What made Katrina a “Katrina moment”?

August 28, 2015

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, Elizabeth Schulte remembers the impact on how Americans thought about politics and government.

A FAMILY standing on a rooftop, holding a sign pleading "HELP US." The Superdome packed with tens of thousands of tired, hungry, thirsty people. Others trapped on expressways, as the floodwaters swirled below, sometimes carrying dead bodies with the current.

Along with these images of misery and desperation during the Hurricane Katrina disaster 10 years ago, there were other indelible pictures: Troops atop tanks, their rifles trained on Katrina victims. President George W. Bush peering down at New Orleans through a window during Air Force One's "flyover." The president congratulating Michael Brown, the incompetent head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Poverty, racism and the federal government's cruel disregard for human life were exposed for the world to see. The dark underbelly of the United States--the richest nation in the history of the world, the country that claimed to be bringing "democracy" and peace to Iraq and the Middle East--was revealed.

New Orleanians sit outside the Superdome waiting to get a space inside
New Orleanians sit outside the Superdome waiting to get a space inside

It became known as the "Katrina moment"--when the mask was ripped off American society and its true face revealed.

HURRICANE KATRINA hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, wreaking destruction from central Florida to Texas. The greatest number of deaths was in New Orleans, where the levees broke, and 80 percent of the city was flooded.

But this level of destruction wasn't only--or even mainly--the result of the power of the storm itself. The worst aspects of the Katrina were manmade.

For starters, the federal government failed New Orleans before the storm even hit. New Orleans had been evacuated for Hurricane Ivan the previous year. It was also known well before Katrina that the city's levee system wouldn't survive a more severe storm. The obvious priority in any competent, rational system would have been to prepare for the inevitable, with vast new spending on infrastructure.

Nothing happened. As left-wing author Mike Davis pointed out in a 2005 interview with Socialist Worker:

Despite the unparalleled foreknowledge that this was the single-biggest disaster scenario and should have been the absolute priority of the so-called Department of Homeland Security, the Republicans--with little Democratic opposition--have cut back spending on levee improvement in New Orleans designed to help protect the city from a storm surge event.

At the very same time, of course, they were spending money to fortify the border with Mexico. So you had this obscenity of undersized and sinking levees in New Orleans, and this gigantic triple wall between San Diego and Tijuana. I'm sure there are a lot of folks in New Orleans who wish they had had a wall that big.

Why did no government entity--city, state or federal--prepare for a nightmare that was entirely predictable? The reasons for the neglect of New Orleans were simple: race and class.

New Orleans was and is one of the most famous cities in the world and a magnet for tourism. But before Katrina and the massive dislocation of its population that followed, it was also one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a population that was 67 percent African American. The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city, was 99 percent Black, with 36 percent of residents living under the poverty line.

So the evacuation "plan," as Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, was to tell people to leave the city. Residents who didn't have a car--and, of course, many of the poor did not--or were too ill to leave were told to go to the giant indoor sports stadium, the Superdome.

Untold numbers of people didn't make it out or downtown, and so when the levees were breached, and water poured into large parts of the city, they were stranded in their homes or on freeway overpasses, trying to escape the rising waters, filled with filth and debris from the storm, including corpses.

Evacuees who did reach the Superdome had to wait in lines for hours before entering--so they could be searched. The supposed refuge from the storm soon became a place of desperation. There was no food and water, and temperatures in the electricity-less stadium rose above 95 degrees.

There wasn't enough government assistance to provide for the sick and the dying--but when it came to protecting private property, it was all hands on deck. Quickly, stories of criminals on the rampage became the news of the day--in order to rationalize the savage treatment of poor African Americans by law enforcement.

Like any war zone, hired mercenaries stalked New Orleans after the storm. As independent journalist Jeremy Scahill reported at the time, operatives of the Blackwater security company were hired to be an occupying force, just as they were in Iraq. Heavily armed soldiers of this private army patrolled the streets of New Orleans, with automatic weapons at the ready.

There was another side to Katrina, one that almost never made the mainstream news, but was confined to alternative media like Socialist Worker.

Ordinary people filled in where the government refused to, as community groups and individuals organized their own relief system. Malik Rahim, a former member of the Black Panther Party, helped organize the Common Ground Collective to aid people after the storm.

As he and others tried to provide food and water to those who needed it, they faced systematic harassment from law enforcement.

ACROSS THE Gulf Coast region, an estimated 2,000 people were killed as a result of Katrina, and at least half a million displaced. Evacuees were put on buses and planes to places as far away as Utah, often not knowing where they were headed, much less what they would find when they got there. With no money, no place to live, no family or friends, the poor and working class of New Orleans were scattered to the four winds to fend for themselves.

The president's mother, Barbara Bush, after touring a Houston relocation site, said it was all working out for the best, though. "[S]o many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she told a reporter, "so this is working very well for them."

Tonda Taylor, who evacuated New Orleans to Austin, Texas, had a different reaction. Talking to SW in 2005, she described digging through the trash at the airport to find food. At one point, she saw a mother who had tied her dead infant's body to a pole--to keep animals from eating it.

"I served my country for six years," said Taylor, who was in the Army. "I was there, putting my life on the line for six years. And in turn, my country turned its back on me. And my husband served. I don't understand how can you do this to your own people."

Similar questions were on the lips of tens of thousands of people at the time: How is it that a country with this much wealth and power, that can send planes to bomb Iraq at the drop of a hat, can't send food and water to New Orleans?

And in this way, the experience of Katrina began to make cracks in the wall of patriotism and silenced dissent that had been built up after September 11, 2001.

The "war on terror" had provided the Bush administration with the all-purpose justification to wage war anywhere in the world, including a war on freedom of speech and civil liberties at home. The budding global justice movement, which had grown to significant, radical proportions before 9/11, went into decline as the Bush administration turned up the heat on "fighting global terrorism."

By late summer in 2005, though, growing questioning of the war, especially after the scale of Iraqi resistance to the occupation was revealed, began to chip away at the Bush administration's armor. The wider public had begun to doubt that the Bush administration was telling the truth about the alleged connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

Then Katrina hit, and the simmering discontent about the war was magnified by the Bush administration's callous response and utter contempt for poor and working-class Blacks on the flooded streets of New Orleans. As an SW editorial in September 2005 put it:

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.

The warped priorities of the U.S. government were revealed, and even the most loyal voices of the media establishment were driven to anger. On Face the Nation, CBS News' Bob Schieffer described:

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 floodwaters 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.

WARPED PRIORITIES were revealed again--though unfortunately with less attention from the corporate media--when the displacement and misery of Black New Orleans became an excuse for redevelopment and profit. New Orleans was turned into a laboratory for the privatization and destruction of public services--starting with the school system.

Ten years after then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco seized what she called "the opportunity of a lifetime" and handed the New Orleans public education system over to charter school operators, poor students bear the brunt of this turnaround. Untold numbers were disappeared from the school system as a result of dislocation or simply "skimmed out" by the new school bosses.

But this hasn't stopped proponents of privatization from applauding the New Orleans "success" story. In 2010, Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." He wasn't topped for another five years, when a Chicago Tribune editorial board member, Kristen McQueary, insisted that "Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth"--and wished a similar disaster on her hometown.

There are no words to properly respond to obscenities like these.

Since Katrina, other events have helped expose the racism and inequality at the heart of U.S. society--and also the possibility of resistance to it. In 2007, one happened close to New Orleans--the case of the Jena Six, Black teenagers who faced years in prison for their involvement in a school fight that followed a series of racist incidents. People around the country were outraged by the case--and tens of thousands descended on Jena for a massive protest that helped save the six young men.

Now--after the dashed hopes that a Black president elected seven years ago might change the status quo for Black America--there is a new movement of people who reject the racism and inequality of the U.S., and are determined to make Black lives matter.

Remembering the horror of what happened in New Orleans--but also the angry outrage that made Katrina into a "Katrina moment" for American politics--can be another part of that struggle.

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