The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 32      September 12, 2011

The true face of capitalism
‘You’re on your own,’ NY mayor tells workers during storm
(front page, news article)
The New York City government imposed its first ever mandatory evacuation and a total shutdown of the city’s transportation system in the days and hours leading up to the hurricane and then tropical storm Irene.

In the 13 states of Irene’s path, 44 people were reported killed and more than 5 million left without electricity. In the New York-New Jersey area, more than 800,000 were without power for more than 48 hours.

By the time Irene hit New York City in the morning of August 28, it had weakened to a tropical storm. But it still caused widespread flood damage in New York, New Jersey, and New England.

New York City was largely spared, with flooding in the lowest-lying areas, 650 downed trees, and 70,000 power outages, nearly all of which were restored in fewer than three days. There were no reported deaths. For the big majority, the greatest hardship was imposed by actions of the city, state, and federal governments.

In the afternoon of August 26, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a mandatory evacuation order for more than 370,000 residents in low-lying “Zone A” areas along with some additional parts of Queens.

People were given scarcely 24 hours to leave by a 5 p.m. deadline the next day. Nonetheless, Bloomberg announced that all city buses and subways would begin shutting down at noon Saturday, five hours before the deadline.

“Keep in mind, after noon tomorrow you’re not going to have the advantage of mass transit to help you,” he warned. And he told the disabled and elderly not to plan on using the city’s Access-a-Ride service that day because “they just don’t have the capacity… . So, in spite of the good weather, if you want to be safe, now’s the time to start moving.”

Bloomberg urged people to stock up, but many stores across the city closed early on Saturday, as those who owned and worked in them left to be on trains and buses home by noon.

In addition to evacuating nursing homes and hospitals in the lowest-lying areas, Bloomberg announced the evacuation of Coney Island Hospital, both campuses of Staten Island University Hospital, the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Manhattan, and NYU Medical Center in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They were shuttered more than a full day before the storm. In some cases, vital services, such as emergency room care and ambulances, were not available until a day after Irene passed.

At the same time, Bloomberg made clear no consideration was given to evacuating any of the 12,000 people held in 10 city jails on Rikers Island. Built mostly on landfill, the small island sits in the river between Queens and the Bronx. According to the city’s evacuation map, it’s surrounded by land designated for evacuation in the event of a Category 2 hurricane, but itself is not designated for evacuation under any circumstances.

Bloomberg announced the city was setting up 81 shelters throughout the city for evacuees. “We have a capacity for something like 70,000 people,” adding that “we do not have beds for 70,000, but we’ll make do.”

The mayor encouraged people to check the city government’s website—which he said had been crashing due to overload—or to call 311 to find out if they are under evacuation orders. “It may take a few minutes, but we have additional staff in the offices pretty much keeping up with demand.”

“There were two evacuation centers near my home,” posted Brooklyn resident Yoo Eun Lee on at 7 a.m., August 27. “I chose to go to the John Jay school because it was close to the subway station, a decision I came to regret so much. Because I wanted to check whether the evacuation center was already packed, I dialed 311 and it never worked.”

The staff intimated that free bus transportation might be organized the next day for those who lived far away, she wrote the next morning. But that afternoon, “Bad news: no chartered bus ride. And still no public transportation.”

“You can listen to the noise of the elevated train,” Bloomberg opened his press briefing on the morning of August 27. “That’s not going to be here this afternoon, and I think that’s the message that people have to start understanding,” he scolded listeners.

“We do not, incidentally, recommend that anyone wait for a bus to evacuate. The best thing to do is to use your own or public transportation to get yourself to a shelter, and that means you’ve got to do that right now.” Otherwise, he said, “you’ll be on your own,” which he followed up with a warning: “Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish, and it’s against the law.”

Bloomberg declined to say that by this time meteorologists were predicting Irene would be downgraded to a tropical storm before hitting the city. “We expect a strong Category 1 storm to hit us tonight with winds between 55 and 75 miles an hour.” But Category 1 is defined by winds between 74 and 95 miles per hour.

“You say it’s a few drops,” he concluded derisively. “This is going to be a very serious storm.” Meanwhile, media hype was building by the hour.

Bloomberg announced that “an awful lot of buildings,” including all public housing facilities, were turning off elevators. Indeed many buildings across the city, including this reporter’s apartment building in the Bronx, had no elevator service the entire weekend. “We just don’t need people stuck in elevators… . The Fire Department should be standing by for real emergencies,” Bloomberg said.  
Class -differentiated measures
But such measures were implemented in a sharply class-differentiated manner. Luxury rentals across the street and around the corner from the Isaacs Houses in East Harlem, for example, had no intention of shutting anything down unless they lost power, according to interviews with building staff by DNAinfo reporter Jeff Mays.

In the afternoon, after public transport was no longer running, Bloomberg ordered everyone left in Zone A public housing to evacuate immediately, saying buses were being sent to housing projects.

“Your buildings are shutting down. Your elevators are shutting down. Your boilers are shutting down,” the mayor said as a pressure tactic. The shutdowns were implemented well before the deadline, making it harder for many tenants to actually evacuate.

Despite incessant prodding and exaggerated admonitions, many in public housing decided instead to stay. For example, only about half the residents left the large Jacob Riis housing complex in the evacuation area, one building worker told DNAinfo. Fewer than 10,000 spent the night in city shelters.

The vast majority of some 600 seniors living in high-rise apartments in Atlantic City, N.J., responded similarly to mandatory evacuation orders by Gov. Chris Christie. Christie publicly and disrespectfully implored them to leave but acknowledged he couldn’t force them and did not intend to arrest anyone.

“As usual we were just looking out for each other,” Becky Duer, 67, a resident at Best of Life Park, told Associated Press. Duer insisted the governor owed them an apology for the way he spoke to them.

“People seem to think when you turn 62 your mind automatically goes and you can’t make a rational decision,” Phyllis Ehert, 74, told AP. “We all talked about it, considered what was best for our own individual needs and made a decision based on that.”

“Get the hell off the beach,” Christie insisted at an August 26 press conference. “You’re done, it’s 4:30. You’ve maximized your tan.” Then, after the storm passed August 28, he boasted, “The fact that we were successful in evacuating over a million people was a preemptive measure that I am confident saved lives.”

“Better to be over-prepared than not ready” was the refrain by politicians and the media in face of mounting evidence that the government’s response was one that would leave the people of New York City utterly unprepared on their own in the event of any real disaster.

In his August 27 afternoon address, Bloomberg said the subway system would probably not be up until “well into the day on Monday [August 29].”

Restoring service “involves us literally walking all the tracks, with our staff repairing things that we see with crews, and then running non-revenue trains over the tracks to be able to see everything is safe,” insisted MTA Chairman Jay Walder. “This is a difficult process … it will take some time.”

At 7:35 p.m. August 28, the New York Post reported that a handful of trains might be back up by Monday at noon. An hour later Gov. Andrew Cuomo suddenly announced that all subway service would be restored by 6 a.m.—and it was, in some cases well before that.

The hurricane turned out to be an occasion for the U.S. military to test its response to “domestic incidents.”

In the largest deployment of National Guard troops in New York since Sept. 11, 2001, some 7,700 airmen and soldiers were mobilized. It also marked the “first time the dual commander concept has been implemented in support of a natural disaster,” according to a Department of Defense press release. Under a “Joint Action Plan for Unity of Effort” adopted in March by the DOD, Department of Homeland Security, and Council of Governors, dual status commanders were appointed to command both federal active-duty forces (which were on standby but not deployed during Irene) and National Guard forces.

The entire operation involving the U.S. military and Federal Emergency Management Agency is being overseen by the U.S. Northern Command. Established in 2002, NORTHCOM is the first military command with responsibility over the United States and the rest of North America. Its stated mission is to “organize and execute homeland defense and civil support missions.”  
Contrast with Cuban Revolution
The U.S. capitalist rulers’ response contrasts sharply with that of Cuba, where working people have held and defended their socialist revolution for five decades. Because of this, evacuation is a social, not individual, undertaking and is organized on the basis of solidarity from the neighborhood and town to national level.

“Though struck 16 times by major hurricanes in this decade, only 30 people have lost their lives in Cuba, whereas during Hurricane Katrina alone, 1,500 people died in the United States,” pointed out a 2010 report titled “Putting Preparedness Above Politics: U.S.-Cuba Cooperation Against the Threat of Hurricanes” by the Center for International Policy.

During Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav in 2008, the most devastating in Cuba’s history, some 444,000 homes were damaged and 63,000 completely destroyed, along with extensive damage to electrical power and other infrastructure. More than 3 million people were evacuated.

Hundreds were killed in Haiti during those storms. In the United States, 84. In Cuba, which took the brunt, no one died as a result of Gustav and only seven during Ike.

After the hurricanes hit, the revolutionary government organized measures to alleviate the burden on working people. For example, 70 volunteer brigades were established to rebuild homes.

During Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, some 1.9 million were evacuated. Some 2,500 shelters were set up, and 1,700 kitchens with more than 6,000 culinary workers in Havana alone. Everyone had access to doctors and medical supplies.

“They ask us how this is possible” that so many were evacuated and so few died, said Cuban Vice President José Machado Ventura at a meeting in Harlem in September 2008. “It is possible because of the attention the revolutionary government gives to every citizen.” The strength of the revolution is seen in “genuine solidarity,” the revolutionary leader explained.
Related articles:
The true face of capitalism (editorial)
You’re on your own,’ NY mayor tells workers during storm
‘No one even knocked on our door,’ says Brooklyn worker  
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