It is in places like the projects and the New Orleans neighborhoods of Algiers and the Ninth Ward where the contrast between what huge corporations can do and what intrepid bands of volunteers can accomplish for a tiny fraction of the cost is most apparent.
Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther now in his 60s, realized quickly after Katrina that waiting on the government was going to be futile and costly for the poorest people in the city.
His surviving neighbors needed food, water, and medicine, so he put out a call around the country for volunteers with expertise in healthcare and organizing, and quickly set up a healthcare clinic.
A year later, Rahim has raised millions and hundreds of volunteers-mostly white, college-age kids-have donated their time and effort to his Common Ground Collective. The first health clinic has been joined by two more, and 15,000 patients have been served. A free legal clinic provides advice for residents on how to protect their property from bulldozers, a public canteen offers free food and water, and bands of volunteers in Tyvek suits systematically gut houses in the worst-hit areas. They’ll tarp a house or perform moldremediation for free.
Rahim’s hodgepodge of people from around the country has come together to do what billion-dollar corporations under contract with the federal government could not or would not: clean up the mess and restore basic services to the poorest and most devastated neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, not a single public official with any responsibility for getting the Gulf Coast on its feet has visited Common Ground.
Mary K. “Bebe” Fitzpatrick, 51, told CorpWatch that she was the assistant manager of the HIV unit of the Medical Center of Louisiana, known as the Charity Hospital, and now she’s a Common Ground Health Clinic volunteer.
“We have an amazing opportunity to turn this city around in a way we didn’t have before the storm,” she said.
COME HELL AND HIGH WATER
One of the great catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina was the fact that when the wind died down, the levees flooded, destroying more property and infrastructure in New Orleans than the storm itself.
The levees have been shored up for the current hurricane season, but will need to be massively overhauled and reinforced to withstand a category 5 hurricane. That projectwhich remains on hold until the cities, states, and federal government can agree on a vision and a division of costs-will be the biggest focused domestic construction operation in American history. That means much more money for private Corporations.
A crucial part of that vision will have to be prevention-not only building better levees and floodwalls, but restoring wetlands and barrier islands along the Gulf Coast to absorb a future storm’s most deadly impact: the surge.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana noted in an op-ed in USA Today shortly after the catastrophe that a little federal investment before Katrina in wetlands restoration and rehabilitation could have saved billions in federal aid and reconstruction money after.
“Countless requests for more flood and hurricane protection went unheeded. And initiatives to restore the USA’s wetlands were repeatedly and irrationally opposed,” she wrote. (67 In March 2006, Congress passed its budget, including an amendment allotting $10 billion to create a Gulf Coast Protection, Reconstruction and Recovery Fund. The fund could provide $5.4 billion for Louisiana levee construction and coastal wetlands restoration over the next five years.
Whether Landrieu’s dream of a restored and safer coast, or skeptics’ visions of a Mardi Gras theme-park in place of the historic delta coast is realized, the process of getting there will have enriched enormous corporations at vast public expense.
Yes, the 2005 hurricane season and its aftermath exposed the cynical tendency toward profiteering by corporations, but much of it was made possible by a bungling federal government that was inexcusably unprepared and outrageously incompetent.
Amplified in this way, the cost of profiteering is astonishing. The transfer of resources from taxpayers to federal coffers to corporate entities is akin to a chronic low grade infection sapping the nation’s strength.
Like most federal contracting agencies, FEMA was reconfigured and downsized in the 1990s under the guise of reform. In recent years, the agency has been primarily focused on counterterrorism, not natural disasters, and was crippled after Katrina for this reason, according to former FEMA chief Michael Brown. But the contention-heard from Bush and other top federal officials-that FEMA was incapable of anticipating the severity of the storm or the damage it did is a handy but laughable explanation.
“Hurricane Katrina underscores the urgent need for government transformation,” said David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, at a conference on Public Service and the Law in March.
“It has become obvious,” Walker said, “that the government has been issuing far too many contracts and assistance payments for Hurricane Katrina relief that just don’t pass the straight face test.” He urged the audience to recall that the “ultimate loyalty” of the private sector is to shareholders, while government was designed as a servant of the greater good.
That federal contracting needs fixing is obvious; how to do it depends upon whom you ask and where their loyalties lie.
As the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches, the nation’s most powerful landlord and procurement agency (and the third-largest grantor of contracts for post-Katrina work), the General Services Administration (GSA), has assessed the wreckage and the resulting landscape of contracts and says it is trying to create a new way of doing federal business.
On July 17 and 18, GSA, which manages federal buildings including many in the Gulf that need repair, joined forces with the FEMA and other entities to teach small businesses how to compete for contracts.
“We can’t just leave this process to business Darwinism,” GSA spokesman Jon Anderson told CorpWatch days before new agency director Lurita Doan, an old school friend of Senator Mary Landrieu, prepared for a walk-through of damaged federal buildings in New Orleans to kick off a conference aimed at matching small businesses with larger ones. “We have to help them out. We want to help businesses grow and evolve.” It is difficult to tell the difference between window dressing and real reform. Billions of dollars remain for resurrecting the Gulf Coast, which means billions remain to be made. It may be too wishful to think that FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, or even the GSA can truly reform themselves in the next year.
But a few billion here and there of unwasted taxpayer money can’t hurt.
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