Friday, August 25, 2006

Hurricane Katrina: Reflections of a Socialist on an Unnatural Disaster

As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I would like to share a few reflections on the disaster and on the society that produced it. My aim is not to provide a systematic account or analysis, but to highlight and reflect upon various points that I find particularly significant. [1]
Stephen D. Shenfield

A natural disaster?
Heat waves and blizzards, droughts and floods, hurricanes and tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are usually regarded as "natural disasters" or "acts of God". By implication, the suffering they cause is, at least mainly, the fault of Nature or God. There is no reason to blame human society.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to blame society.

First point. The irresponsible drive of business for profit is changing the planet's climate -- warming the oceans and the atmosphere, melting icecaps and glaciers, spreading deserts, disturbing rainfall patterns. Specifically, major storms in the Atlantic and Pacific, no longer moderated by cool subsurface waters, have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent since the 1970s. Global warming also brings hurricanes closer to centers of population by raising the sea level and contributing to the erosion of coastlines.

Second point. Natural phenomena do not cause human disasters unless people put themselves in harm's way. Volcanic eruptions cause human disasters because people live near volcanoes.[2] Earthquakes cause human disasters because villages, cities, factories, and even nuclear power plants[3] are sited in places known to be prone to earthquakes (and because construction firms do not find it profitable to build housing capable of withstanding tremors).

Most of us are restricted in our choice of where to live. We have to go where we can afford a home, where we can get jobs or a plot of land to farm. The pattern of settlement reflects the social system, not just individual choices. So here too society bears a large part of the blame. In a rational society, one in which human welfare comes first, would people not rearrange the pattern of their settlement with a view to keeping themselves out of harm's way?

The human impact of hurricanes clearly depends on how many people live in or visit the coastal areas most exposed to them. Coastal counties now account for over half of the US population and 10 of the nation's 15 largest cities. Moreover, coastal population is increasing rapidly (by 28 percent between 1980 and 2003).[4] In coastal Louisiana, property development, for housing, tourism, and "entertainment" (e.g., casinos), expands in a self-sustaining dynamic, as the infrastructure built to serve existing development attracts yet more development. Besides putting more and more people at risk, property developers are steadily destroying the remaining coastal wetlands. The wetlands (together with offshore islands) provide New Orleans and the interior with a vital protective buffer against storm surges.

Afraid the hurricane would miss
The tourist trade was implicated in the tragedy in another way. The scale of the threat facing New Orleans and coastal Louisiana became clear in the course of Friday August 26; the hurricane made landfall in the early hours of August 29, Monday morning. The presidents of two coastal parishes, Plaquemines and St. Charles, declared mandatory evacuation at nine on Saturday morning. However, when New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin appeared at a press conference at five that afternoon he failed to order mandatory evacuation, saying that he was still consulting with his legal advisers on the matter. Nagin finally ordered mandatory evacuation at 9.30 Sunday morning. The delay played a crucial role in blocking a proper evacuation, mainly because only a mandatory evacuation order legally obliges local authorities to make provision for those unable to evacuate without help.[5] By declaring mandatory evacuation earlier, Plaquemines and St. Charles achieved 100 percent evacuation.

But why was Nagin so reluctant to act? Personal foibles apart, he was afraid. Not that Hurricane Katrina would hit New Orleans, but that it might, like Hurricane Ivan in 2004, change course and miss! For in that case hotel owners might sue the city for business lost as the result of an evacuation order that turned out to be unnecessary.[6] Nagin has close ties with the tourist trade.

Besides property development and the tourist trade, the oil and gas industry has contributed generously to the effort to prepare ideal conditions for the Katrina tragedy. The Louisiana wetlands are not only a natural buffer against storm surges. They (and not Alaska) are the United States' largest source of crude oil and its second largest source of natural gas. To support and transport this production, the oil and gas companies have carved 8,000 miles of cuts and canals into the wetlands, disrupting the natural flow of waters and facilitating the penetration of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. "The whole artificial system works to the detriment of the wetlands. No one claims otherwise."[7]

The ports and shipping industry also bears a share of the responsibility for the disaster. The levees built by the US Army Corps of Engineers along both shores of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to the sea were designed primarily to serve shipping interests.[8] They provide some immediate protection against flooding, but over the long term they heighten the danger by blocking the flow of much needed silt into the wetlands.

Why such a poor government response?
Many people still ask why the government response to Katrina was so tardy and ineffective. Why was the population of New Orleans not evacuated in time? (I have already mentioned one of the reasons.) Why did the victims have to wait so long for vital supplies to arrive? Why did it take so long to get them out of the disaster zone? Why were flood control measures so inadequate?

Unfavorable comparisons have been made with government performance in similar situations in some other countries. For example:
*Canada. In November 1979 a freight train carrying chemicals was derailed while passing through the city of Mississauga, Ontario. Realizing that toxic gases were being released, local police organized a rapid and efficient evacuation of the population.[9]
*Cuba. In September 2004 Hurricane Ivan swept through the Caribbean. 27 died in Florida and about 100 in Grenada, but western Cuba, which suffered a direct hit, was evacuated in good time and had no casualties, thanks to the coordinated preparations of central and local government.[10]
 *The Netherlands. Following the winter storm of 1953, which caused 1,800 deaths, the Dutch mobilized their resources to build a flood control system that far surpasses that of Louisiana in scope, technological sophistication, and effectiveness.[11]

However, unfavorable comparisons have also been made with the handling of other disasters in the US, such as the rapidly improvised waterborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.[12] Moreover, even in the Katrina disaster some agencies evidently did much worse than others. The accounts I have read are highly critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers, but have nothing but praise for the US Coast Guard, which rescued more than 22,000 people. (Many were also rescued by spontaneously formed civic organizations like the NOLA Homeboys and the Cajun Navy.)

All these comparisons need to be taken into account. They imply that some causes may be specific to the US, others specific to the Bush administration, yet others specific to one or another agency. There were several important contextual factors:
* Much of the National Guard was away in Iraq.
* The obsessive "war against terror" led to the domination of a "militarized paradigm" and the neglect of non-military threats, with FEMA subordinated to the huge Department of Homeland Security.[13]
* The flood control budget had been cut drastically -- in large measure thanks to the war in Iraq and the "war against terror".
* The Bush administration is hostile in principle to the idea of the social responsibility of government.

Red tape and lack of professionalism
There are also some very important issues that have to do with the way government operates in practice. I would like to focus on two of these: the issue of red tape and that of professionalism.

Red tape was a major factor in the ineffectiveness of FEMA. Its representatives insisted on sticking to bureaucratic regulations despite the suffering caused by the resulting delays and even if observing regulations was simply impossible. They refused to provide supplies on the basis of oral requests from local officials: the requisite form had to be faxed to head office. However, the fax machines had been damaged in the flood and were not working.

Harvey Molotch offers an interesting analysis of the conditions under which bureaucrats are and are not willing to override regulations in an emergency. To some extent it depends on how much empathy they feel for the victims. But above all they judge the likely reaction of their superiors and the consequences for themselves. If they override regulations, will they be congratulated later for having done the right thing? Or will they be reprimanded and penalized? They make this judgment on the basis of cues from above. If a sense of real urgency is conveyed, regulations won't be allowed to thwart prompt action. When the Twin Towers were attacked this "panic button" was pressed. In the Katrina disaster it wasn't. Molotch suspects that the difference had something to do with racism.[14]

Another reason why FEMA did such a bad job was that it had been deprived of professional leadership. Experts in disaster management had been removed from key positions and replaced by allies and cronies of Bush with no relevant skills or experience and no sense of public service or duty.[15] Some experts had left, and those who remained were demoralized. The agencies that responded more effectively were those which had managed to preserve their professionalism.

The issue of professionalism is linked to that of the administrative structure of American government. Most countries have a permanent high-level civil service staffed by professional administrators and specialists. Governments come and go, but the civil servants remain and provide continuity of memory and experience. The US is unusual in allowing each newly elected politician to fill the entire upper layer of the civil service with his own appointees. What weight, if any, he gives to professional competence in making those appointments is up to him.

Without a permanent and professional civil service, government lacks both coherence and autonomy from special interests. As a polity, the United States is structurally incapable of carrying through a comprehensive flood control program like the one implemented in the Netherlands. Louisiana scientists have devoted enormous efforts to formulating and promoting such a program, based on sound science, for the Gulf Coast, but the political process repeatedly frustrates them, generating instead a ragbag of partial or even irrelevant measures. The real purpose of these measures, which are incapable of solving the problem that they ostensibly address, is to pay off the special interests to which various local politicians are beholden.[17]

Marx proclaimed that "the state is the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole." On issues of disaster prevention the interests of the capitalist class as a whole overlap with those of society at large. After all, flooding is bad both for business and for the people. Here in the United States, however, government is unable to function in the spirit of Marx's definition of the state: it is not the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole, but merely a mob of lobbyists for all sorts of special capitalist interests. I find it pertinent that in American usage the term "state" refers to a territorial unit of government, not -- as it does in other countries -- to the permanent entity that underpins and connects successive governments. In this sense the United States is not a "state" at all.

Danger -- looters!
What is the first priority of government in the wake of disaster? Saving lives? Looking after the survivors? Disposing of the dead and preventing epidemics?

Think again. At best these things come second. The first priority of government in the wake of disaster is exactly the same as its first priority at other times: maintaining or restoring "order" -- that is, its powers of coercion. Moreover, the first purpose of "order" is to protect and enforce property rights. From this point of view, the main threat posed by disasters like Hurricane Katrina is not the threat to human life and health, to the environment, or even to the economy. It is the threat of "chaos", the threat to "order" and "civilization", but above all to property, arising from the temporary breakdown of government.

The "looter" symbolizes and dramatizes this threat, conjuring up images of Viking warriors on the rampage, barbaric violence, evil incarnate. Of course, these particular "Vikings" were all the more terrifying for being black. In the days that followed the hurricane, the media stirred up racist fears of the poor black people of New Orleans, spreading rumors (the fashionable expression is "urban myths") later shown to be exaggerated out of all proportion, if not completely unfounded.[18] Fear sells.

All in all, we shouldn't be too shocked or too surprised to learn that at 7 p.m. on Wednesday August 31, 2005 martial law was declared in the flooded city. Mayor Nagin told police officers to stop rescuing people and focus solely on the job of cracking down on looters. This was just two and a half days after the hurricane made landfall and with thousands of people still stranded in attics and on rooftops.

In one heroic encounter, police officers chased down a woman spotted pushing a cart of baby supplies. She fell, they handcuffed her, but what were they to do with her? All the jails were flooded. By the end of the week that problem was solved. A new makeshift jail was set up at the Greyhound bus terminal, with accommodation for 750 prisoners. This was the first institution in the city to resume normal functioning.[19]

True, "looters" used to be treated even more harshly. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 people were shot dead as they foraged in the wreckage of their own homes.[20]

Why did people loot? Or to use less loaded language, why did they take things that didn't belong to them without paying for them?

One man answered a TV interviewer who had asked him why he was looting by asking in turn: "Can you see anyone to pay?"[21] The stores had been abandoned by their operators, but people still needed the things stored there. They needed food and fresh water, dressings for their wounds, new clothes to replace those ruined by exposure to the "toxic gumbo" of the floodwaters. Most of the so-called looting was of this kind -- for the satisfaction of desperate need. In any sane society that would be a good enough reason for taking things.

Two paramedics from San Francisco who found themselves trapped in New Orleans wrote about the Walgreens store on the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the French quarter. The owners had locked up and fled. Milk, yogurt, and cheese could be seen through the window in the dairy display case, spoiling in the heat.[22]

Should we expect the parents of hungry and thirsty children not to break in, even at the risk of being pursued by the police? Would they have been good parents had they failed to do all in their power to see to their children's needs? And what of storeowners who choose to let food go to waste rather than give it to needy neighbors? My first impulse is to wax lyrical about the sheer meanness of their behavior. But probably they made no such conscious choice. As businesspeople they must have thought of the food and drink in their store not as products for assuaging hunger and thirst, but merely as commodities for profitable sale. If they could no longer be sold they might just as well go to waste.

Social looters and entrepreneurial looters
Some looters -- let's call them "social looters" -- acted not just for themselves and their families but for the benefit of the local community. For instance, the young men who collected medical supplies from a Rite Aid for distribution among elderly neighbors.[23] Or the man who distributed food from a Winn-Dixie store to the 200 or so people holed up at the Grand Palace Hotel. "He was trying to help suffering people, and the idea that he was looting never crossed his mind."[24]

Socially responsible people of this kind are sometimes described as "commandeering" or "requisitioning" the goods they seize. That may well be how they view their own actions. In legal terms, however, only government officials, as representatives of duly constituted authority, have the right to commandeer or requisition property in an emergency. Private citizens who do so, whatever their motives, are engaging in theft and may be penalized accordingly.

Consider the feat of Jabar Gibson. This resourceful young man, purely on his own initiative, found a bus that was still in working order (the city authorities assumed that all buses had been ruined by the floodwater), took charge of it, filled it up with evacuees, and drove them to Houston. This was the first busload of evacuees to reach Houston after the storm (at 10 p.m. on Wednesday August 31). The police were forewarned that a "renegade bus" was on its way; if they had intercepted it Jabar might have been arrested and charged with theft. Fortunately he was in luck: he got through to his destination, to be greeted by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.[25] Presumably his crime has been forgiven.

Of course, not all looters were responding to real personal, family, or community needs. Some were simply taking a rare opportunity to acquire coveted though nonessential consumer goods. For others looting (and shitting in) fancy stores was a form of social protest or "empowerment," an outlet for pent-up anger against the endlessly advertised world of affluence from which they felt excluded.

Finally, there was a phenomenon that I propose calling "entrepreneurial looting." Entrepreneurial looters gathered assets with a view to later sale. As they got stuff for free, they could sell at any price and still make a profit. For example, "urban foresters" went after valuable lumber.[26] Other entrepreneurs sold looted liquor. The cases of large-scale organized looting by armed groups (their weapons also probably looted) that received so much publicity must, I think, have been of this character.

Brinkley reports an interesting conversation between Lieutenant Colonel Bernard McLaughlin of the Louisiana National Guard and a man selling liquor at a makeshift bar. When McLaughlin tells the bartender he is shutting him down, the man replies that he is "just being entrepreneurial." Why shouldn't he make some money? McLaughlin gets angry at this appeal to "true American" values. "This is looting. You looted that . . . That's a 15-year felony. That's a 3-year mandatory minimum sentence." The man submits and McLaughlin proceeds to smash his bottles one by one. And yet the preceding account makes clear that McLaughlin's real objection to such bars has nothing to do with the provenance of the alcohol. He doesn't want the locals drinking alcohol because it further dehydrates them and makes them quarrelsome and disorderly.[27] Would he have allowed the bar to stay open if it was selling -- or giving away -- only looted fruit juice, soda, and bottled water? Legally, however, looting remains "a 15-year felony," be its social consequences good or bad. Property is sacred.

The bartender might also have tried to point out in his defense that historically all capitalist enterprise is based on looting. Early capitalism looted land and other resources from peasants (in Europe) and from indigenous peoples (throughout the Americas and other colonial territories). The looting even extended to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of human beings, such as the ancestors of most victims of Hurricane Katrina. Marx called it the primitive accumulation of capital. Looting is as American as cherry pie; the looters of New Orleans are keeping up an old American tradition and should surely receive all the credit due them as good patriots. But . . . it depends on who you loot, doesn't it?

Race and class
With few exceptions, the rich live on higher land ("the house on the hill") while low-lying areas prone to flooding are reserved for the poor. This rule of class geography applied in full to New Orleans, perhaps the most socially polarized city in the US. During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the city leaders even had a levee dynamited to flood some poor black neighborhoods with a view to saving the rest of the city.[28]

For this as well as other reasons, the victims of Katrina -- the quarter of the city's population still in New Orleans when disaster struck -- were overwhelmingly poor. True, they were also overwhelmingly black, but that wasn't their immediate problem. Better-off blacks were able to look after themselves. It was their position at the bottom of the economic pile that blocked their escape. They did not have bank accounts or credit cards they could draw upon if they left town. Many lacked direct access to news of the approaching storm because they were illiterate and had no TV set. Above all, of course, they had no cars.

Most criticism of the city authorities has focused on their failure to organize the evacuation of the car-less by bus. I would like to draw attention to another failure, one that commentators have failed to notice. Even without specially organized evacuation by bus, the transportation resources needed were readily available and deliberately wasted. The long streams of cars in which better-off New Orleanians fled danger the weekend before the hurricane struck had enough spare room for all the people who did not have cars of their own.[29] The trains that left New Orleans that weekend also had many empty seats.[30]

These resources were readily available physically. Why then did no one even think of using them? The answer lies in the customs, laws, and institutions of capitalism. Few people have any problem with owners of resources surplus to their own needs denying those resources to those who do need them. And deference to the money system with all its absurd paraphernalia is unthinking and automatic.

Similarly, many people have become quite sensitive to discrimination on the basis of race or sex. But discrimination on the basis of economic status or class is hardly noticed, although it is even more pervasive and just as harsh in its effects.[31] It was this kind of discrimination that trapped Katrina's victims.

After the hurricane struck, the importance of economic status for those who remained in New Orleans declined sharply. Money temporarily lost its social power: whether you had money or not, there was no way you could legally buy the things you needed. Even if (to take a hypothetical case) you were a billionaire you had no choice but to "loot." In this situation the relative importance of racial harassment increased. Being black exposed you to more insulting and contemptuous treatment at the hands of the police. It was because you were black, and therefore a "criminal," that police officers pushed you back at gunpoint when you tried to cross the bridge across the Mississippi to the mostly white suburban community of Jefferson Parish on the "West Bank" -- pedestrians' only escape route from the flooded city.[32]

Americans don't live in tents
How important are race and/or class in accounting for government negligence regarding the survival and welfare of the victims of Katrina? Various commentators have argued that black people in the inner cities, being without cars or credit cards, were "off the radar screen" of government planners. In fact, many of those who don't have cars or credit cards are not black and do not live in the inner cities -- poor rural whites in areas like the Appalachians, for example. Presumably they too are "off the radar screen." The general point, however, is right on the mark. Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center recounts how at a meeting of disaster planning officials he argued that tent cities should be established for refugees, as in other parts of the world. The response was a rising tide of laughter, culminating in a woman exclaiming: "Americans don't live in tents!"[33] If Americans for some reason have to be away from home they stay at hotels, don't they? If they can't afford to do that they obviously aren't Americans. As they are not citizens of any other country either, it follows that they are stateless and therefore more or less without rights.

I don't doubt that racism is alive and well in the United States, but it does seem to me that what we are dealing with here is a combination of race and class prejudice in which the element of class is more important than people generally recognize. Prosperous and "respectable" blacks are not primary targets of this prejudice and may be carriers of it. Mayor Nagin is a case in point. As we have seen, he bears a heavy share of responsibility for the suffering of the Katrina victims, many of whom, misled by an exaggerated race consciousness and an underdeveloped class consciousness, had voted for him.[34]

The comparison with 9/11 is pertinent in this context. Many ordinary working people were killed or injured in the attack on the World Trade Center, but a substantial proportion of the victims were "important" people, more or less prominent members of the capitalist class. I believe that this was a crucial factor in producing such a serious and far-reaching government response. All the victims of Katrina were "unimportant" people, whose interests are never taken much into account.

What next?
The idea of moving New Orleans to a safer location has been indignantly rejected. The city is being restored in the same place as before, using super-exploited migrant labor. Many poor black New Orleanians now dispersed throughout the US lack the resources to return and rebuild their old homes. Some of the land thus vacated will be abandoned; some will be grabbed by property developers for new casinos and hotels.

Due to the political clout of those property developers as well as for budgetary and other reasons, effective flood control measures along the Gulf Coast are not to be expected. There will be new hurricanes, new disasters -- Hurricane Ray? Hurricane George? -- until New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are finally abandoned to the waves. Then everything will be repeated along the new coastal strip 20 miles or so to the north. Assuming business and politics as usual.

Or will a new voice make itself heard? A voice that will say: Enough is enough!

[1] I have drawn on three main sources:
(a) the scientifically informed analysis of Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist (New York: Penguin, 2006);
(b) the account of Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); and
(c) the collection of critical essays by social scientists at the Understanding Katrina website.
[2] This does not apply in full to the most powerful eruptions, which cause damage even at very great distances. Thus, the eruption of the island volcano of Krakatoa (present-day Indonesia) in 1883 set off giant waves that killed over 36,000 and spread dust worldwide, cooling the global atmosphere by 1.2 C. and harming harvests in subsequent years.
[3] The nuclear power plant at Medzamor in Armenia is one example.
[4] Dynes and Rodriguez, Understanding Katrina website.
[5] In addition, many New Orleanians had concluded (rightly or wrongly) from past experience that there was no need to take very seriously warnings not accompanied by a mandatory evacuation order.
[6] Brinkley, pp. 22-3.
[7] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 161-2.
[8] The same applies to other work undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers, notably dredging. See van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 159-60.
[9] Joseph Scanlon, Understanding Katrina website.
[10] Neil Smith, Understanding Katrina website.
[11] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 264-8.
[12] Wachtendorf and Kendra, Understanding Katrina website.
[13] On the situation inside FEMA see the analysis by Graham on the Understanding Katrina website.
[14] Understanding Katrina website.
[15] Even at the height of the disaster the e-mail messages of these political appointees were full of empty chatter and silly jokes. They were concerned to get home on time. See Brinkley and also Jasper, Understanding Katrina website.
[16] This is not, of course, a full discussion. Other factors are involved, such as the structure of the party system. The weakness of party structures leaves American politicians more vulnerable to the pressure of special interests.
[17] Van Heerden and Bryan.
[18] For example, in the week following Katrina the number of murders was average for the city (four). See van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 124-8. [19] Brinkley, p. 202; Understanding Katrina website, Kaufman. 
[20] G. Hansen and E. Condon, Denial of Disaster (San Francisco: Cameron and Co., 1989).
[21] Lukes, Understanding Katrina website.
[22] Kaufman, Understanding Katrina website. See also Dr. Greg Henderson in Counterpunch, 8/1/2005.
[23] Brinkley, p. 378.
[24] Brinkley, p. 278.
[25] Brinkley, pp. 514-5.
[26] Brinkley, p. 307. Entrepreneurial looters also operate in other devastated zones -- in Chechnya, for instance.
[27] Brinkley, pp. 601-602.
[28] Brinkley, pp. 7-8.
[29] A simple calculation demonstrates this. Three-quarters of the population did have cars and used them to get out. Therefore, even assuming that the average number of people in each car was 3 (the usual assumption is 2.5), those cars that were not fully loaded could easily have accommodated the quarter of the population without cars.
[30] The last train before the hurricane departed at 8.30 p.m. on Sunday night with many empty cars (Brinkley, p. 627).
[31] The relationship between class and racial discrimination is a complex matter. They are closely connected and may be fused together in such a way that it is very difficult to disentangle them.
[32] Kaufman, Understanding Katrina website. The local authorities for which these police officers worked gave retrospective approval for this action. The fear of poor city blacks, extending even to women with young children, pervaded the communities around New Orleans. They refused to admit evacuees, making it necessary to transport Katrina victims all over the country.
In floods that occurred in the days before the civil rights movement, the National Guard used to surround the disaster zone in order to prevent blacks fleeing (personal communication).
[33] Van Heerden and Bryan, pp. 65-6. See also the interview with Senator Obama on ABC's This Week quoted by Virginia Dominguez on the Understanding Katrina website.
[34] For further discussion, see Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin, "Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate," Monthly Review, Vol. 58 No. 3, July--August 2006, pp. 52-66. Other articles in this issue also deal with the complex interplay of race and class in American society.