By KEEANGA-YAHMATTA TAYLOR
IT HAS been little more than a year since Hurricane Katrina brought death and destruction to the Gulf Coast region. Not only did the hurricane rack up more than $200 billion worth of damage, but it also revealed the depths of class and racial oppression in the United States.
Beginning in the era of slavery, the region has been shaped by centuries of extreme racism aimed at preserving rigid class polarization between rich and poor. Hurricane Katrina only exacerbated the inequality, injustice, and poverty that already existed. Even President George W. Bush was forced to acknowledge this history and its lingering impact.
As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.
In the aftermath of the hurricane it was quickly understood that the racism in Louisiana and New Orleans, in particular, was not a historical relic but alive and well at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Before the storm Mississippi and Louisiana were the two poorest states in the country. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, more than 900,000 people lived on less than $10,000 a year. In New Orleans, where 67 percent of the population was Black, more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Moreover, exacerbating the evacuation crisis, 27 percent of Blacks did not own or have access to a car. In the state of Louisiana, 70 percent of all children living in poverty were Black. This was the obscene backdrop to the existing social crisis in the Gulf Coast before the storm ever hit. As radical actor and activist Danny Glover put it, “The hurricane…did not turn the region into a Third World country…it revealed one.”
“Rebuilding” New Orleans
Bush vowed that the “new” New Orleans would be different, saying,
So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created. Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive, not just to cope, but to overcome. We want evacuees to come home, for the best of reasons—because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love.One year later, far from challenging the class divisions and racism endemic to the Gulf Coast, the rebuilding efforts have made it all worse. From public education and public health, to criminal justice and the rebuilding of infrastructure—the entire process has been a disaster of Katrina-sized proportions, hardening racial and class disparities.
While Bush gushed about a rebuilding process that would include the return of evacuees to homes and jobs, the real plan for New Orleans is to rebuild only sections of the city, and in those sections to make it demographically whiter and wealthier. In the words of one wealthy, white businessman from New Orleans, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.” Prior to the hurricane, New Orleans was 36 percent Black; today it is only 21 percent Black. The pre-storm mean household income of $55,000 in New Orleans has jumped $9,000 higher in the one year since the hurricane. Along the Mississippi coast household income has increased by more than $4,000.
The rebuilding process in New Orleans has been deliberately slow, aimed at dissuading thousands of citizens from returning. A year after the disaster only 18 percent of the schools have re-opened. If the children cannot attend school then the parents cannot return. Only 17 percent of public buses are running. If there is no public transportation, in a city where the lack of private car ownership became the object of national discussion concerning the depth of poverty in New Orleans, then there are little means for poor and working people to transport themselves to any jobs that may become available. Only 60 percent of homes have electricity. While slightly better than Iraq, if basic utilities are unreliable, the prospects for returning are vastly diminished.
The failure of New Orleans and Gulf Coast reconstruction was in many ways predictable. Ideologically, the American state and its political representatives from the two main parties have conditioned the public to expect less from the government for the last two decades. In New Orleans this is the reigning philosophy behind reconstruction. The shift away from public resources and assistance paved the way for an American-style neoliberal recovery package organized around privatization, cheap labor, bloated corporate contracts, gentrification, and the physical and economic marginalization of the poor. The last year in New Orleans has been a microcosm for what American capitalism would like to serve up in every major city in the United States.
In fact, the biggest obstacle to fair and equitable reconstruction has been the orgy of corporate greed with the willful participation of the highest levels of the Bush administration. Government malfeasance has allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to be wasted while Katrina victims languish in an agonizing purgatory.
Predictably, the government tried to shift focus onto a small number of people who filed false claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to collect the $2,000 FEMA so generously allotted to hurricane victims.
FEMA “fraud” cases are literally chump change compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. government willfully allowed corporate giants to fleece. CorpWatch found at least $137 million in corporate fraud in an analysis they conducted. Private corporations racked up an astonishing $9.7 billion in “no-bid” contracts for work related to Katrina. A Washington Post study of existing Katrina contracts found that “contractors inflated their actual costs from 40 percent to 1,700 percent when billing the government.”
Days after the hurricane hit, the Bush White House allowed companies with ties to both the current Bush administration and previous presidential administrations—including the Clinton administration—to bypass the usual bidding process for contracts and immediately start scoring deals in the billions of dollars. Bush insider favorites Halliburton, its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), Bechtel Corporation, and the Shaw Group, to name a few, were the first corporate giants to get fat on Katrina contracts. Both KBR and the Shaw Group were clients of Joseph Allbaugh, who was George W. Bush’s former campaign manager and then designated head of FEMA briefly. Of course, Halliburton was formerly run by Dick Cheney before he became vice president. The contracts secured by Allbaugh’s two clients in the weeks after the Katrina disaster totaled $700 million. Bechtel—which has recently come under fire for its handling of the “Big Dig” project in Boston—was caught overcharging the government to the tune of $48 million.
Florida-based Carnival Cruise line secured a no-bid $236 million contract to house hurricane victims. It clearly didn’t hurt that President Bush’s brother Jeb is governor there. While the Bush administration snapped up the Carnival contracts, the country of Greece offered two cruise liners for free as part of a humanitarian effort that was rejected. Jeb Bush personally e-mailed now defamed, former FEMA director Michael Brown to intervene on Carnival’s behalf.
According to one report, “environmental services” company Ashbritt Inc. received a government contract for $579 million for debris removal in Mississippi. Interestingly, the Miami Herald points out that Ashbritt doesn’t own a single dump truck. However, Ashbritt did recently hire a lobbying firm—of which Governor Haley Barbor, formerly the chairman of the Republican Party, is a partner—to the tune of $40,000.
CorpWatch puts the corporate pillaging in context:
Many of the same “disaster profiteers” and government agencies that mishandled the reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq are responsible for the failure of “reconstruction” of the Gulf Coast region. The Army Corps, Bechtel and Halliburton are using the very same “contract vehicles “ in the Gulf Coast as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity,” open-ended “contingency” contracts that are being abused by the contractors on the Gulf Coast to squeeze out local companies.Reconstruction workers
Katrina destroyed over 18,000 businesses in Louisiana alone, yet it would seem that given the scale of destruction in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, and given the billions of dollars in contracts to clean-up and rebuild, there should be an abundance of good-paying jobs. While job opportunities did open up, the Bush administration immediately gave the corporate bosses the upper hand by dismantling all labor and other regulatory laws in order to maximize exploitation of a desperate workforce.
Less than two weeks after the hurricane hit, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon wage act which guarantees federal construction contractors pay no less than the prevailing wage rates for private construction workers in a particular area of the United States. Mississippi already had the lowest wages in the entire country for construction workers, with Louisiana ranking fifteenth lowest in the nation. It would take another two months before Davis-Bacon was reinstated, but the damage was already done. Under pressure from labor unions, Bush reinstated the act—but not retroactively. All of the companies that got in on the low-wage bonanza in the first two months of the reconstruction—the vast majority—would be able to continue paying their workers below the prevailing wages.
The day after Katrina struck, Bush suspended the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s capacity to enforce job safety and health standards remains suspended in most of the region, including in the city of New Orleans. For almost two months the Department of Homeland Security suspended sanctions for employers who failed to verify the work authorization of their employees. A week and two days after the hurricane struck, the Department of Labor suspended affirmative action requirements for corporations taking federal dollars. It was not until December that affirmative action was reinstated.
The sum total of these relaxed or suspended regulations was to create a cheap and vulnerable workforce that would be at the mercy of millionaire bosses. In fact, poor workers from around the country have come to New Orleans in search of work. There are also an estimated 100,000 Latino workers now in the Gulf Coast. Both native workers and foreign-born workers have been lured to the Gulf Coast with empty promises of high wages, safe lodging, and food. It is estimated that 25 percent of the Latino workers in the area are undocumented. Because of the existing crisis with infrastructure in New Orleans, coupled with the initial deregulation of labor laws, many workers in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast face Dickensian working conditions. In a remarkable report, “And injustice for all,” published by the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, researchers interviewed 700 workers to paint a picture of hyper-exploitation, wage theft, racism and police harassment, raids and deportations, and an intense atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
One example of the unjust conditions workers are forced to contend with is the tent city in New Orleans’ City Park. Here, hundreds of poor workers live in tents in the muddy park. Workers pay the city of New Orleans $300 a month to pitch a tent in the park. They also pay the city $5 per cold shower they wish to take in park facilities. The study found that 28 percent of undocumented workers complained of contractors refusing to pay after the work was performed. The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance recovered $700,000 in unpaid wages for undocumented workers—including $100,000 from Halliburton subsidiary KBR.
There have been attempts to cast Blacks and Latinos as competitors in the reconstruction of New Orleans. This perception is fueled by comments made by Mayor Ray Nagin a month after the hurricane. “How do I ensure,” he said, “that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?” The study on New Orleans’ new workforce rebuts Mayor Nagin succinctly:
Blamed for lack of inclusion and opportunity for Black New Orleanians after Katrina, immigrants were scapegoated by media and politicians while contractors were exploiting them. The script also masked the key role that government and private institutions played in creating the exclusion of Black people and the exploitation of Latinos and other migrant workers. Finally, the script created a climate of public receptivity to the exploitation and harassment of Latinos.Housing
In Louisiana, Katrina displaced between 600,000 and 1 million people from their homes. In New Orleans alone, upwards of 300,000 people left the city and have not yet returned.
A main impediment to returning is the dearth of affordable and habitable housing. In the city of New Orleans there is currently a 99 percent occupancy rate, meaning that there is literally no place for people to live if they want to return. After the storm more than 43,000 rental units were lost but the cost of housing in the city is rising rapidly, which ensures that tens of thousands of the poor and working class will find it even harder to come back. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the year before Katrina was $578. Today, rent on a one-bedroom place runs more than $800 a month.
In the midst of a genuine housing shortage, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken this opportunity to announce the demolition of more than 5,000 lightly damaged public housing units in New Orleans. As of July 2006, shockingly zero dollars of federal funds had been dispersed for rebuilding homes. The infamous FEMA trailer was supposed to bridge the gap between immediate housing needs and the massive rebuilding of homes. National Public Radio reported that this past Thanksgiving more than 100,000 people were living in FEMA trailers—tripling the numbers that were living in the trailers a year ago. Their report attributed the growth in the number of people relying on FEMA housing to FEMA’s cutting off housing subsidies and rental assistance to families from the affected areas. In other words, family and friends have to double up in the FEMA trailers to skirt homelessness. The New York Times reported that FEMA has already cut off assistance to thousands of the 33,000 Katrina and Rita evacuees who are still scattered throughout the region living in FEMA-provided apartments. FEMA is currently appealing a federal judge’s ruling that the aid should be restored. Five FEMA-run Baton Rouge trailer parks will be closing in April, stranding 600 families.
For African Americans—the vast majority of the displaced from New Orleans—their journey in search of housing throughout the Gulf Coast has not only been marred by price gouging but also by racial discrimination at the hands of potential landlords. A study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda involving housing complexes in seventeen cities and in the five states hit by Katrina found that apartment managers failed to tell prospective Black tenants about available apartments, while white callers were told about apartments; failed to return phone calls placed by Black callers; failed to provide correct information to Black callers regarding rents and security deposit costs; and when Black testers were finally able to reach apartment managers, they were quoted higher rents and security deposits than white testers.
Public education in New Orleans was a mess before the hurricane destroyed it. Years of neglect by the city and state resulted in a school system where 50 percent of Black ninth-graders would not graduate from high school. Before Katrina, New Orleans had a 40 percent literacy rate.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, more than 80 percent of New Orleans’ schools were damaged. Compared with the 117 public schools that were open before the hurricane, only 57 schools opened for the 2006–07 school year. The state of Louisiana, in collusion with the federal government, is taking this opportunity to drive the final nail in the coffin of publicly funded education. Fifty-three non-union charter schools have been allowed to open with both state and federal dollars. The federal government has dispersed $44 million to aid in the opening of charter schools in New Orleans while dispersing not a single penny for public school. Not one public school in New Orleans has received funding for the last year. Sensing an opportunity to kill the teachers’ union under the cover of a national catastrophe, the city of New Orleans simply fired almost every single teacher—nearly 4,000 teachers—in one fell swoop. Almost 4,000 more support staff—cafeteria workers, janitors, and others were also fired with no warning or recourse. The “new” charter schools are hiring and fired teachers are more than welcome to begin teaching again—only this time without union protection and union rules.
Louisiana was already a state that had a disproportionate number of people in poor health—no doubt related to it being the second poorest state in the country. Louisiana ranked as one of the five worst states for health problems including: infant mortality, cancer deaths, and premature deaths. Louisiana has the third highest number of people who are uninsured—behind Texas and New Mexico. A health care system that was already pushed to its limits before the hurricane is today simply broken and perpetually overwhelmed. Prior to the hurricane there were twenty-two hospitals in Orleans Parish; today there are eleven. Charity Hospital, which served two-thirds of all the uninsured in New Orleans and all of the poor for 270 years is now closed. There is a plan to open a $1.5 billion medical complex in five years. New Orleans lost upwards of 70–85 percent of the area’s private sector physicians, pharmacies, dental services, and behavioral health services.
Continuing infrastructure problems exacerbate these serious deficiencies. According to the Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ water system has to pump out 130 million gallons of water a day so that 50 million gallons will be produced. This is costing the city $2 million a day. The lack of water pressure is an obvious health hazard. In the Lower Ninth Ward the water is still not safe to drink even after a year.
Even though there were more than 300,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in Louisiana in the last year, there are no adult psychiatric beds serving the uninsured in Orleans Parish. This is particularly frightening considering there has been a 300 percent increase in suicides in New Orleans over the last year. The lack of health care infrastructure for the poor and uninsured is compounding the problems related to the toxic environmental conditions that are the norm now. From the ubiquitous “Katrina cough” to the constant exposure to mold spores and the water and soil toxins kicked up by the hurricane winds and floods, the Gulf Coast is a toxic time bomb waiting to go off, without the medical infrastructure to treat people.
Criminal injustice system
The lasting symbol of racism and oppression in the Deep South has always been its prisons and jails and the racists who oversee them. Hurricane Katrina did nothing to attenuate the racism and brutality of Southern justice. The racism and corruption of the New Orleans Police Department has existed for decades. In the 1990s the federal government threatened to take over the police department after an officer put out a hit on a prostitute over official police airwaves. Louisiana generally imprisons the highest proportion of its population in comparison with any other state in the country—894 for every 100,000 people. Seventy-two percent of those imprisoned in Louisiana are African American, even though Blacks make up only 30 percent of the state’s population. In New Orleans, Orleans Parish Prison is the eighth largest jail in the country. When the hurricane struck, they had no evacuation plan. Thousands of inmates were left in their cells with the water rising. When they were finally evacuated, they were taken to an open field and held under gunpoint for three days. They were then transferred to maximum-security prisons in the state—including the notorious Angola prison, which is a former slave plantation where workers still do daily manual labor, and where 90 percent of inmates die with no hope of ever getting out.
Juveniles were treated no differently. The 150 children who were locked up in the Orleans Parish Prison were abandoned in prison dorm rooms while officials escaped to save their own lives. For five days these 150 boys were left in waist-high sewage water and the toxic sludge that covered all of New Orleans in the days immediately after the hurricane. For five days these children were left without food and water. One sixteen-year-old described their desperation, “We were so thirsty, we drank the contaminated water.”
Today, there remain thousands of prisoners locked up in New Orleans facilities with no ability to get out. There is an average one-year waiting period to see a public defender. There are more than 6,000 inmates in New Orleans’ jails whose trial dates have not been set and who have never seen an attorney. Prior to the storm New Orleans had thirty-nine public defenders. Shortly after the storm, the city of New Orleans laid off thirty-one of them—leaving eight in a city with the eighth largest jail population in the country. Louisiana is currently the only state in the country that earmarks no money for public defenders.
African Americans are not the only victims of police racism and brutality. The growing number of Latinos in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has given the cops additional targets. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security authorized more than 700 Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) agents to patrol the Gulf Coast region. A growing number of Latino workers have reported that cops will often force immigrants to work on the homes of police officers—sometimes they are paid and sometimes they are not.
Corporate greed, public corruption, and racism continue to retard progress in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. Yet there have been attempts from the beginning for ordinary people to resist the deliberate re-shaping of New Orleans in particular. From the moment the hurricane hit, thousands of ordinary people from across the country made their way to the Gulf Coast to assist in a genuine rebuilding effort. Moreover, activists in the region have banded together to form organizations like Common Ground and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance to fight for the rights of the poor and working class who remain in New Orleans and Mississippi. Their efforts and the efforts of other grassroots organizations are heroic in the face of organized and deliberate misdeeds happening in the highest echelons of business and government.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a regular contributor to the ISR, is author of “Rediscovering race and class after Katrina” (ISR 44, November–December 2005). She is a member of the International Socialist Organization.
Bill Quigley, “Trying to make it home: New Orleans one year after Katrina,” August 22, 2006, available at http://www.counterpunch.org/quigley08222006.html.
Rita J. King, “Big, easy money: Disaster profiteering on the American Gulf Coast,” a CorpWatch report, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14023.
See The Opportunity Agenda, http://www.opportunityagenda.org/ for articles such as: “The state of opportunity: One year after Hurricane Katrina,” “Health and healthcare: Opportunity for health security among Katrina’s victims,” “Housing: Welcoming Katrina’s victims back home.”
Judith Browne-Dianis, Jennifer Lai, Marielena Hincapie, and Saket Soni, “And injustice for all: Workers’ lives in the reconstruction of New Orleans,” New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, available at http://www.neworleansworkerjustice.org.
“One year after Katrina: The state of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, available at http://www.reconstructionwatch.org.
Shaila Dewan, “Storm evacuees remain in the grip of uncertainty,” New York Times, December 2, 2006.