|photo: Andrew Stern|
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, dozens of police officers failed to report for duty, as they were fleeing with their families to safety like everyone else. Those who remained were in way over their heads.
The New Orleans Police Department has long been criticized for corruption and incompetence. It is reasonable to wonder if, fully staffed, it would have been up to the task of maintaining order in the city. Reports of looting lit up newscasts, revealing a security vacuum of epic proportions.
Into the breach came the National Guard, as well as several private security contractors better known for their work overseas in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Blackwater USA, one of the biggest private security contractors in the country and perhaps the most well-known, secured a contract on Sept. 1, 2005 with the Federal Protective Service — a division of Homeland Security — to provide protection to FEMA employees arriving in the flooded city at a cost of $950 per guard per day. The company confirmed that it also took contracts with private businesses and individuals. (63)
Before Katrina, the biggest event requiring large-scale security in New Orleans was Mardi Gras. Wackenhut, the secondlargest private security company in the United States, has been one of the city’s main providers of security.
The company’s Security Services Division is one of two branches, along with Wackenhut Services Incorporated (WSI services government clients while the former handles corporate and property clients).
Robert Burns, senior-vice president of the Security Services Division, told CorpWatch that his division alone deployed roughly 500 security guards to the Gulf Coast, heavily concentrated in New Orleans through private clients that he preferred not to name.
The other division was awarded a contract with the Federal Protective Service.
“Many of the places we used to guard are no longer there or have changed dramatically,” Burns said.
His division generated approximately $1 billion in revenue last year, he said. Since the merger two years ago with Group 4 Securicor, Wackenhut’s mission has gone global.
Peter W. Singer, National Security Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said, “The New Orleans Police Department is just broken. There’s massive chaos, and all kinds of players taking advantage of that.” (65)
The controversial question about what exactly constituted a looter in the days following the storm raised pointed questions about the shoot-to-kill mentality that was being institutionalized by the governor and other officials. One man who admitted to looting has since been hailed as a hero by the federal government.
The Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina’s issued its report, “A Failure of Initiative,” in February 2006, in which it hailed Dr Gregory Henderson, a pathologist, for his “heroic” decisionmaking after Katrina:
Henderson “showed that not all looting implies lawlessness when...he raided pharmacies for needed medication and set up ad hoc clinics downtown before moving on to the Convention Center.”
It is doubtful in the pandemonium that anyone would have stopped to check Dr. Henderson’s credentials before taking aim.
DynCorp International LLC, the Texas company that provided personal security to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and is one of the largest security contractors in Iraq, has been awarded over $14 million in post-Katrina contracts, including the creation of a temporary housing facility for the sheriff’s department. (64)
The first private security contractors on the scene, operating under hasty federal contracts, helped to rescue stranded citizens and then shifted to protecting FEMA personnel and public buildings. As looting paranoia swept the city, some even signed contracts with private corporations and individuals to protect and guard businesses and private homes.
Seung Hong, affiliated with the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana and Safe Streets/Safe Communities, lived across the street from the Convention Center prior to Katrina and feared, while fleeing, that he would return to find his home ransacked.
“It was like watching people flee a war zone,” he said. “I saw a truck with no tires, just rims, and pregnant women with kids walking.”
But the gallons of water, food and electronics in his home were just as he left them when he returned.
“Rumors became news,” he said. “It was totally surreal. With no communication, people started to believe that armed gangs were taking over the city.”
Even state officials seemed frightened. Days after the hurricane had passed, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared, “Three hundred of the Arkansas National Guard have landed in the city of New Orleans. These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well, trained, experienced, battle tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets. They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot to kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.”
Even civilians wanted a piece of the action. Richard Bach, 46, an engineer at local television stations WGNO and WNOL, told CorpWatch that he shot a looter from his north Kenner home in Louisiana in the chaotic post-Katrina free for all.
“Crime is down because people like me shoot at looters,” Bach said, adding that pre-Katrina, co-workers and acquaintances regarded him as a “right-wing gun-nut,” but after the storm they lauded his foresight in stockpiling guns, toilet paper, water and other supplies.
“You live by the gun,” Bach said. He doesn’t know what became of the person he shot, aside from the trail of blood left behind. When asked what kind of guns he owns, he said, “You name it.”
James J. Reiss, Jr., a wealthy New Orleans businessman, personally hired the Israeli firm Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) to protect the elite gated community of Audubon Place.
“Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out,” Reiss told the Wall Street Journal.
The atmosphere of race-fueled fear created a lucrative market for mercenary firms like ISI, DynCorp, Blackwater, and Wackenhut. But as they poured onto New Orleans streets, questions emerged: to whom were they accountable? What rules of engagement were they bound to? And was the massive militarization of an American city really necessary?
Jordan Flaherty, editor of Left Turn Magazine and an organizer with the New Orleans Network, told CorpWatch that the city was flooded with private security convoys. Hurricane Katrina, he said, was the “inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption.”
“The sheer scope of the money spent on the militarization of relief is shocking,” he said.
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