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Point the Finger at Poverty and Politics, not Race

By Alex Beech

05.09.05 | Poverty is colorblind. During the past fews days, many politicans and pundits have blamed race for the US government’s slow response to the devastation in New Orleans. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said "We cannot allow it to be said that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color." Rapper Kanye West said that "Bush doesn't care about Black people." CNN pundit Jack Cafferty lamented that no one was discussing how race played a role in the slow government response.

However, the colossal mistakes made before, during, and after the Hurricane Katrina disaster have little to do with race. The first mistake was made years before the hurricane. For decades, scientists and politicians knew that New Orleans would face devastation with its current levee system, which was designed in the 1960’s by Army Corps engineers, who “were limited by 1960s-era knowledge -- they used pencils and slide rules and suppositions about hurricane storm tracks and surges that engineers say are no longer valid. Only later, using computer modeling, did they estimate that the system would protect against a fast-moving Category 3 storm.” Since then, the Army Corps has worked to strengthen the levees, a daunting task given storm surges which vary according to the region’s complex “landscape of lake, wetlands and artificial barriers rise to variable heights…Levees are sinking in many spots because the whole area is sinking and eroding.” 1

Besides geological constraints, the endemic bureaucracy of politics made it difficult to obtain adequate funding for the levee system. Former Louisiana Mayor John Breaux, who tried to obtain coastal restoration money, said, "In speech after speech that I made, that the governor has made, we have said we need to fully fund the Corps of Engineers or we would have monumental problems.” But the money was required elsewhere. “In recent years the Bush administration, struggling with budget deficits and the Iraq war, has tried to cut funding for the Corps.” 2 After the catastrophe, Army Corps chief of engineers General Carl Strock said, `We did a benefit-to-cost analysis and that's how it came out,” a mind-boggling statement given the billions of dollars that will be required to rebuild New Orleans. During a PBS interview, Strock said:

“When we design a flood protection system, we look at the probability of an occurrence that we are designing against happening. In this case we designed on what we called a two- to three-hundred year event, an event that only happened that frequency. The way that comes down to probabilities, there's a 99.5 percent chance that that event will not happen or a 0.5 percent chance it will, so a very low probability event in our estimation. And unfortunately, what we have is that 0.5 event percent that has struck us in that cycle. “ 4

Without a levee system which could protect New Orleans from a Category Five Storm, the city didn’t stand a chance. This wasn’t about the city’s 67% black or 30% poor population. Because politicians fight for immediate, and not long term survival, the pleas for resources needed to construct a levee system to withstand a Category Five Storm were ignored. It was a messy problem which required a messy solution. Messy solutions don’t make heroes.

Therefore, the blame of the crisis should partly rest on every political leader in the United States Congress who failed to address the inadequacy of the levee system. It should be placed on the Bush Administration, which stripped the Army Corps of the resources needed to begin to address the levee problem, and it should be placed on the Army Corps of Engineers, which rationalized that there was only a 0.5 percent probability that a hurricane would wipe out New Orleans, even as a nasty hurricane season was forecast.

Then there is the Louisiana political leadership, black and white. Both Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin executed the country’s worst evacuation plan in recent memory. Studies reveal that those who live below the poverty line usually do not evacuate. NBC News reports that “most of the poor didn’t have insurance. Some needed to wait for their government checks, due the first of the month, three days after Katrina hit. Some 134,000 people couldn’t leave because they couldn't afford transportation.” New Orleans native and author Anne Rice, writes: “Thousands didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. They didn't have the money. They didn't have the vehicles. They didn't have any place to go. They are the poor, black and white, who dwell in any city in great numbers; and they did what they felt they could do - they huddled together in the strongest houses they could find.”

The lines of buses which streamed through the city days after the disaster should have arrived days before, to carry the displaced away. The warm cots and warm meals should have been prepared at the air-conditioned Astrodome and other shelters days before, and not after the hurricane. Nursing homes and hospitals should have been cleared days before Hurricane Katrina arrived. Where was the National Guard days, or even hours, before Hurricane Katrina? And how could Mayor Nagin say that he never expected so many people to remain behind? His hysteria days after the hurricane consoled no one. It was wasted drama for a job poorly executed. His job, that is.

Nor was the leadership in Mississippi commendable. Governor Haley Barbour should be held responsible for the dead in the coastal towns. Knowing that a massive hurricane was heading towards the vulnerable towns across the Mississippi coast, why didn’t the Mississippi National Guard force residents to evacuate? Why didn’t he provide a cohesive evacuation plan? When Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina, National Guardsmen knocked on every door in Myrtle Beach ordering residents and tourists to head inland. This would have been a relatively easy operation along the towns of Bay St. Louis, Henderson Point, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, and many others. Race played no part in this complete incompetence. Roughly two thirds of Biloxi is white. Governor Barbour failed Mississippi’s residents of every color and ethnicity.

Shifting the problem towards race is unfair to every man, woman, and child who suffered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The fact that most victims were black in New Orleans is because almost 70% of the city is black, and sadly, 35% of blacks in New Orleans fall below the poverty line. Therefore, the majority of those who couldn’t evacuate were black. But most of the Mississippi coast is white. Should its plight be diminished because of skin color?

The real problem – the underlying problem exposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is political. Because fixing the levee system is costly and complex, the US Congress has failed to approve adequate funding for the solution. Because Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin, and Governor Barbour lack the leadership skills required to confront a major crisis, there was no adequate evacuation plans before the hurricane or a response plan after the hurricane, which resulted in thousands of deaths. At the federal level, both FEMA director Michael Brown and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff seem ill-equipped to confront any crisis. Their incompetence would have wielded an inadequate response after a terrorist attack in the whitest of Midwestern cities, as was revealed in New Orleans.

Then there is President Bush. Because of his obstinacy that American troops fight in Iraq, a large number of the Louisiana National Guardsmen and equipment which could have been used immediately were sitting thousands of miles away. In recent years, funding needed for hurricane response and coastal depletion was diverted elsewhere. More shocking still is that Bush didn’t visit the devastated region until days later; his only televised conversations took place with victims who were not even American.

A heroic president would have walked through the debris in Louisiana and New Orleans hours and not days after the storm passed. A heroic president would have ordered meal and water drops hours, and not days after the scope of the crisis unfolded. A heroic president have found a way to land in New Orleans to console its starving and dying victims. A heroic president would have thought about his country before thinking about the fate of other countries.

But this was not a disaster for heroes. But it will require heroes for years to come.


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