New Orleans: after the storms, 2005

Prol-Position on New Orleans and the hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005.

Submitted by Steven. on January 5, 2010

Right after Katrina hit, it looked like issues of race, class, and poverty were again coming to the forefront in the United States. The images of “bloated bodies floating in muddy water washing over submerged pickups and campers, of corpses being eaten by rats as they decompose on the city streets, of people dying in wheelchairs outside the convention center as families poured water over their heads to keep them alive” transfixed the country. (New York Times, Sept. 4th) No one could fail to see that these people were almost entirely poor and Black. There were calls for a “renewed attack on entrenched poverty”.

Six weeks later, how things have changed. The newspapers rarely carry stories on the survivors as a group; it’s as if tens of thousands of people suddenly vanished. If the media mention them at all, it’s about individual success stories: new marriages, people reunited with long-lost relatives and pets, those who have gotten lucky breaks in their new surroundings. Instead, what’s most visible now is the political fall-out: the jockeying for money, and the reports of swindles and con-games connected with bogus charity fundraising. In other words, business as usual.

New Orleans remains semi-militarized, stripped of most of its population. There’s still an awful lot of National Guard troops roaming around southern Louisiana and Mississippi providing “humanitarian aid” now, along with private security contractors, many from the same firms providing security services in Iraq. And significantly for its long-term effects, the social character of an important part of the South is changing, its working-class being recomposed from the shift of people out of the region and to a lesser extent from an influx of people streaming in.

A look at the numbers shows how this is taking place. Over one and a half-million people have been scattered from the area, mainly to the neighboring six states of the Deep South. Although the mass centers like the Houston Astrodome are now emptied out and the public shelters are starting to shut down too, tens of thousands remain out of sight and public attention in individuals hotel rooms paid for by FEMA [1], the federal agency charged with disaster relief.

The national construction industry was especially hard hit by the storm; the Midwest factories making cement, brick, and wood-products all shipped through southern Louisiana ports. Because of these shortages in building materials, a shortage of skilled labor and the cleanup of storm debris in the affected areas, little permanent housing is likely to be built anytime soon. As many have pointed out, this transfer of people marks the largest internal migration in the United States since the Civil War, topping the Depression-era flight of poor white farmers from the prairie and outstripping the migration of southern Blacks to northern factories in the decades around World War II. Both of these past migrations led to social conflicts, especially the latter.

However, instead of a plan for permanent housing, FEMA has ordered hundreds of thousands of trailers to house survivors. These trailer camps will concentrate for an indefinite time the poor and working-class survivors in isolated rural areas, far from jobs, public transportation, and public services. Already, people are calling these trailer camps, “FEMA-villes,” a play on words going back to the Depression when the tents and cardboard boxes of the unemployed were called “Hoovervilles” after the Republican president of the time.

All of this is already increasing social strains throughout the South. The states hardest hit by Katrina (and then Rita) are already the poorest in the country, with low-wages. little union membership, paltry public services, and few if any welfare benefits for single people. While some of this economic pressure may be offset by the influx of federal money and rebuilding efforts in the region, much won’t - and it’s questionable how much of this federal money will benefit the people most affected by the storm.

Baton Rouge, the next largest city in Louisiana, for instance, has doubled in size. As one writer in Baton Rouge recently described the local situation said, “Jobs are as rare as snow in August... barely a trickle of cleanup jobs are going to Louisiana businesses or Louisiana workers and those few that are magically trickling down into the local economy are grossly underpaid...” (“Losing Hope in Louisiana,” Washington Post, Oct. 12th). Texas, which took in a large influx of evacuees is already a major site for undocumented immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America and the sudden presence of thousands of mostly unskilled relocated workers from the hurricane states has lowered wages there too.

The official body count of a little over a thousand dead is suspiciously low and the efforts to recover bodies shrouded in secrecy. Recovery will be hard because many corpses have been swept out to swamps and rivers as one coroner in Mississippi told the Washington Post. Legally, someone declared missing without proof of death has to stay missing for two years before being officially documented as dead. No doubt this will aid the government in underplaying the true figures, much in the same way as it does with Iraq. (In Iraq, only deaths taking place directly in Iraqi soil are counted, leaving out the many wounded who later die in military hospitals outside the country.) With many families evacuated by the hurricane broken up and suddenly shipped off to different parts of the country, tracking who is alive and who is dead is still incomplete.

The Special Case of New Orleans

New Orleans has long been called the most Third World city in the United States. Mostly dependent on tourism, the city ranked among the poorest in the country, with over 25 percent of the population living beneath the official poverty line, a declining majority-Black city - over 70 percent of the population was Black - much like Detroit and Baltimore.

Although the area of southern Louisiana surrounding New Orleans is one of the most industrialized regions in the country, with a heavy concentration of chemical, oil, and plastics plants and a huge shipping industry, most of these manufacturing and port jobs were down-sized or automated long ago; few city residents benefited. The Port of New Orleans, for instance, one of three major ports in the region, only had 350 workers officially on the port payroll, although the surrounding warehouses employed thousands more.

Back in the early 1990s, the collapse of the oil industry plunged the area into severe recession. At the time, I worked with a Cajun [2] woman who talked about the effects of the oil industry collapse. Her family had lived in southern Louisiana for several generations, yet now were split-up around the country. Rural towns were suddenly so poor because of cutbacks in services that dead alligators and dogs were left lying to rot in the streets. She lived near the Mississippi border. You could tell when you were crossing from one state to another: The grass strip in the middle of the highway on the Mississippi side would be immaculately trimmed while on the Louisiana side, the grass grew a foot high. Around this same time, David Duke, an open white supremacist and populist demagogue, ran for state-wide office and almost won. This part of the South has always been an incubator of powerful waves of populism: anti-elite, anti-big business, anti-Semitic and making thinly disguised racial appeals to southern whites.

New Orleans’ reliance on tourism also decisively shaped the city in other ways. The master-servant nature of much tourism work - and the tourist were largely white and the workers mostly black - created an atmosphere of simmering racial and class tension which spilled over in especially gruesome and violent crime.

Another woman friend, who spent significant time in the city over the past few years told me that when you crossed the street at night, people would try to run you over with their cars. Street mugging was widespread and many locals wore eye-patches and used crutches because of attacks. Nearly everyone had some horrible crime story to tell, often where even after turning over their wallets and purses, the perpetrators still stabbed, shot, or beat.

Moreover, like many other poor, Black majority low-wage U.S. cities, the drug economy in New Orleans filled in the gap as the high paid jobs disappeared. New Orleans had one of the highest percentage of drug-related gang memberships of any U.S. city. Drugs and poverty erode people’s ties informal ties and solidarity; it’s no wonder that one study showed pre-Katrina New Orleans residents had little social trust in others (Baltimore Sun, Sept. 21st). It was a city where the white elite was more concerned about Mardi Gras floats than the festering poverty around it, police brutality rampant, and political corruption rife.

It’s in this context that the reports of looting and crime erupting after Katrina has to be placed, without over-estimating or under-estimating what really went on: Just looking at the alleged numbers and incidents of looting and violence says little about its social character or what motivated people. Now, all of the sensational reports of murders, rapes and beatings in the Convention Center and Sports Stadium have now been discredited. There was in fact widespread and spontaneous social cooperation. As a Major in the Louisiana National Guard who was stationed at the Superdome later said, “The people never turned into these animals. What I saw was a tremendous number of people helping people... They have been cheated out of being thought of as these tough people who looked out for each other.”

Even the actual looting that took place, beyond the theft of necessities to survive, often reflected existing social tensions. In The New Republic, a New Orleans based-writer argued that targeting an unpopular local Wal-Mart had much to do with anger at the tax breaks Wal-Mart had gotten and the low-income housing that it has destroyed in the neighborhood:

“Take the looting at the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street the day after the levees began to fall. The store itself opened last year as part of a “redevelopment” of the decrepit St. Thomas public housing complex. The plan, according to critics, involved a net loss in cheap housing units and a tax scheme that helped the world’s largest retailer. The public debate was long, and acrimonious. None of this quite explains why people used Katrina as an excuse to relieve the store of its flat-screen televisions, but resentment was clearly simmering well in advance of the storm.” “New Orleans Diarist: Past as Prologue” New Republic, Sept. 26th)

Yet it would be equally wrong to think that no anti-social victimization took place either. One group of residents from the Ninth Ward who had fled to a nearby school reported being held hostage several days by gang members before escaping. People going back to the Ninth Ward said their homes had been stripped of all valuables. At this point, an accurate picture has yet to come out.

For almost thirty years, the U.S has had no major social struggles. Traditions of collective solidarity are frayed if non-existent. You can chart this decline by looking at two major prison uprisings, one at the height of struggle and one at the dying end of this period. In Attica, prisoners forged a cross-racial solidarity that still stands out today. Yet just a few years later in the early Reagan era , another major prison uprising in New Mexico, gangs tortured and set rivals on fire.

A few days after Katrina hit, rumors spread in Baltimore that all the gas stations would shut down by late afternoon. Hundreds of people lined up at the gas pumps; tempers frayed; fights broke out, and in a few cases, guns pulled. A bitter joke I heard at the time went like this: “Question: What’s the difference between New Orleans and Baltimore? Answer: Twenty feet of water.” It’s easy to see how in a social climate of sharp competition between people that sudden fear and scarcity can lead to more antagonism and not less.

“Disaster recovery is not just a rescue of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy” - The Uses of Disaster, Rebecca Solnit

The New Orleans region plays a key role in the U.S economy. As one researcher puts it, “Historically, it (the Mississippi river and the ports of Southern Louisiana centered on New Orleans) has been instrumental in bringing the USA to its dominant trading status, contributing to the transformation of American from agricultural giant to industrial giant. Latterly, it has added energy, in the form of oil extraction, gas extraction, and petroleum refinement to its inventory. Some 25 percent of US crude oil extraction originates offshore and a significant proportion of refinement onshore. Indeed, and in no small way, New Orleans and the region may claim material credit for America’s current geo-political status... It is the worst possible place to build a city; but the optimum place to build that city.” (“Hurricane Katrina: Location, Relocation, Abandonment...”, Steve Gibson)

But if New Orleans has to be rebuilt, how and in whose interests will the rebuilding take place? Right now, there’s much talk on how much of the infrastructure was damaged; whether oil rigs were toppled and plants wrecked, but not about the absence of workers. A certain State recomposition from above will take place; an attempt to reshape and mold the regional work force in capital’s interest. Already, the Bush administration is trying to shape the character of this reconstruction by suspending federal wage laws guaranteeing union scale wages in the construction industry.

What’s going to happen to the tourist-based old New Orleans economy? Will workers come back and where will they live? So far, the signals are mixed. One recent large poll of former residents living in the Superdome and other shelters showed 44 percent didn’t want to return to New Orleans. Some small leftist and community groups are demanding a “People’s” rebuilding of New Orleans, but with ex-residents so spread out far from the city, no one is listening. But if many do come back, will they accept a return to the old life of grinding poverty and low-wage jobs? Or will some sort of struggles break out? All these are open questions right now. (October 15th, 2005)


[1] While FEMA is associated with responding to natural disasters, one of the agency’s lesser known missions when it was set-up in the 1980s is a plan to detain “suspects” in special camps in case of a political crisis.

[2] Cajuns are descendent of the original French settlers in southern Louisiana who kept a distinct culture.

[prol-position news #4, 12/2005]