The Hurricane and the Empire

On the tenth anniversary of Katrina, we republish an invitation to ponder the incapacity of the US government to respond to the disaster in New Orleans. What was at the root of that paralysis? From the archive, September 5, 2005.

Mariano Aguirre
30 August 2015
Black community members commemorate 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Black community members commemorate 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Demotix/ Charles Easterling. All rights reservedThe aftermath of the coastal catastrophe in the United States is deeply instructive about the nature of United States politics and society. Two impressions reported in Spain offer important insight: from a Spanish television correspondent who attributed the inefficient response by US authorities to hurricane Katrina to the disconnection and rigid separation of powers between federal and local authorities, and from Spanish citizens trapped for days in New Orleans who arrived at Barcelona airport to describe a total lack of management and coordination: "only the army was there; it was like a war". To these, a third observation can be added. The US government has in recent years used the tax system to transfer wealth and resources from poor to rich people (see Eric Alterman, The Book on Bush, Penguin 2004); this has increased the fragmentation of the social, political and economic structure of the American public order. Together, these three factors - political dysfunction, militarisation, and socio-economic polarisation - are already sufficient to inflict severe damage on the very possibility of a cohesive social order; when combined with a catastrophe on the scale of Katrina, they reveal what lies just under the surface when the rules of economic Darwinism are applied - the destruction of social networks, abandonment of responsibility by the state for its citizens, devastated cities, broken drainage systems, destroyed levees, and the physical escape of the richest and the middle class while the disabled, the infirm, the old and the poor are left behind. What Katrina exposesSeveral technical and engineering reports predicted that the levees around New Orleans would not stand a class-3 hurricane. The US federal government and congress did not pay enough attention, and refused to fund the necessary modernisation of the infrastructure (see Richard Serrano and Nicole Gaoutte, "Despite Warning, Washington Failed to Fund Levee Projects", Los Angeles Times, 4 September 2005). But politicians' lack of mental preparation is just as striking. Frank Rich notes the similarity between George W Bush's "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of levees" and Condoleezza Rice's post-9/11 claim that "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people could take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center" (although, as national security adviser, she had the intelligence reports that envisaged such a possibility). In the same vein, Donald Rumsfeld never expected a violent reaction from some people in Iraq to the invasion of their country (see Frank Rich, "Fallujah Floods the Superdome", New York Times, 4 September 2005). Many people are asking why such post-crisis chaos happened in the world's richest country and sole superpower. A partial answer to the question can be found in the work of several analysts - among them Jeremy Rifkin (The European Dream, Penguin 2004), Emmanuel Todd (After the Empire, Columbia University Press, 2004), and Immanuel Wallerstein (The Decline of American Power, New Press, 2003) - who argue that while the US is the major military power in the world (if not the most efficient), it lags far behind leading countries in other fields: internal organisation, protection of civil rights, provision of social goods, and respect for international legal norms. The consequences of this social regression include the absence of the state in areas where it is needed, an infinite bureaucratisation of daily life, and multiple social divisions: between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and between hundreds of immigrant communities and the wider society. The result too is a lack of trust which contains the permanent potential for dysfunction and (under extreme circumstances or pressures) collapse. As Robert D Putnam of Harvard University, argues, "a society characterised by generalised reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society"; such a society generates social capital and is more efficient (see Robert D Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, 2000).

For the last two years I lived in New York, another citizen of the great metropolis. Personal experiences are always subjective, but the absurd situations I was obliged to go through to undertake simple social transactions seem illustrative of a wider malaise: to buy and then cancel a cell phone, to arrange a decent DSL line, to travel by subway in the expectation of a working timetable, to obtain a credit card and then to cancel it when the bank charged incredible amounts in fees and interest rates, and to be paid medical insurance by a company that always had something to say ... in its own favour. Each step was a nightmare in the labyrinth of non-human electronic messages and atomised bureaucracy. And every step cost money and time. 

In these two years I encountered many parents in New York who found in September, at the end of the holiday period, that their children had been reassigned to far distant schools - sometimes a ninety-minute journey from home by train. Nor could I believe it when the media reported that some families had to buy flak-jackets and other equipment for their sons and daughters in Iraq, because the ones provided by the army are of Vietnam-era vintage and unusable (see "Body Armor Saves US Lives in Iraq, Washington Post, 4 December 2003).

What America needs

There are three ways to approach the US. First, the tourist one: to look at it through the filter of some movies, and to believe that everything is like Manhattan in Woody Allen's Annie Hall or the TV series Sex in the City. Second, to deal only with businessmen or to find a comfortable niche in a nice campus, and then believe that there is no life outside. Third, to take to the streets and ask questions: why the New York subway is so poor and in some areas almost destroyed; why there is so much poverty in this rich country; why so many people have physical problems and (related) why it has the most expensive and most inefficient medical system in the world (see Paul Krugman's New York Times series on "ailing healthcare").

The US is a predominantly conservative country, albeit one containing millions of liberal, progressive and democratic people. They and their fellow-citizens live under a state whose social and civic capacities have been severely disabled. Katrina and Baghdad are what happens as a result: the state has lost the capacity to manage critical situations. 

The global media is now showing the other America that is usually concealed from view (see David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Random House 2004). Most of the victims of Katrina are black and latinos; there are few whites, and many old people. Tens of thousands, internally displaced by the hurricane, spent five days inside the New Orleans convention centre and superdome, surrounded by the army and the national guard - regarded more as part of a security threat than as a humanitarian crisis. Many were then assigned to an unknown destination in a way that reflected the existing casualness of their connection to full citizenship. They were ignored before the hurricane passed through their states and their lives, and are being mistreated in its aftermath (see Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity Press, 2003).

Washington deals with this other America in the same way it approaches its problems around the world: using force against Iraq, bullying the United Nations, blackmailing other countries over the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto agreement. No wonder its response to Katrina is, as the returning Spanish tourists noted, militarising New Orleans.

The real United States is the one portrayed in Clint Eastwood's film Million Dollar Baby, a ruthless portrait of the self-made (woman) myth, and in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full (1998), a feline illumination of a venal, hierarchical racist and chaotic society. It is the one on display to the world in the past week. This United States - before hurricane Katrina, and even more afterwards - is a country that urgently needs help from and dialogue with the rest of the world.

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