Sandy and Katrina: What makes them different

By on December 16, 2012

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said, “Superstorm Hurricane Sandy caused more property damage and affected a greater number of people than Katrina.” The Nov. 26 New York Daily News took his remarks even further in an article entitled “In push for $42B in federal aid, New York pols say Hurricane Sandy worse than Katrina.”

Cuomo’s remarks about hurricanes Sandy and Katrina constitute a new level of racism in the “Empire State” by completely leaving out the human cost of each crisis.

More than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina and the resulting floods. One million people were displaced — indeed, forcibly removed — from the Gulf Coast in 2005. Some 93 percent of those who had to go to shelters were African American. National Guard, police and Blackwater agents put many people on buses at gunpoint. Families were separated, placed on buses with different destinations, spread over 46 states. (See Loyola University Professor Bill Quigley’s slide presentation on “Katrina, Racism and Catholic Social Teaching” at tinyurl.com/dywonfh.)

An estimated 100,000 people have not been able to make their way back to the Gulf area. Those who did return have lost homes and property due to bank and landlord takeovers.

Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, which put billions of tax dollars in corporate pockets, were full of cancer-causing formaldehyde. Millions of dollars of food was locked in Red Cross warehouses and never distributed to Katrina survivors.

What Cuomo left out in comparing Sandy to Katrina was condemnation of the capitalist system, which puts profits before people. This is why crews were ordered to light up Wall Street within two days of the flooding, while residents in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island were left without electricity or services for weeks.

Although there have been abundant warnings about the dangers from aging infrastructure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers neglected to repair the Gulf levees and New York State neglected to prepare for serious flooding, strengthen natural barriers or even clear out drains.

Warning to public housing residents

Residents of public housing should be warned about what happened after Katrina: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans destroyed five housing projects once the residents were evacuated, displacing more people from structures that were sound. Is this in store for tenants in Red Hook, Far Rockaway, Staten Island and Chelsea?

According to Rosa Maria de la Torre of the Chelsea Coalition on Housing, “This is a very dangerous time. HUD Secretary Donovan invited two groups to discuss plans for moving displaced people to vacant apartments: the misnamed Rent Stabilization Association — a landlord lobby — and the New York Real Estate Board. These talks completely exclude tenants’ rights groups and Legal Aid lawyers, who are worried that the nature of the leases could result in rent deregulation and the long-term loss of affordable housing.”

Cuomo issued an executive order to dismiss the contractual standards for school bus drivers and vehicles in the post-Sandy period (governor.ny.gov/executiveorder/65). Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina the New Orleans teachers’ union was decertified, and 69 percent of public schools were taken over by charter corporations, all with government help.

In both disasters, the most reliable source of support for survivors has been the solidarity shown by tens of thousands of regular people, often members of community, church, union, Occupy, or other mass organizations. Whether opening up their homes, donating clothing and cash, providing health screenings, or going door to door to give out water, they applied people power when the government failed to protect us.

Of course, there should be full government funding for the reconstruction of New York State and New Jersey. What’s needed now is a guarantee of people power: Namely, that the same community organizations, labor unions, tenant groups and others which have shown genuine leadership be included in planning how to solve the problems and rebuild to prevent future problems.

Those most affected by Hurricane Sandy have the strongest will to ensure that workers who perform cleanup tasks have protective gear and real training that can lead them to permanent jobs with union benefits, as opposed to getting a few months’ pay but becoming ill for the rest of their lives.

Johnnie Stevens is a co-founder of the New York Solidarity Coalition with Katrina/Rita Survivors. He has compiled 100 hours of video interviews, much of them from September 2005, with Katrina survivors in Louisiana, Texas and New York State.

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