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Friday, June 14, 2024

In remembrance of the Orleans tragedy

On the fifth anniversary of the catastrophe in New Orleans caused by hurricane Katrina back in 2005, CSMS Magazine feels compelled to pay a moment of silence to thousands of people who perished as a result of government neglect. Despite good promises made by the late Bush administration and now the Obama administration, New Orleans still remains a city to be rebuilt. The Army Corps of Engineers have received 14 billion dollars for strategic rebuilding around the areas that caused the flooding in the first place. However, according to The Associated Press, the corps has given itself until June 2011 to make the city safer from big storms, and says it will meet the deadline.  We just have to wait and see. As far as the devastated neighborhoods, many of them bear the same destructive faces they portrayed 5 years ago. To many of its former inhabitants, who were lucky enough to flee to safety, the city remains a haunted place where shocking pictures of dead bodies littering the streets or floating on the streets-filled water ways continue to linger in their minds.  Below is an in-depth analysis made by Dr. Ardain Isma that we have updated in remembrance of the tragedy.   

Hurricane Katrina Has Unveiled to the World the Deep Social Divide of Our American Society

By Ardain Isma, PhD.

Thousands poured into the Convention Center as the feeder bands moved ashore and began to slam the city in all directions. No security personnel were there on site to guide the refugees along, and no emergency workers came swiftly to the aid of pregnant women and the elderly. And the desperate people who fled their homes to get away from the advancing killer storm were left to survive at the mercy of street gangs, who quickly seized a “golden opportunity” to establish new territories and immediately began to pillage, shoot and rape at will. Ninety-degree temperatures backed by a heat index of 105 degrees had transformed the Convention Center into a virtual hell-on-earth.

There was no running water to help kill the thirst of thousands of hungry, desperate and nearly dehydrated citizens. There was no electricity to help bring the urgent cooling relief for hundreds of the elderly on the verge of collapse as they walked hopelessly with their oxygen tanks, waiting for some Good Samaritan to rescue them. The lifeless body of a young girl lay on a filthy, fetid bathroom floor. Freshly flowing blood was streaming from her throat, nostrils and mouth, giving the chilling impression that she had been raped, killed and simply thrown away. Frightened people froze in terror as darkness approached, with no hope of fleeing the unbearable madness. The smell of sweat mixed with human waste while dead bodies littered everyplace had unleashed a horrible odor that forced hundreds to pour into the corridors in a desperate search to find a safe refuge. They were hungry, exhausted, scared, abandoned by their own government and left to live in the shadow of death. And quite significantly, most of them were Black people.

It sounds like the punchy beginning of a gut-wrenching novel. But it was real. This was a heart-breaking report aired on National Public Radio the morning after Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the embattled residents of New Orleans. For many years it had been researched and warned by experts that human precipitated erosion of the Mississippi Delta could result in such an inevitable catastrophe. The cover story of one September issue of USA Today read, “Direct hit in New Orleans could mean a modern Atlantis. More than 1.2 million people in metropolitan New Orleans were warned Tuesday as [the] 140 mph hurricane churned toward the Gulf Coast, threatening to submerge this below-sea-level city in what could be the most disastrous storm to hit [the area] in nearly 40 years.” The big surprise is that this story was published on September 14th of 2004, as Hurricane Ivan threatened to overwhelm New Orleans.

The Atlantis scenario was not the accomplished prophesy of USA Today. Nor was it the sole prediction of a raw manifestation of post-apocalyptic novels and Hollywood science fiction movies, as Mike Davis from Tomdispath wrote to alert public opinion. “The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of [the] hurricane…looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent Whites fled the Big Easy in their SUVs while the old and car-less-mainly Blacks were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.” This piece too was not written last month. It was published a year ago and prophetically titled, “Poor, Black, and Left Behind!” All these warnings appeared to have no impact on the authorities whose role was to take preemptive measures to prevent disastrous calamities such as the one the whole world is witnessing today. Instead, they all plunged into total indifference, if not total ignorance, in the manifest presence of doom. The whole world watched with inexplicable dismay as the Atlantis scenario that so many had written about unfolded.

New Orleans lay beneath the invading Mississippi like a toxic sludge pool filled with dead bodies. The gruesome scenes of intense human suffering, squalor and shameful indifference has exposed the sharp contradictions and the rotten core of the social divide of our American society—something that is usually camouflaged and hidden deep under the sheets of “the Greatest Country in the World.”

The tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina has brought out into the open the ugly reality of modern day America—a country polarized by racial and class divisions, governed by a ruling elite out of touch with social reality or public responsibility, in which millions if its citizens are deemed expendable and cannot depend on their government if disaster, in whatever form, strikes.

Hurricane Katrina did not only breach the levees of New Orleans; the catastrophe that followed in its aftermath has also breached the levees that sealed for more than 30 years all the ugliness, shortsightedness and greediness of unchallenged social and political lack of reaction. Years of relentless attacks on the social safety net for the poor by right-wing politicians has led to the shutdown of most important social services and the elimination of most government agencies designed to fight poverty and to protect and save lives after major natural disasters occur.

Former President Bill Clinton himself admitted in the New York Times that “You cannot have an emergency plan that works if it only affects the middle people [and] up.” Clinton went on to say that “It is a matter of public policy. Whether it’s race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects Black and Brown people, that’s a consequence of the action made. That is what they did in the ‘80s…” Nothing can be closer to the truth. But here, Clinton sounds more like a traditional politician on a campaign trail, seizing this tragic opportunity to recover lost grounds on behalf of the Democratic Party. When it comes to attacking the social safety net for the poor, Bill Clinton is no outlier. It was he who in 1996, in the middle of his re-election campaign, signed the Welfare Act into law, giving the poor only two years to remain on welfare. What happens after that two years if the person cannot find a job no longer concerns the government.

But if sweet-talking Bill Clinton represents the “liberal” face of the Democratic Party, as the “mainstream” media like to make us believe, George W. Bush’s social conservatism, which includes the extreme right-wingers of the bourgeoisie and which represents the highest layer of America’s money-mad corporate elite, constitutes what David Watch calls “the quintessentially repulsive expression” of an arrogant class. This statement can clearly be justified by their lack of concern for countless warnings of the imminent danger—especially after Hurricane Ivan failed to achieve last year what Katrina has succeeded at so devastatingly this year. The blatant disregard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people whose world may be shattered forever and who may never be able to overcome on their own the aftershocks of the killer storm, not to mention the millions who directly or indirectly will suffer from a severe economic downturn, is the biggest proof of the government’s total indifference for its minority population.

Recovering the Dead: Shocking and Humiliating

In all human disasters, especially those with great loss of lives, one of the first priorities for any responsible government is to insure that dead bodies are retrieved quickly and humanely—with utmost dignity. A quick recovery of the bodies prevents the spread of diseases, allows the authorities to identify the remains and greatly helps the healing process, as surviving loved ones work to bring their families closer.

In the aftermath of Katrina, however, the authorities waited for an entire week before they timidly began the process. While dead bodies were being filmed everywhere for the whole world to see, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the main agency responsible for disaster relief, almost put a blind eye on the body-retrieving process, saying through its representative in New Orleans, David Passey, that “The emphasis right now is on saving lives, not on recovering dead bodies.” The coldness of his statement is one of the most compelling evidence of official indifference to the massive human suffering created by the catastrophe.

Observers believed that the Bush Administration was extremely nervous and tremendously worried about the effect a rising death toll could have on public opinion, local and international. After coming under strong criticism for his obvious lack of concern over the many warning signals about a possible disaster, the last thing George W. Bush needed was embarrassing images of floating dead bodies. At first, the authorities attempted to impose a freeze on news coverage of the recovery. That quickly failed when the cable news network CNN filed a lawsuit against the government. Lt. General Russell Honore, the highest military officer in New Orleans, the man who led the drive to impose the news blackout, had a hard time explaining his actions. He kept trying to justify it by saying that “It is necessary to preserve the dignity of the dead.”

What dignity was the general talking about? It was almost impossible for Gen. Honore to justify this “dignity,” for at the moment he was speaking, the dead and the living were still intermingling in the swampy, smelly and intoxicating streets. Children were left to seek their presumably dead parents on their own, and senior citizens were collapsing in droves from heat exhaustion and hunger. Desperate people lay on rooftops for days as they waited in vain to be rescued. Where were the swift boats designed for amphibious assault that the U.S. Army always takes great pride in to display in Air and Sea shows across the country? They could have been used to save lives. Were the lives of the victims not worth the cost that was required to deploy such life-saving equipment?

Complicating the body-collection process were ugly quarrels that occurred between FEMA, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and private contractor Kenyon International Emergency Services over the terms of the “collecting corpses agreement.” According to the New Orleans Times-Pi-Cayune, Kenyon International “arrived in Louisiana in early September, but [it] did not begin to work until September 7, and then only on the basis of an oral contract.”

Governor Blanco clarified the dispute further by saying that the company threatened to leave if FEMA was not going to provide a written contract. Then Governor Blanco intervened, signing a contract with the company although she strongly affirmed it was FEMA’s responsibility.

However, what plunged most observers into shocked bewilderment was the absence of active-duty and National Guard soldiers in the body recovery process. When questioned by journalists, Ricardo Zunga, another FEMA spokesman, confirmed in a cynically blunt way: “The agency policy bars military and police officers from touching the bodies, except for logging and reporting their locations to higher authorities.”

While David Passey insisted that “the collection of bodies is not normally a FEMA responsibility,” a spokesman for Kenyon confirmed that the company had signed a working agreement with FEMA over disaster relief services that included mobile morgues and body recovery services since 1997. As FEMA steadfastly refused to pay, Reuter’s news agency reported that the State of Louisiana had signed a contract set to run from September 12 to November 15, at a daily rate of $118,980. A ten percent discount was included in the agreement. Perhaps that was all the American company could offer to the neglected and deprived citizens of New Orleans while the whole world was lending its hand to the disenfranchised population.

Kenyon International is not an obscured company that burst out of the blue. According to its website, it is a subsidiary of Service Corporation International (SCI) that manages one of the largest chains of funeral homes in the United States. It worked in New York during the World Trade Center catastrophe in 2001. At the start of the war in Iraq, it signed a contract with the United Nations to provide “mortuary operations, family assistant and disposition of personal effects.” Publicly traded on the New York stock exchange, SCI owns 1,500 funeral homes in North America and has been a close supporter of George W. Bush since his days as Governor of Texas.

The treatment kept from the dead, along with the nonchalance displayed in helping the living, is a humiliating example of the government’s gross contempt for Hurricane Katrina’s multitudinous low income and Black victims. As John Levine puts it, “It is a prime example of how big business and its political representatives subordinated all aspects of social life to profit.”

 Shameful Profit off Human Misery

 The United States is without a doubt one of the world’s richest countries, both in natural resources and in its accumulation of wealth. However, like most western industrial societies, the vast concentration of capital rests into the hands of a small but extremely powerful elite, offering the rest of the population, especially the lowest layer, a token piece of the pie to create a façade of a fair-shared equity for all. Where extreme capitalism is practiced, it is an irony that the upper classes, which control the effective reins of power, are the least challenged in all industrial societies. Class struggles, or the fight for economic opportunity, are diluted, manipulated, camouflaged and ultimately disarmed in the name of the “struggle for racial equality” and “personal responsibility.” Sadly enough, the US’s polarization along racial and ethnic lines is so deeply entrenched that its efforts to find common grounds and create a united front across racial lines in order to fight off the ever-growing arrogant ruling elite appear to be all but doomed.

Even the media cannot escape the racial implications. This could not be more apparent the day after Hurricane Katrina struck. In the face of governmental neglect, hurricane victims were left with two choices: die or use whatever means at their disposal to stay alive. Of course, survival instinct dictated them to opt for the latter choice. Even with such a desperate search to pull themselves back from the brink, the media’s racial bias was clear. On television footage, whenever the victim was a White person trying to feed himself, he was portrayed as merely looking for food; but when the person was Black, doing the same thing, he was no other than a looter who needed to be shot, as it was ordered by the Louisiana governor herself, Kathleen Blanco.

A recent survey conducted by CNN showed that 70% of African Americans conceded that if the majority of the victims were Whites, government response would have been totally different, while only 20% of Whites thought that way. With this kind of enshrined mentality, it is almost entirely impossible for disenfranchised and thoroughly exploited White factory workers on the eastern seaboard to forge strategic alliances with minority exploited workers in both rural and urban America in order to fight their exploitation. Coal miners in Virginia and factory workers in North Carolina cannot seem to understand that when it comes to making a decent profit, their fellow “White” factory owners see no race bias when they unanimously decide their faith inside their corporate boardrooms, shutting down the factory doors in the workers’ faces, leaving thousands jobless while they move their operations overseas where cheaper labor is plentiful. Meanwhile, above the fray rein the nouveaux riches of Silicon Valley, the corporate CEOs of Wall Street and the elitist political establishment of Washington DC.

 Unmasking the “Opportunity-for-All” cliché

 The reality of hundreds and perhaps thousands who perished in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because they had no access to transport vehicles or to buy tickets to get out of town is the perfect manifestation of what lies beneath America’s “opportunity-for-all” façade—we are as yet a country in which millions of people live well below the threshold level of poverty. But until last month, the continental U.S.A. stood seemingly untouched in what was still acclaimed to be the world’s greatest superpower, despite the fact that the insurgency in Iraq has for some time managed to put that into question by bringing the world’s mightiest army to a grinding, devastating halt.

Poverty is an irrefutable fact in America. According to the US Census Bureau, 35.9 million Americans live below the poverty line, including 12.9 million children. That is in spite of the fact of our enormous abundance of food resources. “Almost 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in America each year,” said Samana Siddigi in her article, “Statistics on Poverty and Food Wastage in America.” Also, according to a twenty-seven-city study by the United States Conference of Mayors published in 2004, demands for emergency food assistance have increased by 14 percent, while 20 percent of requests for temporary food assistance went unmet last year. America’s Second Harvest, the country’s largest network of food banks, reported that 23.3 million people turned to the agencies they serve in 2001, which was a jump of 2 million people since 1997.

Those who live on the fringes of society are without a doubt the most vulnerable. But those who are from the middle class, who depend on their professional paychecks to maintain their lifestyle, are clearly living on shaky ground, for any economic downturn is enough to send them into bankruptcy. Until Katrina moved ashore last month, few people believed in the notion of “starving the beast” that the conservative ideologues in Washington never stopped bragging about. Most people simply interpreted it as a political metaphor. But when the killer storm unleashed its fury on the vulnerable Mississippi Gulf Coast, it ripped right open all the ugly social contradictions that lay beneath the façade of “equality for all,” while washing away all the Bush Administration’s devastating policies—from the humiliating war in Iraq to sky-rocking gasoline prices and to fiscal and environmental concerns.

Despite this obvious embarrassment, we would be naïve to believe that collective responsibility will finally prevail. Bush’s famous speech on Jackson Square two weeks after the catastrophe, in which he pledged a quarter of a trillion dollars for the rebuilding efforts, was revealed to be nothing more than an empty promise designed to rehabilitate America’s shattered image before the world. It was not a genuine reassurance from the federal government directed at the Katrina victims. There was a certain group of people that President Bush was in fact reassuring: the corporate freebooters who are already hard at work sucking most of the profits that will be generated from the rebuilding efforts. The Bush speech provided nothing in substance; nor did it detail how the fate of those who fled to Miami, Houston and other far-off places is going to be settled. As corporate America is poised to rejoice over the major rebuilding effort, it is reasonable to think that what they envision is a “New Orleans à la Las Vegas on the Gulf Coast, Creole-style kitsch on a grand scale and a stimulated Bourbon Street on Bourbon Street itself,” as Levine tells us.

If one wants to believe a recent editorial of the Wall Street Journal, it is easy to get a glimpse of what has already been in the works for the battered city. “An alternative would be to name the entire stricken area an enterprise zone for some period of time, which would offer both tax incentives and regulatory waivers to stimulate reinvestment,” noted the Wall Street Journal editors. An operation of such scale would simply mean the transformation of most of the city into what David Walsh calls “a giant cheap labor haven, thrown open to the most ruthless business elements.”  As a matter of fact, oil companies are already rushing to secure the best part of the available profits. Many of them are already exercising repairs to offshore platforms, causing their shares to soar in the New York Stock Exchange. These days, their shareholders are having a field day, celebrating yet more soaring profits in an already bull market for their sector.

Last month, most oil companies’ stocks, including Bark Hughes and Halliburton, jumped to a 52-week high on the New York Stock Exchange. Halliburton is the oil company that became notoriously famous for its association with the Bush administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, for having been its former chief executive officer (CEO). Cheney, a week after Hurricane Katrina swept into New Orleans and after the whole world was lending its hands to the victims, continued to enjoy his vacation at his ranch in Wyoming. But he wasn’t alone in this kind of nonchalant and shameful irresponsibility. When Katrina struck, George W. Bush flew to San Diego from Crawford, Texas, promoting his devastating war in Iraq. On his way back to Washington, after a world of cry for the victims, he finally ordered his pilot to swoop down to 1,700 feet merely to take a closer look, without landing the airplane. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, according to the New York Times, was in the Big Apple on a shopping spree.             

Today, while the hurricane victims are disproportionately spread to unimaginable places, the project to redraw the political map of New Orleans appears to be well under way. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested to a suburban weekly in Illinois that “New Orleans may be bulldozed” soon after Katrina struck, it triggered an outcry. Although he later withdrew his comments, most observers now believe that his shocking remarks were in fact part of a psychological campaign to prepare the population for what is being openly discussed in the media these days: bulldozing the entire New Orleans East area, including the Lower Ninth Ward—the city’s poorest section. Since last week, this issue has become the subject of open debates, as Robert Siegel of NPR and Ted Coppell of ABC News do not seem to get enough of it. Most people who live in New Orleans East area are Black, poor and unable to fight back against this effectively.

Finally, it is sad to say that the United States is a country plagued by major social contradictions in which its leaders live in total denial. It is a country that has become over the last fifty years highly militarized, where the ruling elite wholeheartedly believes that only force or the threat of it can bring America’s friends and foes to their knees and can help sustain America’s super power status indefinitely. If there is a lesson one can learn from the Katrina disaster and perhaps from the war in Iraq, it is that when it comes to human suffering no mighty army can substitute for the sense of humility and professional responsibility that is required to heal the wounds of the surviving victims as they struggle daily to bring closure and an end to their sufferings. To prevent another hurricane like Katrina, no mighty army can be used as line of defense against the disastrous effects of global warming to which the Bush Administration steadily refuses to pay attention, except when it has to be squared off against Middle Eastern energy dependence, which makes the prospect for an Atlantis scenario all the more real.

Hurricane Katrina has brought to light everything that is wrong with the ever-polarized society of the United States: the astonishing accumulation of capital into the hands of a ruling elite, the pervasion of poverty for many of its population and the decaying of our infrastructure—especially the government agencies responsible for protecting the people’s social safety net. Now that the government is talking about rebuilding the city, it is hard to imagine that those who were responsible for the catastrophe can be entrusted with the reconstruction of New Orleans.

The people of New Orleans and the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast must remain vigilant and demand to be part of the torturous process that lies ahead to end the blight of poverty and to provide decent education, jobs, housing and healthcare. Only the local people’s vigilance and their active participation, as limited by their poverty and poor social position as they may be, can guarantee a true restoration of their battered city. It is patently obvious that they cannot truly rely on their own government for this.

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