By Richard Mellor
December 2005

Three months after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans I wondered what was happening down there. If the coverage in the national US media was anything to go by, the worst was over, Katrina hit, the scenes of abandoned people and desperate evacuees were gone, and everything must be getting back to normal.

But my visit to the city in mid November proved otherwise. There is no doubt in my mind that the destruction of New Orleans is the most catastrophic disaster in US history and one has to see it to clearly understand that; even three months on. Katrina wasn’t a disaster for all Americans mind you. It was a boon for speculators, big landlords, insurance companies, investors and other social parasites. Katrina did in a few days what would have taken years were the speculators and moneymen forced to go the usual route; the courts, evictions, harassment and economic terrorism. Katrina drove some half million people from the city in a few days. In particular, it drove out or killed the working class, the poor and the elderly. The New Orleans Times Picayune reported while I was there (11-15-05) that Louisiana had so far counted 1087 deaths. The number of those identified rose to 358, a third of the total----225 of the known deaths were people over 76 and a further 140 were people between the ages of 61 and 75. The politicians of both political parties, Democrat and Republican, consciously abandoned the most vulnerable people in a time of need, the sick, and the aged, the people who built this country.

Katrina was not a natural disaster; it was and still is a social disaster. Katrina and its aftermath is the market at work for you. In the same period another disaster is taking place, the destruction of workers’ living standards, retirement benefits and health care. United Airlines, Delphi, GM, the last vestiges of the gains made during the 1930’s are being destroyed as the US capitalist class seeks its goal of “Full Spectrum Dominance”, the right of capital to go anywhere and do what it likes, unhindered by any form of regulation and Unions. The vicious attacks on workers at GM and Delphi are not new by any means, but they are an indication of the increased confidence of the employers and their politicians, going after this section of the working class with such venom. Why shouldn’t they? The Union leaders will not resist and the two political parties will assist them.

These two events alone should confirm in the mind of any serious worker that capitalism is incapable of providing us with a decent life and a secure future. These two events prove that we cannot leave the running of society, the ownership of its productive forces, the building of its infrastructure and the distribution of the wealth we create through our labor in the hands of private individuals like Kerk Kerkorian, Warren Buffet or Donald Trump. The response to Katrina and the situation at GM; the environmental disasters and the mass poverty in the former colonial world and here in the US, are not products of mismanagement or “bad” people. They are the natural products of the market, of capitalism.

It is common knowledge that most of the destruction in New Orleans came from the broken levees and that money needed to repair and upgrade these levees was taken for US capitalism’s predatory war in Iraq where they privatized by the bomb. Government officials understood there were some 120,000 people in New Orleans that did not have transportation. Yet to this writer’s knowledge, not one city bus took one resident to safety. The scenes at the Superdome are familiar to us all; the abandonment of the aged, the poor and the sick. Katrina laid bare for the world to see, the racist nature of US capitalism. It was Malcolm X who said that, “You can’t have capitalism without racism”, and he was right. CNBC reported this week that there are still 250,000 homes in New Orleans that are uninhabitable and that 100,000 people have returned to the city. In the first week of September, one week after the storm hit, reporters from MSNBC showed a rare outburst of anger at the government as they visited the city.

One reporter told the other that he had just found out that the convention center (where some 25,000 people were corralled) backs on to the river. “Did the authorities consider evacuating survivors by boat?” says one reporter. The other reporter says that they haven’t seen any authorities, “the people managing this are somewhere else” one comments. The conversation ends with one of the reporters wondering why the federal government can’t at least be as organized as MSNBC. This type of commentary was rare. Much more common were portrayals of the victims, the poor and predominantly black survivors as animals and thugs.

When I was there in mid-November there was still massive amounts of trash in the streets. The Housing Authority of New Orleans has closed most of its public housing complexes fearing for the safety of the residents, but one of the projects I visited, Ibberville, was hardly damaged at all. It is widely thought that the storm accomplished what the city’s money men have been unable to do so far, get the poor out of Ibberville which borders the trendy French Quarter; a good start to the process of gentrification. It’s hard to believe that the politicians who allow the homeless and the mentally ill to sleep under freeway overpasses care so much about low income residents that they lock them out of their homes for their own safety. Initially there was a moratorium on evictions but then the eviction courts were re-opened and judges guessed that they would be hearing some 1000 cases a day according to a Democracy Now report. Tenants were being evicted in absentia as the courts did the landlords’ bidding. Some tenants returned after the evacuation to find their belongings on the streets and contractors remodeling their apartments for either condo conversion or renting. Visit:  http://bringdownbush.org/blog/

The purpose of my visit was to help with anti-eviction work. At the time, congress had already appropriated $62 billion for hurricane recovery and landlords, speculators, contractors and all sorts of crooks are lining up to dip their snouts in to the public trough. I stayed in a FEMA camp that was populated by all sorts of characters. There were doctors from Indonesia who had returned from the Tsunami and offered their services. They told me that the speed of the Tsunami was some 800 km an hour and the victims had their skin ripped from their bodies; here was another disaster that was preventable. There were National Guard, Blackwater Security (of Iraq fame) as well as water company employees repairing broken lines. The food at the camp was excellent and provided by a private company. The employees of this catering service were working 12-hour days, seven-day weeks and were forbidden to leave the compound. They were also forbidden to wear jewelry or necklaces and such. Outside the camp there was no electricity and limited population. At a nearby clinic that was staffed by volunteers of Common Ground, one worker told me she was very pleased when they were visited by the National Guard who were patrolling the area and upholding the curfews as she felt they would protect them from the police.

With all the public money about some are making a killing. I spoke to one older man whose belongings had been removed from his apartment and sold by his landlord during his absence. I asked him what they were doing with the big hotels, the Sheraton and others. He said that contractors were being housed there along with workers from Honduras, Guatemala and other parts of Central America. He said they were being brought in to the area by these contractors and being paid little to do clean up work. The cruise ships in the harbor were housing some survivors and the companies were charging the taxpayer $1500 a week when passengers on cruises are charged about $400.

Environmental Disaster
Another aspect of the calamity ignored by the mass media nationally is the environmental disaster that Katrina caused. According to the New Orleans Times Picayune, the storm dumped 34 years of trash and debris in southeast Louisiana---some 22 million tons of it---with over half that in the New Orleans area. This would include debris from “more than 160,000 homes, 350,000 vehicles and 35,000 recreational fishing boats” (N.O. Times-Picayune 11-16-05). State officials propose burning much of this material as landfill space is limited but environmentalists claim this will add air pollution to the already polluted soil that has been soaked in polluted floodwater combined with urban runoff. In mid-November there were still piles upon piles of trash, destroyed vehicles and refrigerators lining the streets. The amount of waste will increase through the process of re-building.

There is an army of contractors and subcontractors removing and disposing of rubbish. This army is overseen by several agencies primarily the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps awarded three $500 million contracts to firms for debris removal in Louisiana for a total of $1.5bn. The Times Picayune reports that although trash is supposed to be picked up at least once a week in the city there are many complaints that contractors are often picking up debris and refrigerators in one area and dumping them in another. One contractor has refused to service portable toilets in the city and provide drivers for trash vehicles because the city has been unable to pay them. This cries out for the need to eliminate the private sector from the scene and make this a public project. Much of the debris is obviously hazardous yet Louisiana has no hazardous materials landfills and only one facility that can re-cycle hazardous materials. It is almost impossible to control contractors who dump debris anywhere they can in order to fulfill their contracts with the state, or frustrated residents who are trying to remove debris from their community and re-build their lives.

More Money for Business
During my visit, Congress was discussing bills that would encourage investors and builders back in to the region. At the time the politicians were discussing tax breaks of $7bn that they termed incentives for a “Gulf Opportunity Zone”. What this means is the opportunity for employers, speculators and investors to make some good profit at the expense of the US taxpayers and the victims of their corrupt system. The NO Times reported that the tax package is, “aimed at creating an atmosphere in which business would want to invest”. The House and Senate versions were “written in concert” writes the Times, in order to speed passage. It’s nice that the Democratic and Republican lawmakers care so much about the victims of Katrina. However, there was a bit of a dispute between the House and Senate, the liberal and conservative approach. The House version of the bill contained $600 million more in low-income tax credits than the Senate proposed. The Senate legislation would have allowed about 2000, homes to be built while the House version would have allowed between 9,000 and 11,000 homes to be built. But there were 200,000 homes lost in the storms and rents are on the increase. This is the difference between these two political parties, 7,000 homes. But the best scenario only replaces one twentieth of the homes destroyed.

The Louisiana legislature follows the same path. The Times reported on November 11th that the House overwhelmingly agreed to more than $600 million in state spending cuts. The Bill eliminates 842 positions and more than one third of the cuts will come from the state’s Medicaid program. One Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee said that, “We were not 100% in agreement on the cuts, but we were 100% in agreement that this state needed to do something significant in order to balance its budget.”
The Democrats and Republicans differ not one iota on the basics—that workers and the middle class will pay for this crisis of capitalism. They simply bicker over which section of the working class will pay or whether or not workers starve to death in June as opposed to May. The congressional Black Caucus is suing Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco on the grounds that she “exceeded her constitutional authority to make budget cuts without first consulting the legislature.” Well, that’s a bold step. I’m sure the thousands of evacuees and victims of this disaster will feel assured now. So what if the legislature approves them, that’s OK?

Other victims of the disaster are the many small businesses, including the independent fishermen and women whose lives have been decimated by the destruction of their means of subsistence, their vessels. Between Port Sulfur and Venice lived 13,000 people and now there’s nobody. Before Katrina there were 12,000 to 15, 000 licensed fishermen in Louisiana but many are not expected to return despite that the storm brought an abundance of fish. Most of these small enterprises didn’t have insurance, as it was too expensive. These people’s entire life work was tied up in their fishing boats and their work was hard and dangerous.

Hurricane recovery should be a public and not a private project. How ridiculous that in the time of such a crisis a contractor can refuse to pick up trash or empty portable toilets further endangering the health of victims. What is needed is all that matters not how much profit can be made. The plunder of our resources, the theft of our tax money, the destruction of the environment, these are all social not natural crisis. They are crises of the system, of capitalism, of the so-called free market. The vicious attacks on the workers at GM and Delphi, the slaughter in Iraq and the disease, death and starvation in the former colonial world; these are all the result of the crisis of capitalism, nothing else. Not simply “evil” dictators, not “bad” management or greed in the abstract but the ownership and control of society’s resources by a few individuals whose sole reason for setting these resources in motion is the quest for profit.

No one with any thought processes at all can not see that the crisis in New Orleans is a crisis of capitalism, of private ownership and that the only response is the collective ownership of social production and the planning of this production on the basis of social need not for the personal profit of a few individuals and their families.