The devastation and suffering caused by the Katrina and Rita hurricanes in the southern states of the US, this autumn, will probably leave a deep scar for several generations to come. But this is not just because of the sheer strength of the hurricanes. Social and political factors played as much of a role.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.. regularly occur in our history. But their impact is compounded by circumstances which are man-made. For instance, when the tsunami claimed so many lives and caused so much damage last year, in southern Asia, this was quite rightly blamed on poverty, lack of adequate infrastructure and poor administration in the impoverished countries which were affected.
One would have thought that such factors were specific to poor countries and would never come into play if a similar disaster hit the USA, the world's richest and most powerful state. But, as New Orleans showed, this was mistaken. Behind the flood caused by the hurricanes, the TV coverage of the disaster area revealed an ocean of poverty, reminiscent of the Third World - an impoverished population which is normally hidden away, ignored by the media and despised by the powers that be.
Likewise, the way in which this population was left to its own devices to cope with the full impact and aftermath of one of the worst natural phenomena in living American history, revealed the contempt US society has for its ordinary members, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable among them.
The catastrophic consequences of these events have been blamed on the corrupt practices and criminal neglect of the Bush administration. But while Bush's criminal role is indisputable, the main criminal is a class system which undermines the workings of society so deeply that even the enormous affluence of the US economy makes no difference whatsoever for a whole section of its population.
So, beyond exposing the nepotism and profiteering which are so blatant under Bush, the events surrounding Katrina and Rita provide a damning indictment of capitalism itself - a system which, even in its most successful incarnation, is incapable of providing for the needs and protection of the population.
A predictable catastrophe
Bush had the nerve to claim that Katrina was unpredictable. This was a lie. Not only was it predictable, but it had been predicted. The US Met Office warned the authorities about Katrina's course and strength a good six days before it hit New Orleans!
Hurricanes are frequent in the Gulf of Mexico. They have been the subject of considerable scientific investigation and their behaviour is relatively well-known. Moreover, scientists predicted long ago that this year, hurricanes would be particularly numerous and severe.
Unlike in southern Asia, where the facilities to monitor such phenomena are limited, the Gulf of Mexico and a whole area in the Atlantic ocean are covered by a network of scientific instruments which, together with meteorological satellites, make it possible to check for the emergence of a hurricane long before it becomes dangerous, chart its course relatively precisely and predict the risks it represents.
Once a hurricane is in motion, there are more systems available to monitor the impact it has on water levels. Overwhelming as it may become, a flood does not happen overnight. It is the result of a build up which can be easily monitored. David Ball, an Irish geophysicist, described in the Irish Times how he even followed the rising threat on New Orleans from his flat in Dublin. Ball was able to do this, thanks to the public website of the US National Water Information System which provides real-time data from 5,000 sites across the USA, covering anything from water levels to river flows and wind speed. In the vicinity of New Orleans alone, there were no fewer than 49 stations and automatic gauges providing such information. And this was in addition to the real-time data on tides, wave heights, wind gusts, etc.., provided by instruments on buoys and rigs off the US coasts.
Of course, all this data from a website only known to specialists, probably meant very little to non-specialists. But certainly no-one can claim that the strength and timing of the hurricanes, nor the risk they represented were "unpredictable".
This risk was all the more predictable for New Orleans because of its particular location. It was highlighted, for instance, in a series of articles published in 2001 in the Scientific American journal, which issued this stark warning:
"New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh - an area the size of Manhattan - will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities."
The same scientists who warned against the danger of allowing New Orleans' natural wetland protection to disappear, also warned against a tourism construction boom which developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In the state of Mississippi alone, 20 or so large casinos were built along the coast, involving 30,000 jobs. Today, all of them are reduced to rubble and the jobs have gone.
Others pointed to the poor state of repair of the levees, which in and of itself was a hazard. They also noted that due to the tight limits put on the land allocated to the levees - because the price of land is so high and the city administration was cutting costs - they could not be raised high enough without compromising their ability to resist.
But instead of listening to the scientists' warnings, the authorities and capitalists preferred to gamble on short-term gains. And nothing was done to come up with a viable policy and develop the means to protect the population in advance.
It would not be true to say that absolutely nothing was done, however. With a touch of sinister irony, the issue of the Scientific American already quoted, gives one example of the measures which had been taken by 2001: "Boxes are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large, windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all. If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. 'As the water recedes,' says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, 'we expect to find a lot of dead bodies.'"
This is yet more proof that, despite Bush's claim, the authorities were not taken unawares - and further evidence that they were willing to accept the risk of casualties rather than do something to prevent them. No doubt because this was a lot cheaper!
A long history of disaster and neglect
The lack of adequate disaster prevention measures is all the more scandalous because the southern states have such a long history of facing such situations.
Up to 1928, the states, and often individuals, had been supposed to cope with natural disasters themselves. Eventually, however, this changed due to the scandal caused by the 1927 Mississippi flood.
That year, the river broke its levees in 145 places and flooded 70,000 square kilometres. 700,000 refugees, who had lived on the low-land reclaimed from the river, were penned into squalid camps. Because property on these low-lands was cheaper, many of those who lived there were black. When the flood started, many of these black farmers were arrested by the National Guard and used as forced labour to mend the levees. When they were not enslaved in that way, they were stopped from leaving the danger zone, as in Greenville, where the land owners prevented black share-croppers from being evacuated, for fear that they might decide not to return.
This flood exposed the brutality of US society and discredited the then president, Coolidge. However, it provided a springboard for Coolidge's trade secretary, Hoover, who gained credit by appearing as the man behind the help effort for the South. Because of this and the promise he made to compensate the victims of the flood, Hoover was elected president the following year. But the black victims never saw the compensation they had been promised. However, because the federal government had left the Red Cross to deliver most of the help, which caused a scandal, a 1928 law provided for the first time that the federal government would be responsible for the protection of US citizens against natural disasters.
The protection work carried out from 1928 turned out to be an illusion, when hurricane Betsy flooded New Orleans in 1965. A first proposal, involving the building of a huge anti-hurricane barrier, was defeated in Congress by a coalition between local capitalists who feared for trade along the Mississippi river and the green lobby which feared for the fishes! Instead, Congress voted for the construction of hundreds of miles of levees designed to prevent Lake Pontchartrain from flooding the city. However these levees were only designed to withstand hurricane of strength level 3 on a scale of 5. So, for the following three decades, every administration accepted that New Orleans would not be protected against a very strong hurricane. And to make matters worse, the maintenance of these levees remained chronically underfunded throughout this period.
1993, 1995 and 1998 provided new evidence of the danger, with two hurricanes and a river flood. Fortunately, there were few casualties, but the damage was important enough for the federal authorities and scientists to draw up a blueprint for a 10-year plan, aimed at restoring the natural defences provided by the environment and consolidating the levees. But this plan was costed at a total $14bn - enough for it to be left on the drawing board right up until today.
From 2001, the inadequate funding allocated to disaster prevention by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the army Engineer Corps, was cut even more under the pretext of the "war against terrorism". FEMA itself was transferred to the new Homeland Security administration set up by Bush to wage his war. Soon, Bush's allies were propelled into prominent positions within FEMA, like Michael Brown, who was appointed as head of the agency. Brown's main qualification for the job was that he had been a horse-racing official for a whole decade and, as he showed during the Katrina crisis, he was willing to gamble with people's lives as well. Meanwhile FEMA's workforce was cut by 10% and its emergency teams by a third. The protection of ordinary people was obviously not meant to be a big part of FEMA's agenda any more!
In the following years, funding cuts became even more drastic. In 2004, the army's funding for construction work along the entire southern coast was cut by 80% and not one cent was paid for the levee's maintenance. Yet no fewer than 4 hurricanes hit the US coast during that year. In fact, it was not as if no-one rang the alarm bells. In 2004, FEMA made a computer simulation of what would happen should a level 3 hurricane hit New Orleans. It predicted that the city would be flooded under 20 feet of water, 5 to 600,000 buildings would be destroyed and one million people would have to be evacuated. At the time, FEMA recommended that 1000 emergency shelters should be set up, with enough supplies for 100 days, 800 qualified emergency workers should be kept on permanent alert, etc.. But nothing was done.
Leaving people to fend for themselves
The long and short of the various administrations' attitudes over the past decade was that it was not "cost effective" to spend the money necessary to protect the population of New Orleans against a threat that might materialise only once in a century. But when the threat did materialise after all, this attitude proved to conceal something even more sinister - a contempt for the poor which was criminal.
When Katrina finally hit the US coast, on 29th August, with gales hurtling at 140 miles/hr, it spread immediately to Louisiana, Mississippi and part of Texas - in total a territory just over the size of the UK. As had been long predicted, the New Orleans' levees collapsed within just one day, on 30th August, and 80% of the town was flooded. The poorest districts, which were located in the low plains, were most affected.
Two days before, on 28th August, Kathleen Blanco, the democrat governor of Louisiana found nothing better to do than to invite the city's population to pray in the hope that this would reduce the strength of the hurricane! That same day, New Orleans' mayor, Ray Nagin, another Democrat, finally decided to order the evacuation of the population.
But there was no plan for such an operation. There were virtually no shelters prepared anywhere for refugees, nor stocks of water, food or medicines. There was not even enough petrol for those lucky enough to have a car to leave the town. Because, and the authorities knew this pretty well, over 100,000 people - 15% of the white population and 35% of the black population - had no means of transportation of their own. Not to mention hospital patients and those living in old people's homes. The only advice all these people were given was to find some car owners to take care of them!
And, of course, after the flood started, there were no plans to deal with the 100,000 people or so who, therefore, remained stranded in the town. There were neither helicopters nor boats to take them to safety. These people were all supposed to fend for themselves!
As the water level increased, people took refuge on their roofs or tried to reach safer areas - the richest parts of the town, which were beyond the reach of the flood because they were built on high ground, the Convention centre or the now infamous "Superdome". This "Superdome" was in fact the only shelter officially recognised by the authorities. 20 to 25,000 people were penned in there for days, in the most horrendous conditions, without electricity, food, or adequate toilet facilities, in unbearable heat. For someone like Ray Nagin, a loyal representatives of the local capitalists, this was what was meant to be appropriate shelter... for the poor!
Protecting property before people
Once the floods hit New Orleans, the authorities' first preoccupation was to keep the poor from entering the wealthy neighbourhoods with their sumptuous homes, the French Quarter, and the central business district with its office buildings, deluxe hotels, restaurants, expensive stores, etc... - most of which were not flooded.
The police were deployed to take the survivors onto overpasses in the middle of nowhere or herd them into the Superdome and Convention Centre. Police formed a barrier to keep the people penned in those hell holes - away from the dry, wealthy areas nearby.
But with the New Orleans police and a couple of hundred troops from the National Guard already stretched thin, mayor Ray Nagin and police chief Eddie Compass jumped in front of TV cameras to speak about criminals running amok in New Orleans. On September 1, Nagin proclaimed: "So what you're seeing is drug-starving crazy addicts, drug addicts, that are wrecking havoc. And we don't have the manpower to adequately deal with it. We can only target certain sections of the city [i.e., the French Quarter, the central and wealthy neighbourhoods along the river] and form a perimeter around them and hope to God that we're not overrun." At the same time, for good measure, the same individuals fed the media with hysterical stories of killings and rapes which were allegedly taking place in the Superdome and, in fact, all other the "uncontrolled" areas of the town.
These were all lies, which were obviously designed to get Bush to send in a much more massive military force in order to protect those "certain sections of the city" from the poor, for the benefit of the local rich.
For the same reason, at a time when tens of thousands of people needed to be saved from the floods in which they were trapped, the authorities embarked on an indecent campaign against looting and gang crime. And they did not do so just in the media. Not only was a state of emergency and a curfew declared in New Orleans, but there were many instances of blatant police brutality against innocent people - including a 64-year old retired teacher who was beaten up in front of TV cameras - whose only crime, in the eyes of a notoriously racist police, was probably to be black and poor.
As early as 30th August, police officials boasted proudly of having "regained control" of a Wal-Mart supermarket - part of the US biggest and richest chain. Then, for good measure, they had a 73-year old woman arrested for stealing £40 worth of goods in a corner shop. She was kept in custody for two weeks before eventually being freed on £30,000 bail!
Most of the "looting" was, in fact, a simple matter of survival in the absence of any other source of supplies. In the early days, the most decent cops had even encouraged people to help themselves from shops which had been deserted by their owners and where perishable goods were bound to rot anyway in the absence of electricity. Refugees in the Superdome pointed out that if it had not been for the courage of many youth who took the risk of being arrested, if not shot, by going out in order to bring back some food and medicines, many more people would have died.
Of course, non-emergency goods were looted as well, probably by the usual gangs which had not disappeared just because of the flood. But ironically, they were not the only ones to jump on the opportunity. For instance, by mid-October, some police officers were under investigation on suspicion of having discreetly "borrowed" 200 cars from a Cadillac dealership...
The fact, however, was that the people caught in New Orleans, so despised by Nagin, were keeping things together with their courage and their solidarity. They pulled together to rescue many of those who were trapped in their homes or in the flood waters. They scrounged whatever food, water and medical supplies they could find; they helped move the sick. In the weeks that followed, the lies of Nagin and Compass were exposed by some of the few officials who had been in the Superdome during those fateful days. A supervisor from the Department of Social Services told how teenagers helped save those who were collapsing every few minutes from heat and exhaustion: "Some of these guys looked like thugs, with pants hanging down around their asses," he said, "but they worked their asses off, grabbing litters and running with people to the New Orleans Arena", which housed the medical operation.
Attacking the lies and rumours spread by the likes of Nagin and Compass, Major Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard offered this appreciation: "What I saw in the Superdome was a tremendous number of people helping people. (..) They have been cheated out of being thought of as these tough people who looked out for each other."
A rescue that feels like a rope around the neck
The destruction of New Orleans attracted the media spotlight because it was a major city and a tourist centre. But what happened in New Orleans was replicated up and down the Gulf coast, from Alabama to Mississippi to rural Louisiana all the way to Texas. It was a vast array of destruction with people losing their homes and trailers. Entire towns were swept away by the storm surge. Of course, the main victims were the poor and working class, both black and white. Often, their situation was even worse than it was in New Orleans, since it took even longer before any outside help got to them.
Ironically, part of the problem faced by the authorities in mobilising help from the National Guard in Louisiana, was that 8,000 of its soldiers, or nearly one third of the total, were in Iraq, together with half of the equipment, including amphibious vehicles.
But, added to this in the case of New Orleans, the authorities were obviously terrified at the idea that the suffering inflicted on the population and the anger caused by the lack of emergency provisions might lead to some sort of explosion among people who had nothing to lose. So rather than sending units from the National Guard as they became available, the authorities waited until a large enough force of these soldiers had been gathered before deploying them.
So, the National Guard only reached New Orleans 4 days after the beginning of the flood. And while it was supposed to be a rescue party, it appeared instead as an occupation force, complete with humvees, vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns and war helicopters, whose main objective was to take control of the town and its population - which indeed it was.
It was at this point, and only at this point, once thousands of heavily-armed soldiers were at hand, that the authorities decided at last to provide the means to evacuate those trapped by the flood. Within one day or so, only 10 to 15,000 people remained in the flooded areas, mostly in their own houses.
But this massive evacuation revealed another problem - no shelters had been prepared to receive the refugees where they were brought to. Around 15,000 found themselves herded into the parking lot of Houston's Astrodrome, in Texas. But, although food supplies were hugely improved compared with the Superdome, it was not better equipped to serve as a refugee camp. As to the authorities, all they were managing to do was to preach "patience".
Meanwhile well-off refugees from New Orleans were already busy buying themselves houses in their host towns, thereby driving housing prices through the roof and threatening to price low-income locals out of their rented homes. But of course, there was no question of the authorities stopping real estate companies from making a bonanza out of such an unexpected speculative bubble!
Back in New Orleans, with at most 15,000 people left in the poor districts, mayor Ray Nagin ordered them to be evacuated, forcibly if necessary, under the pretext that their health might be at risk if they stayed. So, a house to house search for remaining people was launched. But this search was also aimed at confiscating any weapons that might be found, including those legally held, in order, officially, to "minimize the risk of confrontations". Only private security guards were allowed to retain their weapons. But, there was a logic to this: after all, like Nagin, they were in the business of protecting the private property of companies and rich individuals.
A catalogue of avoidable failures
It is worth drawing a balance sheet of this relatively short period - ten days, starting with the Met Office's warning - from the point of view of what could have been done, to prevent the suffering and casualties that we have just described.
Had the authorities decided to order the evacuation of New Orleans immediately after the Met Office's warning, instead of waiting for another four days, there would have been plenty of time to organise it in an orderly fashion. Car owners would not have had to face horrendous traffic jams - it was only a question of saying who was to leave and when. And the 100,000 people or so who had no cars could have been evacuated without any real problem. The authorities would have had to requisition the town's street buses, its 350 school buses and the huge fleet of Greyhound coaches. Together with the use of trains, there would have been more than enough space for everyone to leave and to take with them some belongings in order to be able to hold out for some time.
Then of course, there was the question of where to put the refugees - at least those who could not afford to stay in hotels for any length of time. Outraged by the fate of these families, black leaders from Louisiana came up with an obvious solution: they demanded that all the army bases, which had been temporarily mothballed across the southern states in order to make savings, should be opened to the flood of refugees. Each base had, at least, the capacity to provide decent temporary accommodation for thousands of people, with proper sleeping, cooking and sanitary facilities. The army chiefs replied that they would "study" this request, but to date, the findings of their "study" are unknown.
Even after the flood started, all kinds of measures could have been taken by the authorities. There were many offers of practical help coming from other states, various agencies and many individuals. But most were flatly turned down by the New Orleans authorities. For instance, after the flood started, 500 small boats came from the neighbouring areas to New Orleans, in order to help with the rescue work. However, they were turned back by the police, under the pretext that their owners might be "up to no good".
In other cases, offers of help were drowned in bureaucratic nonsense - like for instance the 1,400 firefighters from all over the US, who contacted FEMA to volunteer for rescue work in New Orleans. Instead of being sent to do the job straight away, they were sent to Atlanta for a one-day training session in "community relations" and "sexual harassment", on the grounds that FEMA had a shortage of qualified people in this field. Meanwhile, in the Superdome, people were dying of conditions which the firefighters were trained to deal with!
FEMA officials turned down the offers of help made by many states, including buses and planes from Arkansas, doctors and technicians from Chicago, 300 ambulances from Florida, not to mention the hospital ship sent by the Navy in the Gulf at the beginning of the flood, whose six operating theatres and 600 acute beds were never even used by FEMA.
The same was true of the offers of help from abroad, except that there was a political dimension in the decision to turn them down - especially those coming from Third World countries, like Bangladesh, with its long experience with far more severe floods, or Cuba, which, only 2months before, had successfully organised the evacuation of one million people threatened by hurricane Denys. Bush's pride could not allow him to accept help from poor countries to which he was used to dictate, and certainly not from Cuba! In total, 90 countries or so offered their help to FEMA. As FEMA explained, their offers were centralised in a computerised databank and, in most cases, just left there.
Even Bush's "best mate", Tony Blair, got a slap in the face when he instructed the army to send 400,000 packaged meals. FEMA declared these meals unfit for consumption due to the long-standing US ban on British beef, still in place due to the BSE crisis. These meals have been stacked in a warehouse, which costs US taxpayers $16,000 a month, presumably until their shelf life has expired at the beginning of next year.
Ironically, the first rescue team to arrive in New Orleans from outside Louisiana came from as far away as Vancouver, in western Canada. But if it managed to get there, it was only because, unlike others, its members chose to ignore FEMA's instructions.
Not only was this a catalogue of disastrous failures. But these failures were responsible for much unnecessary suffering and casualties, whose number has yet to be known. Significantly, there was a consistent pattern from beginning to end - the authorities' total lack of concern for the fate of ordinary people, even when doing something to help the hurricane victims would have involved neither cost nor effort on their part.
Using the disaster to plot against the poor
This consistent lack of concern only made Ray Nagin's use of "public health" as a justification for "hollowing out" New Orleans' poor districts look rather suspicious. And, in fact, the real purpose behind this move became obvious, some time later, when the authorities began to talk about how the town would be reconstructed.
By the end of September, Ray Nagin had already put together a 17- member committee dominated by business leaders and bankers to advise him on the rebuilding of the town. The strong men of New Orleans' business did not hide their intentions. The new city that would arise from the floods would be very different "demographically, geographically and politically", explained James Reiss to the Wall Street Journal. Reiss is the chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority and a wealthy businessman from one of the rich families that have long dominated New Orleans. People like Reiss want to push luxury housing, as well as an expanded business centre and tourist district into the neighbourhoods where the working class and poor have been living so far.
In one fell swoop, the problems that plagued New Orleans during its long decline - poverty, crime, drugs and poor schools - would supposedly disappear, along with much of the population. It would be a re-run of what used to be called "urban renewal" in the 1960s and 1970s, only on a much vaster and more dramatic scale.
It was left to the black politicians tied to these business groups to spell out what this meant. Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Alphonso Jackson, told the Houston Chronicle, "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again..." Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin explained the magnitude of the transformation: "We are probably looking at repopulating the city right now at about the 250,000 level" (i.e. half the population before Katrina). Republicans and Democrats have obviously no more differences on this issue than on so many others.
Some politicians even dared to say that they considered the devastation and tragedy resulting from Katrina to be a blessing in disguise. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did," said U.S. Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge. Likewise, Brent Marr, the mayor of Gulfport, one of the most devastated towns in Mississippi, showed even more shameless cynicism when he told the New York Times, that "property values are going to skyrocket here. All the unattractive stuff (i.e. ordinary peoples' homes and neighbourhoods) has been blown away (..) We have an opportunity now to make it an absolutely unique place. God has come in and wiped the slate clean."
The fact is that for decades, in New Orleans, the capitalists have been pushing the working class out of different parts of the city. By the 1960s, much of the working class population had already been expelled from the French Quarter. Many black former residents made their way to nearby public housing projects. But over the last decade, the city authorities bulldozed most of the projects, replacing them with retail and commercial developments, as well as luxury condos. The people were scattered even further away.
Especially hard hit by the flooding was the historic Lower Ninth Ward, which for generations had been the backbone of the city, housing significant sections of the working class. It was also the centre of black culture - a hot house which produced so many jazz and blues artists. The power elite has made it clear it wants the Lower Ninth for its own purposes. "I think it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward", said HUD Secretary Jackson. The tentative plans are to bulldoze the tight-knit neighbourhoods and to return the Lower Ninth to wetlands, in order to better protect the wealthier areas from future flooding - or, perhaps, turn it into a golf course.
So, the power elite of New Orleans want to "hollow out" the city and empty it of the very people who built it, in order to have yet more enclaves for the rich and bigger sterile shopping and business centres. As for the once culturally rich French Quarter, the process of making it into just another theme park, a kind of jazzie Disneyland, would be completed, with perhaps a few more big casinos thrown in along the Riverfront.
The hurricane bounty... for some
These are the long-term profits that the capitalist class hopes to make out of the New Orleans disaster. But some have also set their eyes on short-term profits, which are no less significant.
Within days of the disaster, the Homeland Security Department handed Kenyon International a contract to collect and handle the dead bodies in New Orleans. Yet Kenyon is not known for the excellence of its work, since its parent company, Service Corporation International (SCI), which operates 1,500 mortuaries and cemeteries world-wide, has been mired in scandal. In fact, Kenyon's sole qualification for this contract was that SCI is run by Robert Waltrip, a longtime friend and political ally of the Bush family.
The result? Bodies on the sidewalks, on the streets and floating in the flood waters which were not picked up sometimes for weeks - constituting, among other things, a serious health hazard.
To try to recover from its earlier appalling fiasco, the Bush administration now promised quick action and got Congress to ram through an emergency $62bn spending bill to pay for the first costs of recovery and reconstruction. But, like in the case of Kenyon, what came out of this was a systematic drive to use the tragedy as an excuse to enrich Bush's business cronies.
It must be said that Bush and the Republicans were not the only ones in this game. While some liberal Democrats thundered against the Bush administration for "cronyism", the office of Louisiana's Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco was busy finding ways of shovelling money to the Democrats' business clientele, including Nextel and the Harris Group.
FEMA set about signing contracts at a rate of $500m per day with the usual engineering and construction companies - the ones with a long history of reaping enormous profit from government work, like Halliburton, Bechtel, the Shaw Group, Fluor, etc... These companies were supposed to carry out emergency repairs to levees and provide temporary homes. But just as in Iraq, most of these were no-bid contracts, which meant that the companies decided how much they wanted to take from the government for as little actual work as possible. Of all the government agreements, it was the one with Bechtel that stood out. The New York Times described it as "an informal agreement with no set payment terms, scope of work or designated total value." In other words, Bechtel was free to grab as much money out of public funds as it could.
As an added bonus to his business mates, Bush suspended the regulations which provide that companies working on federal contracts should pay their workers "the prevailing wage" for the job and take precautions to preserve the environment. This allowed the companies involved in the clean-up and reconstruction of the region to pay rock- bottom wages and pollute to their heart's content - which they did.
It didn't take long for the original $62bn to be exhausted. Under the guise of furthering the reconstruction work, Congress is now considering the much more massive Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act with an expected price tag of up to $250bn. This bill is being sponsored by two Louisiana Senators, a Democrat and a Republican.
One of the stated objectives of this plan is to build a new flood control system along the Mississippi river. But many of the projects being given serious consideration would actually increase the likelihood of flooding and make the river system more unsafe. One of these projects is an industrial canal lock, to increase barge traffic on the Mississippi River - with a price tag of $748m. The greater traffic would not only contaminate drinking-water sources with toxic sediments, it would also destroy wetlands, thereby eroding the few natural barriers to hurricanes that are left.
As to where these billions, soon to be lining the pockets of the big companies, will come from, the answer is simple - more cuts that will be funded, like the previous ones, under the present and past administrations, by the working class and poor!
What next for the refugees?
Despite all the horror that the population went through, even bigger hardships still await them. The damage is already enormous. At the end of September, FEMA reported that it had received applications for aid from 1.3m households affected by Katrina alone, meaning 3 to 4 million people left homeless.
The refugees have been dispersed from Maine to Hawaii, with the biggest proportion located within 250 miles of New Orleans. 240,000 are settled in other big cities in the south - Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta. About 26,000 went to cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore.
The homelessness is made worse by the large-scale destruction of jobs. By mid-October, the Department of Labour reported 438,000 new unemployment claims. This figure has been growing by about 75,000 new claims per week, and it is expected to continue to grow over the next weeks and months. Add to that all the workers not covered by unemployment insurance and the number of people without work may well exceed one million.
According to FEMA, the number in shelters is declining, after peaking at 270,000. But after Bush's 15th October deadline for emptying the shelters, they still housed tens of thousands of people, many sleeping on church pews, and all lining up for their meals, showers and toilets. From the shelters, many have been moved into budget hotel and motel rooms. FEMA says that it is subsidizing 600,000 rooms throughout the country. These rooms may be better than shelters, but only just, due to overcrowding and lack of money. Then there are all the refugees still living in their cars or tents or piled in with relatives or friends.
FEMA's housing plan for the medium term is to set up 350,000 camping trailers and mobile homes. Experience shows what this means: in the past, trailer parks, or FEMA Cities, were stuck in desolate and treeless areas, far from jobs, friends and relatives, and also far from the services that people needed. In other words, they were simply warehouses for the unwanted, instant ghettoes, with high rates of drug use, crime and victimisation. Many families have been trapped in these trailers for years. And there is reason to believe that this time round, conditions in the trailer parks will be even worse, if only because the parks will comprise upwards of 10,000 or 20,000 trailers, rather than the previous 500 or 1000.
Of course, how things turn out for the refugees will depend on whether they are able to find a decent paying job. But prospects for finding work are very poor as the refugees are now competing with everyone else for the same few jobs.
The capitalists are already exploiting this desperation. Barely two weeks after the hurricane hit, a dozen Katrina victims were sent by a temporary employment agency to break a strike of janitors and nursing assistants at the California Medical Centre in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in the area devastated by the hurricanes, companies are imposing low wages on the workforce they are often bringing in to do the reconstruction work. Some places are replacing their existing workforce with immigrants ready to accept much lower wages, without benefits. So, for instance, the Superdome's 75 maintenance workers were fired and replaced by workers brought in from the outside. Halliburton is now doing the same at the military bases where it has set up shop.
So the enormous hurricane refugee population is being pushed from pillar to post, with no place to settle, no job, no prospects. And there is no sign that its situation is likely to improve in the foreseeable future.
Social divisions exposed
Under the pressure of the anger caused by the events across the country, even Bush was forced to acknowledge the poverty and racial discrimination which had been highlighted by the images of New Orleans shown on television. In so doing he was probably also trying to make up for the flippant remarks made repeatedly by his wife, showing a mixture of stupidity and absolute contempt for the poor, which had shocked many people in the country.
The fact is that the thirty or so areas most affected by the hurricanes in the three southern states, were all poor areas, in which 25% of the population lived below poverty line (around £114/wk), which is almost twice the 12.7% national average. These states are also among the poorest in the US. In Mississippi, 23% of the population of working age depends on the health insurance that the state provides only for the very poor. And this proportion is almost as high in Louisiana.
While a majority of the poor population is white, particularly in the rural areas, this is not the case in the towns. And the TV footage of the events in New Orleans showed an overwhelming majority of black people among the victims of the hurricane, particularly in the Superdome.
The division of society into classes, which was so clearly highlighted by the disaster, is compounded by blatant discrimination against the black poor. Racist prejudices and class divisions are historically tightly intertwined and New Orleans, during the disaster, has been a graphic illustration of this. Almost two-thirds of its population was black, and it had the second highest concentration of people living below poverty line in the country - that is, 28%, of whom 84% were black!
In this town which, for many people was merely a tourist centre, where life was easy and enjoyable, poverty was rampant. But it was carefully concealed, away from the centres of attraction designed specifically for tourists and the wealthy. Few people spoke about this poverty and no-one ever bothered to try to do anything about it.
But much the same applies to the US as a whole. The truth is that the world's richest country does nothing to try to reduce the poverty on its own doorstep. Over the past 50 years, the proportion of the US population considered as poor never went below the 11% mark. And often, it was 14 or 15%. Over the past five years, the situation has become even worse in this respect, since every year the number of poor people has increased by one million - reaching a total of 37m today, of which 17m are white, 9m are black, 9m are Hispanic, and another 2m are from other ethnic backgrounds.
The capitalists' offensive
The fact that the situation of the working class and poor has become worse over the past period - in fact over the past 30 years or so - is a reflection of the offensive waged by the capitalist class in order to increase its own share of the wealth produced in society at the expense of the working class. In short the capitalists are waging a war to reverse the concessions that they were forced to make to the working class in the previous period. In that sense the course of events in the US has been comparable to that in Europe and, in fact, more or less every other country in the world.
In US manufacturing, for instance, 15m workers are producing today as much as was produced 20 years ago by 20m workers. Over the same period, real wages have gone down by an average 10%.
While the available capital is mostly used to fund large-scale mergers and acquisitions or to finance redundancy plans aimed at increasing the exploitation of the remaining workers, factories become increasingly antiquated and dangerous, with a sharp increase in the number of accidents at work.
Like everywhere else in the world, the US bosses use the fear caused by redundancies and unemployment to pressurise workers into accepting a degradation in their working conditions. Paid holidays and breaks are cut, production is speeded up, working hours become longer and compulsory overtime more widespread. By 1999, it was estimated that the overtime worked in the US car industry alone represented the equivalent of 86,000 jobs.
Between 1979 and 2000, the average number of hours worked in a year per worker increased by 10%, from 1703 to 1878 hours. This was progress in reverse: overtime increased while a growing proportion of the population was out of work. In most companies, every wage contract comes with a contingent of redundancies. For instance, the contracts agreed in 2003 in the US car industry involved 38,000 job cuts, which came on top of another 35,000 jobs cut over the 4 years of the previous contract. And the justification for these job cuts will sound very familiar to any British worker - they are supposedly designed to boost the bosses' competitiveness and, therefore, or so they say, save jobs.
At the same time the standard of living of US workers has been falling steadily. It was in the USA that the phrase "working poor" came into common usage a few years ago. What was meant by this was someone who had worked at least 27 weeks during the year, but was living below the poverty line despite that. By 2003, there were already 7.4m "working poor" and, among them, 60% were in full-time jobs!
Shrinking health and pension cover
The bosses' offensive is led by the largest companies, which are trying to roll back the advantages they conceded to workers many years ago. And in doing this they have received the full backing of the justice system.
So, for instance, in 1988 General Motors decided that it wanted to stop providing health insurance to its retired workers. On paper, the company had committed itself to do it. So, in theory, it seemed as if GM was legally bound to respect its commitment. However, it did not work out quite that way. After 10 years of legal proceedings, GM got the Supreme Court to rule that it was not illegal to change its commitment on the basis of changed circumstances. Needless to say, many companies exploited this ruling. In 1993, 40% of all companies still provided their retired workers with health insurance. Ten years later, only 21% did. And today, companies like General Motors are going a step further by trying to stop funding the health insurance of all their employees.
Likewise for pensions. Over the past 20 years, US companies have been changing their pension schemes from a collective system run by the company itself and paying guaranteed pensions, to a system of individual accounts managed by financial specialists, who give no guarantee as to the level of the pension that will be paid. This is similar to the drive started a few years ago by British companies to get rid of their final salary pensions schemes, except that it began a long time before in the US. The number of US workers covered by such individual pensions, which was 7.5m in 1984, reached 42m in 2000. By that year, 80% of all pension schemes were based on these precarious individual accounts.
Throughout the 1990s, employees covered by such individual schemes were encouraged to build up their pension pots using their companies' own shares. For employers, of course, this made their pension contributions very cheap, since all it took was to print new shares. As share prices went up, so did the paper value of pension pots. Just as in Britain, this was used by companies as a pretext to take contribution holidays, which translated into bigger profits and higher share prices. Also, as in Britain, the companies which were still in control of in-house pensions schemes were able to claim that since these schemes showed a "surplus", they were entitled to "cream it off". The result was that, by the year 2000, the 300 largest US companies managed to squeeze a combined total of $238bn additional profits out of their employees' pension schemes.
As long as the stock market was going up, everything seemed fine. But when, in 2001, share prices collapsed, many collective and individual schemes found themselves with huge deficits. General Motors, for instance, found it had a $9bn deficit almost overnight. And companies like Enron, which had been lining their pockets by making the most of what they could get away with legally, had to face fraudulent bankruptcy while their employees lost their pensions.
The consequence of all this is, that today, an increasing number of workers in large companies find themselves in the same situation as the 70m employees who never had any kind of company pension scheme and can only rely on the state pension . This means that they will get a pension worth between 26 and 42% of their best salary, provided they have paid contributions for 35 years!
Bankruptcy as a weapon against workers
Over the past few years, companies have been using bankruptcy proceedings (or the threat of filing for bankruptcy) in order to extract sacrifices from workers. The US law on bankruptcy allows a company to ask a judge to relieve it of all its commitments towards its creditors and, more importantly, towards its employees, while it carries on operating normally. Any concession which is then imposed on workers is vested with the authority of the judge and the bosses expect this to be enough to avoid significant resistance.
Large companies, which were nowhere near bankruptcy, have used this weapon in order to extract concessions from their workforce.
United Airlines, for instance, filed for bankruptcy in 2003. This allowed the company to impose cuts worth $2.4bn/year over the following six years on its employees. These cuts covered just about everything from wages and health insurance to pensions, paid holidays and jobs.
Then, in May this year, United went back to the same bankruptcy judge, asking to be allowed to cancel all its existing pension schemes. As a result, United has been relieved of all its responsibilities in terms of pensions towards its 121,500 active and retired employees. A government agency has taken over the responsibility of paying the pensions of retired employees, but with no health insurance included, among other things. As to the company's 61,000 active employees, their pension account is frozen and they will get maybe a third or a quarter of what they expected. United's chairman, however, has been careful to put his own pension pot into a trust, so that even if United goes bust, his pension will be protected...
American Airlines, the US largest airline, threatened to go down the same road, but did not actually need to, since union leaders agreed to most of its demands. Delta and Northwest, on the other hand, the country's 3rd and 4th largest airlines, did go down this road on 14 September this year. Delta wants to cut 9,000 jobs (17% of its workforce) after the 24,000 it cut since 09/11. It also wants to cut wages and terminate its pension schemes. As to Northwest, it has just sacked 4,500 mechanics, cleaning staff and guards, who were on strike since 20th August against the company's announcement that it was to more than halve their numbers, cut their wages by 25% and freeze their pension schemes.
In the steel industry, dozens of companies, including large ones like Bethlehem Steel, have used the same trick to get rid of their pension schemes and commitments on health insurance to retired workers. After a few large-scale mergers, the resulting giants have come out of this exercise freed of any obligations towards workers and with unprecedented profits.
A cross-party buffet for the parasites
Contrary to common belief, such gangsterism against the working class and poor is not just typical of the Bush era. Indeed, over the past 30 years, every administration, whether Democratic or Republican, has encouraged and facilitated the bosses' offensive against the working class.
It should be recalled, for instance, that it was Democratic president Jimmy Carter who, in 1978, at a time when unemployment was beginning to rise, embarked on a wholesale attack against the jobless. Carter's "reform" of unemployment will sound very familiar to British ears, as it is very similar to the treatment meted out to the jobless by Tory and Labour governments alike since the late 1980s. As a result of Carter's "reform", entitlement to unemployment benefit was cut from 65 to 39 weeks and any employed who refused a job after 26 weeks on the dole lost his or her entitlement automatically. The consequence of this "reform" was immediate and drastic: unemployment figures dropped by 1.5m. Within just a few years, only one third of the jobless were still receiving unemployment benefit.
When Republican president and Thatcher's best friend Ronald Reagan, came into office, one of his first moves, in August 1981, was to break an air traffic controllers' strike by sacking the entire workforce of 12,000 employees. This was not just a tough warning to public sector workers. It was also a signal to companies that strong-arm tactics against the working class would receive the White House's backing. Reagan went further by cutting the taxes paid by the rich and the bosses, while increasing the enormous bounty of government procurement going to the big companies, particularly in military contracts. And to pay for this, Reagan made savage cuts in public programmes, particularly those specifically targeted at the poor, but also in education. This was how, for instance, at one point, state- sponsored occupational training schemes involving 400,000 trainees were closed down overnight.
Democrat president Clinton embarked on a systematic drive to cut all remaining social programmes. The annual budget of the health insurance that the state provides for the poorest was cut twice, by $8bn and then by $25bn. Likewise the health insurance budget for the aged was cut by $56bn and then by another $115bn. As to Clinton's 1996 reform of the US version of income support, which was the blueprint used later by Blair and Brown for their own tax credits fiasco, it just halved the number of beneficiaries within 3 years, by forcing claimants to take the first casual job on offer - which was precisely the aim of the exercise. But out of the 6 million people who lost their entitlement, more than a third never found any kind of job and were left without any income. This forced millions of people into poverty and, often, homelessness. By 1998, official figures showed that over 10% of all households could not even afford to buy the food necessary to meet their basic needs - these households comprised 19m adults and 12m children. Meanwhile, Clinton made a series of gifts to the capitalist class, by cutting taxes on capital returns by 30%, while increasing military expenditure far beyond what Reagan had ever done.
The measures introduced by Bush were merely a continuation of what his predecessors from both parties had done. He introduced new tax cuts benefiting companies and the rich, for a total of $1,700bn over 10 years - or more than twice the British government's annual budget. More cuts in public services have been introduced in order to make up for the huge increase in military expenditure resulting from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While this year's hurricanes have exposed the abysmal state of anti- hurricane and anti-flood protection along the Gulf Coast, the public services cuts of the last decades have had a drastic impact on the whole of US public infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the American Association of Civil Engineers published a report on the state of US infrastructure. It says that one third of all US roads are in a bad state of repair, accounting for a significant number of the 14,000 people or so who are killed in car accidents every year, and that 27% of bridges are either obsolete or have structural problems. The same report states that $11bn would be needed to bring the water distribution system up to legal standards and $10bn to repair the dam walls which are in such a precarious state that they are considered to be life threatening. It warns that the electricity network is in an even worse state, due to the fact that repair and maintenance expenditure have been cut by 1% every year since 1992. To cut a long story short, this report concludes that $1,600bn would be needed over the next five years, in order to bring the country's infrastructure back up to scratch.
But this is more or less what Bush has decided to award the rich in the shape of yet another round of tax cuts. Nothing can provide a better illustration of the parasitism of the capitalist class and the fact that its frantic appetite for profits is an obstacle, not just to the progress of society, but even to keeping it in working order!
The "best" that capitalism can offer
In the US, the Katrina disaster has generated anger against Bush, who has won the nickname of "level 5 disaster". There is a growing opposition to the policy of a government which sacrifices lives and enormous resources in order to wage wars at the other end of the world, but is incapable of protecting the US population against natural disasters or providing for the most basic day-to-day needs of a growing section of people.
The fact that the aftermath of Katrina saw the biggest mobilisation ever in the streets of the USA against the Iraq war, on 24th September, is not a coincidence. The anger caused by the government's criminal neglect in the southern states is encouraging more people to defy the paranoid atmosphere created after 9/11 and to display their feelings.
Opinion polls reflect this shift. For instance, a recent poll which offered various possible choices for the government's top priority, 60% chose "the rebuilding of the disaster areas", while only 5% chose "establishing democracy in Iraq" (whatever this meant!). Another opinion poll shows that 90% are reluctant to consider more financial sacrifices for the war in Iraq and are against any more cuts in health and education.
But, of course, what the government does is exactly the opposite of what the population would want to see: it shifts the financial burden of taking care of the refugees onto the country's social institutions, without providing them with additional funding, while all the exceptional expenditure resulting from the disaster will be turned into a bounty for the big companies and their shareholders.
However, the full meaning of what emerged from the Katrina disaster goes far beyond the criminal neglect of the federal and local authorities and the blatant contempt for the population displayed by political leaders. It stems from the place occupied by the USA in today's world.
This country is the richest in the world, the most powerful in every respect and the most productive. So much so that it has no real need to export its production and consumes 80% of it. In the US, capitalism developed without being hampered by the antiquated remnants of previous forms of social organisations: unlike in Europe or Asia, its economy was not stifled by national borders which restricted the circulation of people, goods and capital; nor did it have to bear the cost of a parasitic system of land ownership inherited from feudal times. On the contrary, in the US, capitalism was able to build itself virtually on the scale of a whole continent and to benefit from almost infinite natural resources. On this basis, the capitalist system was able to make the best of its social organisation and production methods and to turn a barren continent into the world's mightiest industrial power, ahead of every other country from the point of view of production, but also from the point of view of scientific and technical knowledge.
Long before the European countries reached this stage, the USA was portrayed as a country in which every household had a phone, a fridge and a car, using a network of motorways, at a time when having a car was still a privilege of the few in Europe. When people talked of the "American dream" from the 1920s onwards, they saw it as a sort of futuristic Eldorado, with the most advanced technology and the best chance for individuals to achieve something with their lives. It was also a country where industry was gigantic, with the largest and most powerful working class in the world. It was the country which pioneered most of the mankind's spectacular achievements, from the first skyscrapers to the use of atomic energy to make bombs, but also to generate electricity, and the conquest of the moon.
To all intents and purposes, the US offered, and still offers, the image of a triumphant capitalist system - that is of the capitalist system at its most advanced level of development. It always appeared as a society which, despite occasional hiccups, had the means to provide everyone with a decent life and real happiness. Even for the populations of the richer European countries, such as Germany, Britain, France, etc.., the US seemed to offer a better life. And this was even more true for the populations of the poorer European countries like Spain and Ireland, or those of Eastern European countries. And this is reflected by the fact that, in various forms, the flow of immigration from Europe towards the USA has never stopped.
By the same token the US seemed to be living proof of the fact that allowing the capitalist market to regulate the productive economy was the best method of ensuring that everyone had the best possible share of the material goods produced. What shocked people most in the events surrounding the Katrina disaster was the enormous contrast between this symbol of triumphant capitalist success and the images of despair and deprivation in New Orleans. Because what these images exposed was that a social organisation which had proved so successful in engineering all kinds of spectacular achievements was, in fact, incapable of providing everyone with a decent life.
Of course, the idyllic image of the USA was always an illusion. Just like the rest of the capitalist world, the USA was prone to economic crises which were just as disastrous for the population as they were in Europe, and in fact, in some respects, far more disastrous. Historically, the affluence of US capital was built on the brutal over-exploitation first of slaves and subsequently, of an immigrant workforce, and for a long time class conflicts were settled, more often than not, at gun point. And in every period of US history, the so-called "American Dream" always concealed the deep poverty of a whole section of the US population.
The Katrina disaster has highlighted under our eyes the only future that capitalism, even at its very best, can offer: intolerable poverty reminiscent of the Third World which feeds the incredible luxury of a tiny class of ultra-rich capitalists and allows them to carry on dominating the world. Yes, this is the best that the capitalist system, its market, "freedom of enterprise" and "free competition" - all things which have nothing to do with "freedom", except for the profiteers - can have in store for the future.
This is the kind of future that is in store for Europe too - a society in which the Western European capitalists will use the mechanisms of the market to bleed an impoverished working class across the continent, in Eastern Europe, but also an increasingly poor working class in Western Europe. Today's derelict working class ghettos in Britain are not a remnant of past crises. They are a foretaste of the only future that this capitalist society has to offer to a growing section of its population. The on-going rolling back of the NHS, under the pretext that private profits would be more efficient at cutting hospital queues, and the present attacks against workers' pension rights, are showing what is in store. Tomorrow, like in the US, there will be more and more people unable to get medical care, life expectancy will decrease and pensioners will be accused of costing too much, just as the jobless are today.
This leaves us with only one question: will the working class be prepared to go along with this kind of future, or will it take upon itself to cure society of this capitalist cancer?