Racism and storms
The country’s eyes are fixed on the Texas Gulf Coast. Everyone is looking but not many are seeing what the local workers are experiencing. A grim Hurricane Katrina flashback plagues the coast as those in the area come to terms with the widespread chaos that Hurricane Harvey has unleashed on them. This is Trump’s Katrina, and “natural disasters,” like everything else, have a class character—that is, a “natural disaster” would not be a disaster at all if it were not for the specific way we produce human needs and the specific way human society is arranged. A category 4 hurricane smashing full force into the Texas coast would not be a tragedy if society were set up so that everything was properly prepared for these inevitable events. In an age when weather forecasts can predict devastating storms and evacuations are possible given the allotted resources, it is capitalism and not the weather that produces tragedy and creates the conditions for wide-scale loss of life. These disasters are no more natural than capitalism itself.
It is important to be historical materialists when examining the so-called “natural disasters” that routinely fuck up the US South. None stand out more in human cost than Katrina, which brought its wrath down on the people of New Orleans in 2005. Not everyone in the city was affected equally, and the real disaster struck just after the storm itself has passed. Houston is the new New Orleans and Harvey is this decade’s Katrina. Many to this day are still scratching their heads saying, “Why didn’t the people of New Orleans leave?” This kind of liberal hand-wringing stinks of uncritical support for the bourgeois narrative. Many did leave. In fact, over 100,000 of New Orleans’ Black working class were unable to return and were forced into diaspora.
There are material, social, and economic facts that forced so many others to stay and face death and displacement head on. Every two to three months the city of New Orleans would have a severe storm warning and encourage evacuation for storms that time and time again would never hit; this is common along the Gulf Coast. The vast majority of the Black working class in New Orleans lack job security and have severe difficulty in landing jobs in an economically depressed part of the US South. When they would heed the warnings and take refuge outside of their city, they would commonly find they had been fired upon returning due to missing work. The city urged people to evacuate the area, which they knew would be vulnerable to the storm due to racist, lazy, and greedy city planning that did not take necessary precautions to ensure that levees were secured in the poor New Orleans neighborhoods. In fact, it was well known for decades that the patchwork of the 50 or so levees that surrounded New Orleans would not be able to ward off a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude. It was capitalism’s death threat of “work or starve” and “leave if you can afford to” that held the gun of Katrina to the heads of the Black masses. This is not the conditions that a lot of the white people of New Orleans ever had to consider, as even white working-class people were better taken care of than the masses of the oppressed-nation people.
New Orleans has a strong culture and tight-knit communities, and many of the people had not traveled outside of their neighborhoods for years on end. All their families, friends, and everyone they knew lived there in New Orleans. The city’s white population had contacts outside of the city, places to stay, and relatives to visit. Many of the Black working class who owned their own homes had them passed down from generation to generation—they could not afford insurance. The only way to protect their homes was personally and directly being present. Those homes, being uninsured, were allowed by capitalism to be blighted, erased, and forgotten. The upper classes had insurance and could actually draw a profit from the storm, and many of the wealthy had over-insured their properties knowing that they lived in a storm-prone region and would eventually profit. Renters especially among the Black working class were never able to return, and the absentee landlords never prioritized fixing the slums they presided over