At the Front of Nowhere at All
The Perfect Storm and the Feral City
By Tom Engelhardt
The headline was: “Direct hit in New Orleans could mean a modern Atlantis,” and the first paragraph of the story read: “More than 1.2 million people in metropolitan New Orleans were warned to get out Tuesday as [the] 140-mph hurricane churned toward the Gulf Coast, threatening to submerge this below-sea-level city in what could be the most disastrous storm to hit in nearly 40 years.” That was USA Today and the only catch was — the piece had been written on September 14, 2004 as Hurricane Ivan seemed to be barreling toward New Orleans.
I commented at the time: “When ‘Ivan the Terrible’ threatened New Orleans, correspondents there had a field day discussing whether the city might literally disappear beneath the waves — this was referred to as the ‘Atlantis scenario.'” I was then trying to point out that we might indeed be entering a new, globally warmed world of Xtreme weather and no connections whatsoever were being made in the media. At the time, global warming, if discussed at all, was a captive of the far north (melting glaciers, unnerved Inuit, robins making miraculous appearances in Alaska), and “Atlantis scenarios” were the property of distant islands like the atolls that make up the tiny South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, threatened with abandonment due to rising ocean waters and ever fiercer, ever less seasonal storms And yet just short of a year ago, not only was it well known that New Orleans’ levees weren’t fit for a class 5 hurricane or that the Bush administration was slashing the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, but the “Atlantis scenario” was already somewhere on the collective mind. Now, it has been upon us for almost a week.
Much of New Orleans has become the Atlantis from hell, a toxic sludge pool of a looted former city, filled with dead bodies, burning in places, threatened with diseases like cholera and typhus that haven’t visited the Big Easy since early in the last century, and with thousands upon thousands of the black poor and a few of the stranded better-to-do like doctors, nurses, and a few local officials left for days on end with next to no way out. It is, in short, the feral city that thirty years of science fiction films (and post-apocalyptic novels) have delivered to the American public as entertainment as well as prophesy. (Think, Escape from New York).
Now, try this passage: “The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of [the] hurricane… looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less — mainly Black — were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.” Admittedly a vivid description, but certainly commonplace enough at the moment — except that it, too, was written back in September 2004 by Mike Davis, also for Tomdispatch, and prophetically labeled, “Poor, Black, and Left Behind.” It, too, concerned not Katrina’s but Ivan’s approach to New Orleans. So there we are. It was possible to know then the fundaments of just about everything that’s happened now — and not just from Tomdispatch either.
In the last week, we’ve seen many of the black poor of New Orleans not only left behind in a new Atlantis, but thousands upon thousands of them — those who didn’t die in their wheelchairs, or on highway overpasses, or in the ill-fated convention center, or unattended and forgotten in their homes — sent off on what looked very much like a new trail of tears. Right now, above all, New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, as so many reporters have observed with shock, are simply the Bangladesh of North America (after a disastrous set of monsoons), or a Kinshasa (without the resources). Soon, if Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has anything to do with it, the city may simply be consigned to the slagheap of history or a lot of it, as he so delicately put it to a suburban weekly in Illinois (where a few farmers who need the crucial deep water port of New Orleans to send their upcoming crops onto the global market may take umbrage), perhaps “bulldozed.” Someday, Katrina may be seen as the “perfect storm,” the harbinger of a future for which we remain far more adamantly, obdurately unwilling to prepare than even the Bush administration was for this localized “Atlantis scenario.”
Iraq in America: Parallels and Connections
New Orleans is not the only toxic sludge pool in sight. Let’s not forget the toxic sludge pool of Bush administration policy which came so clearly into view as Katrina ripped the scrim off our society, revealing an Iraqi-style reality here at home. Unlike conquered and occupied Iraq, the strip-mining of this country in recent years has taken place largely out of sight. While Baghdad was turned into some kind of dead zone of insecurity, lack of electricity, lack of gas, lack of jobs, lack of just about everything a human being in a modern city has come to expect, American cities — until last week — stood seemingly untouched in what was still proudly called “the world’s last superpower.” But just out of sight, the coring, gutting, and dismantling of the civilian governmental support system of the United States, that famed “safety net,” was well underway. Bush administration proponents and conservative ideologues had long talked about “starving the beast”; but, until Katrina hit, it remained for many Americans at best a kind of political figure of speech.
Now we know for real. The beast has been starved; or rather, the beasts have been fed and the much-maligned part of the state that protected its citizens with something other than guns has been starved. What Katrina’s course through Mississippi and Louisiana revealed was the real meaning of starvation. It seems we no longer have the capacity for a full-scale civilian response to a major disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security and led by an incompetent who had been fired from his previous job as head of the International Arabian Horse Association, has had “its ties to state emergency programs weakened, and has reduced spending on disaster preparation.” In the same way, we now know that the Army Corps of Engineers was financially reined in on crucial levee work in New Orleans. Much of this sort of thing was done under the guise of preparing for, or fighting, or funding the war on terror at home and abroad. Many pundits, for instance, have remarked on the obvious fact — which had previously worried the governors of many states — that significant chunks of the National Guard and, just as important for disaster relief, its heavy equipment are to be found in Iraq, not here to be called upon in an emergency. (And when the avian flu, or the next health disaster, suddenly hits our country, consider it a guarantee — the media will again be filled with the same sort of shock about the civilian response to the crisis, because our public health system has also been gutted and de-funded under the guise of the war on terrorism.)
Over the last years, just about everything of a helping nature that is governmental, other than the military, has begun to be starved or stripped by the looters of this administration — set loose in Washington rather than Baghdad or New Orleans. If you want a signal of this, we should all be wincing every time the President gets up, as he did the other day in the presence of his father and Bill Clinton, and shakes the tin cup, urging “the private sector” and generous citizens to fill in — an impossibility — for what his administration won’t pony up.
The Bush people undoubtedly thought that they would be able to slip out of town in 2008 without paying the price. But when Katrina roared onto the vulnerable coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana, it swept all of the Bush administration’s devastating policies — environmental, fiscal, energy, and military, as well as its plans for the unraveling of the civilian infrastructure — into a perfect storm of policy catastrophe that, ironically, may threaten the administration itself. By the time motorists in non-disaster states return from a Labor Day with $3-4 a gallon (or more) gas (and possibly long lines) to an ongoing catastrophe which will take months, if not our lifetime, to fully unfold, it’s possible that the levees of the President’s base of support — that 40% which still approved of his administration in the latest Gallup Poll, conducted the week before Katrina hit — will have been breached for the first time.
Think of our last two years in Iraq, which has left the world’s most powerful military running on baling wire and duct tape, as a kind of coming attractions for Katrina. In fact, so many bizarre connections or parallels are suggested by the Bush administration’s war in Iraq as to stagger the imagination. Here are just six of the parallels that immediately came to my mind:
1. Revelations of unexpected superpower helplessness: A single catastrophic war against a modest-sized, not particularly dramatically armed minority insurgency in one oil land has brought the planet’s mightiest military to a complete, grinding, disastrous halt and sent its wheels flying off in all directions. A single not-exactly-unexpected hurricane leveling a major American city and the coastlines of two states, has brought the emergency infrastructure of the world’s mightiest power to a complete, grinding, disastrous halt and sent its wheels flying off in all directions.
2. Planning ignored: It’s now notorious that the State Department did copious planning for a post-invasion, occupied Iraq, all of which was ignored by the Pentagon and Bush administration neocons when the country was taken. In New Orleans, it’s already practically notorious that endless planning, disaster war-gaming, and the like were done for how to deal with a future “Atlantis scenario,” none of which was attended to as Katrina bore down on the southeastern coast.
3. Lack of Boots on the ground: It’s no less notorious that, from the moment before the invasion of Iraq when General Eric Shinseki told a congressional committee that “several hundred thousand troops” would minimally be needed to successfully occupy Iraq and was more or less laughed out of Washington, Donald Rumsfeld’s new, lean, mean military has desperately lacked boots on the ground (hence those Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards off in Iraq). Significant numbers of National Guard only made it to New Orleans on the fifth and sixth days after Katrina struck and regular military boots-on-the-ground have been few and far between. No Pentagon help was pre-positioned for Katrina and, typically enough, the Navy hospital ship Comfort, scheduled to help, had not left Baltimore harbor by Friday morning for its many day voyage to the Gulf.
4. Looting: The inability (or unwillingness) to deploy occupying American troops to stem a wave of looting that left the complete administrative, security, and even cultural infrastructure of Baghdad destroyed is now nearly legendary, as is Donald Rumsfeld’s response to the looting at the time. (“Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.” To which he added, on the issue of the wholesale looting of Baghdad, “Stuff happens.”) In New Orleans, the President never declared martial law while, for days, gangs of armed looters along with desperate individuals abandoned and in need of food and supplies of all kinds, roamed the city uncontested as buildings began to burn.
What, facing this crisis, did the Bush administration actually do? The two early, symbolic actions it took were typical. Neither would have a significant effect on the immediate situation at hand, but both forwarded long-term administration agendas that had little to do with Katrina or the crisis in the southeastern United States: First, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was relaxing pollution standards on gasoline blends in order to counteract the energy crisis Katrina had immediately put on the table. This was, of course, but a small further step in the gutting of general environmental, clean air and pollution laws that strike hard at another kind of safety net — the one protecting our planet. And second, its officials began to organize a major operation out of Northcom, Joint Task Force Katrina, to act as the military’s on-scene command in “support” of an enfeebled FEMA. The U.S. Northern Command was set up by the Bush administration in 2002 and ever since has been prepared to take on ever larger, previously civilian tasks on our home continent. (As the Northcom site quotes the President as saying, “There is an overriding and urgent mission here in America today, and that’s to protect our homeland. We have been called into action, and we’ve got to act.”)
There were to be swift boats in the Gulf and Green Berets at the New Orleans airport, and yet Donald Rumsfeld’s new, stripped-down, high-tech military either couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deploy any faster to New Orleans than it did to Baghdad, perhaps because it had already been so badly torn up and stressed out in Iraq (and had left most of its local “first responders” there).
5. Nation-building: As practically nobody remembers, George Bush in his first run for the presidency humbly eschewed the very idea of “nation-building” abroad. That was only until he sent the Pentagon blasting into Iraq. Over two years and endless billions of dollars later — the Iraq War now being, on a monthly basis, more expensive than Vietnam — the evidence of the administration’s nation-building success in its “reconstruction” of Iraq is at hand for all to see. That country is now a catastrophe beyond imagining without repair in sight. (For Baghdad, think New Orleans without water, but with a full-scale insurgency.) So as the Pentagon ramps up in its ponderous manner to launch a campaign in the United States and as the Marines finally land in the streets of New Orleans, don’t hold your breath about either the Pentagon’s or the administration’s nation-building skills in the U.S. (But count on “reconstruction” contracts going to Halliburton.) If Rumsfeld’s Pentagon — where so much of our money has gone in recent years — turns out to be even a significant factor in the “reconstruction” of New Orleans, we’ll never have that city back.
6. Predictions: Given the last two years in which the President as well as top administration officials have regularly insisted that we had reached the turning point, or turned that corner, or hit the necessary tipping point in Iraq, that success or progress or even victory was endlessly at hand (and then at hand again and then again), consider what we should think of the President’s repeated statements of Katrina “confidence,” his insistence that his administration can deal successfully with the hurricane’s aftereffects and is capable of overseeing the successful rebuilding of New Orleans. (“All Americans can be certain our nation has the character, the resources, and the resolve to overcome this disaster. We will comfort and care for the victims. We will restore the towns and neighborhoods that have been lost in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. We’ll rebuild the great city of New Orleans. And we’ll once again show the world that the worst adversities bring out the best in America.”)
As an aside, one great difference between the American public’s experience of the Iraqi War and of the aftermath of Katrina shouldn’t be overlooked. This time, our reporters weren’t embedded with the troops, and so weren’t experiencing mainly the administration’s artificially-created version of reality. Instead, they made it to the distressed areas of the southeastern U.S. way ahead of the troops, remained in their absence, saw unreconstructed, unspun reality for themselves, and were generally outraged. So, for instance, when Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff made ridiculous claims about what the government had accomplished, reporters were able to say, emphatically, that his version was a lie and other Americans knew it was so, because they had seen it for themselves.
And don’t even get me started on comparisons to Bush administration behavior from the moment, also in Crawford in August 2001, that the President and his advisors ignored the infamous CIA daily intelligence briefing on Osama bin Laden (“Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.”), delivered at a length and with a simplicity that even George Bush should have been able to absorb. Speaking of déjà vu all over again, his recent behavior re: Katrina echoed strangely his 9/11 behavior. After all, on 9/11, he first sat paralyzed in a classroom in Florida, then boarded Air Force One and headed not for Washington but (gulp) for Louisiana. It was an act of panic if not cowardice that was quickly covered over when he finally did make it to Washington and later New York City, talking tough and launching his war against Evil.
When Katrina hit, he sat in Crawford; then (perhaps — to have a thoroughly unkind thought — continuing his flight from Cindy Sheehan), he boarded his plane and headed in the wrong direction, for San Diego where he stood against the backdrop of an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan (don’t these people ever learn?), and pretended it was actually World War II and we were occupying Japan. By this time, every excuse for his war in Iraq having peeled away (the al-Qaeda connection, the wmds, even “freedom”), he finally arrived at a new explanation for why we were there. It was… oil — or to be more exact, an oil fantasy. (“If Zarqawi and bin Laden gain control of Iraq, they would create a new training ground for future terrorist attacks; they’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions; they could recruit more terrorists by claiming an historic victory over the United States and our coalition.”)
Maybe he should send David Kay, who headed his fruitless weapons-of-mass-destruction search team, back to Iraq to look for oil, since it’s been in short supply there, and now is about to be here. Only then did our President get on a jet heading in the right direction — towards Louisiana, where he had the pilot swoop down to 1,700 feet (as if that were something daring) for a close look — on his way to Washington. Nobody in the administration, it seems, thought to put boot to the soil of Mississippi or Louisiana in the first crucial days of this crisis. (If you want the details — Vice-President Cheney remained on vacation in Wyoming and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in New York buying shoes by the scads while offers of aid poured in from such disparate countries as Australia, Israel, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela — check out Maureen Dowd’s latest New York Times blast, United States of Shame.) The one constant of this President and his administration is that their most essential impulse is never to head for the frontlines themselves — not in war, not in disaster, not for our safety or our planet’s safety, not even on the campaign trail. They are invariably at the front of nowhere at all, and more than happy to be there. The old “chickenhawk” label has a deeper meaning than we ever realized.
In the meantime, what we know from Katrina is that, in George Bush’s new America, we are no longer capable, as a civilian society, of rescuing ourselves. Even the more civilian part of our military is gone. The Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard, after all, are mainly in Iraq, feeling, I’m sure, mighty helpless right now, while chaos reigns in their home cities. Thank you, George. Mission Accomplished!
Before the Iraq War, it was already evident that the State Department — the foreign policy equivalent of a civilian effort — was atrophying. (Administration officials were, after all, starving that beast too.) “Diplomacy,” such as it was, was being conducted with other nations ever more regularly by our military proconsuls like our Centcom commander in the Middle East on a military-to-military basis. A grim wag suggested to me recently that the only way New Orleans would have gotten some quick action was if the administration had renamed Katrina “Osama,” claimed it left behind weapons of mass destruction (as it may, in fact, have), and then invaded the city.
When an administration which has long believed that the resort to force should be the initial impulse behind any policy finally acts, force is unsurprisingly all it knows. If what we’ve observed in the last week is the response of the Bush administration to an essentially predictable civilian catastrophe, then imagine how prepared it is, after these four years of “homeland security,” for an unpredictable one. Or what about, for instance, just another massive hurricane in this age of Xtreme weather? After all, though you can’t find a word in the papers about it at the moment, we are only halfway through the fiercest, longest hurricane season in memory. We should be scared. Very scared.
In the end, this country remains in a powerful state of denial on two major matters which help explain why the elevation of George Bush and his cronies was no mistake. We are now a highly militarized society in all sorts of ways that any of us could see, but that is seldom recognized or discussed (except when the threat of base closings sends specific communities into a panic). Unrecognized and unconsidered, the militarized nature of our society is likely in the future to prove both dangerous and highly destructive. Right now, we are a weakened superpower wired for force and force alone — and if Iraq has shown us one thing, it’s that, when it comes to solving human problems of any sort, military force is highly overrated.
And of course, we are as a society in denial over the toxic sludge pool where climate change (or global warming) meets Middle Eastern energy dependence. On this, our future rests. If someone doesn’t get to the frontlines of planetary security soon, we may be living not just with one feral city, but on a feral continent, part of a feral world.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
[Note: Thanks, as ever, to the indefatigable Nick Turse for research aid. Make sure you go back and read the prophetic Mike Davis 2004 piece about New Orleans, “Poor, Black, and Left Behind.” It will take your breath away. On Tuesday, environmental writer Bill McKibben will continue Tomdispatch’s discussion of our post-Katrina world.]
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt