Progressives, Firefighters And Nurses Need To Run Disaster Response

Take the huge disaster we saw in the planning for Hurricane Katrina and in providing relief, and imagine an alternative scenario where progressives, firefighters and nurses were in power. While the natural disaster might not have been avoided, the humanitarian disaster could have been completely prevented.

First hand experience, interviews with rescue/relief  workers and  managers, and credible reports make it clear that the U.S. Government is not able to fix itself on this issue. The natural disaster and destruction is HUGE, and so the huge resources of the federal government must be involved.

The avoidable disaster from the government response result from its policy of discrimination and exploitation of poor and black people; its authoritarian and hierarchical command; its  militarization of policy, personnel and resources; and its  promotion of incompetent managers to top positions.

The government as it is presently constituted can theoretically fix all the technical problems except for its discrimination and exploitation of poor and black people. Such discrimination spilled over to the charity organizations and public as well.

Firefighters and nurses offer compelling lessons in how to deal with potential and real disasters.

Firefighters are paid to be trained, supplied, coordinated and ready to jump at moments’ notice to an alarm. We pay them even though they spend most of their time sitting around not doing any rescue related activity. We pay them to go to false alarms, which are expensive. In other words, we support their model of being prepared and supplied BEFORE any unlikely disaster.

Health care workers such as nurses also spend most of their time taking care of simple and non-emergency cases. Yet they are prepared to handle critical emergencies, care for their patients as human beings, and are health advocates – counseling  illness prevention.

Their model is coherent, without being counter productive.

Yet it is progressives with their principles of equality that would help create a society that eliminated poverty as a structural necessity – who need to be part of the program to fix relief efforts. Then, if the remaining poor people and minorities were hit by a disaster, such a society would would treat them with the dignity and the expense that were bestowed upon white middle and upper-class Katrina victims.

Some notable responses are emerging. In the poor black community of Algiers across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a call out from progressive community organizers with Common Ground has been meet by progressive action-medics with the establishment of a new civilian health clinic. Along with the support of the Community Labor United organization, there are plans to institutionalize the clinic and satellites in New Orleans as permanent community run clinics. CLU is also developing other progressive proposals to the disaster.*

Until the US becomes a nation that cares for all its people, instead of the racist and exploitative nation that it is, then any disaster slamming large numbers of poor people and minorities will always be a humanitarian disaster. Progressives would not choose the despicable and at times criminal treatment of the black and poor survivors of Hurricane Katrina that the governments and charity organizations chose.

Various levels of government had their share of racist and criminal acts- i.e. The Jefferson Parish sherrif’s department blocked ill or injured survivors from accessing a major nearby hospital geared up to treat them. They also shot over the heads of escaping survivors from New Orleans on a bridge and used a helicopter to prevent their evacuation into the majority white parish. Two days after the flooding when these survivors were still alive,  the Feds called for a massive boat rescue – then prevented the three hundred volunteer Cajun small boat owners who were the most efficient water rescuers from launching their boats.  These were not conspiracies – it was business as usual of how governments treat black and poor people in the United States.

We need to adopt a ‘collective’ organizational type model that builds multi-directional networks of communication and flexible decision-making. We can link vertically up and down our organizations the way the government does, but we can also network and collaborate horizontally, which the government could also do, but doesn’t.

FEMA, folded into the post 9-11 super Department of Homeland Security along with most government security forces, ran their agency under the mantra of terrorism-threat security, and downplayed the more concrete threats of natural disasters. For example: They block their own senior experts who warned against using the Super Dome as an evacuation center. The amount of  non-communication between all agencies and and within agencies who had operating telephones and internet was shocking. Progressives  use various communications including runners and scouts to communicate and gather information. Such a simple technique defied the government.

But overall, the government exhibited no common sense, and could not fix its evolving chaos despite it being self-evident. Some argue that our method would be chaos, but it was the government that guaranteed chaos by it’s incompetence, inappropriate militarization of rescue and relief, and by obstructing and frustrating the overwhelming desire of thousands of available competent people who were able to effectively help, and desperately wanted to do so. 

Despite the need for a civil humanitarian response, the government’s rescue operation is a massive show of armed force by soldiers, police and private security/mercenary personnel. While individually composed of well meaning members, their organizations are cumbersome, unprepared, and scary for the hurricane survivors. They are organized to protect the unequalities of the country, and trained for combat. They, the Red Cross, the media and the religious charities have treated the majority black survivors as charity or even criminal problems to be controlled, not people to be in solidarity with.

Authoritarian corporate and government structures cannot implement autonomous activity of volunteer and assigned individuals and organizations. Government & private workers are not permitted to defy orders and take counter measures for fear of being fired or worse. Governments do not cooperate with groups it cannot control. 

Look at how the progressive models worked for the major anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle, Washington DC and Quebec several years ago.  Participants had a reasonable idea what others were planning to do, and had the capacity to plan and decide issues beyond their individual and group boundaries. They collaborated on resources, trainings, goals, protection & actions.
Models and principles that works:

 Social politics of equality and dignity for all so that disaster victims are not doubly class war or race victims.
Supporting the communities to survive and rebuild as they see fit.
 A simple and effective prevention and rescue model that builds on  and mobilizes the voluntarism and good will of intrepid people.
 A flexible organizational structure that allows cross networking with autonomous activity.
 Selection of coordinators that are competent, not friends of those in power.
 Aid to groups and organizations –community, cultural, religious, etc.– that have a working history and a giving spirit to do the right thing.

 Goals: No one left behind. All treated with dignity. The right of evacuees to live in a community under their control. 

Scott Weinstein is a nurse & organizer volunteering in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Algiers, Louisiana since September 5th.

*Common Ground,   PO Box 3216,  Gretna, LA 70054
*Community Labor United: ( Muhammad Curtis:  and Becky Belcore


Leave a comment