Failure to prioritize anyone's needs but their own is to be expected of the mendacious, cunning Bush regime. But the wretchedness and misery endured by people in the southern US states abandoned to their fate after hurricane Katrina has broader aspects too. The apparent absence of even provisional civil defense structure or organization indicates how far the US has declined into a corrupt one-party state, mired in federal and local negligence and incompetence, incapable of throwing off the racist legacy of slavery. Katrina has shown that the US is a banana republic on steroids -- the poor endure deprivation and insecurity while the rich party and make war.
Katrina and Mitch
People who lived through hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998 puzzle at the abject failure to care for people in the US after Katrina. When Mitch hit Central America in October seven years ago, the effects of rains hundreds of miles from the eye of the hurricane had a similar impact to that of the breaking levees in New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands of people in towns and rural communities found themselves flooded out and cut off for days and weeks. Some parallels with Katrina hold good.
For example, no one really knew the gravity of what was happening to the affected regional population for several days. People around the world knew the disaster had hit Honduras badly a day or so later. But few understood that it was a massive regional disaster until the Monday or Tuesday, four or five days on. An Irish journalist calling from Dublin at the time was told by a leading aid agency in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, “Nicaragua?...no, nothing's happening there...” On the following Tuesday they began pulling over a thousand bodies from the mud at Posoltega on the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast.
That similar ignorance could prevail in the case of New Orleans only demonstrates that the US political and media elite -- not just the Bush regime itself -- really do regard predominantly black and Hispanic people in the US as of no more interest than people in distant developing countries. How ironic and paradoxical that the response of the Central
American communities ravaged by Mitch should have been, almost universally, incomparably more humane and practical than that of the local authorities in New Orleans. Certainly in Nicaragua, the central government response to Mitch was as pathetic as that of the Bush regime to the disaster in New Orleans.
Municipal Authority, Coordinated Civil Defense
That meant local municipal authorities bore the burden of caring for tens of thousands of people in their respective areas for weeks. Unlike in New Orleans, they met that challenge well. In northern Nicaragua local emergency committees worked day and night for over a month without significant external material aid. The Mitch-induced floods washed away crucial arterial crossings at Tipitapa, Sebaco and Jicaro, cutting off northern Nicaragua completely.
In response, local mayors sat down with army commanders, police and fire service officers, local business and church people. Municipal officials well used to coping with next to no resources made good on their obligations to people in their care. Where I was, in a city with a population of around 120,000, we were lucky because the electricity was on at least sporadically and the phone lines stayed up. The banks continued to work, although they were virtually empty for days, and the local Central Bank office had enough bank notes to supply demand. All that meant people could arrange and access funds wired from overseas.
In the three days after Mitch hit the city, over ten thousand people were displaced from their homes. They were accommodated in schools and other public buildings. Every night the emergency committee reviewed needs in each refuge and coordinated delivery of available supplies. Local businesses either donated foodstuffs, soap, bleach and toilet paper, diapers and baby bottles or sold them at cost price or below. Hundreds of local individuals donated cash or food, clothes, bedding and medicine in kind.
It wasn't all brotherly and sisterly. Some businesses tried to raise prices to take advantage of shortages. Some pro-government officials boycotted the emergency committee because the mayor was Sandinista. Government medical authorities refused to release medicines stored in their warehouses. I remember vividly being solicited by the head of the local central health center -- responsible for the whole city -- for help to buy medicines as we stood in the rain-drenched queue for the temporary river crossing where 100 meters of road washed away. The bridge, built by a US company forty years before, survived intact.
Almost every relevant need was organized. Local radio stations broadcast messages constantly helping families keep in touch and reassure loved ones. Fuel was rationed pending the arrival of tankers to replenish the gas stations, who could say when? An aid agency based near the Honduran border had one of its jeeps with four of its workers stranded. They were allocated fuel from the emergency committee to deliver food and medicines around the local area until the town's army battalion blasted landslides blocking the road north allowing them to get back to their head office, fording every single river on the way.
“Bipartisan” Class and Race War on the Poor
A similar civic spirit was clearly active following Katrina. But it lacked well-organized civil defense structures to be really effective. Tens of thousands people were marooned without adequate care for over a week. That was not just a failure of central government but a failure of local leadership too -- the result of a rotten political and social system, emblematic of a society in decline.
A comparison with the experience in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador after Mitch suggests brave and good people doing their best in New Orleans were let down as much by their municipal authorities and wealthy fellow citizens as by national government. The best human responses cannot make good notional democratic process gutted of real meaning and the absence of a political culture that foments collective solidarity. On the contrary, the US political system openly promotes class and race warfare through its taxation and criminal justice policies.
“Bipartisan” is a misnomer in this context. That failure is integral to the corporate one-party neo-liberal confidence trick the US people have swallowed for decades now. Until last week the single-party plutocracy that is the United States had a “bipartisan” policy of funding the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and invading Afghanistan and Iraq while leaving Louisiana and Mississippi vulnerable to hurricanes. The tens of thousands of people abandoned and neglected for a week are a damning indictment of a one-party political system suborned by giant corporations and foreign interests.
The gargantuan US military budget is funded mostly by Chinese and Japanese purchase of US government debt. The US cannot pay its way. It functions as a kind of mercenary macho hit man for a global corporate elite. The catastrophic power failures affecting the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada a couple of years ago already showed infrastructure investment in the US is in crisis. Katrina showed that up again. But the US plutocrat elite will fight policy reversal as hard as they can.
Katrina Aftermath -- Corporate Welfare, Cosmetic Change
It is not just Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the corporate interests they represent who profit enormously from disasters like Katrina and from spiraling fuel prices. Plenty of Democrats with a stake in big oil will benefit as well. Relentless increases in the market price for oil are exacerbated by “bipartisan” military action in Iraq and threats against Iran.
The “bipartisan” failure to protect the port and communications infrastructure of New Orleans will push oil prices up further. Adding to the overall corporate pork-from-heaven, Cheney's corporate buddies at Halliburton are already reported to have been assigned port reconstruction work in New Orleans. No doubt Democrat-linked corporate carnivores will get their bloated share of the Louisiana carcass as well.
In the medium term, Katrina may or may not signify some kind of watershed when a majority in the US finally wake up to the delinquency of their ruling classes and attempt to arrest their decline as a society. Immediately, little good is likely to come. The Bush regime will exaggerate the blame they can reasonably assign to state and municipal authorities. The Democrats will help gloss over the systemic failures. The corporate media will help Congress rehearse theatricals of outrage and inquiry. The Bush regime will work fast to up the ante with yet more imperial adventures overseas in Iran or in Venezuela.
toni solo is an activist based in Central America. He can be reach via: www.tonisolo.net.
* The All-Too American Tragedy of
New Orleans by Paul Street
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