In 2005 I wrote on the devastation and US response to Hurricane Katrina, (Hurricane Katrina, Further Musings, Katrina & The Waves, and Rwanda & Katrina)

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Like almost every other person on the planet with a conscience and an ounce of humanity I was appalled at the reaction of the US federal government and principally its head of state who remained on holiday whilst the humanitarian disaster continued. It wasn’t until Sept 12 2005 that Bush first went to New Orleans and by then the damage was done. It would have been inconceivable for this to have happened in the Republican heartlands or the East Coast of the US or realistically anywhere where the population wasn’t approximately 65% black, where the average wage is significantly lower than the national average.

When Bush finally went to New Orleans he stated “We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes” which is more than a tad ironic when you’re the person who has arrived somewhat after one of the most major national human catastrophes in recent memory. The situation not only made a mockery of the US’s already suspicious claims to be a genuine civilised society but exposed to what lengths the PR machine was prepared to go to for image. According to a lawyer interviewed in Spike Lee’s documentary film “When The Levees Broke” when he was passing his office on the 12th he saw the lights all on and presumed that with power back he would be able to return to work the following day however when he went in next day he found that the lights were off again, the power had been temporarily restored for the deluge of the media entourage during the Bush visit, in a cynical attempt to make it appear that the city was coming back to life.

The city was not coming back to life.

People had been shifted all around states with no semblance of logic as to where and how, families separated, children were removed from their parents and sometimes each other. These people were constantly being referred to as “Refugees” – and this made them feel even more disjointed whilst still ‘allegedly’ in their own country.

In the news over the following weeks the evacuees were already being blamed for crime. In Houston, for example, former New Orleans residents were said to be responsible for 15 murders however they also made up 18 murder victims. Of course this is seen to come as a complete surprise to the usually so law-abiding Texans, so well known for their hospitality. As an example of this Barbara Bush, whilst ‘touring’ the evacuees herded into the Houston Astrodome stadium, gave her perception of the situation – “They all want to stay in Texas, they’re so impressed by the hospitality here, many of these people were underprivileged anyway so this is working out well for them” The evacuees on the other hand were somewhat more circumspect, one remarked “If they wanted us in New Orleans they wouldn’t have tried to drown us and kill us, so I’m not going back so they can finish the job” Obviously Barbara Bush didn’t talk to any of the insignificant minority who thought this or it might have shattered her illusion of magnanimity.

House searches undertaken in New Orleans were generally inadequate many houses were locked and when family members returned to them they found they were still locked and no effort had been made to gain entry, some houses had been just left, in many cases bodies were still being found by citizens, often relatives of the owners, days, weeks even in a few cases anything up to 6 months after the event, despite markings on the house implicitly stating Task Force teams had found no bodies inside.

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Funding was not given to Louisiana medical examiners to use the DNA database held by the state police until Dec 2005 which prevented many bodies from being identified and caused much pain and distress to those who had missing or deceased family members.

The people who had been moved out were in many instances forced to be living off charity, they had only been given one way tickets in the first place, some people were still in hotels months later until FEMA pulled the plug and stated that they would no longer be footing bills for their hotel rooms on Feb 7th. It is astonishing that people remained incarcerated in hotel rooms 5 months later. This is not atypical of the rebuilding process which in 2006 was hardly proceeding apace.

In August 2006 only approximately 1/6 of public school children previously resident in the surrounding areas had returned so not enough funding was available to improve resources to tempt back more. As a consequence 2 years on it is estimated that only 40% of children have returned. This is part of the very vicious circle that is facing New Orleans at present. Parents will not bring their children back until the education infrastructure is there to accommodate their children, this infrastructure cannot be provided by local means if the children are not there that enable them to receive per capita state/national funding. Overall New Orleans remains at only 68% of its pre-Katrina population compared for example to Biloxi, Mississippi which is estimated to have between 90-95%. This is unsurprising when one looks at the claims that Mississippi has been treated somewhat differently to Lousiana and in particular, New Orleans. In Mid January 2006 40,000 trailers were requested from FEMA for both Mississippi and Louisiana – Mississippi received 33,000 whilst Louisiana received 3,000 over the same period. It is roughly estimated that over 60,000 people are still in “temporary” FEMA trailers with FEMA figures declaring 17,149 units throughout Mississippi. Added to this FEMA are now having to investigate over 1500 complaints of formaldehyde gas emissions from trailers. E-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. On June 15, 2006, one FEMA lawyer advised the agency “do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . Once you get the results and should they indicate a problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them”. A day later, FEMA’s Office of General Council advised an agency employee not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

A study recently conducted by The Institute for Southern Studies claims that of the $116 billion in funds allocated for the recovery, less than 30% has gone towards long-term rebuilding and of that 30% only a fraction has actually been spent. The same report suggests that FEMA has spent over $7 billion of the disaster recovery fund on administrative costs. Unlike in the cases of 9/11 in New York and Florida’s rebuilding post Hurricane Andrew where local government obligations to match a defined percentage of federal government money were waived Louisiana was initially required to stump up 25% in advance though this was later lowered to 10%.

The federal government remain unsympathetic White House recovery czar Don Powell says $96 billion of the $114 billion committed to the region has already been distributed or made available to local governments. Powell implied that local leaders, particularly in Louisiana where recovery has been slower, were to blame if the money had not made it to citizens. In a recent survey carried out by CNN 52% of Americans felt that the federal government had not done enough to rebuild the areas devastated by Katrina.

In addition companies carrying out the rebuilding costs are entitled to charge the taxpayer for overruns and guaranteeing profits which can hardly be especially conducive to work being carried out on time. Not only that but only 12.5% of these rebuilding contracts were awarded to local firms.

In terms of housing the outlook is particularly bleak since most insurance policies won’t pay for flood damage. In July 2006 legal cases lodged as to whether damage was ‘hurricane damage’ or ‘flood damage’ because the insurers were claiming that most of the damage done to housing was caused by flooding and were somehow expecting to disassociate this flooding with the hurricane. Of course one could claim that the flooding was due to negligence on the part of the US Corps Of Engineers but the Corps of Engineers are fortunately for them immune to being sued and cannot be held liable for damages from the floods.

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The Lower 9th Ward was one of the worst affected areas, it was also a ward populated by the poor, predominantly black, with low-cost, low value housing. It has in many parts been left deserted and wrecked. However it is not forgotten, the Lower 9th constitutes especially marketable real estate were flood defences to be in place. The area has large sections of waterfront land on the gulf coast and it is no surprise to hear that developers are wooing politicians with schemes to “regenerate” the land. Suffice to say they are not planning to do so for the good of the former residents. Land-grabbers are keen to speculate on the future regentrification of the Lower 9th because on account of the failed insurance claims etc. people are being told their property is worth nothing and good only for bulldozing en masse.

Of course one should not be especially surprised that the rebuilding process was slow and aimless, since this somewhat replicates the way New Orleans and Louisiana had previously been treated by the federal government.

New Orleans was the archetypal marginalised city, population 67-70% black, a 60% drop out rate in schools. Despite having oil reserves (25% off US natural gas and domestic oil produced off coast of Louisiana) it does not benefit from the same terms enjoyed by Texas or New Mexico as statutes state that if the resource is more than 3 miles off the coast the revenue goes directly to the federal government and not the State government.

The levees built by the Corps Of Engineers have been almost unanimously criticised even by some within the Corps itself. A US Army report, some 6000 pages long published in June 2006 admitted that there had been “catastrophic failure”.

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The levees were only 10 feet deep rather than the 17 feet deep that they should have been. They are supposed to be in deep earthen reinforcing but this was not done and therefore the anchoring mechanism was insufficient which led directly to the water cascading underneath having breached the levees rather than merely over the top. Category 3 levees according to specifications are to be 4 ft wide for every 1 ft height, if there is not sufficient state-owned land to allow this it is supposed to be purchased to ensure it. This was not done and effectively New Orleans was “protected” by some walls. Although much is documented of the breaches in the main 3 places, the Orleans Ave canal, the London Ave canal and the 17th street canal the levees were actually breached in 53 different places on August 29. 2005 resulting in 80% of New Orleans being submerged. It appears purely because of the reluctance to pay the full cost of building proper defences 1,577 people lost their lives in Louisiana with over 700 in New Orleans alone.

In 2005 Corps of Engineers claimed they would have the levees back to their pre-Katrina conditions by June 1 2006 (the start of hurricane season) despite pre-Katrina conditions being clearly insufficient to stop any hurricane of the magnitude of Katrina or Rita both of which affected the region in 2005. In March 2006 the Corps of Engineers was forced to admit that parts of East New Orleans (the low-lying area) was still vulnerable if another hurricane hit the city on same course as Katrina had done. In 2006 at that point the prediction was that the hurricane season was likely to be a bad one. People are still living in cramped FEMA trailers and many of these are close to 17th Street Canal, an area where the defences are still described by many as insufficient and one of the areas highlighted as such by the Corps of Engineers in March 2006.

There are examples of isolated bright spots, of things being done, people stepping in and fashioning solutions. Brad Pitt who owns a house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, has been touring the city of late and expressing his frustration at the lack of progress. Pitt brought publicity to the eco house project being built by Global Green in Holy Cross ward, part of the Lower Ninth and described it as “a man-made solution” to Katrina which was in his words a “man-made problem.” However whilst this effort for sustainable housing and its provision for those on low-incomes it is a futile effort if work is not done properly to stop the waters coming again.

The actual human cost of Hurricane Katrina is incalculable, the deaths in 2005 are but one part of it. According to Louisiana State Medical Examiner there were a great many instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in those present when Katrina made landfall, hardly surprising when you consider what so many have been through and what they have seen. This raises the question what is being done to cater for the emotional needs of these people in a country without adequate healthcare provision for the poor? Add to this the fact that 10 of New Orleans 23 hospitals remain closed. Those on long-term medication for mental health and the like are probably those from the worst-hit areas, the poorest areas in a city with above average poverty already.

As if there wasn’t enough bad news, there is the case of the environmental impact of the New Orleans wetlands erosion – the wetlands area is being dredged for oil, gas and navigation purposes. As a direct consequence this has lessened the Louisiana coast’s natural defences because the wetlands are a vital part of that natural system which serves to dissipate adverse weather systems. Oh and don’t forget sea levels are up and this is a well-known area for hurricanes.

As a contrast in 2006 a Louisiana delegation went to look at flood protection in the Netherlands, a country with a vested interest in sea defences being largely below sea level. They found that the standard was to be built to withstand anything up to a 1 in 10,000 year event. The delegation reported that it was a massively higher specced system than was even contemplated for the Louisiana gulf coast.

I was going to add to this the details about Hurricane Rita but I’ve got information overload and I’m tired now!

Song Of The Day ~ Bob Dylan – The Levee’s Gonna Break

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