Too tragic to be farce

In spite of the media hype, preparations for Hurricane Rita were just as chaotic and class-based as they were for Katrina, writes Martin Schreader

When you read this, the United States will be at the half-way point in its annual hurricane season, and it will have already experienced two major storms along the Gulf Coast - Katrina and Rita. Last year, Florida was pummelled by four hurricanes within two months, but none of them could match this year's devastation. Rita followed a similar evolution to that of Katrina. When she hit the Florida Keys early last week, Rita was a minor, category one hurricane - the kind that normally menaces the Atlantic coastline of the US. But, after crossing over into the Gulf of Mexico, she gained enormous strength and began her trek to the Gulf Coast. However, unlike Katrina, Rita headed for the Texas coastline. At one point during this trip, she packed sustained winds of over 195 miles per hour, making this the third most powerful hurricane to ever be recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. With the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama already devastated by Katrina, it seemed the spectre of a second major hurricane was almost too much for people to bear. But when Rita continued on her westward track, and looked like it would only sideswipe the region, many of those who stayed in the bayou or had recently returned breathed a sigh of relief. Increasingly, though, this new hurricane appeared to be picking up where Katrina left off in her destructive mission. Rita made landfall last Saturday (September 24) a few miles west of the Texas-Louisiana border, with the small cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont taking the greatest amount of damage. Houston, Galveston and Texas City had seen mass evacuations in the days before Rita came ashore. Even though it was presented in the media that a 'phased evacuation' was being implemented by the government, the scenes told another story. In the two days prior to Rita's landfall, the highways and major roads of the Houston area were jammed with people desperately trying to flee the then-expected path of the storm. Tens of thousands of cars sat bumper-to-bumper in the sweltering heat - both from the September sun and the running engines. Thousands ran out of gas waiting to move just a few feet. This part of the evacuation was chaotic and ill-planned. Somehow, the government thought it would be easy to move two million panic-stricken people, with Katrina fresh on their minds, all on the same day. But this, as with so many other things, was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Early on, as it became clear that Rita would be heading toward Texas, that state's Republican governor, Rick Perry, told residents that if they did not follow the government's evacuation plan, and tried to leave at a different time or chose not to leave, they would be 'on their own'. What was not said, and not explained in the media, is that the evacuation plans were only concretised for the cities of Houston (one of the wealthiest cities in the US, and a centre for both government agencies and many oil corporations), Galveston (a popular tourist attraction and home to many well-to-do small capitalists, their managers and independent professionals) and Texas City (the largest oil port and refinery farm region in the US). And even those plans were made for the benefit of those from the exploiting class. A hundred little New Orleanses But the hurricane did not hit this area. Instead, it moved north and wiped out small shrimping villages and towns before beginning to break up. Most of these areas were not evacuated with any of the organisation (if one wants to call it that) shown further down the coast. Residents in many places were left to fend for themselves. Small towns like Orange, Sabine Pass, Silsbee and Vidor were flattened to the point where survivors could literally see from one end of town to the other without anything being in their way. Essential services ceased to exist. Any stocks of food, bottled water or other basic necessities people would need were either washed or blown away. Electricity is out and is not expected to be back in service for at least a month. Land-line telephone services are down and cellular phones do not work most of the time. Waste-water treatment is knocked out and is not expected to be back until well after the electricity. Meanwhile, there are thousands of residents throughout the devastated region that have banded together in groups from five to 50 to forage for food and supplies, maintain personal security and give each other support. As in the case with New Orleans after Katrina, working people have stepped in to fill the void created with the collapse of state authority. In Silsbee, Texas, a small town populated by oil and lumber workers, many had to ride out the storm because they had no access to either transportation or gasoline. They pooled resources and stayed together in houses where they thought they could be safe. As Rita began to come ashore, I was on my way to Washington DC last Friday night for the huge anti-war demonstration taking place the next day. Another comrade and I began to get phone calls from a supporter of one of the affiliates of the International Working People's Association who lives in Silsbee. The reports, understandably interspersed with expletives and with a voice resonating with fear, told a story far different from that of the hourly news on the radio. "It's New Orleans all over again," this comrade repeated. "No one in my town was evacuated. If you left, you left because you could ... They evacuated Houston for the cameras and left us to face Rita alone." This was at 2.37 am on Saturday September 24 - just as the eye of the hurricane reached land. It was not until Sunday evening that we heard from him again. "We're almost out of everything - food and water, mainly. The cops have sealed off Silsbee; no one is being allowed in or out ... Fema [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was supposed to bring MREs and water, but they never showed up. What do they expect us to do here? Die?" According to news reports, it seems that might be the case. What made New Orleans a spectacular media event was not so much the death, but the concentration of it in one major location. A reporter could go to the Superdome or Convention Center and interview thousands of people, and see hundreds of instances of horror, all in one visit. A day's worth of reportage could be riveting from beginning to end. Not so with the latest hurricane. Instead of one big place where starving and dehydrated poor and working people could congregate, in the aftermath of Rita there are hundreds of small places - sometimes just an individual's home - where these horrors are played out. "We have a hundred little New Orleanses here," said one resident. The suffering and despair is no less prevalent. It is only less visible to the camera's eye. Texas-sized negligence Already, however, stories that are chillingly reminiscent of the aftermath of Katrina are beginning to be reported. In Beaumont, for example, five people died of asphyxiation when they tried to use a gas-powered generator to run electric fans and keep cool in the blazing Texas sun. As with Katrina, a disproportionate number of victims are poor and working people, especially African Americans. Many of these small towns have small but thriving black communities, and they have been virtually wiped out by this hurricane. This is due to the fact that the building techniques employed in such areas has not changed much in the last century, with wooden clapboard houses peppering the landscape around these towns. Now they are little more than splintered debris. As one would expect, everyone from George W Bush to governor Perry and below breathed a sigh of relief when the hurricane turned away from the Houston-Galveston-Texas City area. But this is not because of the sparing of the area, but rather because the elements were in place for a similar breakdown as we saw in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama - and they knew it. We can only imagine what carnage would have been wrought by Rita if she kept on her original course toward Houston. This is because, as was mentioned above, the 'evacuation' orders were executed in such a way that the poor and working people of the region were last to leave. Under this scenario, the hurricane would have hit this country's ninth largest city while tens of thousands of poor and working people, a significant number of whom were African American, were still trapped on the highways, out of gas and unable to outrun the storm. The thousands of refugees from New Orleans in the Houston Astrodome would have been joined by thousands more Houston residents fleeing the torrent, and likely would have experienced a breakdown of conditions along the lines of what happened after Katrina. The defences built along the coastline, meant to protect Galveston and Texas City from hurricane damage, would have been easily breached and crushed by the massive storm surge. In virtually an instant, these cities would have been flooded and its residents would have had to contend with a toxic liquid concoction similar to what still exists in parts of New Orleans. (This is especially the case since these cities sit next to Galveston Bay, which is almost completely surrounded by barrier islands that could be easily plugged up by debris.) As the storm itself passed, the breakdown in infrastructure and civil authority in this area would have mirrored New Orleans. The state would have had too few police and soldiers to maintain order, both because Texas has thousands of national guard soldiers in Iraq, and because many of the police would have followed their Louisiana colleagues' actions. It is also very likely that the Houston area would be the next testing ground for military rule and occupation of US cities. Indeed, Bush himself had travelled to Colorado to be with the generals of the Northern Command - no doubt to be on hand in case any of the military's plans for martial law requiring presidential authority needed to be immediately implemented. It was chance that saved Houston from the full force of Rita ... and the criminal neglect of the Bush regime. The people of the smaller towns and cities of eastern Texas, on the other hand, are not so lucky. Workers' relief However, the people of the area hit by Hurricane Rita are not being left to suffer until the Bush regime, its military and its Texas agents decide they are worth saving. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, activists from across the country joined with the New Orleans Community Labor United coalition to launch the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition to begin to build the means to provide for the well-being of the victims of such natural disasters. In the wake of Rita, People's Hurricane Relief is organising to help poor and working people along the Texas-Louisiana border area. Several unions and other labour and community organisations are adding Rita relief to their month-long campaign for the victims of Katrina. Most importantly, though, working people in areas only affected relatively mildly are organising to help their brothers and sisters in neighbouring cities, bringing food, water and solidarity. The IWPA itself is currently organising working people's aid to the people of Silsbee, Texas, by arranging for a large truck loaded with essentials to travel down and drop off food, drinking and washing water, clean clothes, basic hygiene supplies, radios and any other needed items. Unfortunately, apart from these organisations, little is being done by the labour movement and the left except speech-making, and putting pressure on the Bush regime to 'take charge' and wield his executive authority like a autocratic dictator ... 'for the common good'. It is certainly unfortunate that it has to fall to organisations like CLU and IWPA, both of which are relatively small and lacking in resources, to do this kind of work. But the alternative - doing nothing - is not acceptable. Early on in writing this article, a comrade reminded me of Marx's comment about things occurring twice in history: first as tragedy, second as farce. I had to object to the application of this to the situation along the Gulf Coast today. This is too tragic, too criminal, to be a farce - for working people both inside and outside the devastated zones. Anyone who can or is willing to assist with the effort to bring hurricane relief is strongly encouraged to contact either PHRF or IWPA. You can contact PHRF by email at bbelcore@hotmail.com, or IWPA at iwpa-aigt@hotmail.com.