aware, prior to Katrina, that the New Orleans levee system wouldn’t survive a storm any more severe than Hurricane Ivan, which hit just a year before. As Elizabeth Schulte wrote in Socialist Worker on the 10th anniversary of Katrina: “The obvious priority in any competent, rational system would have been to prepare for the inevitable, with vast new spending on infrastructure.”

Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration had goals similar to those of the Trump administration. As the desperately needed levees of southern Louisiana sunk into the Mississippi Delta, a giant wall was being constructed on the border between Southwestern California and Tijuana.

As left-wing author Mike Davis told Socialist Worker in an interview weeks after Katrina hit: “I’m sure there are a lot of folks in New Orleans who wish they had had a wall that big.”

Not only did the Bush administration fail to prepare New Orleans for what everyone knew was coming at some point, but it left thousands of residents to drown in the murky waters that swallowed the city.

While continuing to spread the poison that the U.S. must be kept safe from poor people of color trying to enter it “illegally,” the Bush administration left New Orleans and the surrounding region — largely populated by poor people of color — to suffer without enough help, and even to needless death.

Residents who were able to make it out of New Orleans returned — or, more specifically, returned if they were able to, though many never did — months later to find their homes and neighborhoods to be uninhabitable.

Private insurance companies made sure their balance sheets stayed out of the red, and developers and disaster capitalists, as Naomi Klein called them, had a heyday in the years that followed, taking advantage of the fact that the storm became a de facto form of urban renewal to profit off of.

Seven years later, with the Obama administration in charge of FEMA and other agencies, New York City and the area around it was blasted by Hurricane Sandy.

Up until last year, Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane to hit the U.S. Yet the same president who oversaw the bailout of the banks and the auto-industry a few years earlier after the financial crash failed to provide enough funds to stop the suffering of people swept from their homes and jobs.

And the through-line that links Bush and Obama and Trump? You guessed it: the mass deportation of immigrants at the same time as millions suffered death and devastation as a result of climate change.

The Democratic president Obama deported more immigrants during his time in office than any other president, and while he wasn’t a climate-change denier, his administration’s “all of the above” energy policy led to a boom in fossil-fuel extraction.

Sandy struck one of the world’s richest cities, but as with Katrina, those who faced the most destruction were poor. Also like Katrina, the unwillingness of the federal government to brace the region for the inevitable and its underfunding of agencies like FEMA, set the stage for a natural disaster to become a not-so-natural catastrophe.


THEN CAME last year, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and María, which shows what we can realistically expect to be the new normal.

With an increase in sea-surface temperatures and rising sea levels, the intensity and frequency of storms are growing. If any hurricane season acted as an alarm for these threats, it was 2017.

Hurricane Harvey, described constantly in the media as “a 1,000-year storm,” made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 25, with Houston taking the hardest hit from the Category Four storm.

But the destruction faced by those in Houston wasn’t determined solely by nature. As Seth Uzman wrote for Socialist Worker last month on the storm’s one year anniversary:

Houston’s historically unique zoning-free regime of growth-from-above, inflated with liquidity from neoliberal deregulation and a strong U.S. dollar, fueled the ambitions of the city’s local ruling class of lawless developers, who replaced the city’s natural absorbers of floodwater with the concrete of endless new projects.

As a result, Houston filled with water like a bathtub with no drain. Because the interests of the ruling class had been priority number one for those making and enforcing the rules, the interests of the working and oppressed people of Houston were left at the bottom of the bathtub, where the drain should have been.

Uzman says that 25,000 Texans remain displaced one year after Harvey, with 11,500 of them being from Houston. And due to the city’s and the state’s refusal to adequately tax corporations and developers, FEMA funds aren’t flowing in like they should because there is a requirement to match one-fourth of federal aid with local funds. The 2018 hurricane season is in full swing, but Houston has yet to recover from the last one.


AS IF Harvey wasn’t enough for one season, Puerto Rico suffered a direct hit by not one, but two hurricanes, which left the island with no power and little to no resources for survival.

Weeks after Hurricane Irma struck, María made landfall as a Category Five storm. Not only did the U.S. colony face the usual challenges presented by such storms, but “the debt before the storm,” as author and writer Lance Selfa has called it, set Puerto Rico up for a particularly difficult scenario. Selfa explains:

[T]he basic infrastructure of the island — its health care, water and power systems — were already in the grips of a desperate crisis before the hurricanes hit. For ordinary Puerto Ricans, life under successive austerity regimes had become increasingly intolerable — and it will only become more so now.

Much of the island was left without power or other basic necessities for months. Thousands died, and those who survived are facing a long and difficult recovery, as the island has been starved of the aid it needs.

And to add insult to injury, Donald Trump — with Hurricane Florence about to strike the Carolinas — took to Twitter not once, but twice, to deny the death toll of close to 3,000 caused by Irma and María.

Trump claimed that the two hurricanes took only six to 18 lives initially, and that “as time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3,000.” In what amounts to a conspiracy theory, Trump later tweeted that the death toll was fabricated.

Trump’s hateful lies about Puerto Rico marks a new low for his presidency, though he’ll no doubt figure out how to stoop lower.

But it’s not only right-wing monsters who are denying working and oppressed people who live within the path of these ever-worsening disasters their humanity and their right to safety within a world of bountiful resources.

It is both Republicans and Democrats who carry out deregulation that allow developers to run rampant and that leave entire coastal regions without the proper infrastructure to weather storms.

It is the politicians of both parties who have implemented austerity that leaves poor people with no means of escape — and who have filled the prisons that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster refused to evacuate as Hurricane Florence hammered the state.

The convergence of these horrors — climate change, austerity, racism, mass incarceration and more — are central to the capitalist system under which we live. To end them, we need system change.

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