Reaping the whirlwind

The catastrophe along the southern coast of the US was as much a product of the capitalist system as it was an act of nature, writes Martin Schreader

It is not by any means overstating it to say that the United States of America will be forever changed by the events along the Gulf Coast during the last two weeks. As I write these lines, the city of New Orleans, one of the most important cultural centres of the world, has effectively been wiped off the map. Its streets are either deserted or underwater. Its residents have been scattered across the country. Its infrastructure litters the landscape. It is expected that more than 10,000 people will have died as a result of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The cost of rebuilding the region will stretch into the tens of billions of dollars, and the economic effect of losing three of the most important ports along the coastline of the southern US will be felt for years to come. But what makes this all so frustrating and horrible is not the obvious devastation brought about by one of the most powerful hurricanes in recent history, but the criminal neglect and indifference shown by the federal government, headed by the regime of George W Bush, to the people of this region. All levels of the American government - local, state and federal - knew that this hurricane, after passing over the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, was headed directly for the Gulf Coast area. Even as early as Saturday August 27, more than 24 hours before Katrina made landfall, all of the weather and meteorological experts had said that the hurricane was going to be one of the most destructive to ever hit the region. But none of these administrations took the necessary steps to safeguard the population. In fact, these governments, and their capitalist paymasters, did almost everything in their power to trap the thousands of poor and working people of the area in harm's way. Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans was closed down, and all the aeroplanes flown to safer areas, more than 24 hours before the hurricane arrived. Amtrak, the national passenger rail line, was also closed down early. Greyhound, the main national passenger bus line, and charter coach services, refused to take people out of the area unless they paid full fare. Businesses like Wal-Mart even demanded that employees show up for work every day, including the day Katrina slammed into the region, or risk losing their jobs. The city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana did nothing to aid the evacuation of the area, which encompassed more than half a million people. Instead of buses from the local mass transit authority shuttling residents to safety, they sat idle in their docks. The most that the local and state authorities did for the people of the region was to open extra lanes on the highways going north and west, and establish 'shelters' for those who could not or would not leave their city. The message of the local and state authorities was: 'Every person for themselves.' As a result, tens of thousands of local residents, most of them African American and surviving on incomes well below the government's 'official' poverty line (which itself is well below the real poverty line), were left to face the torrent alone. Survival The fury of Hurricane Katrina itself was only the prologue to an even greater horror that befell the people of the Gulf Coast. The fierce winds and swells associated with the hurricane did a great deal of damage, wiping small towns and villages dotting the landscape between Mobile and New Orleans completely off the face of the earth. But the most devastating blow came after the hurricane had passed through New Orleans. The levee system that protects the city crumbled, flooding the city with millions of tonnes of water. New Orleans sits below sea level and is flanked by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The levees surrounding the city were built to protect it from frequent flooding. When these two great bodies of water overflowed and mixed with the debris and flotsam of the hurricane, it made an absolutely nauseating concoction of raw sewage, garbage, petroleum products washed out of the dozens of oil refineries that surround the Mississippi Delta, chemicals - including hazardous materials - from the chemical plants in the area, and the corpses of people and animals, both those killed by the hurricane and those washed out of their above-ground crypts in the cemeteries of the region. As those people lucky enough to survive emerged from their homes, they had to wade in this toxic mess to begin the search for loved ones and basic necessities. In the poorest neighbourhoods of New Orleans, which are also the areas sitting on the lowest ground, people had to literally swim out of their homes for over a mile before reaching a place where they could put their feet on the ground. All the while, they had to dodge floating debris and bodies, and the rats and other vermin that crawled out of their places of hiding to look for a meal. Photos of people making their way through this swill showed a visible wake behind them, which was even a different colour from the other liquid around it. The situation was not much better for those residents who opted to stay in the 'shelters' opened by the city, such as the Superdome stadium. During the hurricane, a section of the Superdome's roof was ripped off and water began to pour in, sending panic throughout the tens of thousands huddled in the arena, and forcing them to move even closer together. This was only the half of it, however. It became clear after the hurricane passed that the authorities had made no real preparation. The people huddled in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, the two main 'shelters', had no food or water and no sanitation facilities. Some people committed suicide by jumping from the high seats in these arenas down to the ground floor. Dozens more died from lack of medical care, including receiving their medicines, dehydration and starvation. Outside, the situation was no better. Thousands of survivors began to band together as foraging parties, forcibly opening stores and local businesses where they could find the necessities of life. Even the local police joined in these acts of spontaneous expropriation. Survival beats loyalty to the state on any day. This fact, however, also underscored that the state and its authority had completely collapsed in the area. Much of this was due in no small part to the fact that half of the New Orleans Police Department resigned in protest over the lack of preparation for the hurricane. At the same time as these acts of so-called 'looting' began, more residents began to organise armed self-defence of their neighbourhoods against both people desperate merely to survive (who were often escorted to places where goods could be found) and criminal elements who looked to take advantage of the chaos to enrich themselves. Negligence The response of the Bush regime to the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast was as much infuriating as it was unsurprising. In fact, it was because the response was unsurprising that so many were so angry. For the first 72 hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the area, Bush and his cronies did nothing except carry on as if it had not happened. The day after the hurricane passed, Bush even travelled to Arizona to eat cake and play golf. It was not until Wednesday afternoon that Bush ambled into Washington to appear with his cabinet and make a speech on what happened. And, as could be expected, Bush's speech and 'aid' for the region was just as lacklustre and uninspiring as his tenure as chief executive of the United States has been thus far. The only concrete step mentioned by Bush was the formation of a 'task force' to coordinate federal assistance "with local and state authorities". This response only further angered the survivors, and reaffirmed their view that the Bush regime, as hip-hop performer Kanye West put it during his appearance at a televised fundraiser, "does not care about black people". To add insult to injury, Bush turned his tour of the area last Friday into what one writer called a 'Potemkin photo-op', complete with soup lines that came and went with the White House press corps. If there is anything substantive that the Bush regime has done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it was the dispatching of thousands of soldiers and national guardsmen to the region with orders to 'shoot to kill', to the cheers of state and local authorities. "They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," crowed Louisiana governor Blanco. "These troops know how to shoot to kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will." The emphasis that the state authorities placed on 'order' over human life was brutally confirmed when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was directed to first stop all rescue operations days before the first of the levees was repaired and the water began to recede, and then to stop all distribution of food and water to residents who wanted to stay in New Orleans to help rebuild their communities. As of this writing, there are now 10,000 soldiers deployed to maintain 'law and order' and force residents out of the area - by gunpoint, if necessary. Reconstruction Communists and revolutionary socialists have a special obligation in situations of catastrophe, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other incidents, to step forward and organise an independent means of providing aid and support for working people trapped in these situations. Such actions represent a concrete expression of solidarity and community with workers in their time of distress. It also shows working people that they are willing to back up their words with positive action. Unfortunately, the sections of the left that identify themselves as communists and revolutionary socialists have for the most part left it to the government - ie, the Bush regime - or the AFL-CIO union officials to provide all the aid and assistance for the people affected by the hurricane. Only a couple of notable exceptions, including the Communist League, an affiliate of the International Working People's Association, Anarchist Black Cross and a collective known as the Revolutionary Progressive Organization, have actually organised and brought supplies and support to the region. It is reported that the anti-war coalition, International Answer, is currently heading to the area with aid. Other left forces, including the Louisiana Green Party and the movement that has grown up around Cindy Sheehan, the mother who was protesting outside Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch throughout August, have also been gathering and distributing supplies to the refugees and survivors of the Gulf Coast. As the days and weeks pass, and attention turns toward reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, it will become necessary for communists and revolutionary socialists to present their own programme. This is because we can expect that the capitalists will concentrate on the restoration and revitalisation of capitalist enterprises before even thinking about rebuilding communities - especially working people's residences and neighbourhoods, and no amount of appeals or protests will change that. Working people, in unions, community coalitions and other groups, need to take the lead in organising reconstruction of workers' neighbourhoods and the restoration of basic services and infrastructure in these areas - especially New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which was hardest hit by the hurricane and was previously home to most of the region's poor and working people. In addition, these organisations should also assure that profiteering and price gouging be stopped, and that essential goods and services are there for the people helping to rebuild their communities. Finally, a public works programme that aims to restore the infrastructure and services of the region should be organised and coordinated by this same coalition of working people's organisations. The corporations and government should pay for all of these programmes with money reclaimed from the capitalists by the institution of a steeply graduated progressive income tax and the elimination of 'corporate welfare'. An independent workers' emergency plan, along the lines of the above, would not only bring immediate relief to the thousands of working people displaced and terrorised by the hurricane and the aftermath, but would also instil in them a greater belief in their ability to rebuild their world and society - which is, after all, what revolutionary socialists and communists fight for.