By Federico García Morales
Hurricane Katrina broke the news: many discovered New Orleans for the first time, and heard about jazz, blues, carnivals. And the most pestilential: a government that did not know what to do when the hurricane came: and let it do it.
Katrina or the Aftermath ... Gone With the Wind.
Hurricane Katrina overflowed the news: many discovered New Orleans for the first time, and heard about jazz, blue, carnivals, and could look at the French Quarter inns, and even imagine enjoying a glass of absinthe in front of a " Nu’wlins Style Gumbo ”or a“ BBQ Shrimp Mix ”, a few blocks from Faulkner's house, down on Pirate’s Alley. And we sharpen the view through the windows to distinguish if Scott Fitzgerald or Tennessee Williams, former neighbors, are approaching this same restaurant. We could have come through Louis Armstrong Airport. "How he grew up" - I tell myself, I saw him in another airport, with his lips marked by the mouthpiece of the trumpet. And these days, the names, the sounds, the flavors slide, between cascades of corpses, splinters, anguish and pestilence. And the most pestilential: a government that did not know what to do when the hurricane came: and let it do it.
The news continued to ruminate on the misfortunes, sometimes of epic outlines of people who could not leave, of those who wanted to leave and did not get anywhere, of loneliness, of terrifying agglomerations that did not produce solidarity. Of the destruction of their political system. And there were some who reflected - "in Cuba that would not have happened." Many times, yes, it was discovered how discrimination worked, and a sense of ownership amid the horror. Bush filled pages looking at nothing from his plane, his photograph playing the guitar in the hours of misfortune circulated around the planet. We all prepare to admire the shoes that Condolezza Rice bought in those hours. We will forget about Imelda's collections.
These days the columns of the newspapers and TV hours will be dedicated to the soldiers who returned from Iraq — some companies — upset to return, and who encountered a disaster where their houses or relatives did not appear, sunk in the smelly mud. Many tragedies. From Latin America, meanwhile, the governments of the poorest countries sent their food, and since it was the largest military power in the world, they also sent reinforcements of soldiers. Some were limited to sending body bags. But in the towns of the Mississippi, the people were getting used to it, and the dead continued to rot where they had fallen, while the government discussed with various funeral business corporations the price of their recovery.
This article does not want to reiterate all that; Here we want to draw attention to the importance that these banks of the Mississippi had in the North American and world economy, and the consequences that this destruction has brought and can bring.
Louisiana and the Mississippi
These are the states most directly affected, Louisiana and Mississippi, to which together the declaration of a disaster zone seems to refer, which would cover about 250 thousand square kilometers. Although in Georgia - which was further away and outside that estimate - the blasting of important chicken coops is reported. To get an idea, an area twice that of Cuba, something like Uruguay and Paraguay together, and from Europe, one could say, "more or less the size of the United Kingdom" or what was West Germany, or half of the surface of France. And we will see that the threatened area is much larger.
These two states have a population of close to seven million inhabitants, and share an extensive hydraulic and maritime basin where there are more than two hundred kilometers of ports, with their docks and warehouses that collect what comes and goes from all the central states of the American Union.
Between glasses of bourbon it is sometimes difficult to discover the geopolitical importance of this area. Amid the bustle of Carnival, Mardi Gras, or the murmur of the river casinos, the sirens of thousands of cargo ships that marked in their wake the vivid communication of the Southern Ports of Louisiana with the world were not heard. What were those boats bringing or were they going to look for? Let's put up a list of Louisiana products:
It is here that the largest oil, natural gas and refinery facilities in the Western world are concentrated. The extension of its pumping operations in areas of the Gulf is famous. A quarter of US gas production comes from Louisiana. And a quarter of the petrochemical production. But it is also a major producer of sugarcane, sweet potato, cotton and rice and one of the most important fishing centers in the US — reaching 25% of consumption (shrimp, oysters, fresh fish)… and sixty million matches a day. And there is the business of its ports, that of New Orleans and the immense of South Louisiana, where 40% of the US grain production is exported to the world. Those ports handle 25% of total US exports and imports. Everything is moved by large power plants, or powered by nuclear energy, gas, oil, coal or dual systems, large roads, river transport, mechanized ports, warehouses, large cranes and grain elevators.
The ports are the strategic point, they dominate the scene, which will later be the scene of the storm, and they are:
The megaports of New Orleans, Southern Louisiana, and Baton Rouge, spanning 172 miles along both banks of the Mississippi. The port of New Orleans, with an extension of 33 miles, being greater the one of the South of Louisiana, with 53 miles, that extends from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and this last one with 84 miles. These ports have different depths that allow access to ships of different drafts (and different types of cargo — 20% of what is exported in the US). But there is also Alexandria, Natchez, Billoxi, and so many others.
The Gulf of Mexico Ballast Water Profile Ports of Lower Mississippi Gulf of Mexico Program Page 10, notes :
“The most important cargoes of the South Louisiana Port are: crude oil (77%), aluminum ore (13%) and petroleum products (6%). Corn (41%) animal feed (16%), oilseeds (16%), and wheat (14%). This is what dominates the port's exports. This port handles half of all US exports of grains… Other exports are lime, wood, sugar cane, cotton, rice, fertilizers and resins.
Through the Port of New Orleans, cargoes of steel, crude oil, refined petroleum products, rubber, hardboard, coffee, cotton, machinery and food are imported. And it exports forest products, steel, food, chemicals, cotton, rubber. During 1996, exports of poultry meat increased by 14.1% to 123 thousand tons, and exports of paper and cardboard increased by 16% to 353,259 tons. At the end of France Road, container terminal, the port authority declared to have handled 50,681 containers totaling 826,764 tons in 1996. Of this container tonnage, 257,836 tons were imports, and 583,928 were exports. "
To this should be added the traffic of tourists and luxury cruises. A business in continuous expansion that translated into strong investments dedicated to the expansion of the docks in front of New Orleans.
This information, although it refers to a situation of a past time, gives an idea of the importance and diversity of activities of these ports.
But there was more. Not only docks, but also large specialized warehouses for handling all kinds of products in the functions of unloading and loading and parking of the goods.
In Baton Rouge, the grain storage infrastructure included elevators. some with a capacity for 7.5 million bushels, which was used for soybeans, wheat, corn and other grains. The molasses industries needed other facilities, with the capacity to deal with millions of gallons. None of this was done overnight, it required large investments and time.
And of course to all that was added the dedication and slow specialization of hundreds of thousands of workers that led to a strong urban expansion. Those workers, 14%, could be dedicated to export manufacturing, others to work in ports, where the loading and unloading of each ship could take up to a week, and those who work in foreign companies (German, English, Dutch, French) installed on site. And imagine the vast expanse of services, from bureaucracies to servants in restaurants, bars, and casinos. Let us add families, let us add unemployed, artisans and poets — this in a proportion that could resemble figures of underdevelopment. The ports and their tasks cannot be conceived without that population.
Naturally the importance of the ports of Louisiana was reinforced as the markets expanded and the North American interests became as never before the Latin American world. Louisiana was the privileged port of entry in the Free Trade Agreements. Central American production was going to Louisiana. The thick traffic of the Panama Canal, carried the productions of South America towards the ports of the Mississippi. And conversely, much of the production of the other states of the Mississippi Basin, and even the Great Lakes, which included Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, sought its exit to the ports of the Gulf of Mexico, From where destinations also departed to Africa, Asia and Europe.
In the state of Mississippi, agriculture absorbed in 2004 30% of the workforce that delivered an estimated production of 5.5 billion dollars. But also the work towards its part in the loading and unloading of ships that approached ports that rose up the river, as if affirming that this production had distant destinations. In effect, it was going to the World, through those ports it charges 3,557,419,409 US dollars. And the destinations are: Canada, Mexico, China, Belgium, Honduras, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, Dominican Republic, and so on. In these “baskets” were: chickens (Louisiana produced 79 million broilers annually) eggs (1.6 billion a year), wood (one billion dollars), cotton, soybeans, millions of head of cattle, fish, corn, rice , sugar ... The baskets go by trucks and by barges, and they are launched from above Greenville, going down towards Vicksburg (which ties to Highway 20) or to Natchez, further down, which joins 84. Already in front of N. Orleans, in other tributaries, falling towards the Gulf is Picayune, and already on the sea, Claremont, Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascalagua.
But what enters those ports, say, for example, from Latin America? Well, the ports of the Mississippi, New Orleans included, is the main route of entry for Latin American products to the US: there goes coffee from Brazil, Mexican beer, Salvadoran textiles and auto parts from Honduras. In turn, 15% of total exports go to Latin American buyers. For Latin America it is like the Puerto de Palos or Cádiz from another colonial phase.
Ports are terminals. There you get from overseas. But up to there you start and also get there by land, in another section of the rowdy coming and going of humanities and merchandise. For the port to function, its facilities must be accessible, by sea, by river, and by land routes: roads and railways. Airports, transport pipeline networks, electrical and telephone networks, fiber optics ... and all the agents involved in the maintenance of these services. And the ports of Louisiana and Mississippi are served not only by some general manager, but by the efficiency of all these systems. Central Louisiana is linked to port terminals, and to these with the rest of the country through Interstate highways, the US Highway, airports (civil and military management, such as Alexandria) and the railways, where the Kansas City Southern and the Union Pacific. Added to this are the river routes that carry merchandise upriver on barges. All of these roads link industrial parks and piers to central state or interstate destinations. The system looks strong, but it is delicate and even subtle. The roads have their rhythm, the warehouses too. And all these services cross rivers, canals and lagoons through extensive bridges. Throughout this set, nature has been displaced by engineering. The orography and hydrography of the mouths of the Mississippi is a function of the transnational corporation that imposed a geography on nature according to its needs. A triumph of art was the port of New Orleans itself, whose neighborhoods were expanding below the level of Lake Pontchartrain and the level of the sea.
And disaster came.
A neatly announced hurricane in the face of whose strength there was only room for an orderly and early evacuation. He ran away. The owners of everything came out first, as is "natural", then those who could. A large part of the poorest population was trapped, or was forced into a diaspora from which they have not yet returned. A generous sum of 30,000 refugees was offered to Puerto Rico. The first flybys over the Mississippi Basin showed the scale of destruction. Taking a brief inventory:
- The main ports and cities - mentioned in this article - were destroyed and uninhabitable.
- There are many dead and missing and a diaspora of the working population and middle classes.
- Roads, bridges and railways were destroyed or under water in numerous sections.
- The potable water, gas and sewer system is damaged or unusable
- Warehouses and refrigerators and refrigerated container handling in many ports were left unused, semi-destroyed, without power or flooded
- There is a poorly evaluated destruction of goods passing through or stored
- Many grain elevators lack operating capabilities
- The operation of at least one thermonuclear plant and the flow of electricity to ports and cities are interrupted. Thousands of poles and many substations are lost.
- There is a substantial loss of barges
- There is a majority loss of personal and collective transport vehicles (250 thousand submerged cars)
- There is a massive loss of manufacturing companies and workshops.
- Gas or oil pumping platforms, paralyzed or stranded. Many refineries, knocked out.
- The agricultural system of a vast area experiences great losses in plantations and animals.
- The transportation of grains to the shipping ports is blocked for an indefinite period of time.
- City services (eg hospitals, police, schools) are out of service
- Essential machinery for the operation of factories and ports is partially unused
- Ports are closed until further notice and ongoing fleets are desperately seeking alternative ports.
- River traffic is suspended.
- Large oil, chemical and organic waste spills create a risk situation that has not yet been sufficiently evaluated.
- There is a loss of orientation on the part of all levels of government and a strong cracking or immobilization of the social system
- Immediate projects begin to set priorities in the reestablishment of governability, the evacuation of populations, remilitarization, health operations and the reconstruction of communication networks.
In the destruction of cities, and here New Orleans and Biloxi are paradigmatic –which must be seen as the necessary infrastructure for the operation of the ports– the complete obliteration of popular neighborhoods stands out, and the generation of an environmental situation that no risk modeling had even imagined. It will take many months, perhaps years, to make these places habitable again. Its important connections in the labor mobilization, between the different points of the dispersion of the South Mississippi, will be cut for many months. The loss of capital becomes excessive and redundant, since it closes circles of exchanges and business, induces a certain infertility of capital. In local businesses there is only encouragement to calculate losses.
In the short term, it is a practical, irrefutable fact, the destruction of the ports and cities of the mouths of the Mississippi, and their inability to restore or continue to sustain the movement that preceded Katrina. It will take several months until the fundamentals, which are the loading and unloading of ships, as well as river transport, can be restored. Some journalists have wanted to encourage hopes to the contrary, based on the discovery that some specific systems have remained practically intact. For example, that 60% of grain elevators could work. For example, when it is also said that the "normality" of trade is restored because after 15 days, only two terminals of the 76 in New Orleans are in a position to receive a ship. But the problem here has two levels of complication: the communication networks that were cut off or submerged, and the impossibility of reinstating the workforce under the current conditions of citizen disarticulation. Or also the impossibility for many larger vessels to access these deeply damaged facilities.
So in the short term — two or three months — we will see a substantial decrease in merchandise movement activity to and from this region. Importers or exporters who used those Mississippi terminals will undoubtedly look for other alternatives, or they will also face strong economic shocks. On the other hand, it will not be easy to find those alternative ports, and everything will end up adding new hazards to the economies of the central US states.
It is this short-term impact that has generated a discussion about how it would tax US growth, in a difficult stage bordering on the recession. Of course, that growth flattens, and could even originate some inflationary pressure. But in the surrounding region, this growth will be even more affected by the loss of many projects, industrial paralysis, the agrarian disaster, unemployment, the difficulty to harvest crops in the coming weeks, which were seen as a respite for states that they had lived through an extensive drought.
In the short term, some things of great importance are also decided, such as the reconstruction or relocation of New Orleans. Fierce interest struggles, not only in Louisiana, and not only productivist, but also speculative and class-based, intervene in this affair early on. For example, among the rich of the city “Easy” the idea of a happy reconstruction appeared, “without the poor”. There is floating like a will to eradicate, with the help of the hurricane and the political mafia, the poor, the unemployed, and if possible, the workers themselves until last week. They are threatened that the recovery of their positions will be difficult. While much of the middle sector, far from finding healthy financial prospects for the reconstruction of their homes, they are faced with the threat of the auction of their mortgaged lands. The question of the employment of all these people remains to be seen. Many may not return anymore. And you have to weigh which companies, how many, are still standing, and what percentage of their old staff will be able to accept. The clogging of such huge ports also means thousands of exporting companies — and their staffs — have been shut down.
What will have happened to small and medium manufacturing companies? What will happen to "direct investment" and the German, Dutch, English and French agencies? You have to think that until recently, foreign companies operating in Louisiana employed 50,000 workers. How much of the big federal aid — sure to come — will fund the renovation of the Mississippi casinos and bon vivant? In the immediate, that is not seen. And there is still another problem that begins to rise on the horizon, and that first took the form of a dispute over whether it would be the state or federal governments that would lead the organization of reconstruction, which is seen to come as an articulated and gigantic package of business. The conditions will make it the federal and its publicans favorites are those who lead this effort — and it will be seen — as a result of the composition of the political power (Executive and Congress) —that a “generous help” will flow to the corporate coffers and their directions.
Another issue of great importance will be the conduct adopted by shipowners, shipping companies and international businesses in relation to this landing area. And sometimes it is not easy to find alternative ports that do not affect the costs of the operation.
And there is another central concern: what will happen to the oil and gas production of this region — which participates in some way in the threat of being almost on the brink of the extinction of its reserves… Here the analysts are cautious, the Wall street journal, for example, it moves fairly between two possibilities, the good and the bad, the good, that this is only a small crisis, that it will restrict North American oil production somewhat, say by 5%, and that it could induce declines in the gross product below 0.5%, or the pessimistic, which leads to putting the oil paralysis embarked on a major crisis, which could drag the arrival of a recession, which would begin with a drop in GDP of more than 3%. In both cases, there would be a rise in world prices for oil and derivatives.
This last situation would be endorsed by the presidential order to resort to reserves - reserves that are partially unusable when most of the refineries on the site are paralyzed. On the other hand, the drop in American reserves is an indication that is linked to potential increases in the product, which originate many other chain reactions.
Meanwhile, oil leads another scenario, guided by massive spills (there is talk of 400 spills and millions of gallons). In addition to other chemical spills, which come to mean an ecological catastrophe that affects the entire Gulf of Mexico.
In a longer period of time, we find the results of the first attempts to get this machinery back on track - and the costs of that operation, which so far respond to ever-increasing estimates. It follows the impact that by then will have been felt — we are talking about the next six months — originated in the stalling of the output of the millions of tons of grain that had to be exported, and the impact of oil retention, to speak only of two major items. In a perspective where the destruction of the peasant economies of the third world has been asserted for years, the collapse of many food sovereignties, and the consequent dependence on North American grain, the interruption of the flow of crops that are already beginning, generates a forecast somber.
In the international arena, it will be necessary to examine the sensitivity of various receiving or exporting areas of this trade, which had its center precisely in the center of the United States, which had trade with 194 destinations in the world, and the weight of these situations in various capitalization processes and on multiplying factors. The mere stoppage or variation of ports of shipment, the change of mileage in the transfer of some merchandise are conditions of profit or loss. The collapse crisis in the Mississippi states can easily create instability in the consumer trends of other neighboring states and in the orientation of their investments. Without having to elaborate on a new plunge into the recession, this alone would be enough to give a blow to the maquiladora model that enslaves Central America and Mexico.
In this longer period of time, other processes hitherto almost invisible will also be seen: the effect of the de facto moratorium on the debts of Louisiana and the other states affected by Katrina. Where the vast majority of the population lived in debt, tied to their credit cards and their mortgage obligations. We doubt that the American financial system is boiling enough to grant generous pardons. Under the prevailing model someone will have to pay. And strategies will be designed sooner rather than later.
There is no doubt that Katrina has other effects - just see how it put the presidential figure out of balance, but in addition to what may be the comfort of Mr. Bush in the White House or on his ranch, it questioned the credibility of his policies. and imperial wars. For the hurricane there were many failures — and the people felt deeply — because their government was concerned about their distant wars. If even the Louisiana National Guard was on duty in Iraq when it was needed most on its land. On the other hand, only very late did Bush and his political, economic, bureaucratic, and military environment begin to understand what was happening in the Mississippi, because they were preparing for other scenarios, where the almost immediate attack on Iran stood out. Katrina, for them, was a secondary thing — perhaps that's why Congress initially awarded a measly aid of just $ 10 billion. Much later they would realize that they needed more than 50 billion. And they even went to visit and photograph the scene of the disaster. Where, just in case, Cheney could still do us the favor of showing what he had in the wardrobe: "we are capable of simultaneously waging several wars." In other words, the warlike project (in the oil fund) has not been abandoned. But we would like to believe that it has at least been postponed.
On September 13, The Times-Picayune reported:
Although the ships still float past their offices on the banks of the Mississippi River, they are heading north because there is no one left in New Orleans to unload them.
Trucks, which typically carry 60 percent of cargo entering the port, are barred from entering Jefferson or Orleans parishes because local officials want to keep the lanes clear for emergency vehicles.
The trains, which carry the other 40 percent, cannot make it into the city because all six lines served by New Orleans are under water or have lost miles of track to the 100-mile-per-hour winds that brought down the region. when Katrina hit. www.EcoPortal.net
* Federico García Morales