Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
September 1, 2005
The scope of the disaster that goes by the name Hurricane Katrina is difficult to fathom at a distance. All the video on TV and all the photographs and words in newspapers, magazines, and on-line cannot adequately describe the loss. A million people homeless, a death toll likely to rise over 1,000, a great city submerged, a region devastated—the enormity was too great to take in.
Even in the first seventy-two hours after Katrina came ashore near New Orleans, it became obvious that government had failed, at every level.
If ever there was an occasion for government intervention, this was it. People were drowning. People were stranded. People were cooped up in the Superdome in disgusting conditions. People were on the highway in the baking sun with no food or water or facilities or medicine. And none in sight--for themselves, or their elderly parents, or their infants.
The state and local authorities were woefully unprepared, and the Bush Administration responded with a lethal tardiness.
While Katrina was without question an extraordinarily vicious storm, the vast majority of people who died did so not because of Katrina but because of a laissez-faire federal government with skewed priorities.
“A rightwing government that strangles public expenditures for public works is largely responsible for what happened in New Orleans,” says Paul Soglin, former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and past chair of the committee on urban economics for the National Conference of Mayors.
It’s not like there wasn’t any warning. Like Condoleezza Rice after 9/11, Bush told Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America that no one could have anticipated this disaster. Actually, a lot of people did. The New Orleans project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, Alfred Naomi, had warned for years of the need to shore up the levees, but the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress kept cutting back on the funding.
The most recent cutback was a $71.2 million reduction for the New Orleans district in fiscal year 2006. “I’ve never seen this level of reduction,” Naomi told the New Orleans CityBusiness paper on June 6. His district had “identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls, and pumping stations,” the paper said. But with the cuts, “Naomi said it’s enough to pay salaries but little else.”
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu blamed the Bush Administration for not making the funding a priority. “It’s extremely shortsighted,” she told the paper. “These projects are literally life-and-death projects to the people of south Louisiana and they are (of) vital economic interest to the entire nation.”
After Katrina hit, The New York Times interviewed Naomi. “A breach under these conditions was ultimately not surprising,” said Naomi, who had drawn up plans for protecting New Orleans from a Category 5 storm. “It would take $2.5 billion to build a Category 5 protection system, and [now] we’re talking about tens of billions in losses, all that lost productivity, and so many lost lives and injuries and personal trauma you’ll never get over.”
Naomi wasn’t the only one who warned of this disaster. In 2001, prior to the terrorist attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing the country,” wrote Eric Berger in a prescient article in the Houston Chronicle on December 1, 2001, entitled “Keeping Its Head Above Water: New Orleans Faces Doomsday Scenario.” In that piece, Berger warned: “The city’s less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of ten left behind as the city drowned under twenty feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.”
In June 2003, Civil Engineering Magazine ran a long story by Greg Brouwer entitled “The Creeping Storm.” It noted that the levees “were designed to withstand only forces associated with a fast-moving” Category 3 hurricane. “If a lingering Category 3 storm—or a stronger storm, say, Category 4 or 5—were to hit the city, much of New Orleans could find itself under more than twenty feet of water.” One oceanographer at Louisiana State University, Joseph Suhayda, modeled such storms and shared his findings with “emergency preparedness officials throughout Louisiana,” the article noted. “The American Red Cross estimates that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die” if the hurricane floods breached the levees and overwhelmed the city’s power plants and took out its drainage system.
On October 11, 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story by Paul Nussbaum entitled “Direct Hurricane Hit Could Drown City of New Orleans, Experts Say.” It too said that “more than 25,000 people could die, emergency officials predict. That would make it the deadliest disaster in U.S. history.” The story quoted Terry C. Tuller, city director of emergency preparedness: “It’s only a matter of time. The thing that keeps me awake at night is the 100,000 people who couldn’t leave.”
But Republicans in Congress and the Bush Administration could not be bothered. They were more concerned with diverting money to cover Bush’s Iraq War. “It appears that the money has been moved in the President’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq,” Walter Maestri, director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on June 8. “I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished.”
Money was not the only valuable resource diverted to Iraq. So was much of the Louisiana National Guard. One reason that thousands of people were stranded without food or water in New Orleans for days is that 35 percent of the Louisiana National Guard was 7,000 miles away.
“Some 6,000 National Guard personnel in Louisiana and Mississippi who would be available to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are in Iraq,” Pete Yost of AP reported on August 29. “The war has forced the Guard into becoming an operational force, far from its historic role as a strategic reserve primarily available to governors for disasters and other duties in their home states.”
It’s not just having the uniformed personnel in place but the equipment, as well.
“Earlier [in August] the Louisiana National Guard publicly complained that too much of its equipment was in Iraq,” reported Democracy Now! “The local ABC news affiliate reported dozens of high water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers, and generators are now abroad.”
Once again, George Bush fell to the occasion. He waited out the storm in Crawford, held his breath for a day, and then jetted off to San Diego to seize a propaganda moment for his war. His speechwriter did patch in two paragraphs on Katrina, and then made a clumsy transition to Iraq: “As we deliver relief to our citizens to the south [south of San Diego?], our troops are defending all our citizens from threats abroad. . . .”
When he finally, the following day, cut short his precious vacation and flew over the devastation on his return to Washington, he gave one of the most lackluster speeches of his colorless career. He bragged about all the supplies the federal government had delivered, but it was clear from the media that those supplies had not reached many of the people who needed them the most. He appointed the Homeland Security chief to head a cabinet-level task force, but why wasn’t such a task force in place when there was ample warning that a monster hurricane was going to strike?
Beaming with local pride that was painfully out of place, he went out of his way to “thank the state of Texas” for providing relief for some of the refugees.
He urged people to donate to the Red Cross—nothing wrong with that. But at a time like this, the government, which is supposed to represent us as a national community, should be providing the emergency relief. Bush lauded “the armies of compassion”—the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Catholic Charities. They are to be praised—but relief should not be privatized at a time like this. With a disaster of this magnitude, only the federal government has the resources to provide the crucial relief expeditiously.
Bush acknowledged, belatedly, that “repairing the infrastructure, of course, is going to be a key priority.” It would have been a whole lot easier to repair it beforehand.
And then he took the occasion to push through a long-awaited wish of the oil industry by granting a “nationwide waiver for fuel blends” on gasoline. He didn’t say one word on the price gouging that the oil companies and retailers were engaging in.
“To announce this repeal as the major initiative to control prices is nonsensical,” says Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “It does not address the fundamentals. The fundamentals are you have speculators on Wall Street who are driving up the price of crude. For American cities that are suffering from very poor air quality from asthma and other respiratory diseases, this is going to make things worse.”
Then there’s Bush’s head-in-the-melting-iceberg approach to global warming, which may have contributed to the force of Katrina and may make similar hurricanes more likely.
“The hurricane that struck Louisiana . . . was nicknamed Katrina,” wrote Ross Gelbspan in The Boston Globe. “Its real name is global warming.”
Gelbspan, one of the leading environmental journalists in the country, is the author of two books on global warming, The Heat Is On and Boiling Point. His assertion that global warming was the cause for the intensity of Katrina raised some hackles in the scientific community, with some scholars saying that any particular event cannot be pinpointed to changes in the Earth’s temperature.
But study after study on global warming has warned that as the water temperature of the world’s oceans goes up, the likelihood of more vicious hurricanes also increases. The most recent MIT study, released in the June 25 issue of New Scientist, showed that hurricanes were increasing in duration and intensity by 50 percent over the past thirty years as water temperatures increased.
Bush, for his part, won’t even admit that there is such a thing as global warming. He pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Accords, blocked efforts of other countries to move aggressively to curb greenhouse gasses, consistently downplayed scientific studies of the phenomenon, and had his political appointees even edit out some of the conclusions of the government’s own scientists.
Some disasters can’t be avoided. But they can be contained. Katrina was not. It was not contained because of a laissez-faire government that failed to bother to take warnings seriously, because of a Republican Congress and Administration that is stingy when it comes to spending on public goods but lavish on armaments and war, because Bush diverted much of the National Guard to Iraq rather than to keep them here to do the jobs they are meant to do, and because of an Administration that is pathologically hostile to science.
Katrina was a natural disaster. But it was compounded by a scandalous political disaster that took an even greater toll.