News & Politics

Chasing a Katrina Conspiracy

The latest conspiracy theory making the rounds is that New Orleans' levees were deliberately destroyed.
In the weeks since Katrina hit, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a slew of activists, and bloggers have spun a huge tale of wicked intrigue about the hurricane. Katrina, so the conspiracy theory goes, provided the perfect and long awaited pretext for either the Army Corp of Engineers, secret government agents, the Klan, FEMA operatives, corporate real estate interests, or unnamed forces to blow the levees in New Orleans and send torrents of waters raging through the city's poorest black neighborhoods.

The aim of the plot, depending on who spoke, was to kill blacks, protect the white, upper income areas from flooding, gut political strength in New Orleans, or grab black homes and land at fire sale prices and dump pricey condominiums, townhouses, upscale malls and gallerias in their neighborhoods.

To prove their point, the conspiracy theorists cited random remarks made by a handful of tired, distraught and bitter evacuees camped in the Houston Astrodome. They claimed to have heard explosions immediately before the levees broke, and they lambasted Bush and the federal government for their inaction.

This conspiracy theory would have been relegated to a fringe corner on obscure websites if Farrakhan hadn't fanned it in a speech in North Carolina a couple of weeks after Katrina struck. A bevy of conservative talk show jocks quickly pounced on it. That gave them yet another foil to use to deflect heat from Bush's bungled relief response. They railed at Farrakhan for stirring black paranoia and anti-white hatred.

There is absolutely no proof that the levees were deliberately blown. The predominantly black 9th Ward in New Orleans was not the only section of the city flooded. The flood devastated racially mixed residential areas, some white middle-income neighborhoods in New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast towns. The levees broke because of age, poor maintenance, and the millions that Bush slashed from the 2005 budget earmarked for their repair. Experts also note that explosions and sudden noises can occur during maximum force hurricanes. They attribute it to the tremendous build up of water pressure, high winds, and power outages.

During the past two decades, redevelopment agencies, developers, land speculators and young, white, middle income home buyers have transformed deteriorating inner city neighborhoods into gentrified, upscale residential and business areas complete with lofts, townhouses and trendy shops. They didn't need a hurricane or natural disaster to do that.

The belief that the Katrina disaster was anything other than a confluence of Bush bungling, budget cutting folly and nature's wrath is no surprise. The conspiracy bug has long bit many Americans. There are packs of groups that span the political spectrum that include Aryan Nation racists, Millennium Christian fundamentalists, anti-Semitic crackpots, and fringe left radicals. Their Internet sites bristle with purported official documents that detail and expose alleged plots.

These groups and thousands of individuals believe that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots, and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on their lives. Hollywood and the TV industry have also honed in on the conspiracy act. They churn out countless movies and TV shows in which shadowy government groups topple foreign governments, assassinate government leaders and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.

A near textbook example of that was the theory spun by an Idaho meteorologist. He claimed that a Japanese Yakuza crime group used a Russian Cold War era generator to trigger Katrina. This supposedly was punishment for the Hiroshima atom bomb attack. The theory was fantastic nonsense, but the Associated Press and USA Today took it seriously enough to treat it as a legitimate news item, with quotes from experts to refute it.

The conspiracy bug bit many blacks especially hard in the 1960s. They claimed that murky government agencies flooded the ghettoes with drugs, alcohol, gangs and guns to sow division and disunity among black organizations, eliminate militant black leaders, jail black politicians and quash black activism.

The racial conspiracy theorists at least had a suspect to point the finger at, and that was the FBI. For years, it waged a disgraceful, relentless, and illegal war against Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. That was hardly the case in the Katrina catastrophe. There was no single suspect that anyone could blame the disaster on. Farrakhan declined to finger any person or group that he believed blew up the levee. It would have required hard evidence and expert testimony to boost the contention that Katrina was an anti-black plot.

New Orleans was the culmination of a half-decade of the Bush administration's costly and reckless war, as well as fiscal policies that have resulted in the neglect and deterioration of the nation's roads, bridges, tunnels and levees. That neglect forced thousands of poor blacks in New Orleans to flee for their lives. And there was no hidden hand in that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).
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