The victims have been dispersed to states across the country. Many still sleep on cots in arenas, desperately trying to locate family members separated in the furies of Katrina. They are struggling with a staggering psychological toll — destruction of homes, loss of jobs, suffering, abandonment, displacement to a new city, prospects unclear, past literally under water.
But while the victims are simply trying to get their bearings, the barracudas are circling. Naomi Klein, who witnessed this in Iraq, calls it “disaster capitalism.” Congress has appropriated $62 billion already. Hundreds of billions more will be spent on reclaiming the Gulf Coast, rebuilding and relocation. The feeding frenzy has begun.
Already Halliburton is on hand with a no-bid contract for reconstruction. Fluor, Bechtel, the Shaw Group — Republican-linked firms — are lining up for contracts. Lobbyists like Joe Allbaugh, close friend of George Bush, and James Lee Witt, close friend of Bill Clinton — both former heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — are advising their corporate clients to get teams on the scene. Normal rules of contracting and competition are being waived in the emergency. Big bucks are on the table. It is a time to be wired politically.
The ideologues are in the hunt, too. Newt Gingrich is circulating memos calling for turning the region into a massive enterprise zone, slashing corporate taxes, reducing regulations. The oil lobby is pushing for drilling in Alaska and off the shores of the United States. Right wing activist Grover Norquist calls for cutting taxes on the wealthy even more to stimulate the economy. Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flak suggests conservatives use the crisis to try out their favorite ideas — vouchers for education and health care.
President Bush characteristically issued an executive order effectively lowering the wages of reconstruction workers — and hiking the profits of their companies. He wiped out the requirement to pay prevailing wages in the disaster region, apparently thinking that $9 an hour for construction workers was too high a price to pay. The government can save money, no doubt, by exploiting illegal immigrant labor.
The New Orleans business establishment has already created a headquarters in Baton Rouge. They want to reopen the French Quarter, which didn’t suffer much flooding in 90 days. They are planning to lobby for one of the 2008 presidential nominating conventions — although it is hard to imagine that Republicans would want to remind folks of the administration’s monumental failure. They’re talking about capturing the next available Super Bowl.
Business optimism and energy are vital for rebuilding New Orleans. Big dreams and big schemes are essential to the human spirit that will bring the Gulf Coast back. But those who were abandoned in the Superdome are looking at another manmade catastrophe. Dispersed in 40 states, Katrina’s victims are struggling to get by, as companies pick up contracts and others get the jobs. If New Orleans is rebuilt as an enterprise zone, private investors will wait for the government to clean up the mess and then build luxury condos to replace affordable housing. They’ll turn New Orleans into a theme park, with its former residents unable to afford to come back.
We shouldn’t let disaster capitalists make a killing while those who suffered the greatest devastation are left out of the mix. We need a serious plan to rebuild vital infrastructure, to make New Orleans sustainable, to develop affordable housing and mass transit, to rebuild schools. Tax breaks and enterprise zones will end up building floating casinos and luxury condos. We need public investment, linked to a Civilian Construction and Conservation Corps that gives priority to housing, hiring, training and putting to work the poor people who lost.
The Bush administration’s inaction and indifference after Katrina hit abandoned the poor and added to their suffering. It would be tragic now if action by the Republican Congress and the Bush administration added to the misery. These people already have had their past swept away by Katrina’s furies. We should ensure that their future is not erased by right wing ideologues rewarding disaster capitalists and excluding those who suffered the most from the deal.
© 2005 Chicago Sun-Times