Hurricane Katrina: Biggest Refugee Crisis Since the American Civil War

The effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi could be the US’s worst natural disaster, with a projected 10,000 or more people dead and its biggest refugee crisis since the American Civil War. But it is no less a catastrophe for the Bush regime and the system which it defends, US capitalism, the major prop of world capitalism.

As the unspeakable horrors – reminiscent of the ‘Mad Max’ films – have unfolded in New Orleans, the brutal realities of class society in the US , together with the warped priorities and ‘values’ of the Bush gang in the White House, have been laid bare before the astonished eyes of the world. In one week following Katrina, perhaps more damage has been done to Bush’s standing than even Iraq has over three calamitous years.

However, Iraq is at the eye of the storm of Katrina and its after-effects. Over $5 billion a month, the treasure of the American people, together with the lives of its young men and women, is being wasted in an unwinnable war in Iraq. Spending on the prevention of natural disasters has been cut back to a mere $187 million a year, while spending on ‘homeland security’ has spiraled to $1 billion a year. The effects of the disaster were compounded by the criminal destruction by developers, often the rich friends of Bush and the Republican Party, of the wetlands which used to act as a barrier to the effects of floods and hurricanes.

The surprise is not that Hurricane Katrina took place but that it was so widely predicted beforehand. In fact, it is probably the most anticipated disaster in history. Yet the weak, corrupt, incompetent regime in Washington closed its eyes and ears to all the warnings of impending disaster.

Even the usually servile press in the US and Britain have spelt this out in the most graphic detail. Prior to 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had listed a major storm surge in New Orleans and the Gulf coast as one of the three most catastrophic events it might have to cope with, along with a major earthquake on the West Coast of the US and a terrorist attack on New York.

Yet following 9/11, the budget of FEMA was slashed. The head of FEMA, Michael Brown, a creature of Bush, said in the middle of the disaster that he had “no idea” that people were waiting to be rescued in New Orleans. He had come to his present job from the International Arabian Horse Association with no experience of disasters! However, he is the ‘fall guy’ for the Bush regime and American capitalism itself.

The disaster was bad enough for the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – the poorest states in the US – but it was enormously compounded by the colossal mismanagement of Bush himself and his government. Like a modern Nero, he strummed his guitar at a ‘fundraising’ event in California on behalf of his rich Republican friends, while the unspeakable agonies of the poor were played out on TV screens in the US and internationally.

While the wealthy and the comfortable were able to escape the hell of New Orleans, the poor, one fifth of the population – most of them black – were subjected to the horrors of the New Orleans Superdome sports stadium and the convention hall. The world mobilized for the Asian tsunami within 48 hours to supply food – dropping it sometimes from the air in the case of Aceh in Indonesia, for instance – yet the world’s richest and mightiest military power was seemingly impotent to help its own desperate citizens. Jesse Jackson junior summed it up: “The US could unleash ‘shock and awe’ against Iraq but what we have here is shockingly awful.”

One-third of Mississippi’s National Guard – and the most experienced and trained in facing natural disasters – is employed in Iraq. Those that remained were used more to “police” the utterly helpless, starving and dehydrated people imprisoned in New Orleans. The scenes witnessed were reminiscent of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, rather than the wealthiest country on the globe. Undoubtedly, looting took place – some of it, although not all, by desperately hungry and thirsty people – but this itself is a commentary on heartless US capitalist society which not just Bush but others like his own father before him and Clinton have fashioned. Create an alienated dog-eat-dog society and, in a crisis, some will act selfishly accordingly.

An unprecedented gulf between the rich and poor has been fashioned in the US which every day is widening. During 2004, the number of Americans living in poverty rose for the fourth successive year, pushing up the number of poor from 35.9 million to 37 million. While the poor of New Orleans who were treated so shamefully by Bush were mostly African-American, the largest increase in this period was amongst non-Hispanic whites, with an 8.6 percent poverty rate, up from 8.2 percent in 2003.

The hurricane has brought out in a stark fashion class and race, the ‘unmentionables’ amongst the summits of US society. Writing in The Observer, a black preacher baldly stated: “Race and class are huge issues since the conservative takeover of US politics… [There has been] the conservative backlash we have witnessed maybe since Nixon, or certainly Reagan. This president is just the stark epitome of it all.”

This was clearly on display as the stranded of New Orleans were “treated like animals”, in their own words. The sense of outrage, not just in New Orleans but throughout the US, has compelled even formerly loyal supporters of Bush – including the Bush lickspittles of Fox News – to criticize him and his officials.

Sometimes a cataclysmic event brings to a head all the latent diseases of the system and can provoke a profound, even a revolutionary crisis. Lenin pointed out that the Dreyfus affair in France at the beginning of the 20th century – when the officer caste blamed an innocent Jewish army officer for a spy scandal – led to a revolutionary crisis in France which could have led to the working class taking power. French capitalism at that stage was saved by the leader of the Socialist Party, Millerand, entering the capitalist government. There are some features of that situation – although not yet on such a scale as in France then – in America today.

We saw a similar situation at the time of the Vietnam War. Then, US capitalism learned it could not pursue a policy of “guns and butter”, fight a debilitating war and maintain and increase the living standards of its citizens. The result was a war on two fronts, in Vietnam and at home, with the uprising of the destitute and particularly the African-Americans.

Bush believed that US capitalism could, in defiance of what happened in Vietnam, carry out a “guns and tax cuts for the rich” policy. The hurricane, which has revealed the calamitous collapse of the infrastructure, particularly in the inner-city areas, has shattered this delusion.

If a serious mass workers’ organization representing the views of the working class and the poor existed in the US, the sense of outrage at these events could have led not only to the downfall of Bush but also question the very system he represents. The Democrats do not provide that alternative. They have been largely mute while this drama has played out. However, these events will lead to an enormous questioning, not just in the US but internationally as well, particularly by the new generation looking for an explanation as to why this catastrophe took place and the pathetic capitalist response to it.

Not least will be the issue of global warming which some scientists say has increased the risk of hurricanes in length and strength by 50 percent since the mid-1970s. Representing the oil lobby, Bush is in denial. He promises to regenerate New Orleans. It is true that, following the Vietnam War, a massive urban regeneration program was carried out in cities such as Chicago, which had superficial success. But now the US is a crippled economic giant, with a massive budget deficit, which could be added to by anything from an estimated $9 billion to $50 billion in order to meet the cost of repairing the damage.

At the same time its oil installations, particularly its refining capacity, has been weakened by the disaster. This enfeebled colossus has been forced to request aid from Europe. Such is the state of the US that Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have mischievously suggested that they (alongside Sri Lanka and Afghanistan!) send aid – including oil – to help out the poor victims of this catastrophe.

One thing is clear; it will not just be an economic price that US capitalism will be called on to pay but a social and political one as well. Millions will now question an unplanned, anarchic system that pursues foreign wars of conquest yet which is incapable of adequately foreseeing the damage that can be inflicted by natural disasters and preparing for them. They will look towards a system, socialism and human solidarity, which prioritizes the interests of the majority over the handful of the rich who are the real beneficiaries of Bush and his system.

The Socialist #406, September 8-14, 2005