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      Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans 10 Years Leter:
      How the U.S. Government Renounced Humanity

      By Nita Palmer

      On August 29, 2005, a vicious Category 3 hurricane touched down in New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina was one of the largest disasters in US history, leaving in its wake death, destruction, and chaos. Over 1800 people were killed in the storm and its aftermath, and more than 400,000 were displaced from their homes.

      An Unnecessary Tragedy

      The sheer power of Katrina meant that much of the destruction was unavoidable. The storm tore apart cities and towns all along the coastline of the southern United States. However, it was the city of New Orleans which was the hardest hit. Development of the city has caused it to sink as sea levels have risen, putting much of it below sea level. Of the 1800 people who lost their lives in the storm, 1577 of them were from New Orleans. The great tragedy in New Orleans was not the destruction that the storm brought, but the fact that a large part of the destruction and loss of life could have been avoided. Scientists had been warning for years that a hurricane like Katrina would hit soon. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had listed a major hurricane striking New Orleans as one of the top three most likely disasters to occur in the US.

      Yet nothing was done to put in place an emergency action plan, nor to repair the city's aging levees. In fact, the Bush administration cut the funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers, who were to repair the levees, by 44% between 2001 and 2005. As a result, the city's levees crumbled under the power of the storm, resulting in the flooding of 80% of the city.

      No Plan in Place As the storm drew closer, it became clear that neither city, state, nor federal authorities had any kind of comprehensive plan to evacuate people from the area. At the eleventh hour, a mandatory evacuation order was given for the city of New Orleans, but thousands remained in their homes. The media and government organizations tended to portray those who didn't evacuate as ignorant or stubborn, but many simply had no way to leave the city. Patients in hospitals and nursing homes were stranded without any plan in place to move them. No provisions were made to ensure those with disabilities were evacuated. Many people did not have a car or could not afford a bus ticket out of the city. And many more decided to stay because they would be homeless if they left the city, without family to stay with or funds to pay for a hotel. The city's Lower 10stadium with inadequate supplies, no sanitation facilities, and no plan in place to move them.

      On the streets, people began to break into stores, taking food, water, medical supplies, baby formula – anything to survive. The response of the US government was not to send in aid, but to label these desperate people as 'looters' and send in the military – 47,000 troops in all. But the army was not there to save people. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco warned those trying to survive in the city that, "[The soldiers] have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot to kill and I expect they will.”

      Abandoned by the Government

      The response to the disaster in the weeks and months following did not improve much. Some of those who lost their homes were put up in trailers or hotels by FEMA. For some, this was enough time to get back on their feet, find work, and rebuild or find a new home. But for many – especially the poorest residents – there was no permanent solution, and no help offered to find one. Many of the city's poorer residents had no home insurance. Others had been denied flood coverage. In addition, the government began to tear down public housing projects after Katrina – even ones which had not been damaged. Some new mixed-income housing projects were built, but they were more expensive and required stringent criminal record checks which kept many out of areas they had called home their entire lives.

      Not surprisingly, New Orleans' homeless population has risen by 70% since Katrina, according to UNITY charity. In terms of heer numbers, the city has one of the highest homeless populations in the country, despite having a population of just 380,000.

      Remaking New Orleans

      In the years since Katrina, opportunistic developers and politicians have used the destruction of the city to rebuild the city according to their own interests, rather than the interest of residents. Public schools have largely been replaced with charter schools, many of them run by private management companies. Just three weeks after Katrina hit, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announced that Charity Hospital would be closed. Since 1736, Charity Hospital had served the city's poor – and in the present day, those without medical insurance. The closure of the hospital left hundreds of thousands without access to medical care.

      During and after Katrina, widespread accusations of racism were directed at all levels of government from citizens as well as humanitarian and activist organizations. The overwhelming majority - 98% - of residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were black. Many believed that the government would have responded faster if the worst affected areas had been wealthier and whiter. Some also believed the lack of action was intended to force the poor and black people to leave the city.

      Whether or not the lack of response to Katrina was planned in this way, forcing poor and black people out of the city was indeed the end result. More than 100,000 black residents of New Orleans left after the storm and never returned. Moreover, black residents of the city today are more likely to be living in poverty than before Katrina, according to a recent American Community Survey. The city tried to 'clean up' by restructuring social housing and increasing services and businesses that would attract wealthier residents. But these improvements to the city's image have done nothing to decrease poverty in the city - only to marginalize the poor even more, pushing many onto the streets and into abandoned buildings left in Katrina's wake.

      Perhaps most telling is the fact that while most of the city has been rebuilt, the Lower Ninth Ward remains a near ghost town. It is not just the risk of flood which has prevented people from rebuilding, though. Many people could not afford to rebuild their homes, and there has been little effort from government to aid them.

      What Could Have Been Done Instead? - The Cuban Revolutionary Example

      For all the great accomplishments of humanity, we still remain vulnerable to the great power of Mother Nature. Hurricanes cause massive destruction around the globe each year. But while we may not be able to save homes or infrastructure from their ferocity, we can do much, much more to prevent the greatest tragedy: the loss of human life.

      Just one month before Katrina made landfall in the US, Hurricane Dennis struck Cuba. The massive Category 4 storm caused around $2 billion in damage to the island; however, just ten people lost their lives. In fact, between 1996 and 2002, only 16 people were killed in the six hurricanes which struck the island nation. This is not simply a matter of luck; it is a matter of preparedness from a revolutionary government which makes people the number one priority. During Hurricane Dennis, Cuba successfully evacuated 1.5 million people - more than a tenth of the country's population - from the areas in greatest danger. The country has a meticulous evacuation plan which is practiced in schools and communicated to all citizens. Transportation is arranged out of areas which are in danger; special accommodations are made for the sick and the elderly. Each residential block has a person designated to take a census to make sure no one is left behind. Once evacuated, Cubans go to pre-arranged shelters to wait for the storm to pass.

      Cuba has been commended internationally for the exemplary way in which it deals with hurricanes. So how does a country with far fewer resources than the US manage this? It is not just a matter of exemplary organization but of priorities as well. In fact, Cuba's ability to respond to disasters such as hurricanes begins long before they strike. On every level, Cuban society is organized to encourage active participation from its citizens. Every community across the country has an organization to respond to the needs of that particular neighbourhood. Representatives of all levels of government live and work in the communities they represent and as such are able to truly understand the needs of the people. Cubans are familiar with and take pride in this level of participation in their communities. They know that when disaster strikes, they can trust their government to do its utmost to protect their lives. They also understand that they have a responsibility to ensure that they and others in their community - especially the most vulnerable - get to safety.

      This level of organization and human response is possible because Cuba is a socialist country. As such, both people and government are organized to work collectively and put the needs of people first. Compare this to disaster response programs in the US or Canada, for example. Here, disaster response is largely viewed as an individual effort. You may know, for example, that you should evacuate in case of a disaster, but where would you go? If you were sick, injured, or otherwise unable to get yourself to safety, does the government have a plan in place to ensure you are removed from harm's way? In capitalist countries, disaster response is not a community effort; it is survival of the fittest - or the richest. As Katrina tragically demonstrated, those who have the financial means to evacuate will be able to save themselves, while the poorest will perish.

      Disaster Capitalism

      Hurricane Katrina was an act of nature, but the terrible loss of life and subsequent worsening of living conditions for hundreds of thousands was an act of capitalism. The tragic loss of life in New Orleans was not a result simply of poor management or corruption on the part of FEMA or other government agencies. Ignoring climate change which contributed to the disaster, cutting funding for levees that would protect the city, and failing to evacuate the most vulnerable were all actions of a government and an economic system which made funding wars and giving tax breaks to big corporations the priority above protecting human lives. The responsibility for this terrible tragedy lies squarely on the shoulders of an economic system which puts the interests of the capitalist class before the interests of the vast majority of people.

      As our climate continues to change, we will see more frequent and more extreme storms and weather systems - and with it, unfortunately, more loss of life. It is poor, working, and marginalized people who will bear the brunt of these disasters. If the capitalist economic system cannot meet even our most basic need for survival, perhaps it is time to give the Cuban way a chance.

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