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Crises in New Orleans is History Repeating Itself

In 1927, the Mississippi river swelled, putting most of New Orleans under water. The city's mostly Black, largely poor population was told to gather together into safe havens until the crisis passed, as their neighborhoods were sacrificed to save the city's more desirable [White] areas. The disaster and violence that ensued changed the course of American history.

By Jacques Amalric

September 8, 2005

Liberation - Original Article (French)    

Galveston, 1900

Men Pose in the Debris of Galveston's Grand Hotel.

Much has been said and written about the causes of the catastrophe that has devastated the American coast along the Gulf of Mexico: the incompetence of Federal authorities, the insensitivity of George W. Bush, and the effect of racial inequality. Here we will delve into some historical and contemporary facts that merit reflection:

In the year 1900, a hurricane, we know not whether it was a category 4 or 5, devastated the port of Galveston, Texas. It killed over 6,000 people. The local newspapers, burning defenders of racial segregation, charged that Blacks took advantage of the ensuing disorder to cut off the fingers of White victims to steal their wedding rings, a charge that has never been established. The devastation of Galveston brought good fortune to  Houston, which quickly became the State's vital center.

In 1927, a gigantic swelling of the Mississippi flooded New Orleans. To save the most handsome neighborhoods of the city, the (White) people in charge of the city allowed the floodwaters to invade the poorest zones of municipality; they promised to compensate for the damage, but they never did. At the same time, they gathered part of the black population into relief camps. But as armed guards blocked the exits, the relief camps also flooded. The racial violence which followed encouraged many Blacks to leave the city and to try their luck in the North.

African-American refugee Camp at Cleveland, Mississippi, 1927

[Editor's Note: During the disaster 700,000 people were displaced, including 330,000 African-Americans who were moved to 154 relief camps. Several reports on the poor situation in the refugee camps, including one by the Colored Advisory Commission by Robert Russa Moton, were kept out of the media at the request of President Herbert Hoover, with the promise of further reforms for blacks after the presidential election. When Hoover failed to keep his promise, Moton and other influential African-Americans helped to shift Black Americans from the Republican Party to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats.]

Huey Long on the Campaign Trail

These events also marked the beginning of New Orleans' decline with the appearance of neo-fascist demagogue Huey Long, who seized upon the discontent to leave his mark on Louisiana. Elsewhere in the country, voices began to rise demanding that the Federal Government intervene in the event of a national catastrophe. These demands paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal after the 1929 Stock Market collapse.

Two days after the catastrophe on August 29, rather than hitting the ground, George W. Bush went to California where he labeled opponents of the war in Iraq as nostalgic for "isolationism and of defeatism." Hardly a word from the compassionate conservative for Katrina's victims, although he did utter his perpetual excuse, which had served him so well after the September 11, 2001 attacks: “who could have imagined?” Words even untruer today than they were four years ago. "I do not think anyone thought that the dams would break," said the President, in spite of the multiple warnings quietly issued for years by experts over the antiquated state of New Orleans' flood protection systems.

On September 2, two days after his California escapade, George W. Bush finally went to Louisiana and Mississippi. To general amazement, he paid homage to a certain Michael Brown, the person in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], one of those who has never shown any interest in New Orleans' vulnerability, and who approved drastic cuts in federal funding to reinforce the city's defenses.

Arabian Horse Expert Michael Brown

The generally held view is that the man [Brown], who previously chaired an association devoted to the protection of Arabian thoroughbred horses, knows little about his agency's business and owes his nomination only to his connections. Thus, on the fourth day of the catastrophe he admitted to having finally learned of the presence of 15,000 refugees in the New Orleans conference center. It is true that, since the priority of priorities became the fight against terrorism, FEMA became nothing more than an appendage of the new Department of Homeland Security; the majority of those qualified to grapple with natural disaster have abandoned the agency.

According to a Census Office report published last week, 1.1 million Americans officially entered a state of poverty on 2004. The total number of citizens in poverty is now 37 million, that is to say 17% more than under the second presidency of Bill Clinton. According to the same source, the number of those without the benefit of health insurance has ballooned by 800,000 in 2004, now totaling close to 46 million people.

Asked whether he planned to maintain his legislative program as Congress ended its recess, George W. Bush answered in the affirmative last week. His program envisages in particular the progressive abolition of taxes on land, the reduction of taxes on income stock transactions and grim cuts in medical assistance, food stamps and Federal student loans. It is also expected that the minimum wage will remain at its 1997 level: $5.15 per hour. And what about income inequality, which continues to increase? Only 5% of American hearths saw their incomes rise in 2004, while 95% saw it stagnate or drop.

At the request of the White House, Congress voted a little more than $10 billion in aid for reconstruction in the South. The damage has already been evaluated at over $100 billion and members of Congress could soon spend up to $50 billion, even if that means digging themselves even deeper into debt, given the already-adopted tax cuts and  the intervention in Iraq. And this while American growth is likely to be slowed by the rising price of oil. This is to say nothing of the nation's morale, already depressed by the vexing problems in Iraq, which are inversely proportional to the price of the gasoline.

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