Jonathan Neale reports from New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city
They call it “the storm” here, like there never was any other storm—but also like you don’t say the other word, just in case.
On 29 August 2005—five years ago this Sunday—Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The storm surge burst through the levees, flooding the city.
Five years on, I’m seeing how resilient the city is. The New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl this year. People still have that painted all over the cars. It’s how they know they came back.
The first game of the season is the week after the anniversary, and there’s going to be a huge party.
But the shadow of the hurricane still hangs over the city.
In working class neighbourhoods many houses are still boarded up—because people moved to Houston or elsewhere during the storm. They needed to get jobs, and have no guarantee of employment should they return.
Katrina wasn’t the worst climate change disaster ever, or even in the last few years. But it happened in the US, and it changed the face of American politics.
It was a disaster everyone knew was coming. They called it the “Big One”.
Over the years there were articles in the local paper, in other cities’ papers, and reports on television, all predicting it.
Hurricanes are measured in Categories. Category 1 is smallest, Category 5 the biggest so far.
The year before Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) brought together hundreds of local officials and weather experts to model a virtual “Hurricane Pam” hitting New Orleans.
Pam was a Category 3—and it killed 60,000 virtual people.
When Katrina appeared at sea, it was a Category 5. But Mayor Nagin of New Orleans refused to order a general evacuation—because the hotel owners didn’t want it.
Michael Brown, director of FEMA, remembered Pam. He made a frantic phone call to President Bush. Early Sunday morning, Bush called the mayor and told him to order an evacuation.
Nagin did that, and saved some lives. But people had no help leaving the city.
Bush and Brown later tried to conceal those phone calls. They were concealing that they knew what would happen.
When Katrina reached the city, it was down to a Category 2. The US Army Corps of Engineers had built the levees to withstand a Category 3.
All over the city the levees still broke. It turns out that the Corps of Engineers outsourced the building of the levees to contractors, leaving only three officers among 300 civilians at the New Orleans headquarters.
Corruption and contracting wrecked the levees. They were built with the wrong kind of steel, or without foundations, or on foundations of mud. In some places there were just gaps—no levee.
New Orleans is surrounded by water. The lake on the northern border is so big that, when you look inland, you think you’re looking out to sea. The Mississippi River is the southern border.
Some 80 percent of the city is below sea level. The storm passed over quickly, but it took a day for most of the city to flood. More than 1,500 people died. Half of them drowned in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The city wouldn’t use the school buses to evacuate. Poor people didn’t have cars, and they were waiting for welfare cheques, disability cheques and pension cheques.
They had no money left two days before the end of the month. They knew no one would put them up or feed them if they did get out of town.
This is the most important fact about Katrina—that the American government doesn’t give a shit about its people.
Americans aren’t fools, though. The journalists on the ground were outraged by what they saw. And faced with a choice between President Bush and desperate poor black people, most white Americans didn’t pick the white guy.
Kanye West, to his lasting honour, shouted on television that Bush didn’t care about black people. Other people said it was because people in New Orleans were poor.
That was all true. The government didn’t care about white people either. And not everyone who lost everything was that poor to begin with.
The insurance companies refused to pay out to anybody. They said the policies only covered storm damage, not floods, and the storm had left hours before the floods started. The courts backed the companies.
The government failed to provide the emergency aid people were expecting and so desperately needed.
Dead people stayed in houses for weeks, and it was months and years before much of the city was cleaned.
When the city ran out of money, the federal government refused to help.
New Orleans was full of a feeling of betrayal. People ate pills, and burst into tears in the streets.
The army and the federal government announced they would rebuild the levees to withstand a Category 3. Five years later, they have not finished doing so.
Sooner or later, a Category 5 is coming. They are not uncommon. We have had a few quiet years in the Gulf of Mexico, because the El Nino/La Nina oscillation in the Pacific has meant the bad storms have been in Asia. The oscillation is shifting back.
This is a very hot year around the world, but also in New Orleans. Everybody here remarks on it. They say a lot of people have left town this month.
The strength of a hurricane depends on the temperature of the water and the air before it hits land. That’s why hurricanes happen in hot places, at the hottest times of year. The hotter it is, the bigger the hurricane.
And the more the climate changes, the hotter it is.
Another hurricane disaster will come. Maybe to Miami first, or Houston, New York, Havana, or Haiti again.
But sooner or later, as the seas rise, another hurricane will hit New Orleans.
Unless we can stop climate change, this will not be the last disaster in New Orleans.
When the storm hit, it seemed like the government was doing nothing. But it was worse than that—beneath the surface, they were frantically doing everything they could to prevent anyone else from helping.
FEMA forbade doctors to go to New Orleans. They prevented paramedics and fire crews from getting there.
Most people in the city had axes, and knew to go up to the attic and hack a hole so they could get onto the roof.
Weak people, and people in wheelchairs, couldn’t do that. But people took care of each other.
Where they could, they carried and helped each other to higher ground. And they waited, like the people on the roofs.
All round the city and the coast, thousands of people got out their small recreational fishing boats to go pick up survivors.
FEMA told them not to, and prevented them where they could, but thousands kept coming.
The Navy sent a hospital ship, USS Bataan, to stand off the coast. President Bush refused to let it take patients.
The national bus companies rang FEMA, offering to move people out of the city, but FEMA did not take their calls.
FEMA was arranging the contracts. That was why it kept people out.
What mattered to the government was control—and who would get the blame.
The levees had failed. That was the federal government’s fault. The failure to evacuate was the fault of the city government.
The government encouraged the media into a frenzy of racism. There were gangs of looters and rapists all over the city, they said. Gangs raping children, right there in the Superdome.
No one said “black gangs”. They just showed you pictures of black people and said the other words.
Bush sent in the army and the National Guard. The Democratic governor of Louisiana said on TV, proudly, that the troops were going in locked and loaded, with orders to shoot to kill.
Survivors greeted the troops with relief as people sent to help them. But the troops marched right on by, machine guns in hand, as old women in wheelchairs held out their hands.
It was the same thing we see when the US occupies cities in the Middle East, what we saw in Haiti this year, and what we will see again and again.
The American armed services are interested only in control—and they won’t even give people clean water until they have the area locked down.
New president, same old policies
George W Bush is gone. He never recovered politically after the lies, the incompetence, the urban destruction and the sheer not caring that Katrina revealed.
That was the summer a majority in the polls turned against the Iraq war—and people could see the echoes of Baghdad in the chaos of New Orleans.
The oil spill has done a bit, but only a bit, of the same for Obama. He just stood by and did nothing and let BP get on with it.
That reminds people a little too much of what he’s done about jobs.
This morning the man in front of me in the supermarket told the checkout woman he had been laid off by Frito Lay, the crisp company.
“When”, she asked.
“Twelve months ago,” he replied.
“People in jobs don’t know how lucky they are,” she said.
“I haven’t stopped looking for work,” he replied, with pride, because that was the pride he had.
He was black and she was white.
To fight climate change Obama should be hiring people like that man to build wind turbines—and new levees that can withstand the climate change storms to come.
If the next hurricane hits, and everyone sees that nothing has been done, the political consequences will be enormous.
Jonathan Neale is the author of Stop Global Warming: Change the World. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.org.uk