The hurricane that blew up the mouth of the Mississippi River last week not only devastated New Orleans and coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, but it ripped the shroud off two secrets in current American life. In breaching the levee that prevented Lake Pontchartrain from inundating New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina not only brought death, devastation, and misery to the area, but the storm also revealed ugly truths about economic and racial inequality in George W. Bush's America.
Images emanating from the Big Easy in the days following the disaster were hideous. Those persons with the wherewithal and intelligence to escape Katrina's wrath did so, paying a fair penny for petrol (but nothing like spiking post-storm prices) to get out, while the old, infirm, and poor remained behind with the bull-headed.
"It wasn't as bad as it could have been," the weather pundits pontificated right after the deluge, before the breaks in the levee expanded and the water began to rise over three-quarters of town. Now, sadly, New Orleans ranks with other great American natural disasters, such as the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Restoring the place will take years.
The anarchy erupting in the storm's aftermath reflects less the unraveling of the social fabric networks that give citizens common cause than their absence. Being poor in New Orleans, as in America generally, became an increasing likelihood BK (before Katrina), a result of federal government policies during the past four presidential administrations. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush père and fils have amounted to a Robin Hood program in reversestealing from the poor and giving to the rich. Things most Canadians take for granted, like being able to see a doctor or being able to flush a toilet or get a drink of water, are now impossible for many in New Orleans.
Glimpsing TV reports and newspaper wire photos, one also concludes that poverty in New Orleans is disproportionately the plight of African Americans. The visual images are shocking in their wretchedness, reminiscent, perhaps, of Mogadishu, but certainly not the United States. Indeed, it is the lack of any kind of meaningful stake in the world of which they are a part that best explains the antagonistic behaviour toward authority shown by so many blacks trapped in New Orleans. These people were justifiably livid, having been catapulted from the margins of society -- where nobody cared about them -- to the centre of attention -- where they might, for the first time in their lives, be politically visible and voluble.
Black poverty, an inextricable part of this sad story, exists for reasons that go back to slavery. But African American struggles especially reflect the grinch-like political economy of the last four presidential administrations. For the fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both Bushes have disregarded social welfare issues, education, health, and technological infrastructure, all the while evading BIG environmental questions.
So the hurricane and its aftermath did more than wipe out lives, destroy historic buildings, strip livelihoods from millions, and hammer the American petroleum industry. The calamity also revealed a government ill-equipped to deal with the human crisis, and, incredibly, still oblivious to questions of global warming. Indeed, President George W. Bush seemed bizarrely detached from human feeling in his early comments on the disaster, as federal, state, and local agencies vied for the academy award in incompetence.
It would be fatuous to blame President Bush for Hurricane Katrina. But the president's tendency to smirk in times of crisis cannot hide his administration's responsibility for much of the aftermath. For one thing, Bush and his congressional supporters vetoed a measure a few years ago that would have strengthened the levee protecting New Orleans. For another, the administration reacted slowly in noting the city's descent to lawlessness and it failed to co-ordinate a response in keeping with the touted federal Homeland Security Program. The shootings, robberies and rapes that accompanied this latest exposition of the thesis in novelist Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, along with the putrefying bodies dotting the flood site days after the crisis commenced, documents perfectly official Washington's ineptitude.
As gasoline pump prices spiked crazily throughout North America, and the crisis in New Orleans intensified, one wondered at the delay in getting the National Guard on site to curb the lawlessness. But, of course, most guardsmen are away, fighting in Iraq, defending, we are told, democracy and freedom. That war -- fought by the same marginalized types who've suffered the most in the hurricane -- puts an even tawdrier commentar on the government's lack of response to the storm's aftermath.
The Iraq War, of course, was an albatross around the president's neck before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Bush cannot escape responsibility for much of the destruction and misery in Iraq. Interestingly, the insurgents in Iraq and the looters in New Orleans have more than a little in common. Now, however, with his poll numbers waning, he faces a new challenge -- destruction and misery wrought by nature and government neglect -- and the real possibility that he too will become a casualty.
This article first appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard September 3, 2005.