People of the Dome
by Mitchel Cohen
Brooklyn Greens / Green Party of NY
AS HURRICANE KATRINA RAVAGED THE GULF STATES, many organizations kicked into high gear to send relief to local groups in Mississippi and Louisiana, with no help from the government or formal relief agencies. Among them was the Malcolm X Grassroots movement, with whom the Brooklyn Greens shared an office. Tons of donated supplies poured into the office and were trucked to Jackson Mississippi, where they were distributed through community-based efforts.
I spoke daily with Les Evenchick, a Green who lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I was also in touch with New Orleans residents Malik Rahim and Mike Howell; the areas in which they live were dry and they were holding out as long as they could. The story they tell is shocking: U.S. and local government officials ordered the local drinking water turned off and refused to allow water or food relief into New Orleans. Hundreds of people died unnecessarily as a result.
And yet, there was no shortage of water or food being sent -- it was just not allowed into the City! When Green Party activists tried to donate a large amount of water for the people in the SuperDome a few days after the levees broke, armed soldiers pointed rifles at them and prevented them from delivering supplies. Even three Walmart trucks loaded with drinking water were denied entry and turned away. No water was allowed into New Orleans. Evenchick says that "this was a brazen attempt to starve people out."
There was no health reason to turn off the drinking water at the time, as the water is drawn into a separate system from the Mississippi River, not the polluted lake, and filtered through self-powered purification plants separate from the main electric grid. If necessary, people could have boiled their water -- strangely, the municipal natural gas used in stoves was still functioning properly as of Thursday night of that first week! I emailed Governor Kathleen Blanco (a Democrat) asking, "Who ordered the turn-off of the drinking water?" I have not received a response from former Gov. Blanco.
A commanding officer of a police squad complained that his 120 cops were provided with only 70 small bottles of water. Hospitals were supplied with nothing. Could FEMA, Homeland Security and local officials have forgotten to store bottles of drinking water in the Superdome, Convention Center and hospitals?
The only FEMA official on the scene in the early stages, Marty Bahamonde, has testified to Congress that he begged FEMA director Michael Brown for water, food, toilet paper and oxygen, saying that "many will die within hours." Brown's press secretary, Sharon Worthy, responded that the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. "He needs much more that [sic] 20 or 30 minutes," Worthy wrote. "Restaurants are getting busy," she said. "We now have traffic to encounter to go to and from a location of his choise [sic], followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc." Let them eat gumbo.
Green activist and former Black Panther Malik Rahim, who lives in the Algiers section -- which, like the French Quarter and several other areas above sea-level, remained dry -- points out that the government could have and should have provided water and food to residents of New Orleans but did not do so intentionally, to force people to evacuate by starving them out. This is a crime of the gravest sort.
French Quarter resident Mike Howell adds that the capability had been there from the start to drive water and food right up to the convention center, as those roads were clear. "It's how the National Guard drove into the city," he said.
The evidence is overwhelming that the government intentionally did not allow food or water into New Orleans.
These were the people, after all, who had twice voted in huge numbers against the candidacy of George Bush, the only area in the state to have done so. In recent years they also fought off attempts to privatize the drinking water supply, battled Shell Oil's attempt to build a Liquified Natural Gas facility, and tried to prevent the teardown of public housing -- battles in which Mayor Ray Nagin sided with the oil companies and millionaire developers. Nagin had contributed funds to George W. Bush's presidential campaign and was a registered Republican until just prior to the Mayoral election in 2002.
Attempts to starve civilians into leaving an area is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Who gave the order to block water and food from entering New Orleans? Who ordered the drinking water inside the city to be turned off? No one has yet answered those questions.
On Thursday of that first week, volunteers who had rescued over 1,000 people in boats were ordered to stop, under the pretext that it was too dangerous. The volunteers wanted to continue rescue operations. They said there was little risk, that desperate people had been welcoming them with open arms. The military "convinced" the volunteer rescuers at gunpoint to "cease and desist." They did the same to a state senator who had led a flotilla of hundreds of boats and rafts all the way from Mississippi to rescue people.
Who gave the order to block the volunteer rescue teams in New Orleans? No one has yet answered that question.