Katrina: a disaster guide

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openDemocracy brings you this special feature.
openDemocracy staff – Alexandra Matine, Anju Srivastava, Antoinette Odoi, Charlie Devereux, David Hayes, Maryam Maruf and Sarah Lindon - digest reactions to the United States’s Gulf coast catastrophe, survey the views of bloggers and columnists, and post a brief guide to essential sites for news, images and opinion.

The politics of tragedy

The unfolding disaster that has consumed the Gulf coast of three American states – Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi – is an environmental catastrophe and an immense human tragedy. There are signs that it is also becoming a political scandal.

The failures of preparation and emergency planning are bad enough, but they are compounded by evidence that the technical, financial and human resources available to combat natural disasters have been targeted for cuts by the George W Bush administration and its Republican congressional allies (on this, see Sidney Blumenthal’s excoriating piece in the Guardian).

There is support, too, for the view that Hurricane Katrina reveals how the ideological prejudices of the political right in the United States – especially its refusal to take seriously the impacts of global climate change, or even to acknowledge its existence – have affected the public capacity to guarantee the minimum that citizens can expect from their government: protection of their security, their shelter, their livelihoods, their very capacity to operate as members of a shared civic order.

If such claims can be sustained, then the impact of this combination of blindness, incompetence and greed on the Gulf coast may help to define the fate of the Bush administration as much as have 9/11 and the “war on terror”.

There are other dimensions to this developing story that have not yet been properly registered – those of class, race, militarism, violence and income inequality in the US heartlands among them.

Bush’s grey days

In the days since Hurricane Katrina impacted on the Gulf coast, there has been a torrent of criticism directed both at Washington and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). Amidst often heated exchanges, the main accusation is that the US government and the emergency services did not respond quickly enough. The results include many pitiful scenes: hundreds of New Orleans citizens stranded on rooftops, and thousands more cramming into the city’s “unsanitary and unsafe” convention centre and its superdome.

In a desperate attempt to quell the vitriol directed at the White House and rescue services, President Bush is starting a tour of the stricken areas today, 2 September. He faces accusations that the US’s heavy presence in Iraq has consumed resources that are now desperately needed for flood control in the US homeland. This sentiment – well founded or not, politically motivated or not – appears to have struck a chord with many American citizens furious at what they consider the haphazard and tardy rescue operations.

The New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s “desperate SOS” on 1 September was also an accusation that the Washington administration was clueless about the real situation in his city.

The federal agencies have stood their ground and defended their performance. The president emphasises that the scale of the natural disaster was unprecedented – a reply that almost hints at an excuse: “I hope people don’t play politics during this period of time.” Meanwhile, Fema chief Michael Brown responds to an unfavourable comparison with the Asian tsunami relief effort by saying: “I was in the tsunami region, and this response is incredibly more efficient, more effective and under the most difficult circumstances.”

Most recently, authorities are facing looting in New Orleans, partly by desperate survivors but also by organised gangs. Despite several calls for “zero tolerance” - by Bush, the police and the national guard - the prevailing mood appears to be each man for himself.

New Orleans blues

Ray Nagin’s SOS is stark: “I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. I need 500 buses, man. This is a national disaster. I’ve talked directly with the president. I’ve talked to the head of the homeland security. I’ve talked to everybody under the sun.”

Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s governor, insists that help is being organised: “A lot of people lost their lives, and we still don’t have any idea [how many], because the focus continues to be on rescuing those who have survived”. But as masses of New Orleans citizens continue to huddle in the superdome and other shelters, she admits: “The corps of engineers has attempted to fix the situation under emergency conditions. They’re not the best conditions, and probably too little, too late.”

But even as people are moved out of the city on buses, others cram in to the mass gathering-points. Michael Brown says: “People are coming out of nowhere. There is just simply no way we can estimate the numbers of people out there.” He defends Fema’s role, but admits on CNN: “We had a disaster of continued catastrophic proportion. What we’re trying to do now is basically work under conditions of urban warfare.”

Economic and social mess

The Katrina tragedy has inspired many reflections on the impact on the energy industry and the environment. The Gulf coast region accounts for a vast proportion of US industrial production: 30% of national oil output, 20% of natural gas production, and 40% of grain exports. Bloomberg’s Heather Burke reports that fuel prices across US have skyrocketed, with prices hitting over $3 per gallon. Nor is there much fuel available in the disaster-stricken areas to help the stranded to get out. As for the oil markets, the Financial Times comments that the hurricane “could scarcely have come at a worse moment”.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chàvez has made a provocative offer of aid workers and soldiers to help rescue efforts, while the European Union is also offering emergency oil supplies – though the FT’s Carola Hoyos and Javier Blas question whether the Bush administration will accept favours in a way that implies acknowledgment of its apparently unsustainable energy policy.

The environmental impact of the crisis is also being felt. That climate change may have been a proximate if not immediate cause of Hurricane Katrina has set off warning bells. El Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy says: “It is difficult to make light of one fact: that climate changes are at play, which are causing increasingly violent events...Katrina was just a warning.”

The explosion of a chemical depot does not make matters easier; according to the BBC, it could have released toxic fumes, adding to the already severe distress of the affected population.

Blogosphere sees red

Unsurprisingly, much of the concern about the flooding of New Orleans has concentrated on the French Quarter, perhaps the most renowned part of the city and the one to which the tourists flock.

Reports on its current condition are mixed. It would appear that it managed to survive the storm, although some accounts suggest widespread flooding of its streets.

Frustrated at the lack of real information to be gleamed from the commercial media, bloggers have been turning to each other and eyewitness accounts to construct a picture of the situation. Similarly, the blogosphere has been used as a notice-board for those concerned about relatives or long-lost friends.

The blogosphere has also been utilised as a forum to discuss the ins and outs of looting. Like most issues in the US nowadays, it seems to have polarised the community. While mixed reports have surfaced as exactly what is being looted (is it groceries and essentials or guns and luxury goods?) so mixed feelings have also arisen about the looters motives and how they should be dealt with. Reactions vary from a shoot-to-kill policy to compassion for the poor who have no other way to feed themselves and who will have no jobs to return to once the immediate emergency is over.

Many argue that the hurricane has exposed the racial / social divides inherent in the American system. Meanwhile, some have argued that bloggers are not using their capabilities in the right way; they say the situation is too urgent for debate and that blogs should instead be used to supply information and support.

The implications have extended to the cultural and creative nerves of the city. In the Guardian Clive Stafford Smith explains how the charity he set up to campaign for inmates facing the death penalty has now been completely destroyed.

A huge sigh of relief was most probably to be heard around the world when news came through that one of the city’s living legends, Fats Domino, did not - as had been feared - succumb to Katrina’s awesome force.

Don’t miss openDemocracy’s forums

In the forums, openDemocracy members have been following events. Matt and Maz compare notes on media coverage, Joeanna comments on the social dimension, and Erin highlights an article from September 2004 about “disaster in the making,” which warned of the dangers presented by policy changes and budget cuts in US emergency services.

Further links: blogs, images, sites, maps, info, testimonies

  • Alternet.org blogs
  • BBC maps
  • Guardian blogs
  • hosted.ap.org
  • A concise and well-written firsthand account: Johnstrain blog
  • Nasa images
  • National Geographic news and images
  • Reuters gallery
  • Salon.com blogs
  • Sun Times blogs
  • truthlaidbear blog
  • Washington Post gallery of images
  • Wikipedia entry Hurricane Katrina