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Hurricane Rita exposes capitalists’ lack of planning

Published Sep 29, 2005 9:31 PM

The Bush administration and local and state authorities of the areas in the path of Hurricane Rita are trumpeting the government’s response this time around. But the same inherent problems under capitalism have been ever more clearly unveiled with this latest storm—even though it was only a category 3 hurricane when it made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around 3 a.m. on Sept. 24.

The Bush administration was already reeling from a majority disapproval rating due to the imperialist debacle in Iraq. It teetered further after the rising din resulting from the criminal negligence that led to massive suffering and loss of life in New Orleans. Officially there are 1,100 deaths from Hurricane Katrina, but the count is not over yet.

Federal, state and local authorities are dancing to a faint tune. Hurricane Rita weakened considerably before making landfall. However, the problems remained.

It is not simply ineptitude that led to the massive loss of life along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina. It is indeed criminal negligence, but can be understood best by an analysis of capitalist society, especially during powerful natural occurrences that become disasters for workers and poor people.

Many poor in the path of Rita, too, were forced to wait the storm out. Though the numbers were not as large as in Katrina, the demographics were the same. Poor and mostly people of color had no means of escape. Of course, Texas is a much different area, with a greater proportion of white people, but there are still many people of color, especially in the Houston area.

Traffic leading from Houston was stalled for 15 hours, stretching nearly 100 miles. There were gas shortages and people were forced to camp out on the highways, not knowing how their situation would be remedied. No plan was put in place to provide gas after deliveries were stopped, and lines at gas stations grew to be blocks long as frustrated evacuees grew impatient and angry.

“‘This is the worst planning I’ve ever seen,’ said Julie Anderson, who covered just 45 miles in 12 hours after setting out from her home in the Houston suburb of La Porte. ‘They say we’ve learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn’t prove it by me.’” (Houston Chronicle, Sept. 22)

The refineries in Houston shut down just at the peak time of demand for gas. Fort Bend County Judge Bob Herbert had told the Chronicle, “The state refuses to help us get any fuel, so we can’t help get folks off the road.… So I’m afraid we are going to have more people die in their cars.”

The traffic jam out of Houston had to stretch 100 miles before the authorities decided to make inbound lanes into outbound—despite a previous study showing the importance of such a measure.

Poor people in low-lying areas were told to call 311 for help. Over 10,000 people called. While buses were sent, people were still told they needed to count on family, friends and neighbors. Mayor Bill White “reiterated that there is no safe place to go in low-lying areas and there won’t be shelters in the city,” according to the Chronicle.

Poor people, unable to leave, were calling the city for shelters. “I done call for a shelter, I done called for help. There ain’t none. No one answers,” said Wilma Skinner.

Thomas Visor, “holding his sweaty paycheck” as he stood on a line of more than 100 people outside a check-cashing store that had just run out of cash, said, “All the banks are closed and I just got off work.… How are you supposed to evacuate a hurricane if you don’t have any money?”

The Greyhound bus company ran out of buses. The airport was totally jammed because there was no evacuation plan. And there was no plan to house people. “New Orleans native Janice Armstrong, an evacuee of Hurricane Katrina … was turned out of her downtown motel,” so the 45-year-old teaching assistant had to struggle to find a cab to go pick up her daughter and two of her grandchildren and try to get out of town.

USA Today wrote on Sept. 25, “If a successful emergency evacuation involves 100-mile highway backups, motorists running out of gas and water, widespread road rage and the death of 23 seniors in a freak bus accident, what would a failure look like?”

People in the path of Rita were more affluent on the average than those in the path of Katrina, to be sure, and that is what led to the evacuations being as large as they were. However, even though 3 million people were able to escape, many could not, and there were no government preparations for orderly traffic.

Though more government attention was focused on Rita, the anger was still seething as people began to feel left alone in the snarled traffic that stretched for miles. Many waited in their cars until the storm blew over.

Hurricane Rita showed that the authorities have no plans in times of disasters, and that this government is more worried about the costs of evacuation than developing a strategy.

The government is more focused on imperialist plunder than providing for the needs of people, and this will become clearer as the capitalist crisis deepens. Category four and five hurricanes have increased from 10 years ago, due to the warming of the oceans, and this has been well documented.

Workers and the poor here cannot expect that a capitalist U.S. government will ever develop the drills and preparedness on the level of a socialist country like Cuba. It is not profitable to prepare the populace for occurrences of nature, to minimize the needless loss of life. Even at its best, the evacuation from Rita was fraught with negligence and failures, from the traffic jams, to there not being nearly enough space in shelters and housing, to there not being gas, food or water—not even for those who could afford it.

It is time to demand more money be spent to rebuild New Orleans, to reestablish the coastal marsh and to rebuild levees that can withstand even the strongest hurricane. Also, workers and the poor all over the U.S. must demand that money be poured into a disaster preparedness strategy that works.