Monday, September 05, 2005

Mercs and DVD's 

The disaster in New Orleans is Topic A on every political blog, but if you are not yet afflicted with Katrina fatigue you should know that the bard of New Crobuzon, our eminent colleague China Mieville, is performing miraculous spadework at Lenin's Tomb, unearthing stories of startling puissance on what seems like an hourly basis. Two examples, both posted since our last visit yesterday morning:

1.) "In the unsentimental world of business there’s no cataclysm that’s not also an opportunity," writes Mieville, in noting an eerie similarity between Baghdad and New Orleans that Tom Engelhardt missed. The two ravaged cities are both swarming with mercenaries:
It was the media who started it. Terrified for the safety of their correspondents among angry poor, NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and others paid for ‘security services’ to escort them. In point of fact, rather than attacking the media, the 'bad people' of New Orleans, as Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has vociferously complained, have instead had the disgraceful impertinence to complain to the journalists about being left to die, have sought out cameras and begged for help down the lenses. You could argue that separating yourself from your story with armed men might not be the best journalism, but whatever – NBC et al wanted some muscle on their side.

But what were at first a few jobs for the mercs have now become an opportunity, because other businesses – Hilton is mentioned, and Marriott, and there are doubtless many more – are scared: their property is under threat.

To be sure, the 'security' purveyors might make a few half-hearted noises about helping the desperate, whatever, but when, for example, Blackwater USA says it has ‘joined the ongoing relief efforts . . . to help assist in evacuating citizens’, what does it mean? Well, it lists the services that are ‘available’ – which include, ominously, particularly given its veterans' histories, ‘crowd control’ – then provides a number to ring if you have ‘a security or evacuation request.’ A request, one imagines, backed by dollars.

The Steele Foundation is a bit more explicit about how it can ‘assist clients’: it can provide security and safety ‘at designated client locations’; it can ‘protect client personnel and … secure assets’. It provides a painfully accurate analysis of what’s gone wrong, and a promise about what Steele’s ‘Global Rapid Response’ can do about it.
At a time when federal recovery agencies are staged outside of New Orleans and unable to assist the population due to security risks; at a time when the private security and public law enforcement agencies have been decimated; when companies have been unable to secure government resources; when fuel sources have been depleted and emergency generators are failing; when the downtown area has been cut off from food supplies; when people are trapped in buildings and unable to evacuate on their own, Global Rapid Response(TM) has been able to proactively support clients during the crisis.

So while most of New Orleans has been left to die of starvation, thirst, heat, disease and violence, a few people have some support. Despite the lack of doctors for the dying, there's medicine for business, and while the state won’t even let the Red Cross in to help the dying, because it will ‘keep people from evacuating', the soldiers of fortune can come and go, to minister to their clients.
2.) You have undoubtedly read elsewhere about the Karl Rove-Dan Bartlett plan to blame state and local authorities for the lethally inept response of the federal agencies charged with emergency preparedness and disaster management. So far that campaign has been erected on a framework of particularly egregious lies: that FEMA and DHS could not and did not anticipate the extent of the havoc a hurricane would wreak (the heads of both agencies were briefed well in advance); that Louisiana Gov. Blanco was slow to declare a state of emergency (she was not); and that the feds were powerless to intervene until she did (the administration's own National Response Plan, adopted in December of 2004, authorizes a "proactive federal response" to catastrophic events: "Notification and full coordination with States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources").

The fact that Mr. Bush's handlers are shopping for a (preferably Democratic) patsy does not, however, mean that local authorities are guiltless. Take New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, the lifelong Republican who pulled a mugwump mere days before filing for the mayoral race:
But most importantly of all – and to stress, this goes very far beyond Ray Nagin himself – he's not being entirely honest when he implies that all this chaos was unforeseen.

In fact, everything has gone according to the plan he signed off on.

It's not just the hurricane that was foreseen: it's not just that more than 100,000 people would not be able to leave that was foreseen: it's the catastrophe that followed. The city authorities knew what would happen ever since they simulated this scenario with 'Hurricane Pam' last year. In fact the utter destitution of the desperate was not just predicted: it was planned for. This very month, the city was about to distribute a load of DVDs to 'vulnerable, low-income neighbourhoods', which told the poor what they could expect from their authorities in the event of a catastrophic hurricane.

Nothing. Not a fucking goddamn thing.

As a July 24, 2005 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune (not online but extensively quoted here) put it: 'City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans' poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you're on your own'. Mayor Nagin himself appeared on the DVD, telling people that they wouldn't be evacuated, or any support provided. The city had the resources to put together a digital package to tell the poor that there were no resources for them.

New Orleans' response to the disaster took account of all its citizens. For those better off, with the means to escape, a new contraflow system to expedite their evacuation worked much better than during Hurricane Ivan. For the trapped, there was that promised nothing at all.
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