Essays about Hurricane Katrina by Wynton Marsalis and others appear in new book

The weak federal emergency response to Hurricane Katrina fits a pattern of reduced federal government responsibility for public well-being, according to the editor of a new collection of essays about Katrina.

John Brown Childs, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and editor of the new book Hurricane Katrina: Response and Responsibilities (Santa Cruz, CA: New Pacific Press, 2005), writes that Katrina exposed the consequences of the radical and systematic dismantling of the federal safety net that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Childs' chapter, "From New Deal to No Deal: Conservatism's Radical Dismantling of Responsible Government," is the final chapter of the book of 35 essays by scholars, community activists, and others, including New Orleans-born Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and musician Wynton Marsalis. All proceeds from sales of the book go to the People's Hurricane Relief Fund.

"This book fills the gap between the immediate journalism and the in-depth analysis that will be available in a year or two," said Childs, who was moved to compile the volume while hurricane victims were still confined in the New Orleans Superdome.

In his essay, Childs contrasts today's "less is more" style of national governing with the philosophy behind the New Deal, which emphasized inclusion. Childs presents a 21st-century alternative to the New Deal he calls "collective individualism," in which government-provided benefits to individuals would circle back to benefit society. Effective relationships between government and community groups are at the heart of his vision, which he proposes for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Childs writes that community groups, labor unions, and other grassroots organizations should be on the front line of Katrina-recovery efforts, providing a link to ensure that hurricane victims receive jobs and job training.

Throughout the volume, authors analyze the role of government, decry the extent to which race and class shape daily life in the United States, and discuss the "man-made disaster" that followed the natural disaster of Hurricanes Katrina and Stan.

"The terrible truth is that it is the poor, the most vulnerable, who are the first to suffer," writes Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, calling for decisive action in the rebuilding of New Orleans and the upgrading of housing and the social support infrastructure for the poor in all U.S. inner cities. "Americans are generous, but our government is not wise, and needs the pressure of ordinary citizens to get redirected. Just as we needed a New Deal to get out of the Depression, and not just individual donations to the poor, so today we need a massive societal effort to end poverty as well as rebuild New Orleans."

"In the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina everything about the social, economic, and racial injustice of American society floated to the surface," writes Bettina Aptheker, UCSC professor of feminist studies and history. "Nothing could be hidden from news cameras on the scene; no sanitized 'spin' could be given to the unfolding catastrophe."

David Cohen, cofounder of the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C., was overseas when the hurricanes struck. "People in Ukraine and Bosnia spoke directly to me," he writes. "They said when you cannot evacuate those in danger, or provide them food and water, you are neither as powerful as you think you are or as caring and kind as you say you are." Cohen writes that the government's failure reveals how "our own government is a threat to our security as a people."

Stan Oden, assistant professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, writes that the government response "exposed the social, political, and economic underbelly of decades of race and class oppression and governmental indifference to it in the United States," and he calls for reconstruction efforts that train and employ New Orleans residents in construction, urban development, and health care, while reorganizing the city's police department.

The "policy of intentional neglect toward the plight of the poor" is the way business is done at all levels of government, writes Hardy Frye, professor emeritus of sociology at UCSC.

Carolyn Dunn, an Irvine Fellow at the Center for American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, calls the stranding of people of color after the hurricanes "an organized method of genocide" that she likens to the relocation of Native Americans, including her own ancestors in Louisiana.

In an essay about environmental racism and "cancer alley," an 80-mile stretch from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along which residents live next to highly polluting industries, authors Jose T. Bravo and Arnoldo Garcia write, "Katrina exposed the deadly intersection of race, poverty, immigration status and toxic waste, but dangerous environmental conditions already existed."

Many contributors see Gulf Coast reconstruction as an opportunity to provide jobs and undo decades of government neglect by working on multiple fronts to revitalize wetlands, reconstruct levees, and build schools, housing, hospitals, child-care and cultural centers, parks, and libraries.

Detroit-based community activist Sharon Howell, a professor of communication at Oakland University and chair of the Department of Rhetoric, Communication, and Journalism, writes, "Government is the fundamental means we have to express our common, best hopes."

"I think that the hurricane is a wake-up call for all us people to come together. And you know what? Black people need to get together. We need to do a better job of that," Curtis Reliford, who organized two convoys to truck donated supplies from Santa Cruz to New Orleans, told editor Childs.

Whether the crisis will generate lasting policy changes or merely fade into the background remains to be seen, says Childs, recalling the televised images of people in desperate need: "It looked sickeningly familiar. It's something you see on a daily basis in our inner cities and on the reservations--people crying out for help and not getting it."

Michael K. Brown, professor and chair of the Department of Politics at UCSC, says the generosity of ordinary Americans contrasts starkly with "the ineptitude of the government and its abandonment of the poor." But Hurricane Katrina exposed more, he writes: "It ripped open the gauzy facade of a smug, complacent society and revealed the degradation and poverty that are consequences of deeply embedded racial inequality. Will the memory of who the victims were, and why they were in such desperate straits to survive, help us to renew a commitment to social justice, or will we forget?"