THE NEW ORLEANS DISASTER

For days, vast numbers of people, most of them poor African-Americans, remained abandoned amid the floodwaters. The government was not even aware that thousands had gathered at the New Orleans Convention Center, without food, water, or shelter, until television reporters asked federal officials about their status. For days, bodies floated in the streets and people died in city hospitals and nursing homes. By the time aid began to arrive, damage stood at $80 billion, the death toll was around 1,500, and two-thirds of the city’s population had been displaced. The televised images of misery in the streets of New Orleans shocked the world and shamed the country. To leave the poorest behind and unhelped, one editorial writer commented, was like abandoning wounded soldiers on a battlefield.

Residents of New Orleans, stranded on a rooftop daps after flood waters engulfed the city, frantically attempt to attract the attention of rescue helicopters.

Hurricane Katrina shone a bright light on both the heroic and the less praiseworthy sides of American life. Where government failed, individual citizens stepped into the breach. People with boats rescued countless survivors from rooftops and attics, private donations flowed in to aid the victims, and neighboring states like Texas opened their doors to thousands of refugees. Like the publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), the hurricane’s aftermath alerted Americans to the extent of poverty in the world’s richest country. Generations of state and local policies pursuing economic growth via low-wage, nonunion employment and low investment in education, health, and social welfare had produced a large impoverished population in the South. Once a racially mixed city, New Orleans was now essentially segregated, with a population two-thirds black, surrounded by mostly white suburbs. Nearly 30 percent of New Orleans’s population lived in poverty, and of these, seven-eighths were black.

For a moment, people previously invisible to upper- and middle-class America appeared on television screens and magazine covers. Stung by criticism of his response to the hurricane, President Bush spoke of the need to take aggressive action against “deep, persistent poverty” whose roots lay in “a history of racial discrimination.” But unwilling to raise taxes, the Republican Congress instead cut billions of dollars from Medicaid, food stamps, and other social programs to help pay for rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast. A year after the hurricane hit, the population of New Orleans stood at half the pre-storm total, and reconstruction had barely begun in many neighborhoods.

Hurricane Katrina had another result as well. The shutting down of oil refining capacity on the Gulf Coast led to an immediate rise in the price of oil, and thus of gasoline for American drivers. With the rapidly growing economies of China and India needing more and more oil, and with instability in the Middle East threatening to affect oil production, prices remained at historic highs throughout 2006. Despite decades of talk about the need to develop alternative energy supplies, the United States remained as dependent as ever on imported oil and extremely vulnerable to potential disruptions of oil imports. Rising prices threatened to derail the economic recovery by dampening consumer spending on other goods. They also dealt yet another blow to American automobile manufacturers, who had staked their futures on sales of light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs). These vehicles generated high profits for the car companies but achieved very low gas mileage. When gas prices rose, consumers shifted their purchasing to smaller cars with better fuel efficiency, most of which were produced by Japanese and other foreign automakers.

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