GALVESTON, Texas — After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, many people speculated that if a similar disaster hit Texas, the Bush administration would respond more positively. Over two months after Hurricane Ike hit, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Visiting here Nov. 30, I was horrified by what I saw. Once a bustling tourist-oriented city with a strong medical center and vibrant African-American community, Galveston appears to be a ghost town, devastated first by the storm and now by the cruelty of capitalism. It should be noted that while the community suffers, large numbers of oil tankers are waiting just off the coast for permission to enter the Houston Ship Channel and deliver oil to refineries.
Some, including Bush’s crony, Texas Governor Rick Perry, expected more from the administration since the current lame-duck president claims to be from Texas. According to the Dallas Morning News, Perry, who appears to have been recently reborn as Governor of the People, has complained loudly that “President George W. Bush didn’t even know of the Texas request for aid when the governor spoke with the president by phone last week.” The News editorialized, “Texas coastal communities are waiting for help. Hundreds of residents still live in tents, disabled cars and condemned homes as they await Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors, insurance adjusters, mobile homes and utilities. If this is emergency management, we’d hate to see emergency mismanagement.”
The grim lesson is that capitalism has other priorities than the needs of people.
Hunger at evacuation site
Hurricane Ike struck on Sept. 12. Soon after, there were stories of National Guard troops starving at a football stadium near my home. It turned out that the stadium was a huge staging area for evacuation of Ike’s survivors.
When I went to the site, National Guard troops and Texas public safety officers refused to talk with me. But motor coach operators contracted to evacuate people from the Gulf Coast told me that though some arrived as early as Aug. 27 because of the earlier Hurricane Gustav, they were not provided with suitable housing facilities or food while on duty, and were not allowed off the staging area premises to obtain food. Fortunately, nearby working people heard of their plight and brought huge quantities of food. This was a harbinger of the treatment the federal government has provided to storm survivors.
FEMA ignores survivors
Now “blue roofs” are everywhere in Houston and Galveston. After the storm, FEMA acted quickly to put blue tarps over damaged roofs. Many of my friends, neighbors and co-workers are suffering while FEMA fiddles over whether to pay for needed repairs. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle Nov. 24, thousands are still waiting for FEMA assistance so they can repair their damaged roofs. Meanwhile, Bush has pushed through billions in bailout money for the wealthiest corporations which presumably still have a roof over their head.
According to the Galveston Daily News, in early November — two months after Ike hit — 77 percent of upper Texas Coast residents who had requested assistance had “fallen through the gaps in the safety net the government spreads wide to help victims of natural disasters” because “they did not qualify for help under federal guidelines.” Meanwhile, many residents of Galveston and Houston remain homeless or are residing in substandard housing.
Medical care eliminated
To add insult to injury, over 3,000 people have been laid off from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, which is the only state facility in the area and has served many indigent patients for a long time. The great Medical Center appeared to be a ghost town after the layoffs. The few staff members I encountered during a visit there said they were not at liberty to talk about current conditions.
Though it is unconscionable that after a catastrophe like Hurricane Ike, the first targets would be public health facilities, this only mirrors the closing of the Charity Hospital and the VA Medical Center in downtown New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The layoffs are a severe financial blow to Galveston County. UTMB was the city’s largest employer. Union officials from the Texas State Employees Union continue to organize UTMB workers with support of the Galveston County AFL-CIO, to press the University regents to reinstate workers. Galveston’s City Council is also urging the UTMB Board of Regents “to fully support the university and its historic mission of tending to the medical needs of the indigent.”
Meanwhile, the UTMB system, which has cared for inmates in the Texas prison systems, has closed its 365-bed prison hospital. Sick inmates are now being sent to other facilities throughout the state.
A bipartisan group of Texas Congress members including Nick Lampson, Gene Green, Kevin Brady, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chet Edwards, Louie Gohmert, Al Green and Sheila Jackson-Lee is pressing FEMA to provide much-needed services to Ike’s survivors.
The survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike and their supporters should unite to demand that the Gulf Coast be rebuilt and a priority be placed on the recovery of families rather than extending the profits of the world’s largest corporations. We need a bailout of those inundated by natural catastrophe.