Who killed New Orleans?

Questions for an autopsy

I RECENTLY spent a week in New Orleans and southern Louisiana with my colleague Anthony Fontenot interviewing relief workers, community activists, urban planners, artists, and rank-and-file folks. Even as the latest floodwaters from Hurricane Rita recede, the city remains submerged in anger and frustration. The only things that have returned to “normal” are police brutality and elite intrigues against the city’s Black majority.
Indeed, the most toxic debris in New Orleans isn’t the sinister grayish-brown sludge that coats the streets of Treme and the Ninth Ward, but all the unanswered questions that have accumulated in the wake of so much official betrayal and hypocrisy. Where outsiders see simple “incompetence” or “failure of leadership,” locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and planned neglect—the murder not the accidental death of a great city.

In rather random order, here is a revised list of twenty-five of the urgent questions that deeply trouble the local people with whom we spoke and who continue to correspond with us. Until answers—and in most cases, indictments and structural reforms—are forthcoming, the moral (as opposed to simply physical) reconstruction of the New Orleans region will remain impossible.

1. Levees: Separate but unequal? Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal only break on the New Orleans side and not on the Metairie side? Was this the result of neglect and poor maintenance by New Orleans’ authorities, or negligent construction overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers? Likewise, all of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial Canal were drowned, except for the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District along Chef Menteur Highway. Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods?

2. Hit and run. Who owned the giant barge that was catapulted through the wall of the Industrial Canal, leading to the deaths of hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward? Why hasn’t a criminal investigation been launched?

3. Fatal delay. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, in defiance of his own official disaster plan, delay twelve to twenty-four hours in ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city? And why did Michael Chertoff—the CEO of Homeland Security, Inc. and FEMA’s ultimate boss—also dither for a full day before declaring Katrina an “incident of national significance”—the legal requirement for a full federal mobilization?

4. Not even the back of the bus. Previous studies and the trial run of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 had shown that one-quarter of the population lacked the means to leave the city. Why, then, were the more than 350 buses of the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority not used to evacuate infirm, poor, and carless residents from the city? (The buses instead drowned where they were parked.) Likewise, there is a famous train called the “City of New Orleans”—why didn’t Mayor Nagin take up Amtrak’s offer to evacuate some residents by rail?

5. Conflict of interest. The chair of the transportation authority, appointed by Mayor Nagin, is Jimmy Reiss, the wealthy leader of the New Orleans Business Council and vociferous advocate of reducing poverty and crime by pushing the poor out of the city limits. What was Reiss’s exact role in the failure to evacuate the carless or ill quarter of the population?

6. Left behind. Why were patients at private hospitals, like Tulane, evacuated by helicopter while their counterparts at the Charity Hospital were left to suffer and die? Why had the city neglected to conduct any census of handicapped and infirm people who would need help evacuating?

7. Attempted murder. Why were Orleans Parish prisoners initially left in their cells to drown, and later, after transfer to state facilities, repeatedly brutalized by local and out-of-state prison guards? Why were people incarcerated for days and even weeks beyond the end of their sentences?

8. Cajuns not FEMA. Where were FEMA’s several dozen elite urban search-and-rescue teams? Aside from some courageous work by Coast Guard helicopter crews, the early rescue effort was largely mounted by volunteers—many from Acadiana—who towed their boats into the city after hearing an appeal on television. FEMA has subsequently claimed false credit for these rescues.

9. Superdome hell. Was the failure to adequately pre-position food, potable water, toilets, cots, and medicine at the Louisiana Superdome and the Morial Convention Center a policy decision? Nagin seemed obsessed by the fear that local people would stay in the Superdome, rather than leave the city, if conditions were made more humane.

10. Throwing away the jambalaya. The French Quarter district obviously has one of the highest densities of restaurants in the nation. Once the acute shortages of food and water at the Superdome and Convention Center were known, why didn’t officials requisition supplies from hotels and restaurants located just a few blocks away? In the event, mountains of food were left to rot in dumpsters.

11. Blackouts. City Hall’s emergency command center had to be abandoned early in the crisis because its generator supposedly ran out of diesel fuel. Likewise, many critical care patients died from heat or equipment failure after hospital backup generators failed. Why were supplies of diesel fuel so inadequate? Why were so many hospital generators located in basements that would obviously flood?

12. The Pentagon. Why wasn’t the USS Bataan—a state-of-the-art hospital ship that was already cruising offshore—not immediately ordered into New Orleans? Similarly, why didn’t the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard immediately airdrop life preservers and rubber rafts in flooded districts? What was shock-and-awe Rumsfeld’s role in the crisis? (He commands the cavalry.)

13. Red Cross. Why give to the Red Cross? The mega-charity harvested more than 75 percent of Katrina-related donations (more than $1.3 billion) but was AWOL in many of smaller Louisiana towns that have mounted the most impressive relief efforts. The Black-majority town of Ville Platte, for instance, has at one time or another fed and housed more than 5,000 evacuees, but the Red Cross—along with FEMA—rebuffed almost daily appeals by the local relief coordinator to send personnel and aid. Likewise, there have been scathing reports of the Red Cross’s refusal to cooperate with Black churches in Atlanta where there are 50,000 evacuees.

14. Gentrifying arson? Who is responsible for the suspicious fires that have swept the city? Why have so many fires occurred in areas that have long been targets of gentrification, such as the Section 8 homes on Constance Street in the Lower Garden District or the wharfs along the river in Bywater?

15. Bad neighbors. Why isn’t the Justice Department investigating the Jim Crow-like response of the suburban Gretna police who turned back hundreds of desperate New Orleans citizens trying to walk across the Mississippi River bridge: a scene reminiscent of another outrage on a bridge in Selma in 1965?

16. Evictions. Why have authorities failed to prevent landlords, in defiance of an order by the governor, from evicting tenants and implementing astronomical rent hikes? Why has the Housing Authority of New Orleans failed to provide any reassurances to its tenants? New Orleans’ Black majority is, in turn, composed of a majority of renters: they can’t return to the city unless affordable rental housing or homeownership exists.

17. Goodbye mom and pop. By the eighth week, the Small Business Administration had still only made a handful of loans. It is estimated that a third of the restaurants in the city will never reopen and 30,000 of 70,000 businesses face bankruptcy. Much of the African-American middle class may face extinction, along with New Orleans’ three heavily damaged Black universities.

18. The Ninth Ward. Why is there so much high-level talk about abandoning most of the Ninth Ward as uninhabitable when no one is proposing to turn equally inundated Lakeview back into a swamp? Is it because Lakeview is a wealthy white community? And/or because the 30,000 reliably Democratic Black votes in the Ninth Ward control the balance of power in Louisiana politics?

19. No jobs for locals. Several historians have contrasted the response to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—when blue-collar workers and their families were housed in tent cities in Golden Gate Park and promptly employed at union scale in reconstruction—with the chaotic dispersal of New Orleans’ inhabitants. Why weren’t temporary shelters established in Audubon Park and other unflooded parts of Uptown, where locals could be employed immediately as clean-up crews?
Likewise, why was the Davis-Bacon Act suspended and local unionized workers fired in order to bring in non-union laborers from Texas? Why have thousands of New Orleans city workers and school employees, as well as their counterparts in St. Bernard Parish, been laid off without a peep from Baton Rouge or the Beltway? Will New Orleans be allowed to sink into bankruptcy so that its public-sector unions are destroyed?

20. The Brown peril. Some conservative writers openly championing a “population swap” substituting minimum-wage Latino immigrants for New Orleans’ traditional Black and Latino service workforce. But how can anyone endorse the idiocy that “there is not enough labor to rebuild the city, and filling the vacuum are the Hispanics,” (Tulane academic quoted in the October 10 Los Angeles Times) when evacuees are not being allowed to return to their homes or offered the opportunity to rebuild the city at a living wage? And what game is Mayor Nagin playing when he tells the Associated Press: “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”

21. Coup d’état. Why was New Orleans’ elected city council supplanted by the private government of Mayor Nagin and the “Forty Thieves”—the prominent and mainly white businessmen, convened by Jimmy Reiss, who met with the mayor in Dallas in early September, to discuss how the city would be rebuilt?

22. Sweethearts. Why did labor and civil-rights leaders allow the Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act—introduced in the U.S. Senate by Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter—to be almost entirely written by lobbyists for energy utilities, oil refiners, law enforcement, and the shipping interests?

23. Like father like son? President Bush made heroic if vague promises of “rebuilding New Orleans” in his Jackson Square speech, but so did his father in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles revolt when he vowed that government had “an absolute responsibility to solve inner-city problems.” If Senior quickly reneged on his promise to take “swift action to bring relief to the nation’s cities,” why trust Junior? The administration has already fought tooth and nail against a bipartisan bill to extend Medicaid coverage to all needy Katrina victims.

24. Looters. Does that mean that Republicans won’t be showering greenbacks on Mississippi and Louisiana? The answer is obvious: No, lots of money will be spent, but not to rehouse or re-employ poor citizens of New Orleans. The Republican strategy is to richly reward their corporate political base with Baghdad-scale loot while financing “reconstruction” with a proposed $50 billion retrenchment in medical care and food stamps for the poor. Moreover, as the New York Times recently pointed out, the “biggest beneficiaries” of the proposed tax cuts and “opportunity zones” will be “companies from outside the devastated areas that have big federal contracts to carry out cleanup and reconstruction work.”

25. Ethnic cleansing. Is there any cogent reason to believe that the Bush administration and the New Orleans Business Council aren’t brazenly collaborating to shrink the city’s Black Democratic population, wreck its unions, and create a pliable social foundation for a recharged, new urbanistic “heritage and gambling” economy based on postmodern slave labor? (Don’t think Las Vegas—it’s a union-shop, living-wage town—think instead of Nevada’s number two gambling center, Laughlin, an open-shop hell hole.)

I know, conspiracy theories are vulgar Marxism, but I recently received an e-mail from someone who combines progressive political sympathies with a zest for real-estate profiteering. He was talking with one of the city’s major players, someone with ties to both big oil and the leading old-guard, Krewe of Rex Bank: “He told me [relates my contact] that it is his understanding that the Rove/ Cheney guys have decided to kill the city through starving/ delaying the cash flow, and then rebuild it under their control and in their image.” Familiar plot? Sounds like the story of another river city wrecked and looted by the Bush administration.

Writer, historian, and activist Mike Davis is the author of many books, including City of Quartz, The Ecology of Fear, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, just published by The New Press, and Planet of Slums, forthcoming from Verso Books. Davis teaches in the Department of History at the University of California at Irvine, and lives in San Diego. This article is adapted from an article originally co-authored with Anthony Fontenot.