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Hurricane Harvey and the Humanitarian Crisis in Houston

On the need for a working-class response, six days into the disaster unfolding in Texas.

Ben Fredericks

August 31, 2017
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In what has now been established as record-breaking rainfall, Hurricane Harvey, now classified as a tropical storm, hit the residents of Houston six days ago–and continues to dump massive quantities of stormwater into Texas and Louisiana.

Mainstream news sources have already likened the crisis to the devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina, a storm that left approximately 1,800 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. As this article goes to press, the death toll has been estimated at 30 but could rise as time lays bare the enormity of the disaster.

The Texas and Louisiana gulf coast have been subjected to hurricanes and tropical storms with some frequency. Indeed hurricane Harvey was anticipated and planned for–at least according to statements by local government officials at Trump’s recent press conference from Texas.

A large-scale planned evacuation was considered as an option but rejected, ostensibly to avoid a repeat of the botched evacuation efforts around Hurricane Rita that left many dead along the evacuation route in 2005. The tepid advice to “wait out the storm” exposes both the state and federal government’s inability and unwillingness to adequately prepare people for the emergency. Structural underfunding of storm-response infrastructure has also sharpened the impact of the flooding on the local population.

The government’s response, on the other hand, is not solely a humanitarian mission but rather aims to protect business interests and ‘law and order.’

Local residents and rescue workers have responded heroically to the emergency. As frequently happens in times of crisis, everyday people help out their neighbors as a rudimentary effort of solidarity and human compassion. Many Houston locals have taken it upon themselves to help in the rescue efforts. Millions more across the country have donated money to relief agencies.

The government’s response, on the other hand, is not solely a humanitarian mission but rather aims to protect business interests and “law and order.” This can be seen by the recent imposition of a curfew in Houston from midnight until 5am, requested by the Houston police to curb “small-scale looting.” It is a disgusting display of indifference that as people await rescue in flooding houses and exposed to toxic chemicals, “looting” becomes a pretext for curtailing the democratic right of free movement.

During the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans, militarized police and armed national guard were sent into the city to maintain “order.” When desperate survivors of the hurricane tried to cross the Mississippi River bridge into the suburb of Gretna to find relief, armed police fired warning shots into the air to stop them, thus confining the predominantly black population to the confines of the worst-hit areas. People who believe the government’s intervention in Houston today is completely benevolent should remember the example of Katrina-devastated New Orleans.

Environmental disasters highlight social inequality

In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left over 230,000 people dead in 14 countries. The next year, Hurricane Katrina left a similar number homeless in New Orleans, depopulating and, in effect, ethnically cleansing it of half its population. Five years later, In 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that left over 100,000 dead and millions affected. In all three examples, unavoidable storms and earthquakes wreaked havoc. Yet in each case, the level of suffering was intensified many fold by systematic, structural inequality.

The casualties of the Indian Ocean tsunami were so high in large part because of the chronic underdevelopment of housing, communication and transportation infrastructure. Similarly in Haiti, most of the people who died from the 2010 earthquake died because of shoddy construction of their homes–a reflection of the semi-colonial, under-developed character of Haiti. And in New Orleans, it was the predominantly black, often times low income, population that experienced the worst horrors of Katrina.

Working class response needed

People everywhere are watching the situation in Texas and Louisiana anxiously. The rain continues to fall, but has now moved inland. While people continue to donate money to charities like the Red Cross, it is not clear how that money will be spent, or when. Many people feel a sense of powerlessness as they watch the fourth largest city in the U.S. literally go under, hoping their friends and relatives are alive, dry, and safe.

Workers everywhere could play an important role in assisting the survivors of the storm. The most powerful means of solidarity is not individual financial donations but collective action to ensure adequate government resources are allocated not only to search-and-rescue, but also providing quality housing, food and other resources to the survivors.

After every environmental disaster, parasitic “disaster capitalists” go into overdrive trying to turn human tragedy into thick profits, since rebuilding disaster zones is big business. Insurance companies will deny and contest any and every claim to avoid paying up to residents who lost property. The survivors of Hurricane Katrina had to fight legal battles for years in the wake of the disaster, and most never received proper compensation for their losses.

The most powerful means of solidarity is not individual financial donations but collective action to ensure adequate government resources are allocated not only to search-and-rescue, but also providing quality housing, food and other resources to the survivors.

Unionized workers in the U.S. could play an important role in ensuring the survivors of Harvey are not abandoned to poverty, homelessness and neglect and are instead compensated, housed and fed in a manner suitable to human beings. Transportation and distribution workers should ensure the timely arrival of supplies to those hit hardest. Hotel workers should fight to open up rooms to displaced families. Hospital workers should insist all survivors be treated free of charge. These are small examples are how union workers could lead by example and put pressure on the state and national government to meet the needs of the displaced population of Houston.

It’s not individual workers, but the unions and their leadership who have the leverage to force employers and the government to provide these emergency needs for the affected population. Unions can hold the state accountable for the implementation of a comprehensive housing program, anti-flooding infrastructure and immediate relief. Unfortunately, although the AFL-CIO and some unions like the AFT have put out a solidarity funds, a hefty response in the interest of the working population in Houston like the one outlined above is far beyond their horizon.

Ultimately, the human suffering of environmental disasters–disasters exacerbated by climate change–will continue to get worse under capitalism, a system premised on profits and market shares, not human need. Capitalist economics do not allocate sufficient resources to protecting people from storms because it is not profitable to do so. Working people need a different system, one where those who labor can collectively decide our own fate and are not left to the whims of millionaire governments.

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Ben Fredericks

Ben is a member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and has been active in anti-imperialist and labor activism.

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