Hurricane Laura’s Aftermath: Disaster Capitalism in Action

by Jacob Aguillard and J. N. B.

For millions of Americans, 2020 has felt like a series of unrelenting disasters as life has been changed, disrupted, and destroyed since the early spring. The COVID-19 pandemic, destructive wildfires in the western U.S., and potential for a harsh winter this year are all symptoms of the coming environmental crisis caused by climate change and capitalism. Yet, in this time of tragedy and hardship, one group of people have benefited and profited far beyond any others. Capitalists internationally have seen their wealth and influence increase at an unprecedented pace by exploiting workers in crises.  This year, the ruling class has thrown working people under the bus throughout multiple crises, including the emergence of a deadly pandemic, a collapsing economy, and escalating police violence. Their response to Hurricane Laura is no different. Hurricane Laura is just the latest in a trend of intense hurricanes.  Global climate change has produced less frequent hurricanes overall, but the storms that do occur have been increasing in intensity. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been the second most active season on record, forcing the hurricane namers into the Greek alphabet for the first time since 2005. The resulting disasters have left what capitalists see as “clean slates” where they can replace public services with private, for-profit ventures when communities are still recovering.  Laura is the newest example of how the capitalist class uses disasters to further extract wealth from the most marginalized peoples and exploit the condition of workers recovering from disasters.

What is disaster capitalism?

Disaster capitalism is not unique or separate from capitalism under “non-disaster” conditions.  Simply put, disaster capitalism is the use of wide-scale tragedy or humanitarian crisis to implement regressive, neoliberal policies against a shocked and terrified population. During a crisis, capitalists claw back material gains won in previous struggles from people too preoccupied with immediate survival concerns to organize an effective resistance. In other words, disaster capitalism functions by implementing what activist author Naomi Klein has famously called the Shock Doctrine. It is the exploitation of a disaster to extract wealth, privatize public services, and unilaterally cut spending to make the capitalist class richer. Disaster capitalism is capitalism in its most aggressive form: the ruling class uses it to accelerate current and existing trends in capitalism, including austerity, privatization, and gentrification, and to aggravate existing inequalities

There is no such thing as a “Natural Disaster” 

Capitalism, by its nature, is shortsighted. In the context of natural disasters, however, this translates to the refusal to properly prepare for and respond to natural disasters. The outcomes of events like Katrina could have been far better if recovery were the actual goal of the response to said storms. Any capitalist disaster response is subject to the capitalists’ profit motive, resulting in an approach to disaster planning which offers less or lower-quality aid to working-class people. This can be seen in the way COVID relief efforts were focused on bailouts for private corporations while some workers received a one-time check for $1,200.  Another key example is that victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston were awarded FEMA aid corresponding to their income, reimbursing the losses of wealthier victims while giving the least to the poorest victims, regardless of their actual losses. This approach to disaster planning can even include decreasing risk to wealthy neighborhoods by increasing disaster risk to the closest poorer neighborhoods

Sufficient planning and access to resources can prevent natural disasters from causing mass destruction to communities—but this depends on what the capitalist class deems worth saving. After Hurricane Katrina, the ruling class and corporate media were discussing whether New Orleans, a majority-black, working-class city, was worth saving. They decided immediately that after thousands of working people lost their homes, and therefore their wealth, New Orleans would be a great investment opportunity for private schools and luxury housing. From the outset, the capitalist class didn’t want to save the old New Orleans. They wanted to create a new, wealthier, whiter New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent gentrification of New Orleans is a prime example of disaster capitalism at work, having set a terrible precedent for the storms to come.  

Hurricane Katrina 

After Katrina drowned New Orleans, the city was without potable water, power, or transportation infrastructure.  In Katrina’s wake, residents witnessed an outpouring of charity from workers and began rebuilding a lost city themselves. Having seen houses and buildings reduced to rubble in New Orleans, the Louisiana congressman Richard Baker offered the following comment: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Those homes, along with hundreds more, were stolen from minority families and sold to condo developers or were left untouched and neglected, unable to be lived in, and unavailable for purchase and rebuilding. As a result, black and working-class emigrants and evacuees from New Orleans remained displaced for longer than white and higher-income counterparts and were slower to move back if they were able to move back at all. The local government viewed this crisis as a boon because it presented an opportunity to remove large portions of the black working class by simply not having homes for them to return to.  Instead, the city and state replaced some low-income neighborhoods with green space and others with condos permanently displacing former residents. This is just one way in which the destruction of a city and shock to the people’s senses were exploited to pass neoliberal reforms to profit on previously untouchable institutions. 

In New Orleans, the shock of Katrina was also used to further force the charter school system onto Louisiana residents. In Louisiana, citizens receive subsidies from public funds to afford the tuition to private, for-profit schools. Education in the city and state is being privatized and Katrina marked the turning point in New Orleans. By 2014, 91% of K-12 students attended charter schools in the city, with charters having completely replaced the city’s public schools by 2019.

In the process of formulating the corporate response to Katrina, the House Republican Study Committee generated 32 free-market responses to Katrina from neo-liberal think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. Proposals included ridiculous measures like eliminating contractors’ obligations to pay workers minimum wage, building more oil rigs and refineries, and gaining access to the arctic wildlife refuge for oil drilling purposes. Increasing profits for the oil and gas sector is not a response to the needs of starving and helpless people! Though entire books can and have been written about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, we can see from these few examples that when the capitalist class and corporations see a starving, trapped, and newly-homeless group of people, they see an opportunity for profit, privatization, and deregulation. The largest publicly-funded hospital in New Orleans still remains closed, affordable housing is still scarce amongst the luxury condos, and education is privatized. It’s no wonder that residents of southwest Louisiana, especially in the Lake Charles area, fear a similar wave of privatization and displacement in store for them after Hurricane Laura. The choices capitalists with accumulated resources make—refusals to invest in safety, infrastructure, and disaster-preparedness procedures—perpetuate the initial devastation and it is disaster capitalism that approaches these events as a blank slate to expand their base for profit growth. 

Hurricane Laura

Compared to Katrina, which struck New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, Laura made landfall at Category 4, knocking out electricity and power grids in entire parishes (equivalent to counties). Laura triggered “unsurvivable” storm surges along the coast of Louisiana and southeastern Texas and landed with the highest sustained wind speeds of any storm in Louisiana history. Lake Charles and the surrounding area were hit hardest. Laura stripped the land of its vegetation, leveling entire neighborhoods as if it had bombed them. Three weeks after Laura struck Calcasieu Parish and nearby areas, over 100,000 people were still without power and over 20,000 without homes.  At that time the region had yet to recover basic necessities including power, water, and gas and the struggle is still not over.

In Calcasieu Parish, a decision to end the evacuation order was taken by almost every mayor, sheriff, city administrator, and school board president—which seems innocuous, except most insurance companies only provide living assistance in the form of funds for food and shelter while an evacuation order is in place. In effect, ending the evacuation order cut the available funds for people to survive. With their survival needs threatened, upon hearing the decision, residents pleaded, asking how they were supposed to boil water without electricity or running water, only to be told that those returning to the parish to stay must be “self-sufficient.” This callous indifference will continue to exacerbate existing problems, needlessly killing more people. This murderous decision was made because “businesses need to reopen and at this time they don’t have enough employees.”  The only businesses trying to force workers back into place at the time were the oil and chemical companies who have a history of forcing workers recovering from disasters back to their jobs. These companies have near-complete control in Louisiana and this is obvious when much of the response to Katrina was an attempt to increase their profits. 

The aid offered in response from the federal and local governments has amounted to no more than food and water. This is hardly surprising considering that Trump insisted on pulling CARES Act money from FEMA’s natural disaster relief budget instead of letting Congress approve separate funding for the COVID-19 relief. Before most families had returned to survey the damage, real estate tycoons were escorted by police to buy the land. Laura, as with Katrina, is only an opportunity for capitalist robber barons: in Lake Charles, Laura has left a clean slate for “investment” and wealth extraction and a chance to privatize previously untouchable public areas and resources. And less than a month later, Hurricane Delta hit the same communities knocking out power to more than a quarter of Louisiana. 

What would a socialist response to disaster look like?

While average people are struggling day to day to recover from disasters, the capitalist class and American government are trying to extract profit from the destruction however they can.  In response, a mass workers’ movement must be organized that fights for disaster relief for working people.  Furthermore, a mass workers’ movement and party could begin the fight for a centrally-planned socialist economy and, in doing so, reverse the effects of capitalism on the environment.   

What would disaster planning and relief look like under socialism? As expected, the character of disaster planning and relief under capitalism reflects the priorities of the capitalist class: accumulation of wealth through exploiting the working class. Under a workers’ government, pre-crisis planning and post-crisis relief would be decided democratically, ensuring safety and relief for the working class, and centrally, yielding the same benefits of efficiency seen in centrally-planned economies like Cuba’s. Despite decades of imperial aggression and trade embargos from the U.S. and other capitalist countries, Cuba—though not a sufficient model for socialism—was in a position to offer relief for Katrina victims which the U.S. turned down. In a socialist economy, which would be democratically-owned and centrally-planned from the bottom up by the working class, workers would not be forgotten or left behind, or forcibly and permanently displaced–they would have a collective say in the disaster-preparedness process. The redistribution of private profits to the workers that produce them would increase our resilience against disaster: no longer would such resilience hinge on existing local wealth, incidental philanthropy, or opportunities for capitalists to impose austerity from the top down.

The ISG demands:

  • Fully fund emergency and disaster response infrastructure with increased taxes on the wealthy and large corporations. Pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security DHS, placing it under democratic workers’ control and governing its activity through local, regional, and national committees. Defunding the Department of Homeland Security to address the multitude of disasters we currently face, including but not limited to: COVID-19 relief; fighting wildfires in the western US; relief for hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast and in Puerto Rico; and relief for derecho victims in Iowa. 
  • We need a socialist Green New Deal! Nationalize the energy sector, including placing oil and gas companies under the democratic control of their workers. Divest from fossil fuel extraction and refinement, and invest in clean non-GHG-emitting energy sources and changes to infrastructure needed to increase the efficiency of sources like wind and solar. Retrain and guarantee jobs to all workers previously employed in polluting industries.
  • Abolish ICE, and stop turning away displaced climate migrants! Release the migrants trapped in ICE and CBP camps! Stop FEMA from turning over undocumented immigrants or otherwise cooperating with ICE and CBP!
  • Put inefficient philanthropic organizations like the Red Cross under the democratic control of the working class everywhere it’s based. No more wasting billions of dollars’ worth of good-faith contributions from the working class on bloated administration! 
  • Build an international socialist movement to defeat the dead-end that is the capitalist system. Socialist change not Climate Change! Only a system based on human need and democratic control, not profit and the accumulation of capital, can end the exploitation of the earth and humanity.

Image Credit: Roch19571 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0