When Dick Met Katrina

The entire world has been shocked by the chaos and deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and across Louisiana and Mississipi. Hurricane Rita, which followed closely behind and caused more widespread flooding, reminded America and the world that this was not a one-off incident but very probably a symptom of intensifying climate change.

In the words of one Afghan it looks more like Africa than America – most of the victims are black and the government response was so late and badly organised that it’s hard to believe that these poor suffering people could be citizens of the country boasting the most powerful government on earth. Afghanistan – one of the poorest countries on earth - is giving foreign aid to the US.

Was the Bush Administration to Blame in any way?

Were State and Local Government to blame as well?

‘Welfare state’ or poverty and no way out for the poor?

Does Global Warming exist? Is it man–made? Did it make Katrina worse?

Will the disaster change Bush administration policies or lose them support?

Is the US government really too democratic to respond to a crisis?

What lessons can we learn from this tragedy so we can save lives in the future?

Was the Bush Administration to Blame in any way?

Michael Moore seemed to overstate the case when he said that the deaths in Louisiana were NOT (in his capital letters) caused by the hurricane.

Clearly the hurricane caused the flooding, which caused most of the deaths – and hurricanes are not preventable.

Moore is right though that there are several reasons to think that the Bush administration’s policies were negligent and have probably led to more people dying than might otherwise have died.

Spending on flood defences for New Orleans had been inadequate for decades – but under the Bush administration it was reduced to lower levels than ever before. Spending on strengthening the levees on the Mississippi river was stopped altogether for the first time in almost 40 years. If spending had been higher it may or may not have been enough to limit the flooding to some areas or stop it happening altogether. We can’t be certain. We do know though that what’s happened in New Orleans has been predicted for years.

If people weren’t dying it would have been almost comic to hear the Bush administration’s claims that no-one could have predicted the disaster or been prepared to deal with it. It was entirely predictable, it was predicted repeatedly for years by scientists, by the media and even by theFederal Emergency Management Agency and it was predicted to the Bush administration – and they were negligent.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency which organises aid and evacuation in emergencies was merged into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003. It’s budget was cut, it lost 500 staff (from over 5,000) and at the same time it was asked to do more with less by having to plan for terrorist attacks as well as natural disasters.

So it’s clear that the US federal governments preparation for and response to the disaster was inadequate and probably resulted in many people dying who might otherwise have survived – and what’s equally certain is that the Bush administration’s ideologically driven policies were the main cause of this. Bush has at least admitted that there were failures at a federal level.

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Were State and Local Government to blame as well?

The Bush administration has blamed the Louisiana State and local governments (mostly run by Democrats) for the lack of emergency aid to survivors.

First they claimed Louisiana’s governor had refused to approve a declaration of martial law or access for National Guard forces from other states. Whether you believe this will probably depend on your prior political affiliations. The Louisiana state government has provided documents which seem to show that they had requested both these things and federal aid before the hurricane struck.

There are also reports that the Department of Homeland Security prevented the Red Cross entering New Orleans because they want everyone to evacuate it due to the risks of disease from corpses, polluted water and malaria from mosquitoes. Was this the Louisiana state Homeland Security Department or the Federal one?

The policy of evacuating everyone may be wise. The problem is that the government(s) failed to evacuate people quickly and didn’t provide them with enough food or water while they were waiting to be evacuated – and even possibly prevented aid agencies supplying it.

There have been various other reports which allege that some local government officials at various levels were negligent.

It seems likely that there were failures at local and state level but a response to an emergency on this scale could only ever be effectively mounted at a national level by the Federal government so the majority of the blame must be placed with those with the majority of the power – the Bush administration.

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‘Welfare state’ or poverty and no way out for the poor?

What lessons have radical right wing commentators learned from Katrina? Some very strange ones. A popular theory for many right wing pundits is that the relief effort to New Orleans failed because the people of New Orleans failed to help themselves and/or failed to behave in a civilised way . This inability to look after themselves and/or barbaric behaviour is caused supposedly by the welfare state undermining people’s development of the ability to cope – and their morality.

There are a couple of problems with this theory. Apart from the fact that most of the reports of widespread murders and rapes were rumours with almost no basis in fact the welfare state in the US has been being cut constantly since Reagan came into power in the 80s. Under Clinton this continued with the President approving ‘welfare to work’ schemes which were another euphemism for welfare cuts , putting time limits on claiming benefit. Between 1993 and 1999 the number of Americans receiving welfare payments halved from 14 to 7 million. Further cuts under Bush increased the proportion of Americans living in poverty to 12.4%.

Nor was there any welfare state, or even any proper aid or evacuation programme, in New Orleans. It was lack of effective government, not too much government that was the problem.

In New Orleans before the flood 28% of the population were in poverty. These people couldn’t afford cars and there was no public transport provided by local,state or federal government – and only a 3 hour warning to evacuate – too little time to escape on foot. Then armed police closed the main bridge across the Mississippi to those who hadn’t had cars to escape earlier.

These police feared looting spreading to their areas – and no level of government had evacuated the poor or provided them with supplies or troops to prevent crime or fighting over what little food and water there was.

So much for the ‘welfare state’ causing ‘moral breakdown’. The government wouldn’t tax people on higher incomes to provide proper flood defences – and the government didn’t provide any way out for the poor. Some police even stopped them leaving. People in poverty don’t have the income to buy extra food to store for emergencies, they weren’t getting emergency supplies – so they stole it rather than die or see their children die.

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Does Global Warming exist? Is it man–made? Did it make Katrina worse?

We can argue about whether global warming is being accelerated and intensified by the burning of fossil fuels (many scientists believe it is and personally I believe it is) and we could note that most of the members of the Bush administration are former heads of oil or oil services firms (most notoriously ‘Ricky’ Dick Cheney – former Chief Executive of Halliburton – ok I admit only I call him Ricky and only to get a better title).

While we know that hurricanes took place in the 19th century before oil and gas were burnt on a large scale some scientists also believe the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other natural disasters is increased by man-made global warming.

It would be sensible to change our energy policies given the certainty that fossil fuels cause air pollution and contribute to causing lung diseases including asthma – and even the possibility that fossil fuels are intensifying global warming should make use change our energy sources.

However it remains difficult to persuade many people on the global warming issue despite the majority of scientists arguing that their research indicates it has a large man-made element to it. This is due to the amount of extremely dubious ‘research’ funded by oil companies –like the report last year which claimed that climate change is a ‘myth’ which was largely funded by companies like Exxon-Mobil. They even invented a petition supposedly signed by 17,000 scientists denying climate change and used fronts like the ‘Heartland Institute’ to publicise it. It’s common knowledge that Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice used to be on Exxon’s Board of Directors.

Exxon also employed Phillip Cooney who worked as a White House official writing up policy documents on climate change which distorted the scientific evidence in the same way intelligence on Iraq was distorted. When his link to Exxon was revealed he resigned – and immediately got a job working for Exxon again.

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Will the disaster change Bush administration policies or lose them support?

Bush has definitely lost support as a result of the failure to provide food, water and medical treatment to survivors as fast as it could have been provided. In the latest polls under 40% of Americans approve of the job he’s doing as President – and in every poll over 50% disapprove. Whether the right lessons will be learned or whether the failures will be put down to some lack of the mystical property of ‘leadership’ is another matter.

The priority for the Bush administration remains massive redistribution of wealth – to the wealthiest. More tax cuts for the wealthy, more welfare ‘reform’ (i.e cuts in spending for the poorest) – and federal reconstruction contracts in Louisiana for firms they used to be executives of or got donations from (the same firms getting reconstruction contracts in Iraq - including subsidiaries of Halliburton). The firms getting these contracts in Louisiana won’t even have to pay the minimum wage to the people they employ.

In keeping with their neo-liberal ideology the Bush administration have done nothing to provide public transport , encourage environmentally friendly energy , or regulate the use of fossil fuels or the companies that extract , transport and sell them. Instead he has suggested that individuals are responsible for using their cars less - while, as one Texan sceptic pointed out, flying around in a jet and a helicopter.

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Is the US government really too democratic to respond to a crisis?

The other explanation repeated by many news agencies (who’ve all obviously been briefed by the White House) is that the US system of government is just too democratic for it’s own good. No one person has the power to organise quick and effective action in an emergency. Bush couldn’t have just sent in FEMA and the National Guard because he’d have been accused of being a dictator.

This is really quite weak stuff. When has the Bush administration ever worried about going beyond its constitutional powers, threatening people’s civil rights, or pushing the President’s massive powers to the limit? The idea that they have suddenly become strict constitutionalists who make the American Civil Liberties Union look authoritarian isn’t convincing.

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What lessons can we learn from this tragedy so we can save lives in the future?

The real lessons Katrina has taught us are simpler and we’ve known them for a long time.

Charities will never have enough funds to match public services – and private companies in a de-regulated market will always care about profits before anything else. Only a welfare state, public works and government emergency services funded by taxation can ensure a civilised society that can deal with man-made or natural disasters without collapsing into chaos.

Polluting our environment causes illnesses and deaths – and if we have an unequal society with no proper welfare state or public services the poorest will suffer and die from everything from lack of healthcare to pollution and environmental catastrophes.

Hurricane Katrina has shown that natural disasters can make a super-power look like a third world country when it’s run by a government that doesn’t believe in public services funded by taxation (unless they’re the police, the military or secret police and even then they favour mercenaries and part-privatisation and under-fund these services).

We’ve seen the most powerful government on earth fail tragically to protect its own citizens. There are lessons for governments on what policies work and for voters on what policies to vote. There are also lessons for each of us in how much we use cars as opposed to trains and bicycles for instance – but time, energy, health and inequality will limit what individuals can do without changes in government policies.

From Africa to America these problems can only be solved by co-operation on a large scale – and from Africa to America any country that doesn’t learn this will be vulnerable.

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copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2005

 

Duncan McFarlane

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