When Hurricane Katrina hit southeast Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and Alabama on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, it was the sixth strongest hurricane in US history.
More than 1,800 people died as a consequence of the storm, mainly in New Orleans, where levees failed and most of the city was flooded. For days, desperate residents who had been unable to evacuate—mainly elderly and poor people without cars—were being rescued from rooftops or held under terrible conditions at the Superdome and convention center downtown.
The WSWS explained that the death and devastation wrought upon the population were the result of the decayed infrastructure of American capitalism and the indifference and outright hostility of the ruling class to the plight of those impacted. An editorial statement published September 2 drew the conclusion that Katrina was a decisive turning point in American politics:
The catastrophe that is unfolding in New Orleans and on the Gulf coast of Mississippi has been transformed into a national humiliation without parallel in the history of the United States.
The scenes of intense human suffering, hopelessness, squalor, and neglect amidst the wreckage of what was once New Orleans have exposed the rotten core of American capitalist society before the eyes of the entire world—and, most significantly, before those of its own stunned people.
The WSWS coverage included exposures of the brutal response of local authorities and police, as well as eyewitness reporting with interviews and photographs of residents of New Orleans and other areas impacted. The coverage was also a two-way dialogue with readers including letters from residents trapped in the chaos and the comments of horrified people around the globe.
In an Editorial Board statement one week after Katrina hit, the WSWS explained the fundamental social contradictions of the capitalist system revealed in the catastrophe:
Working people perform the labor which keeps the social infrastructure operating, but they have no decision-making power over it. These social systems are for the most part owned and controlled by giant corporations for whom profit, not human need, is the determining criterion. Those systems for which the various levels of government are responsible, such as the levees and canals surrounding New Orleans, are likewise subordinated to profit interests, through the control of American politics by the wealthy.
A second statement by the editorial board, on September 15, detailed the resources needed to rebuild New Orleans, noting that these could be easily extracted from the accumulated wealth of the US ruling elite. What was required, however, was a new perspective for the working class, based on the socialist reconstruction of society:
Above all, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast shows the need for social planning, beginning with an exhaustive inventory of the material resources available: land, water, mineral assets, labor and equipment. This planning must be carried out democratically, with full consultation with the working people who live in the region and who will be at the center of the work of reconstruction. The anarchy of the market and the profit interests of corporate America must be subordinated to the needs of the people.
With a combination of class prejudice, stupidity and indifference, the Bush administration alternately ignored, denied aid to, blamed and exploited those who were most devastated by the storm. When George W. Bush finally visited New Orleans to give a speech to the nation, the WSWS pointed to the nervousness of the ruling elite and its fear that Katrina had become a “defining event—one that threatened to fuel popular opposition to the entire political and social system.”
The political impact was felt not only within the United States, but internationally. In the wake of the third major natural disaster of the year, an earthquake in Kashmir that killed more than 20,000 people, Wije Dias, national secretary of the SEP in Sri Lanka and the party’s presidential candidate at the time, commented:
The attitude of the American ruling class to the working people of New Orleans was exactly the same as toward the victims of the Asian tsunami and the Kashmiri earthquake. Bush was no more prepared to change his vacation plans for American workers in August than he was for the impoverished villagers of South Asia last December. Before, during and after Hurricane Katrina hit, the guiding principle behind the Bush administration’s response was to protect the interests of the corporate elite.