After Sandy: Political Storm Coming?
By John Leslie
PHILADELPHIA, October 4 — This past week the media has been streaming non-stop images of the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy as she slammed into the mid-Atlantic states. After Sandy, millions were left without electricity or heat, tens of thousands were left homeless, and essential infrastructure, already weakened by decades of neglect and disrepair, was damaged. Whole towns on the New Jersey shoreline were wiped off the map.
New York City and the New Jersey shore experienced the worst damage. A fire in the Breezy Point section of New York destroyed 100 houses, and Staten Island, home to many working-class New Yorkers, was devastated. Power outages and flooding affected lower Manhattan, and mass transit was disrupted throughout the region. An estimated 20 feet of water flooded the subway system.
As of November 4, more than 2 million remain without electricity, and in some areas it is predicted that power will not be restored for another week. A severe winter storm is projected for the coming week that will bring more rain and high winds, potentially hampering cleanup and power-restoration efforts. Thousands could be exposed to more flooding and cold weather. It is essential to get all storm victims to adequate shelter immediately.
Catastrophe Worse Than What Media Has Conveyed
Based on eyewitness accounts, the catastrophe at the Jersey shore is greater than the media has conveyed. This writer was told of people sleeping in tents in the woods near obliterated shore towns. It’s clear that help is not getting to some areas as quickly as necessary.
Survivors face fuel shortages, cold temperatures, and food shortages. In some areas of New York City — poor and working-class neighborhoods — emergency aid has been slow or nonexistent. The class divide is fully exposed, as the well off get back to business as usual and other communities are left in the cold.
According to the New York Times: “The Rockaways, a narrow peninsula of working-class communities in Queens, have become one of the epicenters for the simmering sense of abandonment felt in still-darkened areas of New York City, and out into the suburbs and beyond, including large swaths of New Jersey and Long Island, where the lack of power was made more problematic by persistent gas shortages. … Every one of the over 115,000 residents of the Rockaways and Broad Channel is still without power, according to the Long Island Power Authority, which services those areas. And it will be several more days before the seawater-soaked substations along the Rockaway Peninsula are repaired. …”
More than 2800 National Guard troops are deployed in New York and New Jersey. Most of the troops are being used for relief efforts, but others are being used to reinforce police agencies. In New York it’s been reported that Guard troops have been engaging in ”stop and frisk” harassment of Black and Latino youth. Total Guard deployment in storm-damaged areas from Delaware to Massachusetts is about 7400.
Before making landfall in the U.S., Sandy struck Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. Flooding and damage to homes was extensive throughout the Caribbean. The death toll was about 60. Five thousand homes in eastern Cuba collapsed while another 30,000 lost their roofs.
Haiti was most affected, with at least 50 fatalities and millions of dollars in crops destroyed in the fields. Haiti already imports 55 percent of its food and rising prices make it difficult for Haitians to eat. The majority of Haitians make less than $2 per day. This storm has made the situation, already made dire by the 2010 earthquake, especially dangerous for the workers and farmers of Haiti. Cholera, which has already claimed more than 7500 lives since the earthquake, may worsen.
Climate Change — Capitalism’s Chickens Come Home to Roost
In three presidential debates, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney mentioned climate change or global warming. In fact, Obama’s response to GOP denial of climate change due to human industrial activity has been silence. Despite Republican claims that Obama is hostile to the energy industry, oil and natural gas production has increased under his administration. Very few concrete steps have been taken to build real alternative sources.
The warming of the atmosphere and oceans has combined to destabilize weather patterns, causing droughts and extreme storms. Capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels is a threat to life on earth. Sandy’s destructive power flowed from the deadly combination of geography, timing (Sandy hit shore at high tide), and water temperatures that are higher than normal.
According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research:
“The sea surface along the Atlantic Coast have been running at over 3 degrees C [centigrade] above normal … from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes to 0.6% of this. With every degree C, the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7%, and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.”
There is a possibility that this disaster will affect the result of the election. Obama’s swift response to the catastrophe, deploying FEMA and other government resources to the rescue and recovery effort, has resulted in a heightened standing in opinion polls. Obama’s quick response is in sharp contrast to the bumbling ineffectiveness of the Bush administration after Katrina. That said, both parties have cooperated to slash the FEMA budget by more than 40 percent in recent years. Romney has called for further cuts and for privatizing FEMA and Federal disaster relief.
Touring the remnants of Jersey Shore towns with Republican Governor Chris Christie, Obama pledged to cut through red tape and do everything possible to facilitate the rebuilding of the region. Christie’s praise for Obama’s handling of the situation has come under heavy criticism from rightist elements of the GOP. Neither Obama nor Romney can be trusted to act in the interests of working people. Instead, they will dutifully serve their masters on Wall Street.
In the aftermath of Sandy is a political storm brewing over the reconstruction of the mid-Atlantic states? Will the ruling class use this disaster to further weaken and attack unions and to push more privatization and austerity?
In her book, “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein describes what she refers to as “disaster capitalism.” The central theme of Klein’s book is that free-market advocates exploit crisis situations like wars and natural disasters to impose a program of harsh austerity and privatization on populations.
According to philly.com, “Rebuilding the shattered shore and the swamped New York tunnels, along with the 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 other words, “reconstruction” in the region will be at the expense of working people’s rights and needs and it will be facilitated by a bipartisan ruling-class program of redevelopment.
The “reconstruction” of New Orleans after Katrina offers some sobering lessons about what lies ahead. The public school system in New Orleans was consciously destroyed in the months following the storm. Before Katrina, there were 123 public schools and 7 privately run charter schools in New Orleans. After Katrina, there were 31 charters and just 4 public schools. Union workers were locked out of reconstruction projects, and workers often lived in deplorable conditions and worked for low pay.
Katrina survivors were dispersed across the country, with little help from the government in finding jobs or housing. The International Tribunal on Katrina, held in New Orleans in August 2007, characterized the government’s actions as “ethnic cleansing.” The long-term effect of Katrina was the changed character of this formerly majority Black city into a homogenized version of the “Big Easy.”
Their Recovery or Ours?
Early estimates are that recovery in the areas devastated by Sandy will cost $60 billion. To ensure that rebuilding is done in an equitable way will require mass mobilization to demand emergency aid, jobs and reconstruction in the interests of workers and oppressed people. The trade unions and all the organizations of the oppressed should be in the streets demanding emergency federal aid and a Worker-Community Reconstruction Program to provide emergency aid, jobs and reconstruction in the interests of workers and oppressed people.
Labor and community organizations should be demanding that all union contracts for private and public employees be respected. A housing and reconstruction plan should be formed with the active participation of all residents. All work should be done at union wages and with full union benefits. A reconstruction program for the mid-Atlantic region should be part of a national public works jobs program designed to end the unemployment caused by the recession.
Temporary housing for residents should be provided as quickly as possible, with health clinics and other necessary services provided. If necessary, hotels should be requisitioned to provide housing for low-income families, with the government footing the bill. Should the hotels resist, they should be nationalized without compensation. All foreclosures should be immediately ended and vacant homes used to house the homeless and those displaced by this hurricane. There should be an immediate halt to all privatization schemes.
Steps should be taken to rebuild infrastructure and a system of dikes, and storm-surge barriers must be built to protect against future storms fueled by global warming. All reconstruction in the region should be based on renewable energy and sustainable construction methods.
Responsibility for paying for this crisis should not fall on the backs of workers and the oppressed. Workers and their organizations, either in the workplaces or in the communities must mobilize to demand that all U.S. troops and mercenaries be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and the money used to aid reconstruction. Taxes should be raised on the richest one percent to help pay the cost.
As the organizations of workers and the oppressed mobilize to press for all these demands from the federal government, they should not wait for the government to send aid to these struggling communities. They can and should begin organizing from the grassroots to provide all available human and financial resources to help our sisters and brothers in need.
Relief efforts organized by Occupy Wall Street have gone into neighborhoods that FEMA has ignored. This points to the potential for a popular response to Sandy based in labor and allied social movements.
In the longer run, given the increased threat of major disasters caused by global warming, the entire U.S. economy must restructured in the interests of working people with special attention to conversion of the energy industry to sustainable sources. The energy and banking sectors, too, will need to be nationalized under workers’ control.
Such a fightback in the interests of working and the oppressed will require a break with the two parties of big business and the formation of a party of our own — a Labor Party based on the unions — as the first and necessary step to put an end to the predatory, profit-driven, capitalist system that is responsible for these and other crises the world over.