The Indian Express
Katrina sinks Bush’s credibility
Thursday, September 15, 2005 at 0000 hours IST
To most people, the scenes of disaster and devastation on the Gulf coast of the US evoked the Old Testament Flood but to literature buffs the aftermath tore pages from Kafka and Orwell. It is indeed an ironic paradox that the nation most vocally committed to free enterprise conjured up a bizarre blend of incompetence, ruthlessness and lack of initiative reminiscent of allegories of totalitarianism, showing once more that opposites finally converge, at least in failure.
The drama began at least three days before Katrina struck on the early morning hours of August 29th. Yet preparations had officially begun more than a year ago. In July 2004 the US department of Homeland Security had staged a drill to plan for a catastrophic tropical storm code-named ‘‘Hurricane Pam’’. The latter was imagined to carry ‘‘sustained winds of 120 miles per hour, upto 20 inches of rain… in Southeast Louisiana and storm surges that topped levees. More than one million residents evacuated and Hurricane Pam destroyed 500,000-600,000 buildings. Emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organisations faced this scenario during a five days exercise held…at the State Emergency Operations Centre in Baton Rouge’’.
So it appeared as if the Federal Emergency Management Agency had taken trouble to prepare. Former FEMA officials have expressed dismay and stupefaction after Katrina at the nearly complete, uncanny failure of the response mechanisms. Yet the authorities had predicted with prophetic accuracy the scope of the disaster, down to grisly details about floating bodies and coffins unearthed from graveyards by the fury of the water, and ‘‘a city drowning in its own human and chemical toxic sewage’’.
Hampered by the apparent lack of means in a ‘‘superpower’’ which has spent over three hundred billion dollars in foreign wars in the last four years and by the Republican government’s blind faith in the uninhibited free market and individual self-help shibboleths, the Federal and State agencies did not even attempt to assist New Orleans residents to get out after ordering the evacuation of the city, an order which they knew many thousands of people had no ability to obey. They unwittingly provided a lurid illustration of the decaying form of capitalism America has come to worship in the name of freedom, to wit a system which privatises profits but socialises costs, which assumes all power to control (and terminate) human lives but abdicates the ability to save them, leaving the underprivileged to fend for themselves.
The prolonged inertia of the relevant powers which was earlier repeatedly demonstrated in the case of the 9/11 attacks, leads many to wonder if there was not a deliberate decision to let the disaster take its toll. On the morning of Katrina, it was announced that New Orleans had been spared the worst since the hurricane had turned east and hit Biloxi and Southern Mississipi instead. Yet, between 15 and 21 hours later, long after the hurricane water surge had passed, two huge breaches in the levees, near 17th Str and Industrial Canals in the city’s 9th ward, poured the water of Lake Pontchartrain into the mostly sub-sea level metropolis, except for the old quarters built on higher land.
Those sudden breaches in the levees, although abundantly anticipated, have not been explained. As luck would have it the pumps located near the collapsed levees failed to work, so that the flooding was unimpeded. For three days, from Tuesday to Friday the decision-makers took no decision except for barring the Red Cross from going into the New Orleans area, even though tens of thousands of people were marooned and hundreds dying in what had rapidly become a huge open-air cesspool.
Veteran Congressman Henry Waxman, member of the House Committee on Government Reform has written an official letter to the head of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to investigate the conditions of the now famous Contract awarded by FEMA in 2004 for disaster relief planning in Louisiana, to the single bidder, a company called ‘‘Innovative Emergency Management Inc.’’ (IEM).
It is under this contract that the ‘‘Hurricane Pam’’ simulation was conducted. The ‘‘Scope of Contract’’ document issued by FEMA states: ‘‘The gravity of the situation calls for an extraordinary level of advance planning to improve government readiness’’. Understandably Rep. Waxman is wondering why all those preparations came to nothing and why the Bush administration seems to have been more concerned indeed about reducing the funding (by 80 percent) for the maintenance contracts awarded to the Army Corps of Engineers for the New Orleans levees. As a result, maintenance work was still underway on the Industrial Canal floodwall when Katrina struck. President Bush stated on the Good Morning America show of September 1 that ‘‘no one anticipated’’ the breakdown of the levees. This contention flies in the face of the evidence.
In New Orleans, some cynical observers have pointed out that most houses located in the city’s 9th and other wards will have to be destroyed and that the city could seize the land, thus providing massive opportunities for real estate speculation. Attention is again drawn to the prominent role of Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old company which is among the contractors being awarded major repair and reconstruction work through its KBR subsidiary. With the more than $50 bn appropriated by Congress for city rehabilitation, Halliburton and its peers can look forward to an endless flow of business coming their way, even while they are major beneficiaries of US military-related activities.
What is strange about this immediate and massive allocation of funds is that there is still no clear decision about whether to rebuild New Orleans in the same location. Major newspapers have highlighted dozens of cases in which it blocked rescue efforts from many quarters. Thus on September 5th The New York Times carried a piece entitled ‘‘FEMA prevents Coast Guard from delivering diesel fuel’’. The last word may be found on FEMA’s own news bulletin: “FEMA (told) first responders not to respond”. Even the only seemingly sensible initiative taken by Michael Brown, FEMA’s head to distribute $2,000 debit cards to all victims was promptly abandoned after he was summarily dismissed from his supervisory role.
After letting the forsaken residents of new Orleans, including the police, turn to looting in order to survive, the government’s belated response was to move in heavily armed special forces with shoot-at-sight orders. It seems clear that massive sabotage of industrial installations, oil and gas reservoirs and pipelines – and possibly even the levees themselves according to some witness reports to ABC News – took place in the days immediately following the passage of the hurricane.