Gulf region still gripped by crisis

NEW ORLEANS — Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated this region, and as they begin a valiant struggle to rebuild, people here are still fuming that the Bush administration was so tardy in coming to their aid.

“I heard my mayor begging for help,” said Robert Mitchell as he and his fellow crewmembers raked debris on Royal Street in the French Quarter. “Yet three days after this Category Five hurricane hit, where was the help? There was no help.”

Mitchell was toiling in the hot sun amid reeking mounds of garbage. He lives on the West Bank, a part of New Orleans mostly spared from the floodwaters but damaged by the winds. “The head of FEMA knew this storm was coming, but he was on vacation. The hurricane couldn’t be avoided. But the death and misery afterward could have been avoided. There was no relief.”

In a four-day tour of the hurricane zone — from Houston to Baton Rouge and on to New Orleans — this reporter and traveling companion Sam Webb, chairman of the Communist Party USA, did not hear a kind word for the leadership of FEMA or any other top Bush administration official.

Webb said, “The harrowing stories that people told brought home so hard the irresponsibility and criminality of the Bush administration. To make people’s lives livable, it will take the full commitment of the federal government and a people’s watchdog committee.”

The scope of the catastrophe is enormous: an estimated 1 million people homeless, 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast in ruins, 293,000 houses destroyed or damaged, and a death toll of more than 600 that is rising daily.

The U.S. Forestry Service opened a field kitchen in the French Quarter where we stopped for breakfast the morning of Sept. 12. It was crowded with National Guard and 82nd Airborne troops, firefighters, medics and utility workers from across the nation. Paratroopers are going door to door in still-flooded neighborhoods, searching for the dead. On Sept. 11, they finally reached Memorial Hospital and recovered at least 45 bodies. Earlier, rescue crews found an additional 34 bodies in the St. Rita Nursing Home.

One EMS medic from Ashtabula County, Ohio, gave us hepatitis and tetanus shots, reflecting the grave danger of disease from the foul slime engulfing the city. “Bush says the head of FEMA did a ‘heck of a job,’” he said. “Five of the top eight positions in FEMA are held by people who are unqualified. That’s criminal!” he told the World. “There has been a massive misallocation of resources here.”

Sitting nearby was Javier Rosado, one of a handful of people who refused to evacuate. “I’ve got bottled water, canned food and a portable generator. I’m a survivor.”

“I’m from Puerto Rico,” he said. “Once we had three hurricanes in seven days. FEMA could have saved a lot of lives if they had sent in the military earlier. When Ivan struck Florida last year, the military was there, FEMA came in handing out money. But here 80 percent of the population is Black.” Indeed, FEMA halted a program of handing out debit cards with $2,000 in cash, forcing the victims to fill out pages of paperwork to apply for financial aid.

The grim discovery at Memorial Hospital overshadowed President George W. Bush’s New Orleans Sept. 12 visit. Bush was staying on the Iwo Jima, an airborne assault carrier moored just down river. “Bush’s role in this really sucks,” Rosado said. “I regret to say I voted for him.”

On his return to the White House, Bush held an East Room press conference and admitted “personal responsibility” for the botched federal response. He also accepted the resignation of FEMA Director Michael Brown.

Gwen Knight, a volunteer from San Diego, was on duty at the field kitchen serving paper plates heaped with scrambled eggs, ham and hash browns. She gestured to the empty, silent restaurants on Decatur Street. “They’re usually full of people,” she said. “Now it’s like a ghost town and we’re the only restaurant open in New Orleans. I dropped everything and volunteered to come here. We’re going to be here 30 days, and longer if we are needed. We did the same during a big wildfire in Nevada, feeding all the forest firefighters.”

In Jackson Square, a crew of 20 Navajo forest firefighters from Fort Defiance, Ariz., was cutting up downed oaks and magnolias with chain saws. “This is a really historic part of New Orleans,” said the crew leader, Marvin Sanderson. “We are trying to preserve as many as possible of the trees that are still alive. The last disaster we worked was the forest fire in the Cave Creek complex in North Phoenix.”

Fashionable Canal Street with its Saks Fifth Avenue, Shell Oil tower, Hyatt Regency, Hilton and other luxury hotels was a scene of devastation, the streets littered with broken glass, downed power lines and an ooze that coated the pavement. But reconstruction is already in high gear. The streets were clogged with police cruisers, National Guard Humvees and cherry-picker utility trucks that have poured in from across the nation.

The Bush administration has already doled out a $100 million reconstruction contract to the Shaw Group, a wealthy construction firm. Shaw is handing out flyers at shelters asking engineers, electricians and other skilled workers to apply for jobs. Next in line are Bechtel, Fluor and Halliburton, all with close crony ties to the Bush administration. The administration has announced it will nullify the Davis-Bacon Prevailing Wage Act in the Gulf region to insure even heftier profits for these giant construction firms.

From the elevated expressway that loops around the West Bank, we observed an eerie spectacle: miles of working-class and poor neighborhoods without a human being in sight, nothing moving, no traffic, some of them still flooded. We drove past miles of wrecked stores, shopping malls and service stations, all empty. What will be done to rebuild these neighborhoods so the people can return?

Thomas Garner, a lifelong New Orleans resident and an employee of an insurance company, had at least part of an answer. He was sitting in front of a television with scores of other evacuees at the Red Cross Shelter in Baton Rouge.

The underdog New Orleans Saints had just defeated the Carolina Panthers on a field goal in the last seven seconds. “After all we’ve been through, it was an inspiration that they won,” he said. “The city is coming back stronger than ever. The federal government has known about the weakness of the levees for 40 years. All our legislators and congresspersons have been predicting this disaster. But the federal government chose to spend the money somewhere else.”

The federal government has appropriated $62 billion for relief. “It’s a major concern that too much of that money is not being allocated for the purpose of rebuilding but rather to line somebody’s pockets,” Garner said. “We need to allocate that money to the people who need it.”

He assailed Bush’s decision to nullify the Davis-Bacon wage law. “Give workers jobs rebuilding this region. Pay them the wages they are entitled to,” he said. “They will spend that money and it will help rebuild the city.”