Doctors for Global Health Statement on the Man-Made Disaster Left in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

"At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement. An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet."

One might think Iraq, but the scenes are actually from New Orleans. That is how an AP reporter described the scene outside the New Orleans convention center, as the city broke into anarchy and chaos five days after Hurricane Katrina struck. The issues were clear: a complete lack of infrastructure and preparation by the Bush administration and a contempt and complete disregard for poor people and people of color that amounts to criminal negligence.

The overwhelming majority of those depicted in the convention center, as well as those throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama affected disproportionately by Katrina, were poor people and people of color—people left behind who did not evacuate because they did not have the means or ability to do so. They did not "choose to stay behind." They were left behind. All evacuation plans required the area's residents to have working, private cars—plus gas money, nearby relatives or funds for a hotel stay.

The Bush Administration knew of the danger of an impending flood and it knew how to prepare for it. But it had other priorities, like funding the war in Iraq. Bush in 2003 slashed funding for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA) leaving millions of dollars of vital repair work undone. This spring Bush imposed drastic reduction in hurricane and flood-control funding, the steepest in New Orleans history. Funds for levees and modern pumping stations were instead passed out to the rich as tax breaks.

The tragic events in the Gulf Coast have given us a bird's eye view of the decay of U.S. society and the ineptitude and negligence of the government. The poor, in any natural disaster, as in daily life, are the ones who suffer disproportionately. The true face of poor people of color in America was shown by the mass media only because now it could not be hidden. The vast economic disparities that exist markedly delineated by race bore out on our national television screens and in newspapers. The truth is that U.S. society not only forgot about the communities of poor people of color during the recent storm—it had forgotten about them for a long time.

The criminal negligence was exposed and exacerbated by the storm, but this negligence occurs every day in America from the urban ghettos in the South Bronx to the South Side of Chicago, to the rural poor in the South, to East Los Angeles. The breakdown of U.S. society is seen in the extreme violence and anarchy that was allowed to reign. Since the survivors were the poor and people of color, they were left to fend for themselves, yet as soon as stores and private property were in peril the police and military were ordered to "shoot to kill." Most of the looting that occurred was due to a basic human need to survive.

New Orleans' top emergency management official called the federal emergency relief effort a "national disgrace." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded in a slow and inadequate manner, with little or no presence in the majority of the flood stricken areas. Now two weeks later, they have yet to give a concerted and organized response.

Global warming likely super-charged hurricane Katrina as environmentalists had predicted. Bush's energy policies amount to an ongoing conspiracy to add even more carbon to the atmosphere, further destabilizing the climate. Now, with the destruction of New Orleans and numerous surrounding communities, tens of thousands of people are suddenly homeless and jobless, and thousands more are without food, water, or electricity. Thousands of homes are destroyed and the death toll estimated at 10,000 continues to climb. People have been dying from thirst and hunger, as well as chronic disease and lack of medicines and medical attention.

The environmental pollutants, from raw sewage and chemicals to decomposing bodies, have intoxicated the flood water as well as the drinking water and pose a long-term public health risk. As of recently, FEMA still did not have a concerted public health effort to immunize the population at large and prevent infectious disease outbreaks.

For all the billions of dollars spent by the Department of Defense, this "Perfect Storm" showed how the richest country in the world was unable to defend and take care of its own. Bush owes the people of New Orleans and the entire country an apology for under-funding our critical infrastructure. Bush owes an apology to the men and women in uniform for keeping them half-a-world away, fighting a senseless and useless war, rather then making them available to those in need in this national emergency.

Doctors for Global Health (DGH) demands an immediate and continued federal, state and local response to all those people still stranded and those who are homeless. DGH demands that food, water, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities be immediately made available to those in need, on both a short- and long-term basis.

DGH proposes an immediate and concerted effort to immunize children and adults to avoid preventable infectious epidemics. DGH demands a federal pronouncement of emergency Medicare for all those affected by the storm, to ensure adequate access to medical services and medicines regardless of the state in which they may be seeking refuge.

DGH demands an immediate cessation to the Iraq war and occupation and that those monies be used to fund emergency relief and rebuilding.

DGH stands with the storm-battered people in Louisiana and the other Gulf States. The immediate health risks and near-future disease, deaths and violence can only be prevented by devoting sufficient government resources to long-term assistance to the people of the disaster-struck area and by the immediate dismissal of criminally negligent officials. We predict future natural catastrophes as a direct consequence of continued global warming and thus urge a cessation to the continued corporate mass pollution of the environment.

DGH demands a new "New Deal" between the U.S. government and its citizens to help bring people out of extreme poverty and marginalization. We demand that Congress not make President Bush's tax cuts permanent to help stem the tide of redistribution of wealth from the bottom up. We demand that our tax dollars be used to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and thus provide good jobs and help the economy grow. We demand that affirmative action be strengthened rather than destroyed to help confront the racism that obviously still pervades U.S. society.

For its part, Doctors for Global Health interacts with communities on the immediate, the preventative and the long-term, rather than to act as a disaster relief agency. In other words, we take action to prevent social injustice by teaching about and taking steps to remove root causes; we address social injustice directly when we find evidence of problems; and we work toward long-term solutions, including rehabilitation and further prevention.

Barbara Major, DGH Keynote Speaker in Atlanta at the 2004 General Assembly, is Executive Director of Saint Thomas Health Clinic (http://www.stthomasclinic.org/), located in the Saint Thomas/Irish Channel area, one of the poorest districts of New Orleans. This nonprofit health clinic provides a full range of diagnostic and treatment services to the underserved and uninsured population of the St. Thomas/Irish Channel community, in a "comfortable, affordable and respectful manner." The Clinic is both a "dispenser of quality physical and mental heath care services and also a teaching and organizing facility. Pharmacy, social work and medical students, interns and residents from around the country look to the Clinic for the best in culturally competent, anti-racist health care training." Ms. Major is also a trainer at the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. Reporting that the Saint Thomas Health Clinic has been badly damaged, its roof blown off, she has made a special appeal to DGH for long-term support in rebuilding the Saint Thomas Health Clinic. Clearly helping support the rebuilding of the Clinic will be among the DGH post-Hurricane Katrina activities, in addition to other action toward education, analysis of the current situation and prevention of future disasters.

 

If you would like to contribute to this effort, please send your donations to:

Doctors for Global Health

P.O. Box 1761
Decatur, GA 30031, USA
Or online.

 

In health and social justice


The Board of Doctors for Global Health (DGH)


 

— Visit the DGH links page for information on grassroots organizations that are doing relief and reconstruction work in the Gulf Coast.