Victims of criminal neglect, not nature

Paul Greenaway gives the communist perspective of the tragedy - and looks at the position of the Socialist Workers Party, which is far more principled than its response to the 2004 tsunami

"It is incredible - the government had no evacuation plan. The first power in the world and it left its own population adrift." These words by Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan president and an 'official' enemy of the United States government, summed up the feelings of many - both inside and outside the US. The traumatised superpower is now receiving blankets, food and water trunks from the European Union and Nato, and beds and medical supplies from Canada. Countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran have sent aid. Meanwhile, Cuba's offer to fly 1,100 doctors to Houston with 26 tonnes of medicine to treat the victims of hurricane Katrina still stands, and the mayor of New Orleans has just declared that any remaining residents will be forcibly evacuated by heavily-armed national guardsmen and state troopers. Then there is the ever-present threat of disease, contagion and epidemics. How is it that the "worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy" (The Guardian September 3)? George Bush - popularity ratings plummeting ever downwards - may witter on that "it's as if the entire Gulf coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine". Congress may have interrupted its holiday to implement a $10.5 billion emergency aid package. Michael Chertoff, head of the homeland security department, which has responsibility for the Federal Emergency Movement Agency (Fema), might give interviews saying how "extremely pleased" he is with "the response of every element of the federal government". But nothing will dispel the wide conviction that Bush fiddled while New Orleans drowned and that the poor were left to be washed away - yet at the same time all the 1,600 guests and staff at the plush Hilton Hotel in New Orleans had been successfully evacuated within 48 hours. Communists share the deep and swelling anger, and contempt, felt towards the Bush administration by the American working class. Indeed, the most generous description of the Bush response to Katrina must be "lethal ineptitude", to use the words of professor Paul Krugman at Princetown University. At worst, the Bush administration is guilty of the most callous disregard for the well-being of its citizens in the Gulf coast area - its natural instinct being to stand by and keep its own elite nest dry, only intervening in any real way when the uproar became too loud to ignore ... and potentially dangerous, threatening to destabilise the administration. The prime concern of Bush has been law and order. Not evacuation and relief aid. The police and the army therefore acted as an occupying power. The 'looters' were the ones collecting and distributing food and water. Petty criminals there were, but they formed a tiny, and much exaggerated, minority. And, of course, the real criminal is Bush and his administration. Quite frankly, he should be put on trial in a people's court. Why? Well, it is not as if Katrina came like a bolt from the blue - a totally unexpected phenomenon for which there could be no effective preparation. It was not a sudden UFO invasion or an attack by a long dormant sea monster. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hurricane activity in this region of the world has been extensively catalogued, tracked and monitored and, as for New Orleans, it lies in a basin below sea level. Therefore, you do not have to be a genius, or even a clairvoyant, to figure out what could happen to the city if a hurricane struck. Not only that - Louisiana actually suffered from catastrophic flooding in 1927. Furthermore, the authorities had been warned for some 25 years or more that the New Orleans levee system could not withstand a storm of Katrina's magnitude. If that is not damning evidence enough, sophisticated computer models developed at Louisiana State University and other such institutions have for some time now being making detailed projections of what would happen if water flowed over the levees protecting the city. Additionally, in July 2004, more than 40 federal state, local and volunteer organisations carried out a five-day simulation - codenamed 'Hurricane Pam' - during which they had to deal with an imaginary storm that destroyed more than half a million buildings in New Orleans and forced the evacuation of a million residents. Ironically - and quite grotesquely, given recent events - when these simulations had been completed, a beaming Ron Castleman, the then regional director of Fema, proudly announced: "We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts." Katrina and its effects were thus eminently predictable and hence it was perfect possible - especially given the massive scientific-technological and material resources available to the US - both to construct adequate defences (irrespective of the "billions of dollars" cost cited as an excuse by the authorities and their apologists) and, if in the worst-case scenario they proved insufficient, to plan a systematic and highly efficient emergency rescue and relief programme. Instead, we have a situation where thousands have died, hundreds of thousands more have been turned into 'internal' refugees and parts of Louisiana are "looking like Somalia or Iraq", as one local mayor put it. After all, remember, originally the authorities were anticipating a category five hurricane to score almost a 'direct hit' on New Orleans - a city of some one million people. In the end, Katrina had weakened to a category four by the Monday and the eye of the storm wandered some 30 miles away east of New Orleans. So just imagine what would have happened if the city had been exposed to Katrina at full force. By any reasonable standards then, Bush and his cohorts have to take the rap - whatever the record of past administrations may have been - for the death and suffering we have witnessed on our TV screens. More concretely, for years Fema has been underfunded and run down - many attribute this to when it was merged with the homeland security department and essentially became part of the global 'war against terror'. Consequently, Fema - despite its title - became far more concerned with terrorist attacks than natural disasters. In a display of (unintended) gallows humour, Fema's first batch of supplies to the Katrina victims were all designed for use against chemical attack - including drugs such as Cipro, which was specifically designed as a protection from Anthrax. "We called them up and asked them, 'Why did you send that?' And they said, 'That's what it says in the book'," said a Baton Rouge official (The Guardian September 3). Criminally, Bush had cut funding for the levees. When the state authorities asked for £105 million, the federal government gave them just $40 million. Inevitably, when disaster struck - as everybody knew it would - the emergency infrastructure was found to be well nigh non-existent. So, for example, when US army corps of engineers where confronted with riverbeds clogged with wrecked barges and debris, they could not find any contractors able to manoeuvre heavy equipment into the flood zone. Incredibly, none of the city's 22 pumping stations were found to be working. For communists then, Katrina, just like the Boxing Day tsunami, was no 'act of god'- that is, an unknowable and thus unpreventable tragedy, which humanity is just destined to suffer from time to time and stoical acceptance is the only option. While Katrina itself, obviously, was the product of a natural cause, we are not faced here with a 'natural' disaster pure and simple. Far from it. Nature is at all times mediated through human society and class relations, which constantly shift and change. Accordingly, we treat with contempt the typically elitist and quite frankly misanthropic musings of Frank Furedi, guru of the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party, who complains about how "disasters are often invested with some hidden meaning" and "are rarely perceived as just an accident" - before condemning the "blame culture", which in his opinion has "gradually displaced" the view that natural disasters are "acts of nature" with the "idea that they are the outcome of acts of human beings". In conclusion, our charming Mr Furedi compares the Katrina disaster unfavourably with the great influenza pandemic of 1918 - on the grounds that "although 20 million people died as a result" of the flu, way back then in the good old days "there was little finger-pointing or blame" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4217024.stm). Naturally, communists reject Furedi's cynical passivity and stress the fact that what was unavoidable became a calamity due to the obscene, social-political inequalities that blight the US and, as Katrina so starkly revealed, left the masses - particularly its black urban population - so vulnerable to events natural or otherwise. And here of course has been the true, shocking story - the world saw how the overwhelming majority of those clinging desperately to trees, or huddled on the roof-tops, were black and not white. The reasons for this are obvious - poverty, gross disadvantage and extreme deprivation. The middle class population lived mainly on the higher, safer ground - while blacks were crowded together in the cheaper, low-lying housing. When the call was made to leave New Orleans, as Katrina approached closer and closer, the poorer, working class, black families were left stranded. It was everyone for themselves and everyone paying for themselves. There were no state-organised fleets of buses or special trains. Note, 35% of black households have no car, and many were too poor to even pay for a long-distance bus ride. Officially, 28% of the New Orleans population is officially classified as suffering from poverty, and 84% of those are black. So, just as in the Boxing Day tsunami - albeit on a smaller scale - the poor and downtrodden were disproportionately effected by Katrina. A "natural disaster"? Yes, but the consequences were socially determined. Communists recall how after the tsunami, comrade Rob Hoveman of the Socialist Workers Party issued a wretched statement in the name of the Respect national office. Part of this sad document urged "Respect members and supporters to put pressure on councils across the country" to pass similar motions to the one then proposed by Respect councillor Michael Lavalette in Preston, which began: "Preston City council notes that the catastrophe has killed over 150,000 people directly. The victims have been white, black and Asian; they have been christian, muslim, hindu, buddhist, Jew and non-believer. The tsunami recognised no barrier of colour or religion" - and the rest of it was no better either. At the time, we in the CPGB correctly savaged the 'bleeding heart' liberalism of this motion - which nowhere mentioned either democracy, imperialist exploitation, the working class, class struggle, capitalism or socialism. So, to be consistent, you would have thought that the SWP would have no choice but to issue a similar statement noting how the victims of Katrina had been "white, black and Asian; they have been christian, muslim, hindu, buddhist, jew and non-believer", and that the hurricane "recognised no barrier of colour or religion". Thankfully, this has not happened. The Socialist Worker editorial reads: "The hurricane that hit New Orleans was a natural disaster. But what followed was pure criminality on the part of George Bush and his administration. The disaster in New Orleans is about race and class" (September 10). Well said, comrades! Alex Callinicos expands upon this in the same issue when he correctly states: "'Natural' disasters frequently prove to have human causes - in this case the destruction of wetlands and the neglect of flood defences that laid New Orleans open to the hurricane's worst. But the aftermaths of such disasters always act as X-rays, brutally exposing the inner faults of the societies where they occur. Hurricane Katrina has done this particularly cruelly. It has brought into the light of day - and onto the world's TV screens - the vast pool of poverty and suffering, particularly among African-Americans, that is normally concealed in the depths of US society." Of course, the appalling response to the tsunami had a simple explanation - crass opportunism. The tsunami hit undeveloped countries - so our SWP comrades calculated, with some logic no doubt, that here was a chance to play the charity-mongering card and gain a few (low-grade, easily malleable) recruits to the SWP-Respect. Obviously, this option was not on the cards when it came to Katrina - the comrades would hardly relish the prospect of calling for aid to the Bush government and its official relief effort, would they? Communists call for aid. Not for Bush and the US state, of course. Emergency aid should be directed to working class, black and radical organisations who are genuinely attempting to help the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area. Organise meetings, pass resolutions condemning Bush, and send money in solidarity with his victims.