Five years since Hurricane Katrina
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States. The world looked on in horror as New Orleans, Louisiana, was struck by storm surges that breached nearly every levee in the low-lying city’s dilapidated system. Tens of thousands of mostly poor, black residents who had been unable to evacuate were trapped by floodwaters without food, drinking water, or rescue.
More than 80 percent of New Orleans, a city of 500,000 people, was submerged. The storm destroyed communities across more than 95,000 square miles of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. At least 1,836 residents of the region were killed by the hurricane and its immediate aftermath, and many more were never to be found. As staggering as these figures are, they cannot in themselves reveal the full scale of the catastrophe and its aftermath. Across the region, over one million people were displaced, many never to return, including hundreds of thousands who lost all of their possessions. For weeks after Katrina’s landfall, a social disaster continued to unfold. Stranded victims continued to die of drowning, dehydration, and exhaustion. Tens of thousands of survivors were forced into wretched conditions—hot, overcrowded makeshift emergency centers—deprived of the most fundamental provisions. Without food, water, medical care, diapers, or toilets, more victims succumbed to the catastrophe.
Negligent and unprepared government authorities met the disaster with a military lockdown, curfews, and rampant police violence. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned relief trucks away, cut emergency lines, and survivors were prevented from leaving the city. Victims were vilified and blamed for the social anarchy. Police and armed mercenaries were given the nod to gun down unarmed “looters” or residents desperately seeking higher ground in the affluent neighborhoods. As the situation grew more desperate, the Bush administration ordered in the military.
Katrina marked a milestone in political life in the United States. Before the eyes of billions around the world, the true face of American capitalism stood exposed. In the midst of “the richest country in the world,” a major American city, already deeply distressed, with its critical infrastructure in ruins, was being allowed to die. The experience of Katrina was burned into social consciousness. Debacles which reveal the rot of US politics and the nature of class society—the BP oil disaster, the collapse of Detroit—are invariably referred to as “Katrinas.”
Every aspect of the catastrophe expressed the class chasm long reinforced in the policies of the ruling class: masses of New Orleans residents, many without transportation to evacuate, living out their lives in poverty and want, their suffering and pleas unacknowledged, were treated as expendable. Behind lies of politicians that the disaster was unpredictable and unavoidable stood the decades’ worth of warnings by scientists and engineers, and long-term neglect of levees and other infrastructure for the working class areas.
The complete absence of a coordinated plan for rescue and recovery was the product of a ruling class determined to impose the costs on the generosity of the American people. The official response focused above all on the protection of profit and property; the list goes on. Not least, an indifferent ruling class oversaw the abandonment of a major center of jazz, blues, and American cultural life in the working class areas of the city.