Not a Natural Disaster:

Ethnic Cleansing in Louisiana

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 9/8/05


We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color.”

- Representative Elijah Cummings

It’s painfully difficult for me to wrap my mind around images of Americans lying dead by the score, their corpses being eaten by rats and dogs. As a brave new America trudges forward into the 21 st Century armed with a new set of national priorities, there’s something acutely unnatural about this disaster.

First of all, it didn’t have to happen. It’s no secret that New Orleans sits in a geographic “bowl,” the bottom of which is ten feet lower than the nearby Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf, the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain all tower above the vulnerable city, held back by an aging levee system perpetually sinking into the muck that is southern Louisiana. For New Orleans, the question became “when,” not “if.” In 1995, with hurricanes growing more numerous and powerful (dare we say, “global warming?”), the U.S. Congress created the Southeastern Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) – the agency tasked with preventing New Orleans from becoming New Atlantis. The feds funded the project at $430 million and hoped to complete it by 2005. So far, so good.

New Orleans and Fallujah

Then came the George W. Bush administration. By 2003, they cut SELA funding to what the New Orleans Times-Picayune described as a “trickle.” By 2004 the Bush administration slashed SELA funding over 44 percent from its 2001 level, funding only 20 percent of the Army Corps of Engineers 2005 SELA budget. This brought construction to a halt on the mostly completed project. Corps officials, according to numerous Times-Picayune articles, cite the cost of the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts (for the wealthiest Americans) as the reasons for slashing the SELA budget.

Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans’ 15-foot tall levees were no match for Katrina’s promised category five winds and 30-40 foot tidal surge. But the storm dropped to a level four and veered east, devastating the Mississippi coast and sparing the Big Easy from the brunt of its force. New Orleans residents awoke the next day and breathed a collective sigh of relief, seemingly having dodged the bullet, sustaining only superficial damage. But then the city started, in water torture fashion, to slowly fill up. Two flimsy sections of the levee burst – unable to withstand the increased pressure from Lake Pontchartrain’s swelled waters. A rather predictable event proceeded as forecast, unabated by any effective interdiction on the part of the most powerful nation in history.

Another Left Behind Story

Here’s where one of the most embarrassing episodes of modern American history turns even uglier. On Sunday, August 28 th, the day before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, the Governor of Louisiana ordered New Orleans evacuated. In Louisiana, however, the word “evacuation” takes on a meaning of its own. It means those who can leave should pack up a few valuables and get their butts out of town – pronto. And flee they did, checking into hotels from Atlanta to Houston.

In an Armageddon-like scenario, over 100,000 New Orleans residents were left behind, and the ugly truth is that those left behind were mostly either too poor or too infirm to leave. New Orleans was, in fact, in a state of disaster before Katrina struck and before the levee failed. Over one quarter of New Orleans’ population struggled to live below the federal poverty line in some of the most substandard housing in the country. Over 100,000 of them lacked access to automobiles – giving New Orleans the lowest auto ownership rate in the U.S. – even lower than mass transit endowed New York City.

When the evacuation order came, public busses were running on a Sunday schedule. The few that were running ceased operating by late afternoon as the system was shut down – no doubt with the bus drivers themselves heading to dry ground. School buses that could have been employed in the evacuation effort were left locked up in mostly low-lying parking lots – eventually submerging in the flood.

Last year a category five hurricane hit the impoverished nation of Cuba with 160 M.P.H. winds. Yet the Cubans, for all of their faults, were able to evacuate 1.5 million people to high ground. Despite losing over 20,000 homes to winds and floodwaters, the casualty rate in Cuba was negligible. In New Orleans, by contrast, we left the poor, elderly, infirmed and otherwise vulnerable behind to die.

The story continues to grow more sickening. As is the case in urban areas around the world, the poorest people in New Orleans lived in the most environmentally vulnerable neighborhoods – on some of the lowest and quickest-to-flood terrain. As the floodwaters slowly rose, people moved from their first floor residences to their attics, and eventually from their attics onto their roofs.

American Water Torture

It’s important to realize how slowly this catastrophe unfolded. There was no tidal wave washing over the city as predicted. And by all indications there probably wasn’t much loss of life during and immediately after the storm. The New Orleans calamity was ultimately the result of benign neglect. Up to five days past, and stranded, hungry, dehydrated New Orleans residents were still clinging to their roofs exposed to the elements – and dying by the score. Tens of thousands made their way to the official evacuation points at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center only to find themselves waiting for days without sanitary facilities, sometimes without food or water or medical care – still waiting for evacuation – waiting for help of any kind. And more dead bodies started to pile up. Some people needed dialysis. Some needed insulin. Some were just old and frail or newly born. Many of them died.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used to have a plan for responding to a hurricane hitting New Orleans. It involved activating a hospital ship at the first sign of a storm and following the storm up into the gulf – knowing it would make landfall somewhere. And the hospital would be on the scene 24 hours later. The National Guard, mobilized at the first hint of a storm, was supposed to be on the scene within hours, and so on. But the Bush administration folded FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, replacing the director of FEMA with a political appointee with no emergency response experience. He was fired from his previous position managing horse shows as head of the International Arabian Horse Association.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, there was no effective FEMA response. A hospital ship (based in Boston) wasn’t activated until two days after the storm, and wouldn’t be able to respond for another week. FEMA responded to the storm by issuing press releases claiming things were under control when they weren’t – claiming they were delivering food when they weren’t and so on. On their website they asked people to donate money to a relief organization co-founded by radical televangelist Pat Robertson, on whose TV show fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell once described the 9/11 attacks as God’s wrath against the homosexuals and the ACLU.

Under the Bush administration’s reorganization plan, FEMA will officially lose its disaster preparedness responsibilities – instead focusing more on mass detention centers (concentration camps) and other “War on Terror” functions. No agency has been designated to pick up this responsibility. FEMA is already dropping the ball – and New Orleans residents were left to die – or fend for themselves. Many of the Louisiana National Guard’s deep water vehicles, helicopters and Humvees (along with 3,000 Guard troops) were off in Iraq when the storm hit – crippling their ability to respond to the very type of mission they are chartered to respond to.

Looting and Rioting

This is were media reports of “looting” and “rioting” come into play. New Orleans residents were left to die or fend for themselves. Many opted for survival – foraging for water, food and other supplies. And there were also looters – morons and junkies wading through floodwaters with plasma TVs on their heads. New Orleans was always one of this country's poorest, and hence, most crime infested cities. New Orleans thieves and rapists didn’t change their ways just because the apocalypse was at hand – they continued to victimize their neighbors as they always have. Only now, the victims were also blamed for the crimes as media reports tarred all stranded New Orleans residents as descending into chaos, raping and killing each other – even though such mayhem was never national news before Katrina and was certainly unrepresentative of how New Orleans residents responded to the calamity.

This is ultimately a story about race and class. New Orleans was 67 percent black. Because of an economic legacy dating back to slavery days and a general lack of opportunities for black folks in Louisiana, about half of the city’s black population lived below the poverty line. Hence, the people unable to escape New Orleans before the storm were primarily black – and overwhelmingly poor. They didn’t have the physical means to leave or the money to stay in hotels once they evacuated. This is also why the photos of the collapse of New Orleans show black faces almost exclusively. These are the people America left behind to die. These are the people the federal government was in no hurry to rescue. I’m not saying this was deliberately planned out, as in genocide, but there’s no arguing that this certainly is how the chips fell.

Choosing to Stay?

Michael Brown, the Bush administration’s FEMA chief, confronted with reports that thousands were dying in New Orleans, explained that the victims bore some responsibility for their own fates because they “chose” not to evacuate. The media initially trumpeted this story of irresponsible black folks staying behind, ostensibly to loot. Nationally distributed photos showed white people “finding” supplies as they waded through floodwaters with cases of soda or water. Near identical photos of black people carrying water had captions describing them as having “looted” a store.

I’m sorry, when you are left behind to die, you have not only the right, but also the obligation to find unused supplies that can save human lives. In many media reports, white people were praised for just such heroism while black folks were demonized. A blog published by New Orleans based employees of the DirectNic Internet domain company refer to the city as the “Planet of the Apes.”

In one personal correspondence to a family member in New York that was shared with me, a white flood victim staying in a French Quarter hotel with Internet access writes: “Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreen’s on Canal [Street] under police escort. The pharmacy was dark and full of water.” He goes on to explain, “We basically scooped the entire drug sets [sic] into garbage bags and removed them. All under police escort. The looters had to be held back at gun point.” A racial double standard is so ingrained into Louisiana society that the author/looter couldn’t see the irony of his own words. CNN reports that police officers, many of whom were deployed without provisions, also commandeered food, water and fuel from wherever they could find it. But they weren’t “looting.”

Shoot to Kill Survivors

George W. Bush responded to a reporter’s query by explaining that there will be “Zero tolerance” for looting, even, according to Bush, if someone is “looting” food or water – this after flood victims were left to fend for themselves for four days. Louisiana’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, added a “shoot to kill” provision to Bush’s “zero tolerance” proclamation, placing “restoring order” and protecting property as a priority over rescuing still-stranded victims. When National Guard troops from thirteen states finally made their way into New Orleans five days after the storm, the scene looked more like an occupation than a rescue. Many troops aggressively pointed their rifles at hungry black survivors who approached them seeking aid.

Such behavior is expected when the orders say, “Shoot to kill,” and many of the shooters are freshly back from grisly duty subduing Iraqi cities. As governor Blanco put it, "These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle-tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets.” She went on to add, “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will."

The “too dangerous to rescue” myth was also employed by FEMA as rationale for ordering rescue teams to stand down early in the crisis. Louisianans are a tough lot, and many private boat owners from areas surrounding New Orleans immediately entered the city as flooding began, creating an ad hoc rescue flotilla. Many survivors tell of strangers in small fishing boats plucking them out of second story windows or off of roofs, depositing them high and dry on highway overpasses. The Federal government put a stop to such heroism, while failing to replace the independent effort with one of their own.

On Tuesday, one day after the storm, as Bush played golf and attended a fundraiser, foreign leaders sought to mobilize a relief effort to quickly get help to the submerged city. Russia offered to send planes of food to New Orleans. Cuba, which was cited by the United Nations as providing a model for hurricane response, offered to deploy 1,100 doctors and 26 tons of medical supplies – with the first 100 doctors arriving wherever they were needed within 24 hours, with the rest following within 72 hours. The feds, however, prevented Cuba, Russia, Venezuela and a host of other governments from mounting relief efforts which could have reached survivors well before American National Guard troops were deployed.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Bush administration was unable to explain their behavior, their incompetence, or their indifference. Even a presidential P.R. trip to New Orleans four days after the storm led to more pain and suffering, as Bush’s security forces ordered all search and rescue helicopters grounded for the duration of his visit. Bush explained nobody foresaw a levee break. Obviously he missed the nine-plus articles published by the Times Picayune during the last two years, which warned of just such a breach, and condemned his administration for halting programs to prevent such a breach. Presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan explained that the levee breach was “more of a design issue,” yet the Bush administration had also defunded engineering studies examining the levee designs. And McClellan, in his worst boldface lie, told reporters “flood control has been a priority of this administration,” adding, “this is not a time for finger pointing.”

That’s exactly what this is, however – a time for finger pointing. Five days of depraved indifference to human life on the part of the Bush administration, coupled with obstructionism, has cost scores of human lives. Victims who survived and died alike were treated as though they were less than human – left to wallow in some of the most atrocious conditions humans have had to survive in this country since the days of slavery.

Ethnic Cleansing

The vast majority of the victims who were put in death’s path, not by a storm alone, but by a host of government policies, were black. Their problems didn’t begin with Hurricane Katrina. Prior to the storm, New Orleans’ black population had to struggle against hundreds of years of political and economic marginalization. Most recently, black New Orleans residents struggled to stay in their homes as their low-rent communities were threatened by gentrification.

Today the region’s largest black city – also the base of power for the Louisiana’s Democratic party – is in ruins. Most New Orleans residents didn’t own their own homes; about 40 percent of those who did, lacked adequate insurance. People who struggled to stay in their affordable New Orleans homes are now gone – shipped off to out of state “refugee centers.” New Orleans will be rebuilt – But who will have a say in how that rebuilding will take place? It’s doubtful that the traditionally disenfranchised population will have much power in shaping the new New Orleans.

Federal policies have allowed New Orleans’ black community to drown. A new city will take shape in place of the culturally unique city the world learned to love. Middle-class homeowners will get insurance money to rebuild. Landlords will be compensated for their losses. The French Quarter will once again host tourists – probably as the jeweled center of a ticky-tacky sanitized Disneyesque sort of Las Vegas by the Bayou. But will the black community that struggled since slavery days to survive in Southern Louisiana ever be able to return to and reclaim the city and heritage this flood took from them? Will their historic culture of resistance to white supremacy continue to flourish? And if history proves the answer is no, what else can we call this other than “ethnic cleansing?”


Joseph Wetmore and Neil Oolie contributed research for this story. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived at




ęCopyright 2005

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