Hurricane Katrina is considered one of the deadliest and most expensive natural disasters in United States history with more than 1,300 people killed. The many images of desperate survivors, floating bodies, and crowded shelters reached the international media and revealed a shocking level of abject poverty and income inequity that also exists in the world’s richest nation. While many human rights violations occurred in the aftermath of Katrina, the horrible situation that resulted in New Orleans was a culmination of systemic discrimination based on such factors as race and socioeconomic status that existed in New Orleans well before the hurricane. Inadequate infrastructure and evacuation plans, an ill-prepared emergency response, subsequent problems in dealing with displaced residents and reconstruction of New Orleans have raised many concerns in regards to human rights violations and have prompted much investigation and reporting from both government and non-government groups. Human rights philosophy focuses on the idea that all humans are “sacred”, and images from the Gulf Coast after Katrina reveal a contradiction in policy and practice in dealing with the victims of the disaster.
Human rights violations primarily stemmed from racial and socioeconomic factors in the region and ultimately resulted in violations of the basic right to life. In preparing for the hurricane, the State violated the principle of non-discrimination because the evacuation plan relied on property ownership, specifically ownership of an automobile. However, New Orleans hurricane plans before Katrina reveal that an estimated 100,000 residents did not own an automobile, the majority of which were poor and African-American. By not providing an alternative means of evacuation, such as public transport, the State violated Article 26 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights which states that all people are “entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.
As stranded residents in New Orleans died from drowning or lack of access to health care in the aftermath of the hurricane, questions of inadequate infrastructure arose. Clearly, the levee systems were insufficient to handle a severe storm such as Katrina and the federal government blamed this anomaly on the inability of responsible local organizations to develop and maintain levees to withstand a hurricane above a category three. However, despite what legislation and procedures may have been put in place to prevent flooding in high risk areas, the ultimate responsibility for fulfilling a citizen’s right to life falls on the shoulders of the national government. Failure on their part has occurred repeatedly since the storm with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and law enforcement failing to provide immediate rescue or protection and humanitarian aid to survivors, further leading to a disproportionate loss of life and suffering of poor and African-American residents.
Lines of communication, equipment, and supplies are cited as some of the major resources that were lacking by FEMA and law enforcement in responding to Katrina on the Gulf Coast. In addition, blatant rights violations took place as victims attempted to flee the city, such as the Danzinger Bridge incident where two people were shot down by police as they tried to escape floodwaters. In 2010, a New Orleans Police Department Supervisor was convicted for his involvement in covering up this incident and federal agencies continue to investigate the incident, even five years post-Katrina. 200 residents also attempted to escape to the majority white suburb of Gretna but were forcibly blocked by law enforcement, who fired shots in the air. In addition, the basic human and constitutional rights of prisoners incarcerated at the time of the storm, most of which were pretrial detainees without convictions, were violated as guards fled and prisoners were left without food and water and were eventually transported to other prisons. Numerous reports of abuses occurred and the criminal justice system collapsed without prisoner records making it out of New Orleans. Prisoners were held without charges, representation, or trial, a violation of the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article Nine of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. There were those who acted immediately after the storm, such as criminal defense lawyer Phyllis Mann, to file habeas petitions to release prisoners who should not remain in detention, but it took some months for action to occur on the part of the Louisiana judicial system.
Those who were mentally ill, the elderly, or others with special needs lacking the resources or even the physical ability to escape the storm are highlighted as another group who died or suffered in greater numbers. A reported 71 percent of Louisiana victims were over the age of sixty, again a violation of the right to equal protection without discrimination. Hospitals, nursing homes, and special needs shelters, failed to evacuate their patients due to factors of time and costs and in the process many died unnecessarily. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), FEMA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were responsible for providing medical care and supplies to victims. However, it appears that a failure of communication lines and coordination on their part led to the basic right to life and health being violated.
Inadequate levees, an insufficient evacuation plan, and failed operations to rescue and treat displaced persons after Hurricane Katrina reveal a level of discrimination based on race, health status, and socioeconomic status that violates internationally recognized human rights, as well as national civil rights and laws aimed at protecting against such discrimination. The first step to ensuring such a tragedy does not occur again in the United States requires commitment by local and federal authorities to invest in better infrastructure to prevent levees failing in the future. It also involves the creation of a more practical and non-discriminatory evacuation plan that would ensure all residents make it out of the high-risk areas regardless of them owning an automobile. The criminal system needs to be better organized, adaptable, and to take advantage of modern technology to ensure adequate records are maintained in the event of a catastrophe such as this. Finally, guidelines and regulations for providing humanitarian aid and assistance need to be better established so that communication and coordination between the various local and national agencies exists.
Today, as one drives the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward where many of the deaths occurred, flooded and deserted houses still remain with numbers spay-painted on the front as reminders of those that died or survived the floods. Public housing has been destroyed with no reconstruction planned and thousands of internally displaced residents are still living in other states because there is no housing, education, medical services or other basic infrastructure to return to in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. On a basic level, the human rights violations that occurred in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast centered upon racial and socioeconomic inequality. Unfortunately, it appears that no level of planning, preparation, or redress will ever eradicate such violations springing from emergency situations until this inequality is addressed on a national and individual level in the United States.
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