After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans the chaos for the survivors, thousands of whom were packed into the Superdome and convention centre shelters without food, water or services, showed that the world’s only superpower could treat its poor and working people as badly as any third world country. The death toll was over 1000.
Following this tragedy we are told that the US government has learned its lesson. Michael D Brown, director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) was first kicked upstairs and then resigned. The New Orleans police chief also resigned. Three weeks later, with Hurricane Rita menacing Texas, President Bush appeared on TV calling for the evacuation of Houston and Galveston. At the very least his opinion poll approval rating for handling the new storm rose to 70%.
The reality of the evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita shows that the US administration has not improved its disaster planning. Evacuees found themselves in traffic jams for 24 hours or more, without fuel or supplies, in searing heat around 100oF, which this time proved more deadly than the storm itself: “The death toll from Hurricane Rita's assault on Texas has risen to about 100, but most of the victims died before the hurricane struck, either while preparing for the storm or fleeing from it, authorities said Thursday.
The evacuation of millions of people from coastal counties killed about 60 people, according to preliminary estimates,” (abcnews.) The Houston disaster relief centre, used by many of those evacuated from New Orleans, was closed during the evacuation ahead of Rita. It was totally unprepared for returning evacuees: some queued overnight, fainted in the heat and only managed to register just before it closed.
Clearly, the only reason that Rita caused less misery than Katrina is that it was downgraded to a category one hurricane and that its full force missed the major cities in its path. Without this, the pretence of having learned from New Orleans would have been completely exposed. In fact, FEMA has claimed to have learned the lessons before, on the eve of the Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, “Michael D. Brown, the director of FEMA… bragged during television interviews that he had ordered the creation of an emergency contingency plan for a worst case scenario in New Orleans after the tsunami in South Asia, and that FEMA was confident they could handle any eventuality. Reports out of New Orleans indicate that this FEMA plan included a decision to turn away trucks carrying donated bottled-water, refusing delivery of 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel transported by the Coast Guard, and the severing of emergency communication lines used by the local police authorities in suburban New Orleans” (‘Hurricane Katrina: a capitalist-made crisis’, internationalism.org).
There is more to learning the lessons of disasters than simply providing for the victims after the event. There is also the long term task of prevention. Plans to strengthen the levees protecting New Orleans called Coast 2050, costing $14 billion, were rejected in 1998, and an Army Corps proposal for $105 million for hurricane and flood protection resulted in only $42 million being approved. Contrast this with the cost of the occupation of Iraq, approximately $1 billion a week. The failure to carry out long term protection against disaster is not an aberration of this or that leader or administration, but follows the logic of capitalism throughout its decadent period. It is the logic behind the dreadful loss of life in the Asian Tsunami and the Mumbai floods just as in the USA this summer.
But not only can capitalism not spare the cash to protect its populations, it cannot stop itself eroding the natural protection afforded by the wetlands, as around New Orleans, or by mangrove swamps elsewhere. Nor can it prevent itself concreting over flood plains, which makes even more areas vulnerable.
It seems the USA is suffering from more and worse hurricanes due to the rise in sea temperatures in turn the result of global warming, yet the USA has not even pretended to learn the lesson of this. Under Democratic and Republican presidents it has rejected the science that does not suit its immediate interests and refused to sign the Kyoto agreement, while those countries that have signed it are making no progress to halt greenhouse gas emissions.
Capitalism can only lead humanity to increasing chaos, made up of wars, famines and ecological disasters. The only lesson it learned from the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina was on the desirability of having people believe its crocodile tears.