Disaster Profiteering: Purging the Poor in the New New Orleans

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We speak with writer and author Naomi Klein about what some are calling the real looting of New Orleans. In this week’s cover story in The Nation magazine, Klein reports on how the city’s poorest evacuees are being kept out of thousands of perfectly livable empty homes. [includes rush transcript]

Hurricane Rita is now just a day or so away from the US coast and more than 1.8 million people are being told to evacuate Gulf Coast communities, particularly in Texas and Louisiana. For many, it is a horrible nightmare that has struck twice. And as Rita bears down on the US, the devastation of Katrina remains. A lot of attention has focused on the government’s failures to protect the people of Louisiana and the question that still looms over all of this is if New Orleans was New England, would this have been allowed to happen? Well, as calls increase for an independent investigation into the Bush administrations handling of the hurricane, the wealthy elite of Louisiana, politicians and corporations are moving ahead with what may best be termed an agenda of disaster profiteering.

Today, we are going to take an in-depth look at what some are calling the beginning of the real looting of New Orleans. The cover stories of this week’s Nation magazine examines what has been happening behind the scenes as wealthy business leaders meet with politicians and government officials, plotting a path to rebuild New Orleans their way. Meanwhile, these same forces have brought in some of the most feared private security companies in the world to protect their interests.

  • Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist and author of “Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate” and “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.”
    - Read Naomi Klein’s article: “Purging the Poor”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, let’s begin with you. Lay out this story, what you have found, “Purging the Poor.”

NAOMI KLEIN: Thanks, Amy. I guess listening to Juan’s introduction; maybe what we’re seeing is an attempt to turn New Orleans into New England. It’s really an extremely radical vision, and I think the context of this is there’s something about natural disasters that brings out a really dangerous apocalyptic side in the national psyche or in certain people in positions of power where there’s this actual sense that these cataclysmic events are almost redemptive in their violence.

And we started to hear this very early on after Katrina hit, where, not just from evangelical Christian sides, we started to hear, “maybe this is punishment for Mardi Gras and sodomites and we’ve cleaned the city”, but you hear it from the mayor, Ray Nagin, “for the first time New Orleans is free of crime and violence and we’re going to keep it that way”. There’s almost a sense that free of people, the city has become this blank slate. In that context, this fantasy can be built from scratch.

The buzzwords to listen for in terms of the reconstruction of New Orleans are “smaller”, “safer”. And the idea is that in the city, wealth really buys altitude, and so the effect of the flood was not at all democratic. The people who were able to buy land on high ground, their neighborhoods are relatively unscathed, and many of them never left or have been able to return. The people who were hit hardest were the people who we saw on television, you know, in the Superdome. These are the people who lived in the low-lying areas. So, the idea now is, okay, maybe we won’t rebuild those areas at all, and when — on September 15, when the mayor said that certain areas are able to be re-inhabited, this is before Rita presented itself as the threat that it, it was clear that the people re-populating New Orleans didn’t look very much like the people who lived there before. It was overwhelmingly white, whereas the people still in shelters were overwhelmingly black. So, I think that the overall vision is massive land grabs, radical gentrification, and as Jeremy’s piece makes clear, the gentrification is happening with privatized military force.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in your article, Naomi, you talk about the areas that have begun to be repopulated, and you mention the census figures on the racial breakdowns the French Quarter: 90% white, the Garden District: 89% white, Audubon: 86% white. And you talk about the attempts to — the housing that was vacant in these neighborhoods that is not being used to settle some of those dislocated. Could you talk about that for a minute?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I was really struck, Juan, that there’s just been this general acceptance that because of this geographical quirk of New Orleans which is that the rich and white live on high ground, and the poor live in low-lying areas that of course, there is going to be this massive demographic shift in the city. There’s been this acceptance that the people who were displaced to Houston and are now being displaced again and that have been scattered across the country will keep moving, because there’s really nowhere for them to return to. This became accepted wisdom very, very quickly. I was doing some research about the fights over development before the hurricane, because one of the things that I have noticed in my research is these huge, cataclysmic events are often opportunities to exploit the dislocation that happens after a natural disaster to ram through very unpopular policies.

So I started researching what the battles were in New Orleans before the hurricane. And, of course, there were very, very fierce, an you know you’ve covered this on your show, very fierce battles going on around housing projects, and gentrification in the city where conflicts between people who were demanding affordable housing and particularly the tourism sector on the French Quarter, and over the course of the research, I saw the staggering feature, which is that the French Quarter, which as you said is 90% white, is also almost half empty. In the most recent census, and the market hasn’t changed since then, the French Quarter had a 37% vacancy rate, which means that 37% of the apartments and homes in the French Quarter are sitting empty. They’re sitting empty because the people who own the buildings have decided that they would rather board up the apartments than take reduced rent, because they’re making enough off the commercial rents, renting to restaurants and bars and so on.

So when I saw this massive dislocation happening, and all of these people saying, “well, there’s nowhere for them to return to”, I looked at the census again, and looked at all of these other areas that the mayor has said are dry and inhabitable and found that there were comparably high vacancy rates in other areas, like the Garden District and Central Business District. What we found was that in fact there are 12,000 empty apartments and houses in the dry areas. Which means that those — those could be affordable houses for people.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, they argue that the authorities — the authorities argued there’s no infrastructure to support them: no water, no electricity, or the water is worse than that — there’s water but it’s polluted.

NAOMI KLEIN: I’m not — you know, I don’t think it could happen at this point tomorrow, but the mayor has said — and obviously, because it’s possible that the city could flood again, but the context that we’re talking about is that the mayor said these areas are ready to be re-inhabited by the people who lived there previously. If they’re ready to be re-inhabited by the people who lived there previously, then those apartments could clearly be opened up and it could be part of the reconstruction process rather than just scattering people.

And we have heard this demand from community groups like Community Labor United, demanding the right to return to the city. This is a huge political issue related to this radical militarized gentrification agenda. Because people can’t fight for their economic and social rights saying you know, we want schools and hospitals to rebuild. We want affordable housing. They can’t make those demands. They can’t fight for their social interests, economic interests if they’re not in the city. If they’re scattered, living in shelters.

So, I think that there can be a fairly short term plan to get people into those houses. I have talked to some legislators who say it’s a pretty simple process of the city passing an ordinance, and then federal monies being used to issue Section 8 vouchers to pay landlords 100% of the rent. All that’s lacking, Amy, is really just political will to do it, because this doesn’t fit the Bush Agenda for the so-called “reconstruction of New Orleans”, because that agenda is really treating the city as a laboratory for their so-called “Ownership Society”. So, rather than subsidizing rents, what they’re interested in is this bizarre Urban Homesteading Act, which would auction off federal land or lottery off federal land and people would build homes on that land.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Also, Naomi, your article talks about a document that you got a hold of that deal deals with some meetings that have occurred to discuss how to buy, I think it was the Heritage Foundation was involved, to begin to discuss how to implement some of the conservative movement’s programs under the guise of dealing with the crisis of Katrina?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. There are two key documents that people should really take a look at. We’re going to have them up on The Nation website and I’m sure we can have them up on Democracy Now! as well. There’s two documents. They come from the same people, and they’re connected. The first one comes from the Republican Study Group, which is the caucus of Republican lawmakers in Congress, headed by Mike Pence. It is called the “Pro Free Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices.” It comes out of a meeting that took place at the Heritage Foundation on September 15th, where people from the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks got together with the Republican Study Group members, and they brainstormed thirty-two policy demands to package in as hurricane relief. And we have already seen several— this is why I think it should be taken extremely seriously, is that the first of the demands is automatically suspending Davis-Beacon prevailing wage laws in disaster areas.

So it’s pretty clear that the people making this list have a direct line to President Bush. Because that’s already been adopted by presidential decree. The second is to make the entire affected area “flat tax-free enterprise zone”. This is Bush’s “Gulf Opportunity Zone” idea, making the whole region a sort of “Club Med” for corporations to have every tax break they have ever dreamed of. But it goes on. This is where we, I think, need to get ready.

They use the excuse of Katrina to talk about everything from opening up drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to subsidizing — this is an incredible, incredible one of their demands — they want to subsidize oil exploration, saying that the corporations won’t fund this themselves. And then there’s things that we have heard about like they don’t want money to be going directly to public schools for displaced children who are affected by the hurricane. They want it to go into school vouchers. This is already happening.

So it’s a transfer of wealth from the public realm, a huge transfer of wealth from the public realm into private hands. So you have this on the one hand. They issued this on September 13. It’s already being adopted into law on several levels. And then they come up with another document that actually just came out yesterday, which is the Republican Study Committee’s ideas of how to pay for all of these corporate subsidies that they have demanded.

They say, “look, we cannot do this — we cannot pay for so-called “hurricane relief,” and it has very little or nothing to do with the families that were affected by the hurricane; in fact, it’s going to hurt those families.) They say, “the only way we can afford this is if we make some radical cuts to the budget.” They issue another document, the ”RSC Budget Options for 2005”, which says “here’s where we are going to make the cuts”. Once again, you have the radical re-victimization of the very people who the money was intended for.

Their demands are things like: suspend Medicaid’s prescription drug coverage. But more than that, you know, I mentioned the thing that got me was — I mentioned the fact that they’re demanding subsidization for Big Oil for exploration that they won’t pay for. In this other document where they talk about how they’re going to find the money for all of this corporate welfare, they say that they should cut all programs, all federal research programs, into sustainable energy sources. So, here you have the issue that’s really at the core of this disaster, which is global warming and fossil fuels. They’re subsidizing big oil and cutting funding to any alternative energy source research.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist, author of the piece in this Nation magazine called, “Purging the Poor.”

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