The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 35           September 19, 2005  
U.S. Gulf Coast: social disaster
unfolds in wake of hurricane
(front page)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama August 29, a social disaster is unfolding in the region. The catastrophe is of massive proportions in New Orleans, a city of half a million people, and surrounding areas. According to news reports, thousands of people may be dead, and the toll is rising. Up to a million people have been left homeless.

Signaling disregard for the plight facing working people trapped in New Orleans, government authorities declared a state of emergency to deploy additional cops and an armed personnel carrier to stop “looters.” These are largely working people deprived of food and drinking water who are seeking basic goods to survive in the absence of timely government aid.

Prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, government authorities urged a major evacuation, which they later said was mandatory. Those relying on public transportation were largely stranded, with more than 20,000 taking shelter in the Superdome football stadium and thousands of others remaining trapped in their homes.

Those with cars who could afford the gas prices left the city—some 80 percent of New Orleans residents. But they were on their own to figure out where to go or stay overnight, with many unable to find hotel rooms or running out of funds.

“There’s nowhere, nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to eat, get gas or stay,” truck driver Robert Smith told a Miami Herald reporter. Smith, who left New Orleans with his family of six, ended up stranded on Interstate 10 near Gulfport, Mississippi.

According to Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, who was interviewed on the August 30 CNN television program “Larry King Live,” commercial airlines stopped flying into New Orleans a day before Katrina hit because they would lose money without any passengers coming in, even though the airline companies could have sent planes to evacuate people for another 24 hours. Neither the state nor the federal governments took steps to ensure the commercial flights continued or to use military aircraft in their place.

The biggest direct impact of the hurricane was on working-class areas in eastern New Orleans. An estimated 40,000 homes were flooded in St. Bernard Parish in that part of the city. As water levels rose individuals were forced to take refuge in attics and on their roofs.

In Mississippi, the town of Gulfport is virtually gone and Biloxi has been severely damaged. More than 100 are reported dead in these two areas. The death toll, however, is expected to be much higher once bodies buried by debris or under water are discovered.

The day after Katrina hit two levees burst in New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city in a swamp of dirty water, as deep as 20 feet in some areas, according to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. On August 31 he estimated thousands have likely died in the city. These levees were not built strong enough to withstand the impact of a major hurricane.

Across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama more than 1 million people are without electricity. Power companies predict it could be up to two months before service is fully restored. In New Orleans residents have been told not to drink the water. The water flooding the streets there includes chemical and natural gas leaks, animal carcasses, and human corpses.

Some 3,000 people have been rescued by boat and air lifts as of August 31, reported Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitchell Landrieu. The rising death toll in the city is still unknown as boats were bypassing the floating dead bodies to reach the thousands still stranded in flooded homes, attics, and rooftops. “Officials said it could be weeks, if not months, before most evacuees will be able to return,” reported the Washington Post.

Those who took shelter in the Superdome have faced unhealthy, sweltering conditions, with holes in the roof, no electricity or air conditioning, and inadequate toilet facilities. On August 31 Louisiana governor Blanco ordered the evacuation of the Superdome within two days. The dome is now surrounded by three feet of water. The Houston Chronicle reported that a plan has been worked out to ship the 23,000 people confined there to the Astrodome in Houston.

A good part of the government’s response has been aimed at minimizing “looting.” On August 30, the Pentagon ordered five Navy ships and eight maritime rescue teams to the Gulf Coast. The amphibious assault ship the Bataan with six Sea Stallion and Sea hawk helicopters is en route from Texas. A special command center has been set up at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to coordinate the Pentagon’s rescue and “law and order” operations in the area. Some 4,000 Army and Air Force National Guard personnel have been sent to Louisiana.

In Mississippi, 1,600 members of the state National Guard unit have been deployed. “I have instructed the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to treat looters ruthlessly,” said Mississippi governor Haley Barbour.

The employers and the government are using the catastrophe to push for acceptance of even higher fuel prices. Oil prices shot up above $70 a barrel at the end of August, with gas prices at the pump hitting $3 a gallon. The hurricane shut down most of the oil and gas operations in the Gulf region, which account for nearly a third of domestic oil production and a fifth of natural gas output. According to Bloomberg News, this includes at least eight U.S. refineries with the capacity to produce about 1.8 million barrels of oil per day, more than 10 percent of the nation’s total.

The response to Katrina by U.S. state and federal authorities contrasts sharply with that of the government of Cuba, which has been far more successful in organizing mass evacuations and minimizing the human toll during similar hurricanes and other natural disasters. In preparation for Hurricane Ivan, which hit the Caribbean island in September 2004, the Cuban government evacuated and organized lodging for nearly 1.9 million people. Many were evacuated along with their household possessions. As a result, no one died when Ivan hit Cuba.

Hurricane Dennis—a category IV storm like Katrina when it made landfall in Louisiana—slammed into Cuba in July. At that point, 1.5 million people were evacuated to safer ground. Sixteen individuals died from the impact of that storm.
Related articles:
Social disaster on U.S. Gulf Coast  
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