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Hurricane Ike: Déjà vu all over again

By James Thompson

GALVESTON, Texas - After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, many people speculated that if a similar disaster hit Texas, the Bush administration would respond more positively. More than two months after Hurricane Ike hit, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Today, 11/30/08, I drove to Galveston and was horrified by what I saw. Once a bustling tourist oriented city with a strong Medical Center and vibrant African-American community, what I saw today was pathetic. Galveston appears to be a ghost town now, devastated by the storm initially and now crushed by the cruelty of capitalism. It should be noted that while the community suffers, large numbers of oil tankers are easily spotted just off the coast waiting for permission to enter the Houston Ship Channel and deliver oil for refineries.

Some, including the Bush crony Governor of Texas Rick Perry, expected more from the Bush administration since the current lame-duck President claims to be from Texas. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who appears to recently have been re-born as a Governor of the People, has complained loudly that "President George W. Bush didn't even know of the Texas request for aid when the governor spoke with the president by phone last week" according to an editorial in the Dallas Morning News posted on 11/21/08. The Dallas Morning News also notes "Texas coastal communities are waiting for help. Hundreds of residents still live in tents, disabled cars and condemned homes as they await FEMA inspectors, insurance adjusters, mobile homes and utilities. If this is emergency management, we'd hate to see emergency mismanagement." The grim lesson is that capitalism has other priorities than the needs of people.

National Guard Rebuked

Hurricane Ike struck on 9/12/08. Soon after I heard stories of National Guard troops starving at a football stadium near my home in Houston. I went to the site on 9/18 and National Guard troops and Texas Department of Public Safety officers refused to talk with me. It turned out that it was a huge staging area for evacuation of survivors of Hurricane Ike.

The motor coach operators, including Russsell Howell from Miami, Florida, Larry Fantroy from Detroit, Michigan and Ms. J. from Austin, Texas (pictured) were happy to talk with me about their conditions. They told me that they were contracted to drive motor coaches to evacuate people from the Gulf Coast. Although some arrived as early as August 27 due to Hurricane Gustav (which preceded Hurricane Ike), they were not provided with suitable housing facilities or food while on duty. They had no food and were not allowed off the premises of the staging area to obtain food. Fortunately, working people in the surrounding area heard of their plight and came forth with huge quantities of food to nourish the heroes there to rescue survivors of the storm. This was a harbinger of the treatment the federal government has provided to survivors of the storm.

FEMA Ignores Survivors of the Storm

Now when I drive through Houston and Galveston, "blue roofs" are everywhere. After the storm, FEMA acted fairly quickly to put blue tarps over damaged roofs. Many of my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have tarps on their roofs. These people are suffering while FEMA fiddles over whether to pay for needed repairs. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle on 11/24/08 thousands still await FEMA to provide assistance to enable them to repair their damaged roofs. You may have noticed that recently Bush has pushed through billions of dollars of bailout money for the wealthiest corporations who presumably still have a roof over their head.

I drove by the FEMA disaster relief offices today on Broadway in Galveston and nothing appeared to be happening. News reports indicate that there have been promises of temporary housing, i.e. mobile homes once again, that have not materialized as of yet. Mobile homes were also promised to the residents of New Orleans but never delivered. The mobile homes delivered to Galveston have such horrendous health hazards associated with them that residents prefer to sleep outside or in their vehicles.

According to the Galveston Daily News on 11/9/08 (two months after Hurricane Ike hit), many families have been denied assistance by FEMA. 77% of the people who have requested assistance on the upper Texas Coast have "fallen through the gaps in the safety net the government spreads wide to help victims of natural disasters." People are being denied according to bureaucratic rules "because they did not qualify for help under federal guidelines." While government officials are standing tall behind their exclusionary rules and regulations, many residents of Galveston and Houston remain homeless or are residing in substandard housing.

Medical Care Eliminated

To add insult to injury, over 3,000 people have been laid off from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. The UTMB in Galveston is a huge medical complex and has provided medical care to the residents of Galveston and South Houston for many years. It is the only state facility in the area and has served many indigent patients for a long time. I walked through the Medical Complex today hoping to talk to workers who might tell me about the impact of the layoffs. To my dismay, the great Medical Center appeared to be a ghost town after the layoffs. I approached two women who acknowledged they work for the Medical Center (they were the only employees available). They refused to talk to me since they said they were not at liberty to talk about current conditions. I approached two family members of patients (also the only family members available) in the John Sealy Hospital who knew very little but told me that only Labor and Delivery and the Emergency Room were currently open. I approached the lone security guard posted at the entrance of John Sealy hospital who told me that I should return the next day to speak with the Public Relations people from UTMB administration. The gag order was apparent and thorough. I did enter the John Sealy Hospital for a few minutes and there were no employees, patients or family members visible or available for comment. When you lay off 3500 employees, there are not many people left to talk and those left are terrified and fear being among the next round of layoffs.

It is unconscionable that after a catastrophe like Hurricane Ike that the first targets would be public health facilities. However, I should not be surprised at the brutality in Galveston. This only mirrors the actions taken in New Orleans which resulted in the closing of the Charity Hospital and the VA Medical Center in downtown New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The layoffs have resulted in a severe financial blow to Galveston County. UTMB was the city's largest employer. Union officials from the Texas State Employees Union continue to organize UTMB workers as part of a plan supported by the Galveston County AFL-CIO to put pressure on the University regents to reinstate workers. Galveston City Council has also acted to request the UTMB Board of Regents "to fully support the university and its historic mission of tending to the medical needs of the indigent."

Meanwhile, the UTMB system, which has provided needed medical services for inmates in the Texas Prison systems, closed its prison hospital of 365 beds. Sick inmates are now being sent to other facilities throughout the state.

Lawmakers including Nick Lampson, D-Stafford; Gene Green, D-Houston; Kevin Brady R-Woodlands; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Chet Edwards, D-Waco; and Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler; Al Green, D-Houston and Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston have taken action to pressure FEMA to provide much needed services to the survivors of Hurricane Ike.

The survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike should unite with each other and their supporters to demand that the Gulf Coast be rebuilt and a priority be placed on the recovery of families rather than extending the profits of the world's largest corporations. We need a bailout of those inundated by natural catastrophe.

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