Survivors of Northern California fires face new ordeal of recovery

By Therese Leclerc
6 November 2017

The fires are out in Northern California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has announced that all the wildfires that have ravaged the counties of Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano, north of San Francisco, since October 9 have been completely contained.

At the height of the blaze, 42 residents lost their lives as 10,000 firefighters, many of them volunteers, worked shifts of up to four days straight to battle the infernos. Crews were mobilized from throughout the state. Others came in from neighboring Nevada and Oregon and from as far away as Canada, Mexico and Australia.

With the extinguishing of the flames, however, the ordeal for the survivors has entered a new stage.

The fires are the most severe California has ever faced. Some 15,000 homes and 3,000 vehicles were destroyed or damaged.

Figures released by the state insurance commissioner’s office last week put the damage at over $3 billion. That figure is certain to rise.

For the first time, this year’s fires, driven by up-to-50-mph winds, engulfed urban areas, such as the city of Santa Rosa, where the Coffey Park neighborhood was reduced to ashes after the flames jumped six lanes of Highway 101.

Homeowners and renters, still in makeshift accommodation, are currently tackling the onerous task of cleaning up, attempting to retrieve any of their belongings that may have survived and applying for insurance and what federal assistance is available.

California has declared a public health emergency in the fire area. Mobile homes that were incinerated in Santa Rosa were found to have contained asbestos. Freon from air conditioners and heavy metals such as arsenic, copper and lead pose health risks throughout the area as well.

Recent rain—and the rainfall to come with the approach of winter—risks carrying the hazardous waste down into waterways, and even into water treatment plants, downstream of destroyed forests and charred neighborhoods.

Some homes have been designated toxic waste sites, further complicating the job for residents trying to salvage belongings.

There are residents who face even more obstacles to regaining their homes and jobs. These are the undocumented workers, who form the core workforce of the main industries in the region—hospitality, tourism and the wineries. It is estimated that some 28,000 undocumented adults and children lived in the region worst affected by the flames.

These workers do not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. One of the many details required on the FEMA application forms is a social security number, denied to these residents, some of whom have lived in the area for up to 18 years. Children of these families who are American citizens do qualify for federal aid, but there is a fear that if the family seeks aid, other family members will be detained and deported.

This fear also kept many out of the shelters set up for residents who lost their homes or were ordered to evacuate endangered areas. Members of the National Guard were stationed at the shelters.

In the days following the outbreak of the fires, dozens of these families slept in cars and on beaches along the California coast.

Officials have said it will take years for the region to recover, socially and economically. Judging by the experience of residents in the wake of other recent disasters in the United States and its territories, that may be an understatement.

In Houston, recently flooded after the passage of Hurricane Harvey, the disaster is worsening the level of social inequality in the region.

NBC reported on October 23 that the poor in the Houston area are likely to fall further into poverty and homelessness while the wealthy are moving ahead with rebuilding.

Those who have been receiving temporary assistance from FEMA over the last two months now find themselves struggling to regain a foothold in their lives.

“Displaced renters have found themselves reliant on the whims of landlords or the generosity of friends,” the NBC report stated. “Homeowners without flood insurance are in a similar bind, while those who have it are waiting for their claims to go through. Some are maxing out their credit cards, or moving back into damaged houses.

“In some prosperous neighborhoods,” the report added, “certain homeowners aren’t bothering to wait for their insurance checks—if they had flood insurance at all—and are paying their contractors up front.”

An even more extreme situation exists in Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September. Most residents have been told they will be without power until January or February, with some of those in the outlying areas having to wait until spring or summer, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The hardship experienced by people in these situations can become permanent. In New Orleans, flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, residents were temporarily removed to neighboring states, far from their homes and jobs. Twelve years later, many are still displaced. While some have managed to start again in their new location, those who would prefer to return face expenses most people cannot meet. There is a lack of affordable housing in the city and new safety standards for elevating homes. Some people will never be able to return.

In Northern California, those who manage to overcome all the obstacles to rebuilding may encounter a further problem: insurance rate hikes.

In a press conference on Tuesday, state insurance commissioner Dave Jones warned that in the wake of the disaster insurers were likely to reevaluate the risk that wildfires pose to structures previously considered low-risk to such threats.

“I am concerned the fire we just experienced is not an anomaly and may represent a new normal,” Jones said.


Naomi Klein: Disasters are being exploited by shock politics

Hurricanes like Irma can be a gateway for shock politics that manipulate the vulnerable. To defeat ‘disaster capitalists’ and their radical agendas, says award-winning writer Naomi Klein, we need to knuckle down and get real about the future.

Naomi Klein can pinpoint the day something inside her switched. It was 6 December, 1989: the day 25-year-old Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, separating the female students from the males, shot all the women in a row.

“You’re all a bunch of feminists,” he shouted, before turning the gun on himself. For Klein, a student at the University of Toronto, the shock was a call to action.

“That was my wake-up call,” she says. “It was just the most blatant hate crime.”

Klein was no stranger to activism. She’d grown up surrounded by the language of social justice – her parents moved from the US to Montreal in protest of the war in Vietnam – but had never felt the need to get involved.

As a teen, she was too busy being a mall rat. Like any child of the ’80s, Klein was more interested in designer labels than deep debate and admits being “vaguely embarrassed” by the kind of “hippiedom” that her family home represented.

But when Marc Lépine declared his mass shooting a “war on feminism”, blaming affirmative action for his rejection from engineering school, she understood that political actions have consequences: that politics is about real lives.

This was not a political time on campus, says Klein. “But because I had grown up among feminists I sort of had some tools to help my friends talk about this, even though I had never used them myself.” She put up flyers, inviting people to come together and talk about what had happened.

“Around 500 people showed up,” she says, “and I found myself having to chair a meeting for the first time in my life, so it was a bit of a trial by fire.”

For the next 40 minutes, Klein will speak non-stop – about the system that gave rise to Trump, and the conditions that could finally defeat his type – without ever sounding lofty or verbose.

She’s in London to talk about her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, and a lot of people want to hear what she has to say.

In a few days she’ll stand in front of an audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall and explain that Trump’s “man-babyness” is a tactic in itself. She’ll also call the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people and could have been prevented, another case of “lovelessness in public”.

“Every decision that contributed to that epic crime was rounded in a brutal calculus that systematically discounted the lives of poor people,” she’ll say, drawing parallels with how the US government not only failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina but pushed through a wave of privatisation in its wake, all in the name of ‘progress’.

Offering a counter-narrative to this particular brand of BS is Naomi Klein’s greatest strength. The celebrated writer – who fired shots at “brand bullies” in 1999’s No Logo before cutting through the jargon of neoliberalism ever since – has made it her life’s work to debunk the myth that private wealth and infinite growth will save us all.

But there’s another truth that desperately needs outing. Donald Trump as POTUS is no shock. He’s the inevitable spawn of a failed system, says Klein, that’s been screwing us our entire lives.

“If you wrote a sci-fi book years ago and cast Trump as president, your editor would have said it’s way too obvious,” she says, laughing.

It took Klein three months to write No Is Not Enough. She normally blocks out five years for a book. But time is of the essence, she says, and the planet’s future is at stake.

“When the politics of climate change go wrong – and they are very, very, wrong right now – we don’t get to try again in four years.”

Things have gone from bad to worse since those words were written. Trump has pulled the plug on the Paris Accord, flicking a middle finger at all the work, however minimal, that had already been done to minimise global warming in the coming years. But securing bigger profits for his fossil fuel friends is just one item on Trump’s “toxic to-do list”.

Banning Muslims, deporting Mexicans, controlling women’s reproductive organs, making healthcare a privilege rather than a right, and fuelling racial hate: these are just the appetisers, says Klein, the amuse bouche of a noxious buffet being prepared by Trump’s “constellation of disaster capitalists”.

All they need is the slightest tremor, she says, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or a terror attack like 9/11, and they’ll serve it up hot and fast.

It’s crises like these that can then be exploited to push through their radical agenda. Just look at the war in Iraq.

“I’ve studied societies in states of shock,” says Klein. “This loss of collective orientation is what makes people vulnerable, so I wanted to very quickly get us oriented – to show Trump in a context we know. When people tell themselves they are in a state of disbelief, they are really open to being politically manipulated.

“So I just want to say, ‘Well, is he really that shocking?’ I think he’s actually an entirely predictable, even clichéd outcome of American culture.”

Which is why she wrote this book in a red-hot minute. The final pages conclude with the Leap Manifesto – an inspiring vision of tomorrow, co-written by 60 movements, where renewable energy creates jobs and fights inequality.

It’s an alarm bell for the future, a wake-up call for the here and now, and a reminder that the only thing standing in our way is the failure of our own imagination.

Trump came as a shock to a lot of people, but you don’t quite see it that way. For those who aren’t familiar with your earlier book The Shock Doctrine, what do you mean when you refer to Trump’s ‘shock politics’? Or his plans to unleash pro-corporate ‘shock therapy’? 

The shock doctrine is this phrase I came up with to describe a theory of power. I originally used it in the context of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s this idea that in moments of extreme national trauma, when the country you thought you lived in suddenly seems like a very different place, the narrative of who you are, of what your nation is, shifts dramatically.

Those moments of heightened disorientation and fear have been harnessed by elites to push through some of their most unpopular pro-corporate policies that systematically stratifies society between the haves and the have-nots.

The ultimate example was Hurricane Katrina. In the traumatic aftermath, there was this frenzy of privatisation and deregulation – and of course people can’t engage in economic debates when they have nowhere to live. New Orleans now has the most privatised school system in the US; public hospitals were closed and public housing demolished in the interest of gentrifying the city.

People weren’t prepared for Trump; they told themselves it would never happen. I want to negate this idea of seeing him as this bolt from the blue, because a true shock is a rupture in a narrative. It’s, ‘We thought we were one thing and suddenly we’re something else.’

And to me, there is a fundamental dishonesty in metabolising Trump in that way because Trump is as American as apple pie. His products may not be made in America but he is so ‘Made in America’. He is just beauty pageants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and fighter jets – and the worship of wealth and endless consumption.

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of storytelling, that we have to tell a different story to the one peddled by ‘shock doctors’. Why is it so important to have ownership over our own narrative? 

Well, this is what we are: a collection of stories. I remember so vividly after 9/11, whenever there would be any critique of power, people would say, ‘That’s pre-9/11 thinking.’

There was this idea of blanking the slate and I think that’s quite deliberate. History, our shared narratives, how we ended up where we are today is what keeps us oriented.

It’s a classic tool of authoritarians to deny history, to deny those shared reference points, because a population without history is easy to control.

[History can be] a shock absorber for societies. I saw it in Argentina. After the 2001 financial crisis [and anti-austerity protests that led to President Fernando de la Rúa declaring a state of siege and ordering everyone to stay in their homes], there was this period of reinvention where the whole political class was kicked out.

The slogan in the streets was: ‘All of them must go.’ People remembered what had happened during the dictatorship 25 years earlier – how they had lost their rights because they had allowed appeals to national security to trump their freedoms. That ability to collectively learn from the mistakes of history is tremendously important.

That’s part of what I mean by story, but I also think the crises that we have now are stories that are failing us. Stories of infinite growth on a finite planet, of wealth as a key to happiness.

There are so many stories that I think Trump represents the epitome of – the logical conclusion of – and those stories are failing us as a species.


What do you make of what’s happening here in the UK with the resurgence of the left? Young people came out in their droves to support Jeremy Corbyn, the most socialist leader the Labour Party has seen for generations. What do you think is fuelling this turning point? For young people, it can’t be collective memory of a worse time… 

I think the spell of neoliberalism is lifting around the world, and it’s been a slow process. This ideological project that began under Reagan and Thatcher of, ‘Let’s just leave everything to the market.’ This idea that anything public is sinister and anything you try to do collectively will inherently fail.

Milton Friedman famously said in a letter to Pinochet, when he was advising the Chilean dictator, that the major mistake happened when people thought they could do good with other people’s money.

The idea that by pooling resources, i.e. taxes, we could do something good, like have public healthcare or free education – that was the fundamental error in his view. So that’s been the project.

The flip-side of the project has been a war on the imagination. The most damage was encapsulated in that Thatcher phrase, ‘There is no alternative.’ But as neoliberalism has been slowly decomposing, faith in the policies has died.

People stopped believing that privatisation would lead to efficiency, that a rising tide would lift all boats. Those utopian promises of the neoliberal age that I grew up with, that your generation didn’t, started to fall away.

But even as people started to reject those policies after the 2008 financial crisis, the courage to pose alternatives to it – to propose a radically different way to allocate resources, live together and share the planet – seemed impossible.

So the first stage was finding the courage to say, ‘No!’ But the next phase is finding the courage to say, ‘Yes!’ And it turns out that that’s a lot harder.

What I’m tremendously inspired by is that, since 2008, there really aren’t any true believers in neoliberalism anymore. There aren’t people giving the same sales pitch that I grew up with: If we outsource everything it will run more efficiently.

I mean, say that after Grenfell Tower and you’ll be chased, right? So it’s been this zombie ideology – it’s still upright, it still staggers around, it has its own momentum – but it’s without a soul. It doesn’t have that animating force.

So when young people hear a politician like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn put forward bold ideas about redistribution of wealth, they think: ‘We do live in a time of unprecedented wealth, it’s just that the money is stuck at the top. So why don’t we get more of that and pay for things that improve people’s quality of life?’

Like, what a concept! [laughs] These ideas feel fresh and they haven’t been tarnished by that constant ideological assault that an older generation was subjected to.

It’s young people’s freedom from that sales pitch, post-2008, that is making it possible to say, ‘Yes!’ To go beyond the ‘no’, which is all my generation could really manage, this sort of ‘enough!’ That was the cry of the Zapatistas: ‘Basta! Enough!’ But drawing a line only goes so far.

Do you believe this generation is capable of providing that ‘yes’? 

Younger people getting involved in politics have learned from the suspicion of institutions that my generation have. We made a fetish of not engaging in organised politics at all.

What I see now is a really healthy inside-outside strategy, maintaining independence and creativity on the outside of politics but still understanding that if there isn’t an association with a political project – with institutions that have enough heft to tether this very atomised, amazing, decentralised internet-based activism – then it’s going to just kind of float away.

There needs to be an interplay but it has to be one that protects that amazing fertile creativity that we saw in Momentum [the grassroots movement driving support for Jeremy Corbyn], that we saw in the Bernie campaign. It’s not about trying to centralise and control this energy.


The anti-free trade movement that you were part of in the early 2000s, which hit the mainstream with the ‘Battle of Seattle’ WTO protests in 1999 and again with Occupy Wall Street, was criticised for not offering an alternative. Do you look back at that as a failure? 

I think that movement was part of this slow death of neoliberalism. It was such a hugely successful indoctrination process that it really took a long time for us to reawaken. I don’t believe we are fully there yet.

But I don’t see movements in this linear way that you can say, ‘That movement was a failure and this one was a success.’ I see continuities and strong through-currents.

Many of the founders of Occupy Wall Street went on to reincarnate as Occupy Sandy, this extraordinary people’s relief organisation, in response to the total failure of the state after Superstorm Sandy. They then became the backbone of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

So we can say that Occupy failed because it didn’t have demands, but I think it just shows a really short-term view of the way movements actually work.

There are periods when they are obvious to the media and then they go underground into a gestation period – a hibernation period where they learn from their mistakes – and then re-emerge as people who have a fully articulated political platform. Which is what the Sanders campaign had.

I tend to never believe a movement’s obituary because I don’t think our media understands social movements. They’re constantly declaring our movements dead and over – and are perennially surprised when they re-emerge.

You don’t shy away from saying how bad things could get. You also collaborated on a documentary with Alfonso Cuarón, whose dystopian filmChildren of Men is set in a near-future of authoritarian states where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps. Would it be naïve to dismiss that as science fiction? 

Alfonso would say the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed. Which was a quote from William Gibson who also says, ‘I’m not writing future fiction.’

The idea of this future that white liberals try to scare themselves with is both the past and the present for people of colour on this planet.

In the book, when I say things could get worse, it’s almost exclusively things that have already happened, pushed forward by people in very powerful positions within Trump’s administration like Mike Pence, who played a central role in the looting of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I’m just looking at that track record. What did Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, do after the 2008 financial crisis? He was at the centre of the profiting from foreclosures.

Their credentials – as shock doctors, as disaster capitalists – are very clear and we should take them on their record.

That’s not conspiracy theory – that’s just fact. If you deregulate the markets, they’re going to have bubbles, they’re gonna bust, you’re going to have a market crash.

If you tell the whole Muslim world that you’re at war with them, you may just have some blowback on that, right? So I think it’s worth preparing for that because we do better when we’re prepared.

Our generation looks to people like you to help navigate the past so that we can learn from it. What would be your message to a young person who wants to take action, but is scared of failure?

I see movements as this flowing river – it sort of ebbs and flows and we learn from our failures. But we don’t have a lot of time to fail right now.

It is just one of these moments. There’s this quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’ But I don’t think we’re in a fail better moment. I actually think we’re in a win moment. That’s what we have to try and do.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need is published by Allen Lane.

This article appears in Huck 61 – The No Regrets Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

The Houston flood disaster: A social crime of the American oligarchy

29 August 2017

The world is looking on in shock as Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the United States, is engulfed by flood waters. At least nine people are dead, a figure that will no doubt rise in the coming days. Thousands remain stranded, awaiting rescue. Tens of thousands have been forced to take shelter in emergency accommodations. Some of the worst rain is yet to come.

The catastrophic flooding engulfing Houston and southeast Texas is spreading to cities as far away as Dallas and Austin and threatening to once again overwhelm New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurried evacuations are being organized in cities throughout the region, as well as previously unaffected neighborhoods in Houston, where residents are being forced to abandon their homes as officials release water from overwhelmed and endangered reservoirs.

Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, an even larger and more populous metropolitan area is being turned into a scene of indescribable suffering. The countless examples of human solidarity among the victims, overwhelmingly working class and of all races, contrast starkly with the indifference and incompetence of the government and political establishment.

Like Katrina, Hurricane Harvey has lifted the lid on the ugly reality of American society, exposing colossal levels of social inequality, pervasive poverty and ruling class criminality. Behind the mindless media commentary, generally favorable to the White House and the right-wing Republican governor of Texas, and the pro-forma statements of politicians, one senses nervousness and fear that this latest demonstration of the failure of American capitalism will trigger an eruption of social indignation.

But the authorities cannot conceal their complacency and indifference. In a disgusting performance, President Donald Trump gave a press conference Monday in which he combined lavish praise for the official response to the flood disaster, calling it “incredible to watch” and a display of “cooperation and love,” with bathos about “one American family” that “hurts together and endures together.”

Reciting his scripted remarks as though he were reading the phonebook, Trump offered no proposals to relieve the suffering of the victims or provide them with money to rebuild their lives. He evaded a question about his proposal to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including steep cuts to the Federal Flood Insurance Program.

FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long on Monday gave himself and the government a blanket amnesty for their dereliction, declaring, “You could not forecast this up. You could not dream this forecast up.”

The Wall Street Journal sounded the same theme in an editorial posted Monday. “Immunity from nature’s fury,” the newspaper wrote, “is an illusion that humans cultivate until we are forced to confront that fury again. We forget the damage that storms and earthquakes can do.”

This renunciation of any responsibility for the unfolding disaster in Houston was combined with praise for the massive accumulation of wealth among the uppermost layers of society, declaring that “Complex societies can better cope with the damage if they have a reservoir of accumulated wealth” among “private sources.” Thus, according to the leading mouthpiece of Wall Street, the answer to the unfolding tragedy in Texas is the further enrichment of the financial oligarchy!

Such claims that catastrophic events like the Texas flood are inevitable “natural disasters,” and nothing can be done either to forestall, contain or manage them, are self-serving lies.

Houston is the most frequently flooded urban area in the country. Officials at the federal, state and local level were repeatedly warned by scientists and weather experts that the license given to real estate developers and speculators to pave over wetlands, as well as the government’s refusal to build proper flood defenses, was setting the city up for an unprecedented flood disaster. These warnings were ignored.

This is the 21st century, not the Dark Ages, and the United States is the richest country in the world. Four hundred years ago, the Dutch figured out how to build cities situated below sea level. The US is, moreover, home to some of the most advanced research and engineering institutes in the world. Yet supposedly no one could have anticipated or planned for the flooding of a major city on the Gulf of Mexico?

What has been done in the 12 years since Katrina to prevent more hurricane disasters? Nothing! Or, more accurately, less than nothing, because Katrina was seized on as an opportunity to treat New Orleans as virgin territory for the privatization of public assets and establishment of a free market paradise for big business, to be replicated across the country. The most overt example of this plundering operation was the dismantling of the public school system in favor of private, for-profit charter schools.

Catastrophes such as the Texas flood are social crimes, committed by a financial aristocracy that has spent the past half-century plundering the country and neglecting its social infrastructure, while accumulating unimaginable sums of personal wealth. According to the corporate-controlled media and the entire political establishment—Democrats no less than Republicans—there is no money to build up flood defenses or rebuild crumbling bridges, roads and water systems, modernize and expand public transport or provide decent schools and housing for the population.

But there are trillions of dollars stashed away in the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the rich and the super-rich. Hundreds of billions are squandered every year on the instruments of war.

The country staggers from one preventable disaster to another: Katrina in 2005, the BP oil spill in 2010, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and now Harvey. In between are countless floods, tornadoes, fires and other events that wreak havoc on working class and poor families, who are left to fend for themselves by a ruling elite drowning in its own excess.

Just as in the feudal era, when the development of society required the expropriation of the landed aristocracy, so today society must seize control of its own resources from the modern aristocracy of finance and corporate wealth. The barbarians of today, who hoard society’s wealth and say nothing can be done to address poverty, disease, war or repression, must go the way of all ruling classes that stand in the way of social progress.

It is not that society cannot afford the type of social investment needed to prevent or minimize the impact of events such as Hurricane Harvey. What society cannot afford is the rich.

It is to the working class—united across all racial, national and ethnic lines, both in the US and internationally—that the task falls of removing this monstrous obstacle to progress from the historical scene. The capitalist parasites must be expropriated, their wealth used to meet social needs, and their stranglehold over the means of production shattered to allow the rational, planned and humane development of economic and social life on the basis of socialist ownership and democratic control of industry, finance and the planet’s natural resources.

Barry Grey


Government indifference in the midst of historic Louisiana flooding


By Tom Hall
20 August 2016

As floodwaters continue to recede, the historic scale of the destruction in south Louisiana is becoming more apparent. The Red Cross calls the floods, caused by unprecedented rainfalls which began last weekend, the worst US natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which devastated much of the East Coast.

The figures for the humanitarian crisis are being constantly revised upward. At least 13 people have been killed and 40,000 homes damaged, many beyond repair. Some 30,000 people have had to be rescued from the rising waters, either trapped in their homes or stranded in their cars on the highway while trying to evacuate. More than 7,000 people remain in emergency shelters, set up at the last minute by government agencies.

A broad area encompassing 20 of the state’s 64 parishes (counties) has been declared a disaster area by the federal government, spanning from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, considered part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, westward towards Lake Charles, near the border with Texas. Many places are still flooded, almost a full week after the initial rainstorms.

Entire parishes have been almost wiped out by the floods. A spokeswoman for the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s office estimated that three quarters of the parish’s homes were a “total loss.” Livingston Parish, comprising eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge, the state capital and second largest city in the state, is home to 138,000 people. More than 15,000 people were rescued in this one parish alone, which received more than 31 inches of rain in 15 hours on Friday. In nearby Ascension Parish, to the south of Baton Rouge, which is home to 114,000 people, more than 30 percent of the homes in the parish were flooded.

While the worst of the flooding has passed in most areas, the situation is far from over. With yet more rain in the forecast for the area over the weekend, many areas where water levels had been subsiding are faced with the prospect of renewed flooding. “The problem is there is nowhere for the water to run off” in the flat terrain of south Louisiana, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service told NBC News. “In the last couple of days, we’ve had to reissue flash flood warnings in areas that had been showing improvement.”

The federal response to the disaster is a mixture of stinginess and outright indifference.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) caps its financial assistance to flood victims, according to previously set guidelines, at a paltry $33,000 per family, far less than the costs faced by those whose homes were wiped out. However, most victims will likely see only a tiny fraction of even this inadequate sum; the average payout in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and flooded 80 percent of the city of New Orleans, was a paltry $7,114, according to figures published by the Advocate newspaper.

This is all the more significant because the vast majority of the flood victims have no flood insurance, meaning they will be compelled to rely entirely on their own savings, if they have any, and upon government aid to rebuild their lives. Many areas affected by flooding lie outside of federally designated flood zones, where residents assumed that they would not need flood insurance. However, less than half of homeowners in even high-risk areas throughout the state lack flood insurance, according to FEMA.

Summing up official indifference to the plight of people whose lives have been destroyed by the floods, FEMA spokeswoman Robin Smith told the Wall Street Journal, “we’re like a life vest, not a lifeboat,” and told the newspaper that victims must look to private nonprofit groups, not the federal agency charged with responding to natural disasters, to be made whole. Some 86,000 people have already applied for help from FEMA, which has approved payouts of only $3.7 million so far, the paper noted.

The miserly aid to flood victims contrasts sharply with the virtually unlimited sums of money laid out by the federal government for the military. The Journal estimated that the total property damage from the floods could surpass $1 billion. By comparison, the Obama administration spent $80 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. The net cost of the bailout of the auto bosses, $9 billion, is four times the total in disaster grants awarded by FEMA.

The $33,000 maximum FEMA grant “is not even going to cover repairs to the structure, not to mention the entire contents of the house stacked up by the street soaking wet,” Gene Broussard, whose brother was killed in the floods, told the Wall Street Journal. “The government bails out a company or another country, and you’ve got a good section of the state of Louisiana in total loss, and you’re going to offer us $33,000 to fix up our home and replace everything?”

To make matters worse, the destruction of much of the area’s housing stock by the floods will render essentially moot FEMA’s principal form of financial aid to homeowners, temporary rental assistance designed to provide some form of housing while their homes are rebuilt. The flooding of more than 40,000 homes will likely produce the most severe housing crisis in the state since Hurricane Katrina, which forced hundreds of thousands to seek shelter in hotels or shoddily built “FEMA trailers,” or to leave the state altogether in search of housing. FEMA “can’t rely on [rental assistance],” National Public Radio noted, because “there simply aren’t habitable homes available for rent.”

The political establishment has responded to the disaster with cold indifference. Hillary Clinton announced on Facebook that she would not be traveling to Louisiana, using the lame excuse that relief efforts couldn’t “afford any distractions” created by such a visit. Her Republican opponent Donald Trump made a photo-op appearance for a few hours in the Baton Rouge area on Friday afternoon before boarding a plane for a rally in Michigan.

But the most callous response so far has come from President Barack Obama, who has refused calls to end his two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard early to travel to Louisiana. Only on Friday afternoon did the administration finally announce that Obama would visit the state next Tuesday, after he ends his vacation and returns to the White House Sunday night.

While large portions of Louisiana remained under water, Obama spent his days “letting loose, staying out til 1 at night with friends and hitting the golf course by day at the beautiful island destination,” Time magazine reported, adding that vacation cottages in the area carry a rental charge from $2,900 to $20,000 a week. Obama did, however, take an afternoon off from his vacation to attend a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, also held in Martha’s Vineyard, where a well-heeled group of 60 people paid $10,000 to $33,400 apiece.

Obama’s decision recalls the actions of George W. Bush during Hurricane Katrina. Bush initially refused to cut short his vacation at his ranch in Texas, later engaging in the infamous “fly-over” of Air Force One over New Orleans on his way back to Washington DC.

The comparison was not lost on the local media in Louisiana, where the Baton Rouge-based Advocate, concerned by the poor “optics” of this repeat performance, wrote an editorial criticizing Obama for passing his time in “a playground for the posh and well-connected,” while “Louisiana residents [languish] in flood waters.”

Obama’s evident indifference to the plight of the people of southern Louisiana is itself a political statement. It demonstrates that the response to Katrina was not motivated merely by Bush’s personal callousness or racism, but was rather an expression of the class position of the entire capitalist political establishment towards the devastating social conditions facing working people.


The Louisiana flooding—a failure of American capitalism


17 August 2016

The widespread flooding in southern Louisiana, the byproduct of unprecedented rainstorms over the weekend, is a demonstration that American society is no more prepared for a significant natural disaster in 2016 than it was 11 years ago this month, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in roughly the same area.

So far, 11 people are reported to have been killed and many thousands rendered homeless. As the Associated Press noted, “a catastrophic 48-hour torrent of rain … sent thousands of people in Louisiana scrambling for safety and left many wondering how a region accustomed to hurricanes could get caught off guard so badly.”

The flooding in the Louisiana is the latest in a long series of similar disasters to strike what is supposedly the richest country in the world. As always, the impact of natural phenomena—whether it is hurricanes, floods, tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes—reveals the stark reality of social life. Millions of people, living day to day and paycheck to paycheck, do not have the resources to deal with the financial shock caused by such events. Politicians make hollow promises and empty gestures. The media shines a brief light on people who are generally neglected and ignored. And after the immediate cause subsides, those who have been devastated are left to fend for themselves, while nothing is done to prepare for the next disaster.

While thousands of state residents, including many from New Orleans and other cities not directly affected by the flooding, flocked to the disaster zone to volunteer their services in rescuing and caring for victims, the governmental response was completely inadequate.

The Louisiana state government and the local parish (county) governments were overwhelmed by extent of the emergency and the widespread social need. At least 40,000 homes have been damaged, most of them significantly. Some 30,000 people had to be rescued, many from their vehicles as they sought to flee the flood zone.

In contrast to hurricanes, where shelters are opened in advance, there were few such facilities prepared for the impact of an unnamed low-pressure system that caused record rainfalls of up to 22 inches. By Tuesday, however, more than 11,000 people were jammed into the shelters that were hastily made available by local authorities.

State government offices were closed Monday in at least 27 parishes, nearly half of the state, and even the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge had to be evacuated temporarily as water began to enter the basement, the state government’s emergency headquarters. Tens of thousands of state residents are without electric power, and repair efforts were hampered by roads blocked by water.

The area hit by the flooding is largely rural, with some suburban and exurban development outside Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Louisiana is one of the poorest US states, and has been devastated by budget cuts under both Democratic and Republican state administrations. Roads and bridges are in poor repair—as evidenced by the large number of motorists trapped by flood waters—and emergency services, other than the National Guard, part of the US military, are badly underfunded.

The Obama administration has done little more than the Bush administration after Katrina. There were no plans for Obama to interrupt his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, although he will leave the island briefly to campaign for Hillary Clinton. He made the obligatory declaration of a federal disaster area, covering four parishes on Monday, expanded to 12 parishes on Tuesday. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said that the declaration would eventually apply to about 30 parishes, half the state.

Only a relative handful of the residents of the affected area have federal flood insurance—far fewer proportionally than in New Orleans, 10 percent compared to 40 percent. Most of the flood victims will be wiped out, with their homes and property deluged, forced to rebuild from scratch at their own expense. Once again, as during Katrina, working people are being left to their own devices, with no real social safety net to support them.

The Obama administration mobilized trillions in resources when the financial aristocracy faced disaster on Wall Street in 2009. It spends lavishly on the military-intelligence apparatus, nearly a trillion dollars every year. But aid for the flood victims in Louisiana will be doled out stingily, just as it has been for those hit by flooding in West Virginia, Maryland and Texas, or by other weather events such as tornadoes, drought and mudslides.

The pathetic federal response also exposes the fraudulent character of the “war on terror,” now approaching the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Vast resources have been squandered on “counterterrorism,” the build-up of the forces of the state and emergency planning. But when a genuine emergency hits—one, moreover, that was fully predictable—the enormous state apparatus yawns and turns its back.

There is an additional element in the latest natural disaster. More than any previous such event, it is linked directly to climate change. A report on the New York Times web site Tuesday noted that the weekend downpour in Louisiana was the eighth event in the past 15 months that exceeded scientific predictions of events occurring only once every 500 years, or with a 0.2 percent probability.

Dr. David Easterling, an official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who spoke with the Times, said reports that as much as 31 inches of rain have fallen on parts of Louisiana in the past week were “pretty staggering,” the type of event that would occur only once every 1,000 years. The article continued, “Dr. Easterling said that those sorts of estimates were predicated on the idea that the climate was stable, a principle that has become outdated.”

July was the warmest month ever recorded, following a June that was the warmest June on record. The higher the air temperature, the greater the capacity of the air to store water vapor, and the greater potential downpour in the event that water vapor turns into rain.

How would a society based on rational planning and social need, rather than private profit, respond to such a crisis?

The resources of the society, including manpower, skilled emergency responders and basic necessities like shelter, clothing and food, would be fully mobilized and available in vast quantities as soon as required. Advance planning would ensure that regions particularly susceptible to such disasters, like the low-lying, swampy terrain of southern Louisiana, would receive special attention. And every effort would be made to adapt the technological processes of society to the scientific understanding of the driving forces of climate change, by reducing fossil fuel use and other emissions contributing to global warming.

Such a response would be the mirror opposite of the chaotic, unplanned and thoroughly indifferent response of American capitalist society to the latest natural disaster. It would only be possible under a socialist, planned economy controlled democratically by the working class.

Patrick Martin


Disaster capitalism is a permanent state of life for too many Americans

According to the Department of Homeless Services, the number of homeless people in New York City has risen by more than 20,000 over the past five years. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the United States, disaster has become our most common mode of life. Proof that our daily existence was something other than a simmering, smoldering disaster has been historically held somewhat at bay by the myth that hard work equals some kind of subsistence living. For the more deluded amongst us, this ‘American dream’ even got us to believe we could be something called ‘middle class’. We were deceived.

For those not yet woke, I don’t see how y’all can stay asleep when story after story proves how screwed we are.

The New York Post, no bastion of bleeding heart liberalism, reported on Monday that “Hundreds of full-time city workers are homeless”. These are people who clean our trash and make our city, the heart of American capitalism, safe and livable, including for those who plunder the globe from Wall Street. These are men and women, living in shelters and out of their cars, who have government jobs – the kind of workers conservatives love to paint as greedy, gluttonous pigs.

When a full time government worker can’t “find four walls and a roof to call his own” in the city he serves, we are living in a perpetual state of disaster capitalism.

Across the country, the San Francisco Chronicle told the tale of the “Tech bus drivers forced to live in cars to make ends meet”. It’s arguable whether living in your car can really be considered “making ends meet”, but what can you expect of a newspaper serving a city where tech is supposed to answer all of our needs. Where housing is even more stupidly expensive than in New York City.

This, too, is perpetual disaster capitalism, creating havoc and inflicting disaster upon individual souls for corporate greed without even needing the pretense of a crisis for an excuse.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein defined “disaster capitalism” as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities”. She was riffing on neoconservatives using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for a New Orleans land grab. She witnessed the same phenomenon in the 2004 Asian Tsunami and in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.

The concept of public plunder after disaster has been embraced in similar linguistic terms by Democrats and Republicans alike. Condoleezza Rice famouslycalled 9/11 an “enormous opportunity”, and indeed it was a profitable one, for war contractors anyway. Similarly, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. Emanuel was good to his word. While American workers lost their jobs, lost their homes and even took their own lives as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown, the Obama White House instituted financial “reforms” that arrested no Wall Street executives, and left even Forbes predicting “ten reasons why there will be another systematic financial crisis”.

When our daily life is one of a state of chaos – and with hundreds slaughtered by police annually, and folks who work full time unable to stave off homelessness, and white anchors shot on live TV, and black worshippers shot up in church, and incarcerated victims behind bars “taking their own lives” daily, it’s hard to say that it’s not – the continuous state of disaster justifies disaster capitalism continuously, and we’re barely able to notice it, and powerless to stop it.

We live in such an interminable state of disaster, we barely see the locusts for the plague. Take the other major sad story this week: that Silicon Valley investor Martin Shkrelli has bought the drug Daraprim, raising its price 5,000%. No crisis necessitated this increase. The drug is 62 years old, and its initial costs had long ago been absorbed.

It’s easy to be angry at Shkrelli, his smug smile and his greedy choices that may well equal the deaths of those priced out from the malaria, Aids and cancer medicine they need. But Shkrelli is just a tool. He lives in a world where disaster capitalism will reward him. He now says he will make the drug “more affordable,” but the richest nation on earth can’t stop him from deciding what “affordable” will mean. He may repulse us, but he represents our American way of disastrous living. Disaster capitalism no longer just reacts to chaos for profit, or even creates chaos for profit. It creates the conditions by which the spectre of social, spiritual and biological death hang over our heads on a daily basis so oppressively, the crises become seamless.

And it asks us to accept that when you work full time driving workers to the richest corporation in the history of the human race and must live in your car, you should be grateful that you’re “making ends meet”, keep calm and carry on.


Dodging potholes in New Orleans: 10 years after Katrina

By Hannah Bonner On August 31, 2015

Post image for Dodging potholes in New Orleans: 10 years after KatrinaWhile the richer parts of New Orleans have mostly recovered, the Lower Ninth Ward is still in disrepair and has lost more than half of its residents.

“New Orleans is an illusion,” says local Lower NinthWard resident and writer J.F. “Smitty” Smith. “There’s the reality of New Orleans and the illusion of New Orleans. Most of what you see is the illusion.” A local mother of two in a snow cone line in Tulane reiterates Smitty’s words when she acknowledges, “New Orleans has many layers.”

It’s impossible not to notice how the sediment of New Orleans has settled post-Hurricane Katrina. Not just literally in the marshes and wetlands, but also figuratively in the sifting of culture and reconstruction. Walking through the tourist destinations of Bourbon Street or the French Quarter, Hurricane Katrina has been re-appropriated into a silver ring in the shape of a wave from the storm or a colorful photograph of oaks and cypress trees submerged in sable water.

Yet, upon entering the Lower Ninth Ward, after you pass by Brad Pitt’s (in)famous Make It Right-homes and drive deep into the grid of crumbling houses still branding X-codes, trash heaped in abandoned lots, and the potholes (that force one to drive under ten miles an hour simply to avoid bottoming out), you see the side of New Orleans that does not decorate the pages of a Conde Nast travel magazine. Ironically, it’s the part of the city that is in dire need of visibility and exposure beyond the alcohol fueled haze of Bourbon Street.

This tension between reality and fiction is teased out in Trouble the Water, a 2008-documentary film that follows a New Orleans couple’s struggle for survival after the levees broke. The couple, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts, capture candid, first person footage of the storm’s aftermath juxtaposed with New Orleans’ tourism center’s glossy promotional video of po-boys, brass bands, and alligators – the smiling, sparkling jazz singer in the video deflects and underscores the harsh realities that pervade New Orleans.

Harsh realities such as those parts of the Ninth Ward that are still in shambles and the wetlands that continue to erode at a dramatic rate (erosion the size of a football field, on average, every hour), with nary any national coverage in sight. While Barbara Bush may have believed in 2005 that the people of New Orleans “had it better” sleeping in NOLA’s airport in the days after the storm, there could be a loud collective agreement that many never had it better – and still don’t.

Visual reminders, ongoing neglect

The government census shows that as of July 1, 2014, the Orleans Parish of Louisiana had a total population of 384,320 – nearly 60 percent of which were black or African American, by far and away the largest demographic based on race alone, with white at 35 percent and Asian in third with just over 3 percent.According to the Data Center, “ten years after Katrina, more than half (40) of New Orleans’ 72 neighborhoods have recovered over 90 percent of the population they had before the levees failed.” However, the Lower Ninth Ward is one of four neighborhoods that has “less than half the population they had prior to Katrina.”

Previously, the Lower Ninth Ward — mostly African American working class — had one of the highest home ownership rates in the city. The lack of urgency in repairing the neighborhood in lieu of its high home ownership rates and the fact that many have still not returned after their initial displacement, suggests an institutional racism at work in the city’s (and country’s) historical epicenter. In the days and months after racially fraught events in Baltimore, Charleston, and McInney, TX, it sadly comes as no surprise that the violence of racism isn’t just in our churches or at our pool parties – it’s in the very topography and architecture of our country.

The visual reminders of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s ongoing neglect are a constant in the Ninth Ward: from painted street signs proclaiming “This is a neighborhood, not a trash dump”, the deplorable roads (evocative of a developing country), to the eerie silence that descends with the gloam of evening in what used to be an area known for its pot-lucks and collective community, not its poverty. The specters of our negligence waft through the air.

Toni McGee Causey confirms this immediate neglect in the days following the hurricane in his story “Where Grace Lives”, from the collectionDo You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?. He writes:

I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our federal government did not ‘know’ the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there?

Acclaimed writers Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon probe these faulty blue prints of our socio-economic and political system in their respective books Men We Reaped (2013) and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America(2013), as does Smitty in his first book Exiled in Paradise (2012) and director Spike Lee in the chilling four part requiem-like documentary When the Levees Broke (2006).

But words cease to console when your home is in disrepair and the country where you’re supposedly a citizen (though many were labeled “refugees” in the initial weeks after the storm and those who traversed Gretna Bridge to escape from the Convention Center were turned away by police officers with guns and snarling dogs, unable to walk into another district on American soil) does nothing to rebuild, restore, or recover your home, your job, your livelihood, your history.

Dodging potholes

Thom Pepper, the executive director of Common Ground Relief, moved from Miami to New Orleans fourteen months after the storm hit. Common Ground’s approach of working with and among the community as well as the services it provides were a major draw for Pepper, as was the city itself that reminds him of “Miami in the 70s.” Common Ground was an essential organization for a lot of the reconstruction of the Lower Ninth Ward (including local legend Fats Domino’s house). Yet, today, Thom would argue that the biggest problems of New Orleans are “policing and potholes.”

In his book 1 Dead in Attic (2006) Chris Rose describes the potholes, trash, and refrigerators that festered and proliferated in the months and year after Hurricane Katrina. He notes:

on many streets, refrigerators are duct-taped shut and lined up along the curbside, calling to mind nothing so much as the image of empty Mardi Gras parade ladders all in a row. All these structures, just waiting for something to happen. Only problem is, there are no cleanup crews following these imaginary paragraphs to remove the debris. So they stand, sturdy sentinels, fortress walls. We should rename the streets around here Whirlpool Way, Amana Avenue, and Kenmore Court, because that’s what it looks like. The streets are paved in appliances. Where trees once stood, they are sometimes the only shade on a block. Where are they going to put all these things? I don’t suppose they can be used to buttress our wetlands as they do with discarded Christmas trees every year, huh? Do we even have any wetlands?

This passage, written only a few months after the storm, feels tragically current. “There’s a lot of debris down here,” Pepper says, referring to the Lower Ninth.  “Since July 2012 we have probably picked up 400 cubic yards of illegally dumped material not including another 1000 illegally dumped tires. Contractors are doing demolitions of houses all over the city and rather than going to the dump, they bring the debris to the Lower Ninth. We’ve been yelling at the city to come down here and pick this stuff up for years.”

While Pepper acknowledges that the city has “gotten a lot better, it’s really only been in the past year that they’ve developed these hot sheets that you can fill out and give to the police department reporting the location of dumped waste.” He pauses and then adds, “that’s almost ten years after Katrina.”

Now we can not only dodge potholes, but also fill them with various paraphernalia as actor Steve Zahn comically does on HBO’s Treme – the contractors’ waste becomes Zahn’s artistic fodder and our neighborhood detritus. Sans cable TV, the joke wears thin.

The stars we need

Filmmaker, rapper, speaker, and New Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts (aka BlackKoldMadina with Born Hustler Records) adds, “New Orleans needs more programs that target low income families – that educate them and help them get jobs. That’s the real problem.”

While Common Ground aims to do this through its work with local residencies and school programs and Roberts through her motivational and inspiring talks (and informative soon-to-be released documentary Fear No Gumbo), there still aren’t enough resources (or money) to reach all the people in need and the endangered environment of New Orleans – or, at least, that’s what the government’s continued inaction would suggest.

In late June, dining on the epicurean appetites of Southern cuisine (red beans and rice with sausage), the sun sets low on the brow of the river in the NinthWard, partially obscured by the concrete levees. A few Cyprus stumps rise from the brackish water, mere shadows of their former selves. The hum of mosquitos still swells in the onset of dusk. The yucca bushes flare.

As the light seeps out and Fats Waller wafts through the air, one can’t help recall another line from Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? when resident Strangebone was asked about the post-Katrina sky. “You’re able to see the stars,” he replied. “It’s wonderful.” Somewhere in the city there is violence and heartache and a band blaring and a red plastic cup frothing with beer. But there are also still the stars, immutable and visible – for some, that’s all we have, for some, that’s all we need.

Hannah Bonner is an MA Film Studies student at the University of Iowa. She has an essay on her trip to Nepal forthcoming in Misadventures Magazine: A Women’s Outdoor and Adventure Magazine.