Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history, hit the Gulf Coast just as America prepared to mark the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This is deeply symbolic since what the aftermath of the disaster highlighted was the extent to which the one dovetailed neatly into the other. The American government’s quest to bring American-style freedom and democracy to other nations exposed their inadequacy in resolving fundamental domestic disparities and inequities closer to home.
Katrina did not create these disparities and inequities, it simply added an important reminder that they are deeply embedded and constitutive of American political, economic, and social life. One of the major legacies of Katrina is that the disaster laid bare the inequalities, not just within New Orleans, but America itself.
It is perhaps naive to think that the catastrophe will provide a longer-term wake-up call to the political establishment in America to set about actively building a more fair and meaningful democracy in the country. Subsequent inaction would indeed appear to indicate that there is some justification for this naivety.
There is little indication a decade down the line that any attention has been paid to the role of American political institutions in addressing contemporary racial, economic, regional, and gendered inequities.The tenth anniversary visit of George Bush to New Orleans recently was emblematic of his administration’s incompetence rather than any cause for gratitude from the people affected by the tragedy.
The visit of Obama was no less irrelevant. In emphasising his apparent commitment to the recovery process, the president said: “Part of our goal has always been to make sure not just that we recovered from the storm but also to make sure we dealt with some of the structural inequities that existed long before the storm happened.
It’s strange then that when Harry Shearer took out a full page ad in the local newspaper suggesting that Obama as the commander and chief of the US Army Corp of Engineers acknowledge this agencies’ responsibility for the deaths of 1,800 people, he was met with silence from the president. As usual, Obama offered nothing other than empty rhetorical platitudes as a substitute for tackling real problems.
Shearer, who made a documentary film about Katrina that focused on why the disaster happened, argued on Channel 4 News that Katrina was a man made catastrophe. Quoting one of the co-authors of a Berkeley report, he said that this was the greatest man made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl.
Are these failed systems still in place a decade later? And if so, what is to prevent a similar catastrophe happening again?
Shearer says that the new improved system that cost the US taxpayer £14 billion has been built to a substantially lower standard than the system that failed. Last week, one of the members of the Levee Authority told Shearer that his advice to the citizens of New Orleans regarding whether they should feel more safe or not, was to maintain a constant skepticism.
None of this would be a surprise to author and activist Naomi Klein who, in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, views the social breakdown of societies and communities as being a feature of neoliberal economic policies of governments’. This breakdown is not the result of incompetence or mismanagement, therefore, but is integral to the free-market project, which can only advance against a background of disasters.
Disaster is part of the normal functioning of the type of capitalism we have today: “An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial.”
Media reports in the immediate aftermath of Katrina – for example, here, here, here, here, here and here – would tend to support Klein’s thesis. Unnatural disasters such as wars as well as natural ones like tsunamis and Hurricanes, allow governments and multinationals to take advantage of citizen shock and swiftly impose corporate-friendly policies.The result: a wealthier elite and more-beleaguered middle and lower classes. Sri Lankan fishing villages become luxury resorts and public schools along the Gulf Coast become corporate-run “charter” schools.
Three weeks after Katrina, the state sacked all the unionized teachers, disbanded the school board and turned the schools over to a state receiver in Baton Rouge resulting in the loss of community accountability. Margaret Spelling, the secretary of education, dumped $24 million into New Orleans, but it wasn’t allowed to go into public schools. It went to the charter schools thereby resulting in the shifting of power away from people towards the creation of a three-tier privatized system.
The destruction of New Orleans resulting from Katrina, also paves the way for its potential gentrification and social and ethnic cleansing where the city’s working class Black population – the people who are the very soul of the city, and who created its culture and made it famous – are seen as the major obstacle to the city’s economic recovery. A minority of them are necessary to be service workers in casinos and hotels. But the bigger idea has been to shrink the Black population and push the poor out of the city.
This kind of ruthless attitude toward the poor is symptomatic of the statement made by Republican congressman Richard Baker when he was overheard telling lobbyists “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” It’s difficult to believe that the comment could be construed as anything other than informing some of the planning for a disaster in New Orleans. Flood becomes part of an ethnic cleansing process. City politics has been aiming at that for the last 20 or 25 years.