The enormous devastation wreaked upon parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama
by Hurricane Katrina is only beginning to come to light, even as the situation
in New Orleans grows worse by the hour. Large parts of the coastal regions of
these states along the Gulf of Mexico have experienced extensive flooding, destruction
of buildings and homes, and loss of life.
As the toll mounts, it becomes increasingly clear that the city of New Orleans
was remarkably unprepared for such a disaster. That the city of over one million
was spared the direct hit which many at first feared, and nevertheless experienced
such massive damage, only underscores the fact that the systems protecting the
city are entirely inadequate. One can only speculate as to the effects on the
city if the hurricane had passed only ten miles west of where it did.
Damage estimates are in the tens of billions of dollars. At least one
million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are without electrical
power, and officials say it may take weeks to fully restore service to all affected
regions. Clean drinking water is scarce, and the flood waters covering city
streets are contaminated with gas from ruptured gas lines, chemicals and human
waste, raising a serious danger of infectious disease.
The reports in the media paint a tragic and even hellish picture. Hundreds
and perhaps thousands in New Orleans were forced to retreat to their roofs,
often by hacking through their attic ceilings using hatchets and knives. Many
are still stranded. There have been scattered reports of bodies floating in
the flood waters, particularly on the east side of New Orleans and in the adjacent
St Bernard Parish, where some 40,000 homes were flooded.
Parts of Mississippi on the Gulf coast were hit by the center of the hurricane
and destroyed. Entire neighborhoods were obliterated. Where there were once
houses, now there is only debris and the scattered belongings of residents.
An official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Tuesday
that at least 115 people in Mississippi were killed by the hurricane. Vincent
Creel, an official from Biloxi, told Reuters that the death toll is “going
to be in the hundreds.” He added, “[Hurricane] Camille was 200,
and we’re looking at a lot more than that.”
No estimates of fatalities in the New Orleans metropolitan area have been released.
Many Mississippi residents along the coast were trapped in their homes and
swept away by a 30-foot surge that accompanied the hurricane. “This is
our tsunami,” said the mayor of Biloxi, A.J. Holloway, referring to the
giant tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other parts of South
Asia last December.
After the storm had passed, many in New Orleans who thought their homes had
escaped relatively unharmed watched with astonishment as the water levels rose
throughout Monday and Tuesday. While initial reports on Monday suggested that
the city was lucky to have escaped a direct hit from the hurricane, Louisiana
Governor Kathleen Blanco told a news conference on Tuesday, “The devastation
is greater than our worst fears. It’s totally overwhelming.”
Sometime on Monday, a levee on the 17th Street Canal, near Lake Pontchartrain
on the north side, ruptured, flooding much of the city. According to a report
in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “The breach sent a churning sea of
water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing across Lakeview and into Mid-City, Carrollton,
Gentilly, City Park and neighborhoods farther south and east.” Water continued
to rise throughout Tuesday and showed no signs of stopping.
Flood waters covered the city’s famous French Quarter, which escaped
serious damage during the initial impact of the hurricane and is on higher ground
than much of the city. Late on Tuesday the Associated Press was reporting that
a second levee had burst, increasing the flow of water into the city. It is
unclear how long it will take to plug the levees, including a 200 foot-wide
hole in the 17th Street Canal, which, like the water that surrounds most of
New Orleans, is at a higher elevation than most of the city itself.
The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, estimated that 80 percent of the
city was flooded. “Our city is in a state of devastation,” he told
a local television station. “With some sections of our city, the water
is as deep as seven meters... It’s almost like a nightmare that I hope
we wake up from.”
Nagin said that the number of deaths was unknown but “significant.”
Later he said that rescue workers were bypassing the bodies of the dead as they
pushed on to search for stranded survivors.
By Tuesday afternoon, the rising waters in New Orleans had reached the Superdome,
where it was a meter deep. During the storm, the Superdome served as a refuge
for some 10,000 New Orleans residents, most of them poor, disabled or without
transportation and therefore unable to follow evacuation orders. Since the storm,
thousands more have taken shelter there, and are now unable to leave because
of the dangerous conditions that still prevail outside.
The Superdome has been without power or air conditioning since early Monday
morning. As many as 30,000 people are crammed into close, hot and extremely
humid quarters. There were reports Tuesday afternoon that one person jumped
to his death from the concourse of the stadium.
The flooding is also threatening hospitals holding patients whose lives are
dependent on electrical generators, which will fail if the water rises much
further. State officials have announced plans to evacuate 500 people, but the
evacuation itself poses serious risks to the patients.
It is not known when most of those who have fled the city will be able to return.
The dangers arising from the hot weather and the rising water include pollution
from oil refineries and contamination from dead bodies, including those from
flooded cemeteries. The disease-bearing mosquito population is growing, and
water is covering downed power lines. Officials have also warned of an infestation
of fire ants and poisonous water snakes. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director for
the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, told CNN that the city is “a
The social component of a natural disaster
The devastation caused by the hurricane has taken its toll on all sections
of the population in these southern states. Some of the most severe damage in
Mississippi was inflicted on the beach-front houses of the wealthy. In New Orleans,
the flooding from ruptured levees has been indiscriminate.
However, as is so often the case with natural disasters, those most affected,
and least able to recover, are the poor.
One of the hardest hit sections of New Orleans is also one of the poorest:
the Lower Ninth Ward, on the eastern side of the city bordering St. Bernard
Parish and the Mississippi River. The storm overpowered levees protecting the
region, producing floods 20 feet high. Hundreds of people were rescued from
their rooftops, while many were still stranded on Tuesday afternoon.
“Look, look man, it’s gone,” the Times-Picayune quoted City
Council President Oliver Thomas, referring to the Lower Ninth Ward. “This
is crazy. Nothing like this has ever happened.” It is unlikely that many
of the trailers and small, one-story homes that populate the area will survive
without massive damage.
Many residents of this ward were among the 100,000 in the city who lacked a
car or other means of leaving the city. According to the 2000 US census, the
Lower Ninth Ward has a poverty level of 36.4 percent. A quarter of households
have an annual income of less than $10,000, while half live on less than $20,000.
Over half of the population in the ward is categorized as “not in the
labor force,” mainly because they have ceased looking for work.
Historically, the Lower Ninth Ward was one of the last regions of the city
to be occupied because of its poor drainage system and its position on what
was originally a cypress swamp. Those who settled there were mainly poor African-Americans
and immigrant laborers with no other place to go.
In 1965, the Lower Ninth Ward was devastated by Hurricane Betsy, which caused
81 deaths in New Orleans, mainly in this area of the city. That disaster prompted
calls for greater protection from the dangers posed by the adjacent Mississippi
River. However, as has become clear from the present catastrophe, the systems
that were put in place were entirely inadequate.
The differential impact of the hurricane will also become apparent as residents
attempt to salvage what is left of their homes and rebuild. Property insurance
does not generally cover losses from floods, meaning that many will be without
resources to replace what has been lost. Though the federal government provides
insurance for flood losses, many, and in particular the poorer residents, do
not have this coverage. Particularly in Alabama and Mississippi, relatively
few people have insurance to cover flood damage.
Estimates on insured losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina range from $9
billion to $25 billion, while total losses—insured and uninsured—are
likely to be twice that level.
Lack of preparation
As always with a devastating event like Hurricane Katrina, voices are raised
claiming that nothing could have been done to prevent the catastrophe. Such
declarations are thoroughly false. While it would have been impossible to prevent
all damage from the hurricane, there were definite measures that could have
been taken to minimize the impact.
That such steps were not taken is despite the fact that the areas devastated
by Katrina lie along a path that has repeatedly suffered massive hurricane damage
in the past. New Orleans is particularly vulnerable. It lies below sea level,
surrounded on three sides by water—the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi
River, Lake Pontchartrain—from which it is protected only by a network
of levees and pumps. For years scientists and engineers have warned that a major
hurricane could inflict catastrophic damage on the city.
After Hurricane Betsy, the levee system was modified to withstand the force
of a category three hurricane, but Katrina, when it hit land, was stronger—a
category four storm. It was only a matter of time before a category four or
five storm hit the city, but government officials failed to commit the resources
necessary to shore up the levee system to withstand an event of that magnitude,
including raising the height of the barriers to prevent the sort of flooding
that occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The city depends on pumps to push water uphill, away from the city and back
into the surrounding lake and river. However, these pumps operate on electricity,
which has been entirely cut off since the hurricane struck. The pumps have apparently
According to an article in the New Orleans CityBusiness, from February 7, 2005,
the US Army Corps of Engineers “identified millions of dollars in flood
and hurricane protection projects in the New Orleans district,” however
“chances are... most projects will not be funded in the president’s
2006 fiscal year budget.”
The article noted that between 2001 and 2005, the amount spent on such projects
declined from $147 million to $82 million. “Unfunded projects include
widening drainage canals, flood-proofing bridges and building pumping stations
in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.”
Officials have deemed a revamping of the levee system to protect the city against
a category four or five storm prohibitively expensive, but the cost would have
been far less than the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina. That these resources
have not been marshaled to address the pressing needs of social infrastructure
in New Orleans is due to the fact that the priorities of the government and
the American ruling class lie on an entirely different plane.
The attempts by the city to evacuate the population likewise demonstrated the
lack of preparation in addressing the needs of the residents, particularly the
poorest sections. In spite of an enormous traffic backlog, most residents with
transportation were able to get out before the storm hit. But many of those
without transportation were left stranded.
In 2002, the Times-Picayune wrote a series entitled “Washed Away,”
in which it discussed what would happen in the event of a major hurricane. “100,000
people without transportation will be especially threatened,” the newspaper
wrote. “A large population of low-income residents do not own cars and
would have to depend on an untested emergency public transportation system to
The lack of preparation for the city’s poor was revealed in an article
that appeared in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, which was otherwise devoted
to extolling the efficiency of the city’s evacuation measures. “Mayor
Nagin urged churches Sunday morning to arrange evacuations for those who might
not have access to a car. He mentioned Amtrak and Greyhound as possibilities...
The mayor encouraged people leaving the city to pick up anyone they knew who
didn’t have means to evacuate, but acknowledged that many poor New Orleans
residents lacked a clear way to get out.”
Even in the first days after the hurricane, it has become clear that the tragedy
could have been much reduced if adequate measure had been put in place. As we
learn more about the events, there will no doubt be further revelations regarding
the social components of this disaster