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Lessons from Katrina: Shock Doctrine… or Occupy Sandy?

Goldman Sachs Tower during Sandy blackout [1]

Goldman Sachs Tower, New York City during Hurricane Sandy blackout, 10/29/2012

Hurricane Katrina was not the first large scale American natural disaster.  But whether because of the magnitude of the storm, the inadequate federal and state responses, or both, it was perhaps the first one to shake American confidence that our country was up to the task of taking care of its citizens after a disaster, or of helping communities recover from one.

Even natural disasters, it seemed — usually imagined to be a time of unity and shared commitment — could bring out both the best and the worst in people.  On the one hand, thousands of volunteers [2] poured in to the disaster areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, and affected residents themselves rallied in many [3] innovative ways [4] to begin rebuilding their communities.

On the other hand, though, some people took strategic advantage of the crisis to push agendas they wouldn’t have been able to before — the phenomenon known as “Shock Doctrine” ever since Naomi Klein’s 2007 book of that name.

To give but one example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan once claimed Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans [5].”  But teachers like Mike Klonsky thought otherwise [6]; what really happened, he said, was “the firing of every teacher in the city, the driving out from the city’s schools more than 100,000 mostly African-American children, the busting of the teachers union, and the creation of a new two-tiered school system around a core of privately-managed charters …[with] mostly inexperienced and unqualified TFA teachers [7] teaching poor kids “study and time management skills.” I can only imagine what would happen if this recipe was foisted upon white, middle-class parents. But don’t worry. It never will be.” *

In an essay marking Katrina’s second anniversary, New Orleans professor and activist Bill Quigley identified ten lessons from Katrina [8], including self-reliance, telling your own story,** and understanding that disasters will reveal the structural injustices in the communities involved.  But first and foremost, he wrote,

One. Build and rebuild community.

When disaster hits and life is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your own. Isolation after a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression. Family, community, church, work associations are all important –get them up and working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we need communities to do it. Prize women –they are the first line of community builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight, but women will help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families and communities. Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People and politicians and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if our communities are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one group is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources of individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than people alone.

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy seems to be shaping up similarly for the communities of the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York seaboard as Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath did for the Gulf Coast: a monumental cleanup and repair job, a struggle for aid — and also sometimes a race between residents rebuilding community and outsiders exploiting opportunities for their own policy and/or business agendas.

Thus Yves Smith of “naked capitalism” notes, in” Shock Doctrine, American-Style: Hurricane Sandy Devastation Used to Push for Sale of Public Infrastructure to Investors [9],” the immediate pressure in Pennsylvania to deploy shiny new “P3” (public/private partnership) initiatives for the rebuilding process.  Philly.com’s Joseph DiStefano reports [10]: “Rebuilding the shattered Shore and the swamped New York tunnels, along with badly needed updates to the Northeast’s exhausted roads and rails, will be an opportunity to implement streamlined construction laws backed by Republicans and pro-business Democrats in Congress and the states, says Frank Rapoport, Berwyn-based partner at New York law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge L.L.P., and counselor to contractors who support “public-private partnerships” (P3).”

Smith comments:

…these deals put important public resources paid for by taxes (or even worse, financed by bonds and thus potentially not even yet fully paid for) in the hands of private investors. They then earn their returns by charging user fees of various sorts. The public must rely on the new owners for reinvestment and maintenance, and depending on how the deal is negotiated, may have ceded control as far as fee increases are concerned. This is tantamount to selling the family china only to have to rent it back in order to eat dinner.

Now defenders will argue that there is nothing wrong with this in practice, as long as the price is fair, no one is harmed. That’s spurious. This is worse than an intergenerational transfer. Those future fees not only must recoup maintenance costs (which any owner would presumably pay) and the time value of money, but also the investor’s target return in excess of that. In addition, the large transaction costs of these deals are ultimately borne by the seller.

OccupySandy.org [11]

occupysandy.org [12]; facebook.com/OccupySandyReliefNyc [13]; donate specific, needed items via Amazon.com “wedding registry” [14] 🙂

On a brighter note, community-based disaster relief is not just a FEMA or Red Cross matter any more — as welcome as those can be once they arrive.  In one of the most interesting Sandy developments, Occupy Wall Street has quickly spawned a sophisticated “Occupy Sandy” effort [15]:

In the aftermath of the worst climate change disaster in New York City history, organizers from Occupy Wall Street and 350.org [16] have teamed up with to coordinate a people-powered relief effort for New York’s hardest hit neighborhoods. Beginning with the Lower East Side [17], Red Hook [18], Astoria [19] and Staten Island [20], volunteer organizers are using the new site Recovers.org [21] to connect offers of help with places of need.

The group has already launched a relief hub in Red Hook, in partnership with the Red Hook Initiative, to help coordinate donations of food and supplies and to cook meals for the over 5,000 residents of the Red Hook Houses housing project that are without electricity in the flooded neighborhood. An afternoon relief caravan will head out to the Rockaways, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city. This evening, members of the OWS Puppet Guild will be putting on free puppet shows for children in the Sunset Park and Red Hook neighborhoods.

The group is asking for volunteers, supplies, and financial donations [22] to fund distribution efforts; they’re near the $50,000 mark as of tonight.*** As Occupy organizer Lopi LaRoe puts it:

There is only one force more powerful than a storm like this, and that’s the power of people coming together to help their communities. We’ve been able to put together an amazing network of people in a short time who are providing the help our neighbors need, and building stronger, more resilient communities in the process through mutual aid. Thanks to climate change, this storm is unfortunately only the beginning of an increasing trend of natural disasters hitting large urban areas. We hope that we can provide a blueprint for how to generate a rapid response in the face of such emergencies. All power to the people.

If Katrina is any guide, I think at least some of the communities affected by Sandy will soon find themselves in a fight for their futures.  If so, I also think these communities will be a step ahead of the game if their connection with Occupy gels into a real relationship.

There’s been a lot of more-or-less”knew it couldn’t last” [23] talk about Occupy lately — too theoretical, too precious, too process-oriented, not results-oriented enough. And maybe there’s some truth in some of that. But to my mind, OWS created a hell of a lot in a hell of a hurry last year — a national network, tent cities, buzz, excitement, thought, policy critiques [24] and political self-help guides [25], and a near single-handed reset of the national conversation on the economy.  And all with police just about literally breathing down their necks.  These won’t “just” be people delivering supplies and cooking hot meals — these are people with the political skills, the network, and the dedication that could be a real help as Staten Island, Red Hook and other communities begin to not just dig out of the mess they’re in, but determine their futures as well.

EDITS, 11/4: OccupySandy.org image added.  11/5: image credits, “wedding registry” links added.
UPDATE, 11/16: The Nation article by Naomi Klein, “Superstorm Sandy—a People’s Shock? [26]“; see also  this video interview [27]
IMAGE CREDIT: Eduardo Munoz, Reuters

* Katrina ‘good’ for New Orleans schools? U.S. Dept. of Education says so [5] (Jamil Smith, MaddowBlog, 10/18/2011). In fairness, the New Orleans school system was attacked by the Bush administration, not by Arne Duncan. But he applauded the results.
** Something I joined my friend eRobin and a couple of other collaborators in doing, mostly from a distance, with our blog “Recording Katrina [28]: A collection of survivors’ stories and non-traditional reporting on the recovery effort in the Gulf.”  The Quigley essay [29] is noted there, as are the examples linked in the 2d paragraph.
*** This is spurring some online grousing at the site related to transparency and overhead that “Occupy Sandy” will do well to answer.  But Occupy Wall Street has a reputable financial sponsor — Alliance for Global Justice. They explain their role in the relationship here [30].

1 Comment (Open | Close)

1 Comment To "Lessons from Katrina: Shock Doctrine… or Occupy Sandy?"

#1 Comment By Thomas Nephew On November 5, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

So far, so skeptical as far as longer-term community organizing, reports The Village Voice’s [31]:
“In some cases, the political underpinning of Occupy Sandy’s relief efforts is transparent. Last Wednesday volunteers urged residents of the Red Hook Houses to join them the next day at the projects’ central flagpole for a meeting on building a standing assembly that could address not only relief needs but build the community’s capacity for mutual aid and political power going forward. The residents were clearly skeptical. They were grateful for the batteries, blankets and food from the volunteer-staffed operation at the Red Hook Initiative, but were less interested in the occupier’s vision of disaster community organizing. The next day at the flagpole, almost no one showed up.”
Early days — and of course not a problem if it’s not wanted yet or when it isn’t necessary yet.