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   Vol. 69/No. 35           September 19, 2005  
Social disaster on U.S. Gulf Coast
The degree of the disaster unfolding in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina is unnecessary. This is a social catastrophe due to the disregard for human life by state and federal authorities. The impact of Katrina stands in sharp contrast to the result of a similar hurricane in July that hit Cuba—an island nation near the U.S. Gulf Coast, with much less wealth, but with a revolutionary government of workers and farmers.

When Louisiana authorities ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, the population of half a million was left to fend for itself. Those relying on public transportation were stranded. The federal government did not organize to fly people out in the 24 hours prior to the storm hitting land when evacuation by air was still possible. In the rush out of the city, those with access to resources faired far better than working people, as is always the case in a capitalist country divided into social classes.

The women, men, and children who waited for hours to find shelter in New Orleans’ Superdome were subjected to humiliating searches as rains began to drench them. Razor blades, nail clippers, and other items used for basic hygiene were taken from them by National Guard troops. This affront to human dignity goes hand in hand with the treatment by state governments and their troops of desperate people seeking water, soda, or food as criminal “looters.”

In Mississippi, where the eye of the storm hit, there was even less of an organized evacuation attempt than Louisiana. Tens of thousands of structures were flattened and the death toll is rising. While every layer of the population was affected, the impact is crushing for workers and small farmers in one of the country’s poorest states.

The response by the revolutionary government of Cuba has been starkly different. Evacuations of more than 1.5 million people were organized there in July during Hurricane Dennis and a year ago during Hurricane Ivan. The government and mass organizations—from the Federation of Cuban Women to trade unions and the Union of Young Communists—worked together to make such massive movements of people possible and effective. Collective action and human solidarity were aimed above all at protecting the health and welfare of all people first, and then safeguarding vital equipment and farm machinery. This included ensuring that everyone had water, food, and medical care. As a result, the human toll was minimal: zero last year after Ivan, and 16 in July after Dennis. After each storm the government helped mobilize people to repair the damage and rebuild rapidly.

Natural disasters can’t be stopped. But what happens before, during, and after them is not inevitable. It wasn’t foreordained that thousands would die in Katrina’s path. Cuba shows what’s possible when working people hold state power with a revolutionary leadership.

In the U.S. now, the labor movement should demand massive and immediate government relief, an end to the treatment of human beings in need as criminals, a moratorium on farm foreclosures in all affected areas, and a federally funded public works program to rebuild the destroyed housing and infrastructure quickly.
Related articles:
U.S. Gulf Coast: social disaster unfolds in wake of hurricane  
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