Hurricane Katrina: Winds of Change?

Dr. Ben Wisner
Oberlin College, Ohio

Revised & expanded 31 August 2005

There are some very disturbing things coming out of New Orleans and small towns to the East along the Gulf Coast into the state of Mississippi. People over time have been put at risk because of economic disparities and the priority given to the petro-chemical and gambling/ casino development as well as the retirement home industry. Destruction of the wetlands, greed driven land use and location decisions in a laissez faire environment, disregard for the poor all are evident as Katrina made land fall.

People have discussed the effects of a direct hit by a large hurricane on New Orleans since hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969. In the aftermath of Camille, during which 256 people died in Mississippi, documentation of racial discrimination in the allocation of recovery resources was first documented, leading to a U.S. Congressional investigation.

Has the social, political, and economic situation changed since then?

There was no plan to use the trains or some other form of mass transport to evacuate the indigent and those without private cars or money. They were herded like displaced persons (which they were) into the Superdome, whose roof was then ripped open in the wind. I saw images of these refugees, mostly black, being herded by armed nationalguardsmen who yelled at them about not allowing guns and drugs inside: very humiliating, not at all shelter with dignity and respect as the Red Cross tries to provide.

Conditions in this large structure (arena seating for 70,000) are atrocious with no air conditioning, hygiene standards below those mandated by SPHERE standards, and very limited facilities for people in wheel chairs. The city is now scrambling to come up with a plan to evacuate the evacuatees. All of this is unnecessary if at least a year ago, after the experience with hurricane Ivan, authorities had taken the needs of the poor and indigent in New Orleans seriously.

(See on conditions in the Superdome and also on the history of problems with the Superdome roof -- something else that officials in New Orleans seem to have overlooked).

Professor Kent Mathewson, a geographer based at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has tried over the past year since hurricane Ivan to get officials to develop a

contingency plan to evacuate the indigent and those without private vehicles on the trains that run through New Orleans. His suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.
A church based pilot project also began after Ivan in 2004 that partnered church members without access to vehicles with those that do. This, however, was an independent effort to fill the vacuum in policy at City, State, and Federal level.

Hurricane Ivan last year should have caused a re-doubling of precautionary planning. The night Ivan approached, 20,000 low-income people without private vehicles sheltered in their homes below sea level. A direct hit would have drowned them. A US Army Corps of Engineers computer simulation has calculated that 65,000 could die in the city, in the event of a direct hit by a slow-moving category 3 hurricane. Fortunately, Ivan veered away from the city at the last moment, but still killed 25 people elsewhere in the US south. At present there is no plan for the public evacuation of low-incomeresidents who do not own cars other than the questionable shelter and assured stress and humiliation provided by the "shelter of last resort," the Superdome.

This time, too, things were not as bad as they could have been because of a small westward turn that placed the dangerous Northeast edge of the storm over Mississippi. Will authorities finally get the message and do serious planning for the needs of the poor? Could Katrina be the beginning of demands from below for social justice in the face of the present social and spatial distribution of risk?.

Time will tell, but with so much of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agencies resources devoted to planning for terrorism and with cities like New Orleans struggling with financial burdens that neo-liberal ideology leaves them to sort out on their own, I am not optimistic. (On the destruction of FEMA by terrorism monomania of the Bush administration see

The human tragedy taking place in New Orleans and in many other, less known and unknown communities along the Gulf Coast has deep roots in neo-liberal ideology that favors lax regulations and return to investment with little concern for the social and environmental consequences. Some 1,500 square miles (3,885 km sq) of wetland has been lost over the past few decades that would have reduced the height of the storm surge affecting New Orleans. Contamination from the petro-chemical complexes and transfer points concentrated on shore and off shore has contributed to the death of wetlands. Meanwhile, low income, Black families have been trapped in poverty by the "downsizing" of the federal state. That has meant less money for education, for small businesses, and for decent, low cost housing. 37 million people live in poverty in the U.S. - up for the four year in a row. Many of these live in the U.S. South, where the anti-union environment and less stringent environmental and land use regulation have attracted chemical industries. The myth of idyllic seaside retirement has been sold to the elderly in the U.S., and retirement homes have sprouted where more of the Black working poor serve as low wage care givers. Casino gambling has also added non-union, low wage employment - a desperate last resort for communities that are losing their traditional fishing based economies due to over fishing and gross pollution of the Gulf of Mexico.

The root causes of the catastrophe triggered by Katrina are deep. An excellent history of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America was published by Case Western Reserve historian, Ted Steinberg in 2000. In Latin America disasters such as hurricane Mitch in 1998 are seen as the result of the accumulation over years of failed development and mal-development. The same must be said of Katrina's effects.

This is in no way an "act of God." In order to learn from this event and prevent even worse ones in a future likely to have even more frequent and more intense hurricanes (due to global warming), policy makers must admit the dead end laissez faire capitalism has let us all into. Non-governmental organizations, faith communities, and activist groups need to mobilize the mass of the population in the affected area to see themselves not as victims of Nature, but victims of a late phase of globalizing capitalism. The affected people will then be in a position to see themselves as agents of their own well being and history and victims no longer as they demand social change.

Ben Wisner
Revised 31-08-05
LARED, Agosto 31 de 2005