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Thu

30

Aug

2007

Blood in the Water: Katrina and the Death of the Common Good
Thursday, 30 August 2007 21:00
by Chris Floyd

This week we remember the destruction of New Orleans: an "act of God" aided mightily by the perfidy of man. As Greg Palast revealed this week, the Bush White House knew that the levees were breaking — and deliberately failed to inform emergency officials in the city and state. His source was Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurrican Center, "the chief technician advising the state on saving lives during Katrina."

Why would the Bush Regime keep mum as the flood waters were cracking the levees? The answer, says Palast, is simple: Money. Loot. Scratch. Long green. From Palast's piece on Buzzflash:
Why on earth would the White House not tell the state to get the remaining folks out of there? The answer: cost. Political and financial cost. A hurricane is an act of God — but a catastrophic failure of the levees is an act of Bush. Under law dating back to 1935, a breech of the federal levee system makes the damage — and the deaths — a federal responsibility. That means, as van Heeden points out, "these people must be compensated."

The federal government, by law, must build and maintain the Mississippi River levees to withstand known dangers — or pay the price when they fail. Indeed, that was the rule applied in the storms that hit Westhampton Dunes, New York, in 1992. There, when federal sea barriers failed, the floodwaters wiped away 190 homes. The Feds rebuilt them from the public treasury. But these were not just any homes. They are worth an average of $3 million apiece — the summer homes of movie stars and celebrity speculators.

There were no movie stars floating face down in the Lower Ninth Ward nor in Lakeview nor in St. Bernard Parish. For the 'luvvies' of Westhampton Dunes, the federal government even trucked in sand to replace the beaches. But for New Orleans' survivors, there's the aluminum gulag of FEMA trailer parks. Today, two years later, 89,000 families still live in this mobile home Guantanamo — with no plan whatsoever for their return.

And what was the effect of the White House's self-serving delay? I spoke with van Heerden in his university office...He said, "Fifteen hundred people drowned. That's the bottom line."
And the brutal beat goes on. Scott Horton at Harper's has some inside dirt on the gigantic boondoggle that has followed in the wake of the killer storm: the "reconstruction" effort that, just as in Iraq, Bush has turned into a massive trough of corruption for his swinish cronies. And none are more literally swinish than the fat-faced swill-master Haley Barbour, the longtime GOP bagman now serving as Mississippi's governor. As Horton notes, Barbour has managed to wangle a vastly disproportionate share of federal reconstruction aid for his state, which suffered far less damage than Louisiana:

Yes, why exactly was the recovery money so disproportionately funnelled to Mississippi? Might it, perhaps, have to do with the governor of Mississippi, former Republic National Committee chair Haley Barbour? Was he doing a good job for Mississippi, or was he doing a good job for Haley Barbour?

In any event, Haley Barbour played an impressively influential role throughout this process. About six months after Katrina, I was at a dinner party with a recently resigned Homeland Security official who told me that there were enormous corruption issues surrounding the contracting process. He said he what he had seen was so disconcerting and the attitude of his boss (who now figures as a candidate to be attorney general) was so permissive, he had decided to leave rather than be tarred with it. One name figured in that discussion: Haley Barbour. More recently, I have been dealing with some professionals down in the southeast who deal regularly with FEMA for contractors. “Word was, if you wanted work, you had to see one of Barbour’s nephews or Joe Allbaugh—they really run the show.” How could that be?

Timothy Burger at Bloomberg has been digging very deep into Barbour’s remarkable good fortune in the government contracts area.

Many Mississippians have benefited from Governor Haley Barbour’s efforts to rebuild the state’s devastated Gulf Coast in the two years since Hurricane Katrina. The $15 billion or more in federal aid the former Republican national chairman attracted has reopened casinos and helped residents move to new or repaired homes.

Among the beneficiaries are Barbour’s own family and friends, who have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from hurricane-related business. A nephew, one of two who are lobbyists, saw his fees more than double in the year after his uncle appointed him to a special reconstruction panel. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in June raided a company owned by the wife of a third nephew, which maintained federal emergency-management trailers.

Meanwhile, the governor’s own former lobbying firm, which he says is still making payments to him, has represented at least four clients with business linked to the recovery.
(Firedoglake has more on the cornucopia of corruption here.)

Bush himself returned to the scene of the crime this week, flying down to New Orleans to preen and prance and pose as the city's saviour. It was a sickening spectacle, but what else is new? And what else can you say? There were some who thought at the time that the destruction of New Orleans and the subsequent looting of the national treasury by Bush cronies making big bucks from the unrelieved suffering of the vulnerable would be some kind of turning point in American politics. But as with the recent resignation of Alberto Gonzales, and the election of 2006, and all the other such "turning points," the drowning of New Orleans had no real political effect. Bush has gone from strength to strength, extending his tyranny and his looting, and his re-ordering of American society for the benefit of a rapacious elite and the makers of war.

I will have more on Bush's triumph soon. In the meantime, below is an excerpt of the piece that I wrote after the levees broke. Nothing has changed from that day to this.

"The river rose all day,
The river rose all night.
Some people got lost in the flood,
Some people got away all right.
The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemine:
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.

"Louisiana, Louisiana,
They're trying to wash us away,
They're trying to wash us away…."
— Randy Newman, Louisiana 1927

The destruction of New Orleans represents a confluence of many of the most pernicious trends in American politics and culture: poverty, racism, militarism, elitist greed, environmental abuse, public corruption and the decay of democracy at every level.

Much of this is embodied in the odd phrasing that even the most circumspect mainstream media sources have been using to describe the hardest-hit victims of the storm and its devastating aftermath: "those who chose to stay behind." Instantly, the situation has been framed with language to flatter the prejudices of the comfortable and deny the reality of the most vulnerable.

It is obvious that the vast majority of those who failed to evacuate are poor: they had nowhere else to go, no way to get there, no means to sustain themselves and their families on strange ground. While there were certainly people who stayed behind by choice, most stayed behind because they had no choice. They were trapped by their poverty - and many have paid the price with their lives.

Yet across the media spectrum, the faint hint of disapproval drips from the affluent observers, the clear implication that the victims were just too lazy and shiftless to get out of harm's way. There is simply no understanding - not even an attempt at understanding - the destitution, the isolation, the immobility of the poor and the sick and the broken among us.

This is from the "respectable" media; the great right-wing echo chamber was even less restrained, of course, leaping straight into giddy convulsions of racism at the first reports of looting in the devastated city. In the pinched-gonad squeals of Rush Limbaugh and his fellow hatemongers, the hard-right media immediately conjured up images of wild-eyed darkies rampaging through the streets in an orgy of violence and thievery.

Not that the mainstreamers ignored the racist angle. There was the already infamous juxtaposition of captions for wire service photos, where depictions of essentially the same scene - desperate people wading through flood waters, clutching plastic bags full of groceries - were given markedly different spins. In one picture, a white couple are described as struggling along after finding bread and soda at a grocery store. But beneath an almost identical photo of a young black man with a bag of groceries, we are told that a "looter" wades through the streets after robbing a grocery store.

Almost all of the early "looting" was like this: desperate people - of all colors - stranded by the floodwaters broke into abandoned stores and carried off food, clean water, medicine, clothes. Perhaps they should have left a check on the counter, but then again - what exactly was going to happen to all those perishables and consumer goods, sitting around in fetid, diseased water for weeks on end?  (The mayor now says it could be up to 16 weeks before people can return to their homes and businesses.) Obviously, most if not all of it would have been thrown away or written off in any case. Later, of course, there was more organized looting by criminal gangs, the type of lawless element - of every hue, in every society - whose chief victims are, of course, the poor and vulnerable. These criminal operations were quickly conflated with the earlier pilferage to paint a single seamless picture of the American media's favorite horror story: Black Folk Gone Wild...
The whole piece can be found here: The Perfect Storm. I followed that with this piece in CounterPunch, No Direction Home:

Let's be clear about one thing. Nothing that has happened in the past week — the mass destruction in the Mississippi Delta, the obliteration of the city of New Orleans, the murderous abandonment of thousands of people to death, chaos and disease ­ will change the Bush Administration or American politics at all. Not one whit. The Bush Administration will not reverse its brutal policies; its Congressional rubber-stamps will not revolt against the White House; the national Democrats will not suddenly grow a spine. There will be no real change, and the bitter corrosion of injustice, indifference and inhumanity that is consuming American society will go on as before....

Just as the media have always overhyped Bush's popularity, they are now overhyping the "political crisis" he is supposedly facing. There is no political crisis whatsoever, if by "political crisis" you mean something that will cause Bush to alter his policies....This is what you must understand: Bush and his faction do not care if they have "the consent of the governed" or not. They are not interested in governing  at all, in responding to the needs and desires and will of the people. They are only interested in ruling, in using the power of the state to force their radical agenda of elitist aggrandizement and ideological crankery on the nation, and on the world....

None of this will change because of what happened in New Orleans. If these people could be touched by suffering and injustice, by death and destruction, by corruption and incompetence, then they would not be where they are today. If there was a viable opposition in the American Establishment to Bush's policies, it would have stood up long ago. Like the people left behind in New Orleans, we're all on our own, ­ "with no direction home."

How does it feel?
 
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