a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Lessons from Katrina: Shock Doctrine… or Occupy Sandy?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd November 2012

Goldman Sachs Tower during Sandy blackout

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 poured in to the disaster areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, and affected residents themselves rallied in many innovative ways 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.”  But teachers like Mike Klonsky thought otherwise; 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 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, 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,” the immediate pressure in Pennsylvania to deploy shiny new “P3” (public/private partnership) initiatives for the rebuilding process.’s Joseph DiStefano reports: “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).”

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Emergency Management, Climate Denialist Parties tied; Disaster Prevention Party distant third

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st November 2012

So far, the Obama administration appears to be doing a good enough job with post-Sandy relief efforts that even Republican governor Chris Christie has been effusive in his appreciation.  Adding to the surreal atmosphere was the Return of Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown, criticizing the Obama administration for being  too quick with their federal response — and then doubled down the next day asserting that Obama hadn’t got enough political mileage out of the disaster.  With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Get ready for more like this.

As Democrats bask in the glow of being the Party of Better Emergency Management, though, some voters were on the lookout for a little more: a commitment to fighting the global warming that’s fueling ever more frequent and powerful weather disasters — heck, even just acknowledgement of the problem.

We sure haven’t seen it in the presidential debates;  after the second debate, Charles Pierce of Esquire noted,

On Tuesday night, we had two guys arguing about who’s a bigger friend to coal, about who will allow the most oil drilling on federal land, and about who will best extract the most carbon-based fuels out from under the country over the next four years.

With that kind of leadership as a backdrop, I’ve seen discussions literally comparing New Yorkers — and perhaps coastal dwellers everywhere — to the Jews in pre-Holocaust Germany: doomed unless they leave or unless they’re saved by a political miracle, and wondering what it is that is paralyzing all of us from taking sensible action.  The fear is not far-fetched; it turns out to be an engineering exercise.   According to a Nature Climate Change article (Lin et al, Jan 2012):

…the change of storm climatology will probably increase the surge risk for NYC; results based on two GCMs [global climate models] show the distribution of surge levels shifting to higher values by a magnitude comparable to the projected sea-level rise (SLR). The combined effects of storm climatology change and a 1m SLR may cause the present NYC 100-yr surge flooding to occur every 3–20yr and the present 500-yr flooding to occur every 25–240yr by the end of the century.

(Via Corey Robin; emphases added.) Realizations like this shouldn’t just result in support for higher seawalls, though; it should re-energize political support for addressing global warming itself.

It seems to me we have an obvious opportunity to do that: if you’re in a “safe” state where Obama leads Romney by a wide margin or vice versa — like New York —  voting Green next Tuesday ought to be a pretty simple, low-risk, high gain experiment.*  A lot of people are on the verge of really getting it about global warming — but others are on the verge of giving up about it. Let’s raise our hands, vote Green, and show them all — and Democratic apparatchiks besides — that there could be a “fight global warming” bandwagon to get on.

You should follow up your “vote” message with some “messages about your vote”: letters to the editor, Facebook posts, tweets, and/or musical productions explaining what you’ve done and why; there may well be other reasons, from the war on civil liberties and human rights to the war on the safety net to the possibility of war with Iran.  But I would stress Hurricane Sandy, because people get that pretty easily right now.

Sure, there’s no guarantee the message will be received, or that it will be acted on.  But if you’d like your message to be heard, you’ve got to send it.

UPDATE, 11/1: Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On (The Onion)
* If you’re in a swing state, vote Green too, *if* Stein really represents your views best — there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, Obama never owned your vote, he can only earn it or lose it. I’d vote Stein in Ohio this year, because Obama lost my vote. And while I get why many would not, I think it should be because they, on balance, really *prefer* Obama over Stein when *all* is said and done — and not out of some misplaced sense of shame about otherwise helping Romney win.

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Pact with the devil? Hmm.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th January 2010

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Haiti Earthquake Reactions
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

My “favorite” part of the infamous Pat Robertson outburst on the terrible earthquake in Haiti was what’s her name next to him — pact with the devil!? how’m I supposed to react to that!? umm… disapproving little “hmm”, little concerned frown.

Her reaction wasn’t “oh my gosh a PACT with SATAN? we’ve got to DO something.” It was more like she she’d just heard from Heather that the Haitians hang out with the wrong crowd at her high school — so they should DIE.

And she half agrees, but she also half thinks maybe people are right and she’s teamed up with a nut.  But a nut who pays her salary. So: “hmm.”

= = =

Enough about Elmer Gantry and his sidekick.  We’ve given a couple hundred for Haiti now, I hope you’ll dig as deep as you can.  Lots of good groups out there, but one that keeps coming up is Partners in Health; see, for example, an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times by Tracy Kidder (“Strength in What Remains”) mentioning them.  Also good, of course: Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, and others.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2008

Hurricane Gustav, false-color satellite image by NOAA

Cross your fingers and hope that FEMA, New Orleans, and those levees are ready for this one; last year, serious weaknesses were reported in the levees lining the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ship channel — the same part of the levee system that broke under Katrina’s onslaught, flooding the Lower 9th Ward.

Image via “American Street“, where updates are promised as the storm approaches.

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One Chinese family suffers; no translation necessary

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th May 2008

An NPR team followed a couple of parents back to the rubble of their apartment building in Dujiangyan, and reported it inDujiangyan Parents’ Search for Child:

With some bodies now found, the military was called in. Soon, about three dozen military police arrived in green camouflage fatigues and black rubber boots but with no supplies or equipment. Mrs. Fu and Mr. Wang ran out to buy them cotton gloves and white cotton face masks. Other neighbors brought shovels. Friends brought out a white sheet and told Mrs. Fu they hoped her son and his grandparents would be found alive but just in case, they would tear this sheet into pieces so they could cover the victims’ faces.

Just heard this on NPR. No happy ending here, or for thousands of other Chinese families:

At 4:40 in the afternoon, a worker came out and said, “we’ve found a child.” The parents went limp. “Was he about two, wearing a striped shirt?” the mother cried. The worker nodded. The parents, along with aunts and uncles, sobbed and clutched each other tight. The mother cried out to the worker through her tears one last desperate appeal, “Did you call out to him? Maybe he had just fainted.”

You didn’t need a word of Chinese to know what the parents were crying when the bodies of their boy and his grandparents were finally found. I have a bad feeling there will be far more than the reported 15,000 dead estimated so far. More NPR coverage of the China earthquake at Chengdu Diary.

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Even Myanmar’s junta may hit this one out of the park

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th May 2008

First Lady Condemns Junta’s Response to Storm –

‘Although they were aware of the threat, Burma’s state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path,’ she said. ‘The response to this cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta’s failures to meet its people’s basic needs.’

UPDATE, 5/8: How hypocritical is Ms. Bush? ThinkProgress counts the ways.

But herewith an end to politics; it’s more important to (try to) help Burmese victims of this catastrophe. Nationally, consider OxFam America (Charity Navigator gives them a 4-star rating). Locally, the Mandalay Restaurant is collecting donations and forwarding them to a local temple; they’re also planning a fundraiser soon. If/when I get details, I’ll post them here. And I’ll be there — not only is it a good cause, but the “Nephew Restaurant Guide to Silver Spring” gives Mandalay “two thumbs way up.”

UPDATE, 5/10: In comments, Nell points to a Daily Kos post by “zawmoo” recommending a Myanmar ex-pat doctor’s group which can “route around the damage” of the junta’s refusal to cooperate with relief efforts:

Checks to:
The Myanmar American Medical Education Society, Inc.
MEMO: Emergency Relief Fund
and mailed to:
Myanmar American Medical Education Society
128 Mott Street, Suite 302
New York, NY 10013

Please have a look.

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Cross your fingers for New Orleans

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th August 2005

Uh-oh. Washington Post: Evacuation Ordered as Katrina Bears Down on New Orleans:

“The mayor of New Orleans ordered the immediate evacuation of the city today as Hurricane Katrina, now a Category 5 storm packing 175 mph winds, bore down on the Louisiana coast after gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico.[…]

The weather service said reports from an Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft indicated that Katrina’s maximum sustained winds increased to near 175 mph, from about 160 mph reported earlier this morning, and that it was packing even higher gusts.”

That’s about 280km/h, for those of you checking in from overseas. The National Weather Service is speaking of “potentially catastrophic and life-threatening” consequences.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) has a very good post rounding up the reasons why “New Orleans plus hurricane” has been a major disaster waiting to happen. See particularly Chris Mooney’s American Prospect article “Thinking Big About Hurricanes.”

Good luck, New Orleans.

UPDATE, 8/29: Via eRobin (“fact-esque”), DailyKos blogger MsLibertarian, and FindArticles, a June 6 New Orleans CityBusiness report noted deep cuts for the New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers:

In fiscal year 2006, the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bracing for a record $71.2 million reduction in federal funding.
It would be the largest single-year funding loss ever for the New Orleans district, Corps officials said. […]
The cuts mean major hurricane and flood protection projects will not be awarded to local engineering firms. Also, a study to determine ways to protect the region from a Category 5 hurricane has been shelved for now

Of course this is evidence of awesome GOP administration and congressional prescience — now that Katrina’s “just” a Category 4.

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Bill Fristian, the grandstanding Christian

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st March 2005

While we’re on the topic of disgusting simulated concern for helpless victims, who can forget Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s visit to tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka earlier this year:

Just before his helicopter lifted off, Frist and aides took snapshots of each other near a pile of tsunami debris.

Get some devastation in the back,’ Frist told a photographer.

(CBS News, via Andrew Sullivan; previously posted on January 9, 2005.)

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Followups department

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th January 2005

Stories touching on various posts on this blog, including…

  • Time shaving: a shameful pattern of corporate theft

    Wal-Mart lawsuit certified in Cambridge, MA (2005/01/08): “The lawsuit alleges that Wal-Mart managers deleted hours from workers’ payroll records, and did not provide meal and rest breaks. The suit is among a flurry of legal complaints brought against Wal-Mart in recent years.”

  • German prosecutors seek greater U.S. cooperation in Motassadeq 9/11 case

    9/11 Cases Proving Difficult in Germany (2004/12/13): “Prosecutors and the five-judge panel overseeing the trial said they still hope U.S. officials will provide fresh evidence or allow Mohammad and Binalshibh to be questioned directly. The German federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, said Tuesday at a news conference in the city of Karlsruhe that U.S. officials had agreed to provide more information for the Motassadeq trial that he hoped would pave the way for a conviction.

    Nehm did not give details about the information being sought. Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice and State departments did not respond to requests for comment.

    The court has also sent invitations to members of the Sept. 11 commission to testify about the report they issued last summer, which described the formation and inner workings of the Hamburg cell in detail.”

  • Kinsley’s conjecture

    Prairie dogs appear to have their own language (2004/12/06): “They have different ‘words’ for tall human in yellow shirt, short human in green shirt, coyote, deer, red-tailed hawk and many other creatures.

    They can even coin new terms for things they’ve never seen before, independently coming up with the same calls or words, according to Con Slobodchikoff, a Northern Arizona University biology professor and prairie dog linguist.”

    (via Eric Muller, who asks the really important question)

  • Tsunamis

    How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly (2004/12/31), describing scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, unclear on the danger at first — and then unable to do anything about it once the danger was apparent: “Their instinct was to somehow tell more, to warn the region that it would continue, to reach people who could clear beaches. But how? Mr. Hirshorn recalled a tsunami expert he knew in Australia, called and got an answering machine. He left a message. Someone phoned the International Tsunami Information Center, asking if they knew people in the stricken region. The center simply had no contacts in this distant world.”

EDIT, 1/12: Cambridge, MA, not Boston

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Bill Frist, American hero

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th January 2005

CBS News:

Just before his helicopter lifted off, Frist and aides took snapshots of each other near a pile of tsunami debris.

‘Get some devastation in the back,’ Frist told a photographer.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

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