Losing New Orleans
September 02, 2005
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Losing New Orleans

by John Maxwell


New Orleans was , I'm told, a place of myth and magic - a place where moral, ethnic and social certitudes evaporated, where the only reality was the city itself.

It was a world-class city, a place apart from the United States, embedded in it, but breathing an atmosphere richly distilled by centuries of separation from the mainstream of the Protestant, puritan, Anglo-Saxon United States, It was a place of French and Caribbean and black culture, history and folklore. It was the American interface with the Third World,

Last week we lost New Orleans. At least the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, thinks we should lose New Orleans. Its not worth rebuilding, he said, it should be bulldozed. Even if he's wrong, the old New Orleans is gone.

Even the Louis Armstrong International Airport was under water, along with thousands of houses and the people who lived in them. Most were simply too poor to escape Hurricane Katrina, inevitable victims of a disaster long foretold, predicted and expected.

According to Professor Paul Krugman in the New York Times "Before 9/11 the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed the three most likely catastrophic disasters facing America: a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a hurricane strike on New Orleans. "The New Orleans hurricane scenario," The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001, "may be the deadliest of all." It described a potential catastrophe very much like the one now happening."

The New York Times quotes Eric Tolbert, formerly a top official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - FEMA. According to Tolbert, FEMA officials, having just returned from helping in last December's Tsunami relief, drew up a list of probable disasters in the United States:

"New Orleans was the No. 1 disaster we were talking about,We were obsessed with New Orleans because of the risk."

But FEMA and all the other agencies of the US government were caught flatfooted by Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't because they hadn't drawn up plans, or because they hadn't rehearsed what they would do in case their fears came to pass. It was because the Federal government had downsized FEMA and had, over the last five years, refused to heed New Orleans' pleas for money to defend the city against exactly such a natural disaster.

The National Guard which would have been among the first responders, is largely in Iraq, fighting a war they were not meant to.

Disasters have many layers. Physical destruction and the consequent disruptions are one part. There are also the psychological, social, political and economic disruptions which follow. Natural disasters become catastrophes when human beings don't act intelligently or in time.

Twenty-five years ago, when Hurricane Allen seemed headed for Jamaica's south coast and specifically for Portmore, I was one of a group which convinced the Prime Minister to come to our assistance in an emergency movement of about 50,000 people from low-lying Portmore within about fourteen hours. At the time we were in the throes of planning what later became the Office of Disaster Preparedness . Most of what we managed to do was seat of the pants improvisation. But had the hurricane struck Portmore we would have saved the lives of thousands of people.

New Orleans had much more warning and many thousands were evacuated. But most of the people in New Orleans were too poor to arrange their own evacuation. They stayed behind because no one had thought to prepare for their problems.

But the catastrophe now developing in New Orleans has been years in the making and most of it is directly attributable to the idea that man can tame nature and that 'development' consists in putting down capital intensive works without considering other factors, like the weather, the geography and geology and most of all, the people.

The point of sustainable development is to increase economic prosperity while making sure that the benefits gained do not get wiped out by foreseeable hazards.. In New Orleans, greed and capital prevailed over common sense..

When New Orleans was first settled nearly three centuries ago, the land on which it was built was ten feet above sea level. Today it is about ten feet below. The reasons are fairly simple. The city is built on land formed by the Mississippi river, part of its delta and like Portmore, (on the RRio Cobre delta) much of it is underlain by peat which is infinitely compressible. When water is abstracted from peat, the land above it sinks. Further, the federal government in an attempt to tame the Mississippi, has tried to force it to behave like a gully, constructing, restricting and redirecting its flow so that the river no longer nourishes the watertable underneath the city as it did when the city was younger and sat more lightly on its foundations.

Beyond the physical disaster is the human calamity.. The US Congress is giving express passage to a bill providing more than 10 billion dollars for emergency relief, about twice as much as ha been requested to shore up the defences of New Orleans and, possibly, moderate the effects of what is now estimated to be a 28 billion dollar disaster.

Meanwhile, the people on the ground in New Orleans are angry, the officials as well as the ordinary citizens. Law and order no longer exists as desperate people take the law into their own hands to ensure their own survival.

On Thursday night the city's Mayor, Roy Nagin told a television interviewer "I need reinforcements, I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. This is a national disaster. This is a major, major, major deal. And I can't emphasize it enough. It's awful down here, man." Of President Bush he said: "We have an incredible crisis here and his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice. "Excuse my French - everybody in America - but I am pissed."

New Orleans' emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert called the situation a national disgrace, "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

New Orleans is the largest area of disaster, but there are others scattered through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Stories abound of people waiting in miles -long lines for hours for gasoline, water or ice. Worse were the stories from the Superdome, which has been sheltering thousands of people driven from their homes: people dying, women and children being raped, and outside, human bodies rotting on the flooded streets. Four days after the disaster there was no organised assistance available.

The psychological toll will be enormous. In places like Jamaica more accustomed to natural calamities, people may be a little more tolerant of official delay. But in the United States where food comes out of a supermarket or a take-out restaurant, life is more complicated.

The poorer you are, the more complicated it gets . And in New Orleans and Biloxi and most of the affected areas, the poor, the ones left behind, are overwhelmingly black. In neighbouring Mississippi black people earn half as much as white people, Race is becoming the fulcrum for criticism of the government.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said cities had been dismissed by the Bush administration because Mr. Bush received few urban votes. "Many black people feel that their race, their property conditions and their voting patterns have been a factor in the response, I'm not saying that myself, but what's self-evident is that you have many poor people without a way out."

A vignette: Two photographs; one from Associated Press captioned A young man walks through waist deep water after looting a grocery store ...the other from Agence France Presse: Two residents walk through waist deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store:"

The AP photo was of a black man.

Professor Krugman suggests that "At a fundamental level ... our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. ...

"Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

"So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying".

Europeans have been stunned by the America revealed by Katrina. Suddenly, the hurricane has blown away the facade of Hollywood, CNN and McDonalds and revealed an America, in living color and dire destitution, which they had never imagined.

Others outside of the United States watch in fascinated horror, as things fall apart in the country whose leader has proclaimed it his mission to 'spread democracy'. Is this, they ask, what democracy looks like?

Meanwhile, In Haiti

One of the places where Mr Bush is spreading democracy is Haiti, tied by history and culture to New Orleans in a way few other countries are. It is now tied by another bond: catastrophe following the decapitation of democracy.

As Jesse Jackson points out, the Republican administration of president Bush has neglected the cities because essentially, there are too many Democrat voters there an not enough Republican. In Haiti the situation is somewhat different. The head of state, the popularly elected President, was removed by the US Ambassador and a platoon of Marines, because, in the words of the American diplomat Luigi Einaudi, "the only thing wrong with Haiti is that it's run by Haitians."

The new Haitian regime run by American satraps, is busy trying to eliminate and terrorise the Haitian population to exterminate support for President Aristide. Two weeks ago a crowd at a football match applauded when they saw members of the Haitian police entering the stadium. Since the match had been arranged by USAID as a peacekeeping, conciliatory gesture, the crowd thought that the cops were there to protect them.

No such luck. Gunfire broke out, and behind the police came machete wielding masked men dealing death and dismemberment to random members of the stadium crowd.

It is still unclear how many people were butchered inside the stadium and outside as they ran for their lives. There is no body count coming from either the government, the Haitian police nor the supervising authority, the Unnited Nations Mission - MINUSTAH.

In Haiti, as in New Orleans, chaos reigns.

But, whereas in the New York Times and other the US media, pundits like Professor Krugman are calling for accountability for the disaster in New Orleans, no one is calling for accountability in Haiti.

Last year, because the legitimate government had been destroyed, more than 3,000 Haitians lost their lives to flooding from rain. The reason? The Bush-sponsored regime had chased into exile or murdered the community leaders whose duty it was to warn and prepare the people in the event of threatened disasters. They have not been replaced

The US weather service tells us by the way, that the 'bulk' of the current Hurricane Season is still ahead of us; that there are more hurricanes,, more dangerous hurricanes, in the offing.

And, of course, the debate goes on. Is there such a thing as global warming? And doesn't global warming mean more hurricanes and more dangerous hurricanes?

For President Bush, the jury is still out. He sees no danger there.

Meanwhile he will be visiting some of the hurricane stricken areas this weekend. He will not go to downtown New Orleans. That is too dangerous.


John Maxwell - jonmax@mac.com

original article published in the Jamaica Observer

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