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Hurricane Katrina and War-what Is the Connection?

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On the face of it, there is no connection between Katrina’s tragic devastation of New Orleans and the recent U.S. wars of choice. It can be shown, however, that the death and destruction wrought by Katrina have been (at least in part) a submerged or invisible part of the enormous costs of the escalating war and military spending.


The huge costs of Katrina, in terms of both blood and treasure, can be called opportunity costs of war and military spending: When a disproportionately large share of public or national resources are diverted to war and militarism, the opportunity of maintaining or upgrading public infrastructure is lost and the citizens, especially the poor and working people, are made more vulnerable in the face of natural disasters. 


It is true that some disasters cannot be prevented from occurring. But, with proper defenses, they can be contained and their destructive effects minimized. Katrina was not; it was not “because of a laissez-faire government that failed to bother to take warnings seriously,” and because of a skewed government fiscal policy “that is stingy when it comes to spending on public goods but lavish on armaments and war.”[1] More fundamentally, because, driven by powerful special interests, the government has since the advent of Reaganomics in the 1980 been steadily diverting non-military public spending to military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby bringing about a steady erosion of the infrastructural defense systems against natural disasters.


In light of the steady cuts of the infrastructural funding for the city of New Orleans, especially of the funds that would maintain and/or reinforce the city’s levee system, catastrophic consequences of a hurricane of the magnitude of Katrina were both predictable and, indeed, predicted.


Engineering and meteorological experts had frequently warned of impending disasters such as Katrina. Government policy makers in charge of maintaining public infrastructure, however, remained indifferent to (at times, even indignant of) those warnings. They seem to have had other priorities and/or responsibilities: cutting funds from public infrastructure and social spending and giving them away (in the form of tax cuts) to the wealthy supporters who had paid for their elections. It is not surprising, then, that many observers and experts have argued that Katrina was as much a policy disaster as it was a natural disaster.


It is important to point out that not of all the policy or government failures in the face of the Katrina disaster can be painted as the exclusive product of the Bush administration. Undoubtedly, the administration played a major role in compounding the destructive effects of the disaster. But the roots of government irresponsibility and the origins of the policies of neglecting public infrastructure descend far back into the past, into President Reagan’s supply-side economics, also known as Reaganomics.


The core of Reaganomics has been to undermine social safely net programs, to reverse the New Deal and other anti-poverty programs, and to redistribute national resources in favor of the wealthy. Simultaneous escalation of the Pentagon budget and drastic tax cuts for the wealthy have been used as a cynical strategy in pursuit of this objective: as this combination creates big gaps in the federal budget, social spending is then slashed to close such gaps.


Soon after the disaster hit New Orleans, George Lakoff of AlterNet wrote, “The cause was political through and through—a matter of values and principles. . . . Eliminating as much as possible of the role of government accounts for the demotion of FEMA from cabinet rank, . . . for the budget cuts in levee repair, for placing more responsibility on state and local government than they could handle. . . . This is a failure of moral and political philosophy—a deadly failure.”[2]


The primary cause of the Katrina destruction must be sought in the political and philosophical outlook of supply-side economics—a philosophy that views government spending on public work projects not as investment in the future of the nation but as an overhead that needs to be cut as much as possible, thereby making public infrastructure susceptible to collapse and disintegration.


In light of the steady curtailment of the non-military public spending since the advent of the Reagan administration, and the resulting erosion of public infrastructure, engineering and meteorological experts had over the years issued a number of warnings regarding the vulnerability and the likely collapse of the New Orleans levee system. But expert advices to head off the calamity by proactive or preventive measures were ignored.


For example, in 1998, after a close call with Hurricane Georges, a sophisticated computer study by Louisiana State University warned of the “virtual destruction” of the city by a category four storm approaching from the southwest. Indeed, ever since the nasty experience of Hurricane Betsy in September 1965 (a category three storm that inundated many eastern parts of the Orleans Parish that were drowned by Katrina), the vulnerability of the city to hurricanes has been intensively studied and widely publicized.


The New Orleans project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, Alfred Naomi, had warned for years of the need to shore up the levees, but corporate representatives in the White House and the Congress kept cutting back on the funding. The most recent cutback was a $71.2 million reduction for the New Orleans district in fiscal year 2006. “I’ve never seen this level of reduction,” Naomi told the New Orleans City Business paper on June 6, 2006. His district had “identified $35 million in projects to build and improve levees, floodwalls, and pumping stations,” the paper said. But with the cuts, “Naomi said it’s enough to pay salaries but little else.”


Naomi wasn’t the only one who warned of this disaster. In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing the country,” wrote Eric Berger in a prescient article in the Houston Chronicle on December 1, 2001, entitled “Keeping Its Head Above Water: New Orleans Faces Doomsday Scenario.” In that piece, Berger warned: “The city’s less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of ten left behind as the city drowned under twenty feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.”[1]


Around the same time period, the magazine Scientific American published an account of the flood danger (“Drowning New Orleans”, October 2001), which like the award-winning 2002 series (“The Big One”) in the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, was chillingly accurate in its warnings.


In June 2003, Civil Engineering Magazine ran a long story by Greg Brouwer entitled “The Creeping Storm.” It noted that the levees “were designed to withstand only forces associated with a fast-moving” Category 3 hurricane. “If a lingering Category 3 storm—or a stronger storm, say, Category 4 or 5—were to hit the city, much of New Orleans could find itself under more than twenty feet of water.”


One oceanographer at Louisiana State University, Joseph Suhayda, modeled such storms and shared his findings with “emergency preparedness officials throughout Louisiana,” the article noted. “The American Red Cross estimates that between 25,000 and 100,000 people would die” if the hurricane floods breached the levees and overwhelmed the city’s power plants and took out its drainage system.[1]

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Ismael Hossein-zadeh is a professor of economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of the newly published book, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism His Web page is http://www.cbpa.drake.edu/hossein-zadeh
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