Lessons of Katrina: ‘You really do need a government’


Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist is famous for saying he wanted to shrink government to the point where “it could be drowned in a bathtub.” Little did most folks know that bathtub would be the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans.

After spending a week in New Orleans and participating in the convention of the International Labor Communications Association, where 100 labor journalists fanned out across the city to interview union leaders, community activists and other residents, I witnessed numerous examples of the Norquist philosophy in action.

Read the stories and view the videos and photos at www.neworleanslabormedia.org You’ll learn that more than two years after Hurricane Katrina struck:

– Thousands of residents still live in FEMA trailers, waiting for their homes to be rehabbed or rebuilt. FEMA is now taking some of the trailers and evicting residents, leaving them nowhere to go.

– The job situation is chaotic, with the government doing little to address the need for skilled workers to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, an untold number of essentially migrant workers are being exploited.

– Children are on waiting lists to attend public schools that have been turned over to private contractors to operate.

– Few hospitals are open and residents drive miles to neighboring communities for routine medical care.

– Public services are inadequate. Frustrated with inaction by city government, Fire Fighters are raising private funds to rebuild their fire houses. The city’s largest public park has been turned over to a private company from Alabama to operate.

– Large areas of the city – including huge blocks in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East – have been barely touched since the hurricane. Residents say development policies being pursued by government and private companies are designed to prevent low-income and minority residents from returning.

As many commentators have noted, the “recovery” has been the perfect experiment for those subscribing to the Norquist ideology.

“The storm became an opportunity for every discredited policy, every proposal that had been turned down by the voters, to spring forth,” said Wade Rathke, chief organizer for ACORN and SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans.

Louisiana held elections on Saturday for offices ranging from state agriculture commissioner to governor. The airwaves were awash with commercials – some of them incredibly nasty – attacking and promoting various candidates. Every block, even those with falling-down houses, was dotted with giant lawn signs.

What was most striking to me, as I talked with residents of the city, was that not one person raised the election as part of the solution. Not one person described any attempt to mobilize people around a particular party or candidate.

The trauma of the hurricane and the astounding lack of response by government fueled an alienation that already existed before 2005, Rathke said.

“The glaring absence of any government at the state, federal and local level was crippling to the citizens,” he said.

Add another name to the list of victims: Democracy.

The coverage on www.neworleanslabormedia.org describes how individuals and organizations – including the labor movement – are stepping up to try to fill the gap. They are cleaning up neighborhoods, rebuilding homes and training workers for jobs.

It’s a mammoth task – one that could be eased if the residents of the hurricane-ravaged region could draw on the full support of their fellow Americans.

Stated Rathke: “You really do have to have a government in this country.”

Barb Kucera, editor of Workday Minnesota, reported this story as part of a team at the convention of the International Labor Communications Association convention in New Orleans Oct. 18-20. View more articles, video, audio and photos from New Orleans at www.neworleanslabormedia.org