It is doubtlessly true that some Americans consider the sad and devastating fate meted out to the refugees in New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast to be a strictly “natural disaster,” and therefore dislike left-wing “politicization” of the ongoing tragedy. The right-wing has also grasped onto this sentiment, poking fun at leftists as being “cynical” for blaming Bush for “causing” the hurricane. These sentiments are severely misplaced; the first is a product of simply not knowing all the facts, and the second is, quite predictably, a product of malicious deception.
No honest human being would describe the deaths of theatre-goers in a fire as a simple “misfortune” if it turned out that the theater owner locked all the fire exits. Those burned alive inside the building would not be the victims of “just an accident” if the one responsible for their safety and means of escape failed them out of malice or negligence. Similarly, none can seriously claim that the suffering inflicted on the refugees in New Orleans is merely the result of a “natural disaster” – for their plight has been exacerbated by an administration that cares more for profit and the misadventure in Iraq than for the people of New Orleans.
Let us look at the facts. The arrival of a deadly hurricane was not a surprise. In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency called a major hurricane hitting New Orleans one of the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country.” So what happened to FEMA? Bush began privatizing the agency, with a Bush official in the agency calling it an “oversized entitlement program.” Two years later, FEMA was dissolved from cabinet level to an appendage of the Department of Homeland Security. Bush appointed one of his political cronies to head the organization, Michael Brown, a man with absolutely zero experience in managing disasters – except for his own existence: his last job was in the International Arabian Horse Association, and even there he was forced to resign.
In June 2004, the administration also gutted the Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee building in New Orleans to 20% of its previous commitment, citing war costs. In the past year, at least eight articles have appeared in New Orlean’s major daily, the Times-Picayune, explaining that construction of the levee system was being crippled by the siphoning of funds into the Iraq war and “homeland security.” Al Naomi, project manager for the Corps in the area, had said, “we don’t have money to put the work in the field.” In June 2005, funding for the New Orleans district of the Corps was slashed by $71.2 million dollars, more than 40%. Money for construction evaporated.
Meanwhile, a full one-third of the Louisiana National Guard is stationed in the deserts of Iraq. The government has been scrambling to supply enough manpower to the thinly stretched and overwhelmed forces along the Gulf Coast. Thanks to this administration, our troops are dying and killing in a foreign country whose people resent our presence instead of saving Americans who are pleading for help in our own country. This is the pathetic, disgraceful kind of “homeland security” the “patriotic” frauds of the Right have provided for America.
The right-wing ideologues responsible for this fiasco imagine the American people to be so stupid that they keep repeating the mantra, “Bush could not stop the hurricane!” as if this were really anyone’s contention. Meanwhile, they themselves “politicize” the issue in their own typically racist way, cruelly blaming the mainly poor and black victims by demonizing them as dumb “looters” and excusing the sickeningly slow aid efforts as the result of a handful of people shooting at the military.
But in reality, the refugees in New Orleans did not own cars to evacuate New Orleans. And since the authorities offered zero help and had no plan other than a call to “get the hell out of Dodge,” only affluent whites could cruise out with ease. Those left behind were therefore forced to take supplies from stores to avoid dying from hunger and dehydration. In those crowded bowls of death and misery known as the Superdome and Convention Center, which people had been told to flee to by authorities and then were utterly abandoned for days, the “looters” have been the heroes of women and children, bringing in diapers, baby formula, and food.
Additionally, the idea that one or two people shooting at military helicopters could bring relief efforts to a halt is utterly absurd. How is it possible that many journalists have been able to weave in and out of these places, while the military claims it is too “dangerous” to help? How is it possible that the most powerful military force the world has ever seen is being impeded by a miniscule number of civilians with semi-automatics?
Only the vicious American Right, drowning in its moral cesspool of hatred for blacks and love for greed, would blame the victims for taking desperately needed supplies that have already been written off as insurance losses by companies anyway. Only white supremacists, such as those often perched on the news desks of Fox News, could focus on the tiny minority of people taking TVs and luxury items, while utterly ignored the outstanding fact that the real looting has been carried out by Bush and his rich allies, who have robbed the people and the social sector blind in order to line their own pockets, thus leaving the poor helpless in the face of disaster.
What has transpired along the Gulf Coast over the past week has provided the entire world with incontrovertible, indisputable proof that all the blithering proclamations about the “American dream” are as hollow as the president’s head and as meaningless as any thought formed within it. Just as the floodwaters breached the barriers of the woefully inadequate levee system, the cheap slogans and absurd mythology of an “equal America for all” have been completely and permanently breached by the inescapable reality of suffering and desperation witnessed along the Gulf Coast. That race and class are the two most prevalent markers of life – and death – in America is now clear to all but the purblind, and particularly clear to the poor of New Orleans.
No doubt these victims will face many challenges and have many questions as they search for love ones and struggle to rebuild their lives. But it will not be long before they demand to know one thing above all: “Who locked our fire exits?”
Junaid Alam, 22, is co-editor of this journal and a journalism student at Northeastern University. He can be reached at [email protected].