Class & Race in A Modern Catastrophe: Lessons of Katrina

Against the Current, No. 155, November/December 2011

Derrick Morrison

The Sociology of Katrina
Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe
edited by David Brunsma, David Overfelt and Steve Pico
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 288 pages, new edition 2010,
$29.95 paperback.

“HURRICANE KATRINA WAS a catastrophic disaster that resulted in over eighteen hundred fatalities, the displacement of at least 1.2 million people, and economic losses that are not yet finally accounted, but may approach $100 billion. Approximately 2.5 million residences were damaged by the category three storm that made landfall across Plaquemines Parish on the morning of August 29, 2005. With sustained winds approaching 135 mph, the storm moved inland just east of New Orleans and proceeded north along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. The eastern eye wall passed over Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, Mississippi. The storm surge along the Mississippi Gulf Coast approached 32 feet, literally obliterating tens of thousands of residences in Harrison and Hancock counties. Information provided by the Louisiana Recovery Authority indicates that over 234,000 residences were damaged in Mississippi with nearly 69,000 being completely destroyed.

“As the levees began to fail in New Orleans, over 107,000 homes slowly began to flood. Water levels ultimately reached 18 feet in some residential areas. Before it was over some 80% of the city was flooded. In Louisiana about 426,000 homes were damaged and over 283,000 were completely destroyed (Louisiana Recovery Authority 2005). Indeed, the residential damage inflicted by Katrina was catastrophic in both Louisiana and Mississippi.” (135)

This aptly sums up the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The book is a collection of papers presented at the 2006 Southern Sociological Society meeting in New Orleans, updated with new chapters added for this second edition in 2010. The fact that all the editors, David L. Brunsma, David Overfelt and J. Steven Picou, are academic sociologists, leaves its mark on the book’s somewhat heavy jargon.

After an introduction by the editors, the papers are grouped in four divisions or parts: “Framing Katrina: Context and Construction;” “Experiencing Evacuation;” “Ongoing Disaster: Reaction and Recovery;” and “Postdisaster Institutional Change.” The writers hint at the class war unleashed by the political representatives of the ruling rich in the wake of the disaster. Rescue property, not human beings, that was the order of Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin:

“(W)ithin three days after Katrina made landfall, the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans suspended lifesaving operations in New Orleans and ordered emergency responders to concentrate on arresting looters and deterring crime instead — an order that may have amounted to a death sentence for stranded victims in desperate need of rescue.” (46)

In another instance, due to hysteria created by local officials about murder and mayhem among the thousands packed into the Superdome seeking refuge, federal authorities sent “an eighteen-wheel refrigerated truck since there were reports of two hundred bodies there. The actual total was six; of these, four died of natural causes, one from a drug overdose, and another had apparently committed suicide.” (32)

What Katrina Revealed

Katrina briefly revealed the government’s class bias, its unconcern and disregard of the interests of the working majority. While government officials dithered, over 50,000 residents were packed into the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center for up to five days, with very little food and water. (112) Over twice that number were stranded on rooftops. (295)

One paper opines:

“The political landscape of the past, in which historically disadvantaged groups were continually neglected as a result of their lack of political clout, has been destroyed along with local communities. Currently, the political landscape is such that it is impossible to ignore the interests of the poor and disadvantaged portions of the city’s population because of the amount of media coverage given to political and social neglect that plagued the old political landscape….” (187)

Is it really “impossible to ignore the interests of the poor and disadvantaged”? I don’t think so. The new “political landscape” has been forged by the ruination and despoilment of public housing, public health care, and public education.

Regarding public housing, according to a front page article in the Sunday, August 21, 2011 edition of the Times-Picayune, the local big business daily, of the 3,077 households in four large public housing complexes before Katrina, only a few hundred have been able to return to the rebuilt sites, which are not run by HUD, the federal agency, but by private developers.

As for public schools, New Orleans is now saddled with the greatest density of charter schools of any mayor U.S. city.

An article in the May 10, 2011 Times-Picayune touted the “free market model” provided by charter schools — public schools operated by private companies.

However, the subject of the article was the obstacles faced by parents of special-needs students. The charter schools continue to evade the responsibility of educating these students. And if a parent of a student, whether special-needs or not, misses the enrollment period of these schools, they have to “call every school in the city to find a place,” as one parent was quoted. Each charter school has its own administration, there is no central board. Anarchy indeed.

Destruction of Charity Hospital

Finally, when it comes to public health care, one of the papers in the book discusses the Rev. Avery C. Alexander Charity Hospital. “The closing of Charity Hospital, which before the storm had ninety-six psychiatry beds, had a critical negative impact” on the city. (256) As the biggest public hospital in the state — one million square feet — its closure has devastated and continues to devastate mental and physical health care in metro New Orleans.

Charity flooded only in the basement, while the 20-story structure withstood the storm. The U.S. military under Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, and the doctors and nurses of the hospital, had cleaned it up. The building was “medically ready” by late September 2005, but Gov. Blanco and the Louisiana State University board of supervisors decided on closure.

In a July 14, 2009 Associated Press dispatch by Cain Burdeau in which Honore and Blanco were interviewed, Burdeau wrote, “Honore suggested that money, not medical judgment, was at the heart of the decision. ’This is about rich people making more money. This is not about providing health care.”

To replace Charity, LSU plans to build a private — not public — hospital.

LSU and the current Gov. Bobby Jindal have been busy taking apart the statewide Charity system, a product of the upheavals and New Deal reforms in the 1930s.

The Party We Need

The Sociology of Katrina is valuable as a source book, more than for general reading. Hopefully, it will be used in a Sociology 101 or 201 college course. But it reflects the poverty of sociology and U.S. political thought in general, in that it does not connect the dots.

“Media exposure” will not make the “political landscape” better. We need to change and remake social institutions. Katrina exposed the limitations, the constraints, the restraints of big business democracy. When Blanco and Nagin “suspended lifesaving operations…to concentrate on arresting looters and deterring crime” in the midst of the disaster, they were simply reflecting the priorities of the rich and super-rich, even though this suspension “may have amounted to a death sentence for stranded victims in desperate need of rescue.”

A few of the papers in the book mention the Road Home program, federally funded to the tune of $10 billion but privately administered. In a May 4, 2011 editorial in the Times-Picayune, the editors wrote:

“The administration of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco made terrible mistakes in designing the Road Home program. One of the most damaging was the decision to calculate grants based on the properties’ market value at the time of the storm, not on the actual cost of rebuilding. The flaw meant that tens of thousands of applicants in poor neighborhoods got much smaller grants than owners of similar homes in more affluent areas, simply because of the marketability of their respective neighborhoods. That made the Road Home’s formula patently unfair….”

Grants based on the “actual cost of rebuilding” were too rational for the politicians of big business.

This recognition by the Times-Picayune  editors came out of the victory of a lawsuit filed by working people. The program has about $100 million left, of which $62 million will be used to ameliorate the situation. For the editors, this “may help…2,100 families.” But there is no help for “tens of thousands” of working-class homeowners and small property holders.

What conclusion do we draw from this catalogue of injustices and inequities? It is that the sandbox of big business democracy has to be superseded: The horrors of Katrina and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can only be rectified with the reorganization of democracy for the rich into a system of democracy for working people.

The fight for that kind of social democracy — in its classic meaning of workers coming to political power — arises from the fight to defend public housing, public hospitals and public schools. We must defend the public sector against the onslaught of privatization. These fights, combined with the economic crisis rocking and rolling the country, will lay the basis for the rise of a political party of the working majority, to wrest power from the Democratic and Republican political parties of the rich.

An empowered party of social democracy would put human needs before profits, would expand and defend the public sector at the expense of the private sector.

The police would be reorganized into a force to defend the interests of the majority, no more Danziger Bridge massacres — the September 4, 2005, police murder of civilians in the wake of Katrina.

These and many other measures would mark the transition from big business democracy, from the democracy of big property, to a social democracy for working people. The local struggles that we are fighting in New Orleans today become more meaningful when placed inside such a perspective. Going beyond the limits of sociology, we must connect the dots.

November/December 2011, ATC 155