Skip to main content

Katrina: Social Tragedy Benefits Exploiters, Devastates Workers

By Jon Bekken - Industrial Worker, October 2005

Hundreds of thousands of workers face untold misery after they were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and the flooding that wrecked much of New Orleans in its aftermath. It may be months before many of those displaced from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi are allowed to return to what remains of their homes. However, things are looking much more promising for business. Owners of office space throughout the Gulf Coast region are doing record business; hotels are charging top dollar for shabby units; oil companies are enjoying windfall profits as the wonders of capitalism transform their damaged (and fully insured) refineries and drilling platforms into a price bonanza for energy suppliers.

Stock prices for major contractors Halliburton and Baker Hughes - which also have been making out like bandits from the carnage of the Iraq war - skyrocketed as they joined in the scramble to profit off this tragedy. A Sept. 6 story in the New York Times celebrated the business opportunities, even as it cautioned that some "are wary about seeming too gleeful in light of New Orleans' misery."

"I always hate to talk about positives in a situation like this," Tetra Technologies CEO Geoffrey Hertel told the Times, "but this is certainly a growth business for the next 6 to 12 months." Tetra repairs oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Let no one believe this was a natural disaster. The hurricane itself may have been a force of nature, although most scientists who study the earth's changing climate believe that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes has increased sharply as a result of global warming - that is, as a result of the capitalists' reckless plundering and destruction of our planet. (Similarly, the flooding was worsened because the government has for years ignored environmentalists' warnings that the wetlands and harbor islands needed to buffer New Orleans from storms were being destroyed.)

But there was ample opportunity to evacuate before the hurricane struck, and even more time before the flooding that caused the bulk of the carnage. Hundreds of thousands loaded their possessions in their cars, grabbed some cash, and headed out of town to wait the storm out. A few refused to leave their homes. But tens of thousands had no choice. They did not have cars in which to make the journey, nor funds with which to buy fuel (the price of which was already skyrocketing), nor credit cards with which to book a hotel room in some strange city, far from family and friends. This was a private-sector evacuation, open only to those with the economic means to participate. The poor were left to fend for themselves, as best they could.

To be sure, the city told them to take shelter in the Convention Center and the SuperDome, but once there they were abandoned to their plight, without food or water or medical attention. Quite simply, to those who make the decisions in this society their lives were of no importance and they were left to die.

But they refused.

People broke into stores and took what they needed to survive. (Some, it seems, may also have taken some of the luxuries which had long been denied them.) They shared what they found, and treated each other's injuries as best they could.

In the hurricane's aftermath, the media spread lurid reports of looters shooting down rescue helicopters and raping children in relief shelters. Most of these reports turn out to have been fabrications. The NPR radio show "This American Life" broadcast interviews with hurricane survivors prevented from escaping the disaster zone by armed police looking to keep African-American survivors out of their white suburbs. "Thank God for the looters," one conventioneer said, noting that they not only provided desperately needed food and water but also ferried children and sick people to evacuation centers.

Meanwhile, as people were dying in New Orleans of dehydration and disease, state officials pulled police and National Guard from rescue efforts; instead, they were given "shoot to kill" orders and dispatched to protect property.

We saw two contrasting visions of society in this disaster. Thousands rushed to aid the victims, not asking if there was a buck to be made but rather doing what they could to respond to the urgent human need. People opened their homes to refugees, traveled into danger zones, and emptied their pockets. Meanwhile, gas stations and hotels raised prices to take advantage of the desperate refugees, while politicians left those unable to escape New Orleans to die.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned back truckloads of bottled water even as thousands of survivors had gone for days without food or water. FEMA officials ignored reports of thousands of people jammed into the New Orleans Convention Center and on overpasses throughout the city, told the Red Cross to stay out of the city, and left people to die until media coverage forced them to take action.

The one million people from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast suddenly tossed out of their jobs by Hurricane Katrina are now fanning out across the South and the rest of the country looking for work. In San Francisco, a few have been hired to scab on striking health care workers. Others can hope for work rebuilding the highways and buildings leveled by the storm and flooding. But most were low-wage workers in the casino and tourism industries, filling jobs that will not exist until the region is rebuilt. Before the hurricane hit, nearly a fourth of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line.

Concerned that the bosses might have to pay too much for that reconstruction work, President Bush has waived a federal law requiring construction contractors receiving federal funds to pay prevailing wages to their workers. Employers have long sought to repeal Davis-Bacon Act requirements, claiming taxpayers could benefit by sending construction work to the lowest bidder and paying rock-bottom wages. Eliminating prevailing wage requirements also has the advantage of creating huge cost differentials between unionized and non-union contractors, effectively replacing union workers with workers who lack union protection and so must cut corners and do slip-shod work to meet the bosses' demands for more profits.

As always, there is money to be made (and votes to be hustled) off human suffering. These parasites will be with us so long as we tolerate an economic system based upon greed and exploitation.

But we can see the basis for another system in the actions of those who continue to reach out to aid those in need. As always, they are the vast majority, but it is the parasites who hold the levers of power. In this time of crisis, we must of course extend our solidarity to our fellow workers; but let's also ask why we continue to tolerate an economic system that inflicts such misery on so many.

A directory of grassroots organizations in New Orleans, Biloxi, Houston and other affected areas providing immediate disaster relief to poor people and people of color can be found at http://katrina.mayfirst.org/