Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Fidel Castro, Katrina and the logic of inaction

/ devastation /
Fidel Castro, writes about the assistance offered to the victims of Katrina by the Cuban government
...The main reason for our being here is to make the truth known and reiterate our willingness to cooperate. We are not here to criticize, that's not our intention. We were not mentioned in that long list and we were perhaps the first to offer aid; if you have a look at the time when the instructions were given and the message was passed, I think it's fair to say we were quick to make our offer, which was concrete: doctors to work in the affected areas, precisely what they need now in many places.

Our position cannot be perceived as resentment or even complaint. As the deputy chief of the US Interests Section, Mr. Lee was told we were not after any kind of publicity. Perhaps their interpretation was that we wanted no publicity whatsoever. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding; I'm not saying Cuba's name was intentionally omitted. Even if it had been omitted intentionally, it's not something that worries us, we've never done anything for recognition or to be thanked, that's the way we've acted not once, but many, many times...

There is something else here worth mentioning regarding Cuba: although vastly poorer than the US, the Cubans were very effective in evacuating over a million people twice in a row last year as hurricane Charley and then Ivan struck the island. This demostrates, convincingly I think, that avoiding the kind of death toll and devastation witnessed in New Orleans, doesn't cost too much - it isn't about just money and investment (although that should have helped a lot). In fact, organization and preparedness seems to be paramount, something obviously missing as far as Katrina was concerned, despite clear warnings that a disaster was extremely likely. Also, and crucially, it requires giving a damn about the poorest and weakest members of society, an attitude painfully lacking as evidenced by the reaction and events as they unfolded in the Big Easy.

Mike Davis (of City of Quartz fame), just last year was describing the evacuation of New Orleans in preparation for a possible strike by hurricane Ivan:

The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond's version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less -- mainly Black -- were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.

New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials conceded they had ten thousand body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city's poorest or most infirm residents. The day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orleans' daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the "large group...mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods" who wanted to evacuate but couldn't.

Only at the last moment, with winds churning Lake Pontchartrain, did Mayor Ray Nagin reluctantly open the Louisiana Superdome and a few schools to desperate residents. He was reportedly worried that lower-class refugees might damage or graffiti the Superdome.

So obvioulsy this lack of response was not unprecedented.

Further proof that evacuating the large number of the city's poor was never part of any plan or preparation at any level was provided by an article in the July 24th edition of the Times Picayune, on hurricane preparations in New Orleans (as related by PJnet):

City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own.

In scripted appearances being recorded now, officials such as Mayor Ray Nagin, local Red Cross Executive Director Kay Wilkins and City Council President Oliver Thomas drive home the word that the city does not have the resources to move out of harm's way an estimated 134,000 people without transportation.

In the video, made by the anti-poverty agency Total Community Action, they urge those people to make arrangements now by finding their own ways to leave the city in the event of an evacuation.

"You're responsible for your safety, and you should be responsible for the person next to you," Wilkins said in an interview. "If you have some room to get that person out of town, the Red Cross will have a space for that person outside the area. We can help you. But we don't have the transportation."

Also as reported in the Mercury News [free reg. required], related, possibly life-saving funding was cut:

...Last year, FEMA spent $250,000 to conduct an eight-day hurricane drill for a mock killer storm hitting New Orleans. Some 250 emergency officials attended. Many of the scenarios now playing out, including a helicopter evacuation of the Superdome, were discussed in that drill for a fictional storm named Pam.

This year, the group was to design a plan to fix such unresolved problems as evacuating sick and injured people from the Superdome and housing tens of thousands of stranded citizens.

Funding for that planning was cut, said Tolbert, the former FEMA disaster response director.

"A lot of good was done, but it just wasn't finished," said Tolbert, who was the disaster chief for the state of North Carolina. "I don't know if it would have saved more lives. It would have made the response faster. You might say it would have saved lives."...

Thus I think we can safely say that the poor of New Orleans (a great, charming and interesting city of great poverty and crime, which I had the good fortune to visit repeatedly) and their safety in the event of a known and expected catastrophe, was very low in the priorities of government at all levels. It truly boggles the mind that a country with the resources and the wealth of the USA, could not - would not - evacuate a city's population and make reasonable preparations and provisions in three days time. Mike Albert over at Znet touches on the ideological nature of the catastrophe. He raises the obvious questions:

...Why not issue an order to bus companies to curtail transport elsewhere in the south and send all those busses, and certainly not too few, to New Orleans and the Mississippi coast to extract those who wished to leave.

Why not send in food, water, medicine, and yes, perhaps even drugs to appease desperate habits, to be distributed from sites all over the afflicted area, as well as dispersed to those who couldn't gain access to distribution points.

Why not issue an order to the military at bases across the south to send in troops to provide relief, including rescuing people, taking people out, distributing needed supplies, and, as a sidebar, helping keep order...

...Why not issue an order to hotels to open their doors in surrounding areas free from the floods and power outages. The busses then wouldn't have to drive people hundreds or even thousands of miles. There would be no need to put people in vast stadiums with no privacy, amenities, or security, producing still more suffering. The hotels would be easy destinations to deliver food, medicine, and other necessities like clothing, diapers, soap, and radios to, the last ...

Which he then proceeds to answer:

...The answer gaining credence by the hour is that the suffering people were, and are, black and poor. That is overwhelmingly true and intensely relevant, particularly to the instant news coverage, to the shoot to kill rhetoric, to the belief that politicos could ride out being callous, and to the endless indignities imposed at the gathering places where acres of hungry, disheveled blacks are harassed by surrounding police forces - not to mention to the prior history of New Orleans. But however central racism has been, it is not the whole story.

The additional factor making things much worse than nature imposed, I think, is that government intervention on behalf of humanity violates the logic and philosophy of business as usual...

Indeed. This catastrophe has shown, above all, the other side, the dark side of unbridled, "turbo" capitalism and the ideoleptic fixation on a social model that assigns worth to humans analogous to their purchasing power. The logic of this dictates the priority of property over life. As Albert notes, and I conclude:

...Accept business as usual as priority one and all that's left is different brands of callousness. And then Bush's media spinners have to sell Bush's callousness. So like rabid sociopaths they try what often works, being tough - "shoot the looters to kill" they bluster. Shoot people who are taking food and water and sharing it with those too old or too young to loot for themselves. Shoot the sick seeking medicine to survive. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Don't distribute what's needed, heaven forbid. Defend empty stores. Defend empty hotels. Who cares about the living, after all, a lot of them will soon be dead and the rest silent.


Georg said...

While I find it hard to believe that there was a policy of intentional neglect, it is already breathtaking enough to consider the indifference and carelessness towards the poor that are on exhibit in your quotations.

talos said...

georg: neglect is seldom intentional. Rather it is a permanent state which, under catastrophic conditions, presents itself more clearly.

Having had the good fortune to have visited N.O. a few times, I can testify that neglect was visible in the largest part of the city, an observation borne out by the facts: 28% of its inhabitants are under the official poverty line, 47% are functionally illiterate, while the city endured a a quasi-Colombian murder rate.

The neglect pre-existed. Katrina made it more obvious. And - I think - the refusal of the government to take the sort of action that Albert suggests, indicates that the priorities of the Federal and Local governments were utterly screwed in an institutionalized way.