United States

NGO’s, Katrina and New Orleans

As global climate change bites deeper and deeper, we are seeing ever more climate disasters. Among other things, these disasters will be met with reliance on NGO’s like the Red Cross for relief. The experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city in 2005 shows what we can expect. Here, Mike Howells, a Katrina survivor, reviews that experience. Mike has been a resident of New Orleans since 1983 and is a member of the New Orleans Revolutionary Socialist Network.

Katrina survivors

The focus of this article is on NGO intervention in New Orleans during what FEMA refers to as the Response Stage of the 2005 Hurricane Disaster.  This is told from the perspective of a Katrina Survivor who road out the storm in New Orleans to evacuate even when the National Guard, state police, and the NOPD made a concerted effort to drive survivors out of the city.  From this perspective the intervention of NGOs, kowtowing to the dictates of Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco and Republican President George W. Bush, can be fairly described and malignant neglect.  In the Response Stage of the Katrina crisis meaningful aid to disaster survivors came from self help, other disaster survivors, and, to a lesser extent,  the rescue wing of public security forces.

The Response Stage
The National Governor’s Association defines the Response Stage of Disaster Management as “the actions taken to reduce mortality and morbidity and to prevent further damage to property when the hazard occurs”.  For NGOs key areas of intervention in a disaster zone include: 1.) search and rescue; 2.) triage; 3.) locate medical records; 4.) firefighting; 5.) sheltering victims; and, 6.) acute medical care.

NGOs, the Evacuation,  and the Dropped Ball
NGOs dropped the ball in a really big way even before Katrina landed on the Gulf Coast.  At the first meeting of the New Orleans City Council after the levees burst members of Council questioned the head of the Louisiana Red Cross as to why there was no alternative transportation to evacuate New Orleanians without cars from the city.  The Red Cross said they had attempted to devise  a church based evacuation from New Orleans of those who did not have access to private automobile transportation. But by the time Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered an evacuation of New Orleans only two churches were already committed to helping provide carless New Orleanians with alternative transportation out of the city.  This scenario played a big factor in why 100,000 people road out Katrina in New Orleans.

The state of Louisiana’s contribution to facilitating evacuation from New Orleans was to impose a contra flow system that doubled the traffick outflow capacity away from  New Orleans of the area’s highways and freeways. This measure did nothing to address the plight of those without access to automobile transportation. 

Search and Rescue without the NGOs.
While millions of dollars of private  donations intended to help victims of  Hurricane  Katrina poured into the  coffers of the  Red Cross and otherNGOs the actual work of identifying and rescuing those trapped the floodwaters of New Orleans fell tothose in the floodwaters,  Katrina Survivors who descended into flooded areas on floatable devices, and government security rescue crews(police and military). All involved understood that timely rescues were a matter of life of death. And without these rescue efforts thousands more victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans would surely have died.  

The NGOs, to the best of my memory, contributed nothing or next to nothing, to the rescue and recovery effort in New Orleans.   And it was the rescue and recovery efforts that saved, by far the most lives in Katrina devastated New Orleans.

The blockade that Blanco imposed on flooded New Orleans no doubt did cost lives.  Soon after the levees burst hundreds of private boaters from southwest Louisiana and east Texas arrived on the outskirts of New Orleans in the hope of rendering desperately  needed assistance to the city’s rescue and recovery effort.   Tragically, the National Guard determining who would be allowed entry to the city turned these boaters away.

Racism was on clear display. Here, a white survivor “finds” goods in a store while a black survivor “loots”.

NGOs, Katrina New Orleans,  Emergency Food and Water Supplies
The insistence of NGOs to curry the favor of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, rendered them utterly useless to the 100,000 people in New Orleans during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Blanco issued a directive preventing NGOs, including the Red Cross, from distributing food and water in New Orleans while it was under a mandatory evacuation order. To enforce this order National Guard monitored all the entry points into the city.  Those who did not have official approval to enter the city, and this included NGOs with emergency food and water supplies, were turned away.  

For those still in New Orleans as the days without emergency assistance wore on anger at the NGOs grew.  Radio reports that large donations were being given to the Red Cross to alleviate the hardships of Katrina Survivors only added to the outrage of the disaster Survivors in the storm devastated city.

Four days after the landing of Katrina the Louisiana National Guard arrived at the Superdome, allegedly with enough emergency supplies to feed 15,000 disaster survivors for three days. Only disaster survivors who went to the Superdome or the nearby Ernest N. Morial Conventiom Center were given the emergency food rations.  And truthfully these supplies were woefully short of the amount actually  needed in New Orleans. 

In truth most of the food and water that reached Katrina Survivors in New Orleans at this time came from their own personal food supplies, the personal food supplies of other Katrina Survivors,  and/or looting induced by a fear of hunger.

The failure of the leadership of the Red Cross and other prominent NGOs to publicly denounce Blanco’s decision to prohibit these charities from distributing desperately needed food and water to disaster survivors in New Orleans constitutes a grotesque display of political cowardice.  It also surely contributed to the needless loss of life.

The sources of medical care to victims of Hurricane Katrina initially came exclusively from fellow Katrina Survivors, then the armed forces, and still later, medical NGO staff.  The blockade the Louisiana National Guard imposed on storm devastated New Orleans effectively prevented medical assistance from non Katrina  Survivors to those still in the city until, at the earliest,  four days after the August 29th collapse of the New Orleans levee system. 

In the first five chaotic days of the crisis Katrina Survivors in need of medical care were essentially left to their own devices.  In this environment those in need of medicine were presented with the options of going without, turning to home remedies,  accepting whatever aid a fellow Katrina Survivor could render, and/or rummage through the medicine supplies of a drug store open “courtesy” of looters 

Katrina survivors packed into the Superdome

The entry of the armed forces into New Orleans provided disaster with the possibility of receiving professional medical assistance. I assume some medics were with the National Guard troops that arrived at the Superdome on the Friday after the storm.  For Katrina Survivors outside the Superdome and the Convention  Center access to professional healthcare had to be, at best, hit and miss.  On a journey with Amy Goodman through the Upper Ninth Ward the journalist stepped on a sharp metal object hidden from view by flood water.  Within a matter minutes we did find a National Guard encampment in the Bywater/Upper Ninth Ward area. A medic with the Guard there did provide the reporter with basic medical treatment of the wound.

After the evacuation of Katrina Survivors from the Superdome and the Convention Center the relationship between the National Guard and the Katrina Survivors in New Orleans, the holdouts turned into a fundamentally antagonistic one.   The National Guard, under orders from Blanco, were committed to driving out of New Orleans those disaster Survivors, including myself, who insisted on staying in the still officially closed city.  

For Katrina holdouts the option of receiving professional medical treatment did not resurface until some days later when the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army, fresh from Iraq, entered the city. The Bush Administration refused to allow the Army to be involved in the purging of holdouts from New Orleans. 

As a Katrina holdout based in the French Quarter I did not notice an NGO medical presence in New Orleans until at least two weeks in the crisis.  I approached an emergency medical table on Canal Street and they gave me prescription medicine I desperately needed.  From this point onward I surmised that the NGO medical service in New Orleans mainly catered to the needs of emergency workers in the city.  

At the height of the Katrina crisis in New Orleans the NGOs, no small thanks to Governor  Blanco, were missing in action as far as the disaster  survivors in the city were concerned. 

Simply put. The NGOs did not play a significant role in coming to the aid of Katrina Survivors in New Orleans during the Response  Phase of the crisis.  Part of the responsibility for this rest with Governor Blanco’s reluctance to allow NGOs in Katrina flooded New Orleans.   The failure of the NGO to publicly demand that Blanco lift her ban on their presence in New Orleans also contributed greatly to this situation. 

At the same time it needs to recognized that much of the disaster aid that reached Katrina Survivors at the height of the crisis came from fellow Katrina survivors.  The crucial work that Katrina Survivors played in ensuring that vulnerable disaster survivors received the aid needed for survival in the midst of catastrophe runs counter to the widespread media depiction of those trapped in New Orleans as helpless victims, uncaring criminals or dangerous predators. Hopefully this article leads to a more balanced view of the role that both Katrina Survivors and NGOS played, or did not play, in the unfolding of disaster. 

Oaklandsocialist comments: We should also remember what happened in Mexico after the devastating earthquake there in 1985. Neither the government nor any NGO’s provided any relief. As a result, people in the neighborhoods organized to carry out emergency actions like digging their neighbors out of the rubble. This organizing led to the creation of community organizations that then went on to fight for community rights for years afterwards.

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