The lessons of Katrina that haven’t been learned

September 12, 2017

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, Socialist Worker contributors Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky were stuck in New Orleans--they had been attending a conference for emergency medical services (EMS) workers in the days before and couldn't get out. They spent most of the next week trapped by the flooding--and by the martial law cordon thrown up around the city.

When they finally were able to tell their story in Socialist Worker, their account of the cruelty of local and federal authorities and the courage and generosity of ordinary people spread around the world, helping to reveal what was really going on in New Orleans during Katrina. In this special feature, they compare the stories they've seen and heard about Hurricane Harvey to the experience in New Orleans 12 years ago.

MANY IMAGES coming out of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey conjure up images of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans--in particular, the rooftop rescues of people stranded in floodwaters and a Convention Center turned into a shelter packed with thousands of people displaced from their homes.

But in fact, the similarities between Houston in 2017 and New Orleans in 2005 run far deeper than mere images--though thankfully it appears that the death toll from Harvey will be far lower than the 1833 people who died during and after Katrina.

One critical parallel between Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina is that, at their root, both were human-made disasters. Of course, each calamity was triggered by weather event, but human actions and societal decisions are the reason for everything from climate change to infrastructure deficiencies that made people were more likely to be left behind to face their possible deaths.

In this sense, both Katrina and Harvey can be called "unnatural disasters." As Tulane history professor Andy Horowitz reminds us, "There is no such thing as a "natural" disaster, because who is in harm's way and the kind of harm they face is a product of human choices."

Victims of Hurricane Harvey seek shelter in a Houston convention center
Victims of Hurricane Harvey seek shelter in a Houston convention center

ONE WAY we can see social and political dimensions at work in the Katrina and Harvey disasters is in preparedness--or more aptly, the lack of preparedness.

In the 12 years since 2005, investigative reporting has shown that, above all, Katrina was an infrastructure failure. Some of what was discovered is hard to fathom in terms of neglect--from shoddy work and delayed maintenance on the levee systems to high-level cover-ups about the state of disrepair of the city's flood defenses.

Then-President George W. Bush's 80 percent budget cut to the Army Corps of Engineers was simply the icing on the disaster cake.

Harvey was able to wreak massive destruction because of similarly bad planning. After each of Houston's successive disastrous floods, experts devised flood mitigation and control systems, most of which were shelved because they conflicted with Houston's "grow fast, ask questions later" policies.

New Orleans' and Houston's lack of preparedness and poor flood protection infrastructure are closely linked to politics in Baton Rouge, Austin and Washington, D.C. For the past 40 years, both Democrats and Republicans have promoted neoliberal tenets that include austerity, a profound underfunding of the public sector and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.

As activist and author Naomi Klein puts it, the project of corporate elites has been to "systematically wage war on the very idea of the public sphere and the public good."

Politicians of both major parties follow suit, casting anything that is public or commonly held as sinister and not worth protecting. Tax cuts for the rich reinforce the starvation of public infrastructure by leaving municipalities with little to spend beyond public safety and policing.

THEN THERE are the similarities among who was most impacted by the storms in New Orleans and Houston. There is a truism that global warming affects all of us, but in the short run, severe weather events disproportionately impact the homes, communities and lives of the poor, the working class and people of color.

The United Nations' climate panel has studied extensively the question of vulnerability to climate change on a global level and concludes, "People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change."

This was certainly the case in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina--levels of mortality and suffering were directly linked to structural inequality, race and class. Statisticians calculate that African Americans had a two to four times greater chance of dying during or immediately after Katrina.

The city's canal system, built to enhance commercial profits for business, funneled the deadly storm surge straight up the Industrial Canal to Black and working-class neighborhoods, where waters topped and breached a number of levees.

The full story of the destruction, damage and death caused by Hurricane Harvey--and which neighborhoods bore the brunt--has yet to emerge. However, we do know who probably had to slog through a toxic cauldron of chemicals.

In Houston, who lives on flood plains, who can afford flood insurance and who lives near the petrochemical industry is tied to race and class.

Houston is home to many petrochemical plants and to Superfund sites where toxic wastes have been dumped--and many are surrounded by poor and working-class neighborhoods. Predominately African American neighborhoods in Houston like Sunnyside and Pleasantville have been grappling with pollution from energy companies for years.

The community of Manchester in Houston is ringed by chemical plants, oil refineries, the interstate and a wastewater facility. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found toxic levels of seven airborne carcinogens in the neighborhood.

Neil Smith summed up the social calculus after Katrina this way: "Put bluntly, in many climates, rich people tend to take the higher land, leaving the poor and working-class land more vulnerable to flooding and environmental pestilence."

WHO EVACUATES and who stays in a hurricane is another way to see the social dimension of disasters. Poverty and low wages can be a death sentence for many trying to flee a disaster like Harvey or Katrina.

Who has a car, or credit card, or money in the bank to pay for a hotel, can determine who is able to heed a precautionary voluntary evacuation or even a potentially lifesaving mandatory evacuation. In the days following Hurricane Katrina, we did not meet a single millionaire sleeping in the Convention Center or waiting for a bus to evacuate their family.

The haphazard, poorly planned, last-minute evacuation of New Orleans left more than 100,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable New Orleanians in the path of destructive winds and waters. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hemmed and hawed before finally issuing a mandatory evacuation order because he said he feared being sued by the business community.

Once the evacuation order was issued, Nagin provided no infrastructure nor resources to help carry it out for people with disabilities, the elderly and the poor out. He sent an empty Amtrak passenger train out of the city and left the city's buses parked, to eventually be covered by floodwaters.

The extent of those who were not able to evacuate Harvey's flooding has yet to be determined. Judie McRae told the BBC about her failed effort to evacuate from her home in a trailer park: "I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come and, you know, tough it out. We're all the working-class people. We're the ones who go the restaurants and wait on you and pick up your trash and do all the work. We don't have a lot of money."

She added with a rueful laugh, "Fighting for the American dream."

In both Texas and Louisiana, the minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 an hour--in Louisiana, 60 percent of workers making less than $15 an hour are women.

Poverty caused by low wages is also racially skewed; 53 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of Latinos earn less than $15 an hour. When majority Black cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Durham, Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis have tried to raise their minimum wage, they have been thwarted by state legislatures where representatives are, on average, 80 percent white.

HARVEY AND Katrina are, of course, also inextricably linked together as symptoms of the increasing environmental damage caused by climate change.

Hurricane Harvey was classified as a "500-year flood," meaning there is a 1-in-500 annual chance of something like Hurricane Harvey occurring. Houston only plans for "1,000-year flood" events.

The problem is Houston has seen four "500-year floods" in the past decade: 2009, 2015, 2016 and again in 2017, and the U.S. recently experienced eight "500-year flood" events in just a 12-month period. Ominously, between 2010 and 2016, there have been a dozen "1,000-year flood" events. Now we can add Hurricane Harvey--and Irma on its tail.

Though scientists make the usual caveat that one can't deduce any single weather event from climate change, a clear pattern in the Gulf Coast has emerged that only the most ardent climate-change deniers can ignore.

2016 was the hottest year on record and July 2017 was the hottest month ever measured on earth. As the Guardian's George Monbiot explains, the severity and impact of hurricanes on costal cities is exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels and greater storm intensity.

Water levels in the Gulf of Mexico are already six inches to one foot higher. Water temperatures in the Gulf are several degrees hotter. The higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air, contributes to the increased intensity of hurricanes.

Monbiot points out the irony that Houston is home to many of the 25 corporations most responsible for global warming. But it is the neighborhoods, cities and entire countries least responsible for climate change--be they Manchester, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward or Bangladesh--that are most damaged by it.

Meanwhile, those who perpetuate and deny climate change are nonetheless busy preparing for it. Donald Trump is looking to build a wall to protect his luxury golf resort in Ireland from rising sea levels. The oil and gas industry are raising the height of their floating platforms in the Gulf and reinforcing their Arctic pipelines to protect them from rising oceans.

The effects of rising waters are exacerbated by the destruction of the wetlands that can absorb them. Houston has seen so much flooding in the past three years because it has lost 38,000 acres of wetlands over the last two decades. The city's surrounding prairies, grasslands, farmlands and wetlands have been paved over with concrete and asphalt, turning them into neighborhoods, strip malls and office buildings, denying Houston important flood barriers.

NOW PEOPLE in Houston will face another grim parallel with New Orleans: Attempts by business elites to loot the city during the rebuilding stage.

Naomi Klein coined the term "Shock Doctrine" to describe how elites use disasters like Katrina to enrich and empower themselves at our expense.

Celisa Calacal succinctly summarizes Klein's argument this way: "Pro-corporate politicians take advantage of the shock and trauma the public experiences when a disaster hits to ram through free market inspired ideas that strip away the safety net and public services in exchange for corporatization and privatization."

In our 2015 article about the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we went into detail about how those in power systematically exploited Katrina to further an extreme corporate agenda, while at the same time handsomely rewarding their corporate buddies at Bechtel and Blackwater with lucrative no-bid reconstruction contracts.

What we didn't know then was the role that Vice President Mike Pence played in crafting and pushing the disaster-profiteering agenda.

On September 13, 2005, just 14 days after New Orleans flooded, the "Republican Study Committee" convened a meeting at the Heritage Foundation offices. Republican lawmakers, led in part by Pence, came up with a list of 32 policies that they called "Pro-Free Market Ideas For Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices."

Pence's list of policies came straight out of the "Disaster Capitalism Playbook" so aptly described by Klein. The first three had to do with lowering incomes for reconstruction workers. These wage reductions were supplemented with repealing environmental regulations for the Gulf of Mexico, making it easier--and less expensive--to drill for oil and build new refineries, while privatizing much of disaster response and reconstruction.

One measure of Pence's "success" can be summed up in a single grim statistic: Despite federal aid totaling $120 billion for reconstruction, the poverty rate for Black children is an outrageous 50 percent.

New Orleans may have been "rebuilt," but seven out of 10 jobs in the city are in low-wage industries like tourism and retail. Despite a construction boom and an unemployment rate of 52 percent for Black men, only 4 percent of workers hired on city construction projects are African American.

WE CAN bet the corporate elites in Houston are dusting off Pence's "Disaster Capitalism Playbook." They will try to use the disorientation that follows Harvey and Irma to push through dangerous pro-capital polices.

Houston may soon see its future in the "new" New Orleans with more charter schools, less public health infrastructure and a "rebuild" that bypasses the working-class and minority communities.

They will be assisted in that endeavor by Trump and Pence's proposed federal budget that they are referring to as "A New Foundation for American Greatness"--which targets much of the social safety net, public services and infrastructure. Among its many targets is a 31 percent budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also on the hit list are the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) flood-risk mapping program and the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

But this isn't the only possible future for Houston. We can see another in the everyday selflessness of neighbors and strangers putting themselves in harm's way to rescue and assist those caught in or stranded by floodwaters.

Media coverage of Houston has been generous in recognizing and reporting stories of ordinary people coming to the aid of others, whether it be an ad-hoc group of volunteers like the "Cajun Navy" or individuals who banded together in the immediacy of the moment to check on their neighbors.

Katrina, like most disasters, was also full of altruism, but it mostly went unreported. Stories of human solidarity and lifesaving in Katrina's floodwaters were at the heart of the eyewitness story we told in our 2005 Socialist Worker article about "The Real Heroes and Sheroes of Hurricane Katrina."

We think that our firsthand account of solidarity, sharing and collaboration in the midst of dire conditions is one of reasons the story went viral. It was the story that was not being told. Acts of courage and compassion were playing out in New Orleans and all over the Gulf Coast, but were being drowned out by all the racist and sensationalist stories of criminal elements, gangs, child rapes in the Superdome and snipers shooting at rescue helicopters.

Those stereotypes and rumors were later shown to be complete fabrications, but at the time, they provided the rationale to absolve the absolute failure of the federal, state and local governments to provide food, water, medical aid and evacuation to thousands of stranded New Orleanians.

IT TURNS out this sense of community and solidarity in the aftermath of a disaster is not unique to Houston and New Orleans. Author Rebecca Solnit writes about this extraordinary phenomena in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

Solnit writes that while disasters destroy, they also create--as people improvise, collaborate and cooperate in ways that are unimaginable in normal times. By studying a series of disasters, including Katrina, Solnit makes the case that disasters can bring out the best in humanity as we comfort ourselves through aiding others.

One reviewer wrote that the book showed how disasters "give rise to small, temporary utopias in which the best of human nature emerges and a remarkable spirit of generosity and cooperation takes over."

On the one hand in Houston, we already see "Disaster Capitalism's playbook" being readied. On the other, we have seen the incredible outpouring of human compassion, ingenuity and self-organization by average working-class Houstonians. As Solnit reminds us, "The citizens any paradise would need--the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough and generous enough--already exist."

The question for those who live in Houston--and for all of us--is how we can harness that incredible human spirit to build a movement powerful enough to sideline those who want to profit off disasters and create a society where people and the planet come before profits.

Walking the streets of New Orleans after Katrina, we saw what survivors must do and can do to survive in a disaster. Equally important, we saw the potential to create a better world built on the bonds of solidarity and community that are created when people come together to save themselves and one another.

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