Tuesday night, as water rose to 20 feet through most of New Orleans, CNN relayed an advisory that food in refrigerators would last only four hours and have to be thrown out. The next news item from CNN was an indignant bellow about "looters" of 7-Elevens and a Wal-mart. The reverence for property is now the underlying theme of many newscasts, with defense of The Gap being almost the first order of duty for the forces of law and order. But the citizens looking for clothes to wear and food to eat are made of tougher fiber and are more desperate than the polite demonstrators who guarded The Gap and kindred chains in Seattle in 1999. The police in New Orleans are only patrolling in large armed groups.

Also on Tuesday night, the newscasts were reporting that in a city whose desperate state is akin to Dacca in Bangladesh a few years ago, there were precisely seven Coast Guard helicopters in operation. Where are the others? Presumably strafing Iraqi citizens on the roads outside Baghdad and Fallujah. As the war's unpopularity soars, there will be millions asking why the National Guard is in Iraq instead of helping the afflicted along the Gulf in the first crucial hours.

The greatest concern for poor people in these days has come from President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who -- fresh from a chat with Fidel Castro -- has announced that Venezuela will be offering America's poor discounted gas through its Citgo chain. He says his price will knock out the predatory pricing at every American pump. Citgo should issue to purchasers of each tankful of gas vouchers for free medical consultations via the Internet with the Cuban doctors in Venezuela.

No politician in America has raised the issue of predatory pricing as gasoline soars above $3. The last time there was any critical talk about the oil companies was 30 years ago. Maybe the terrible disaster along the Gulf coast will awaken people to the unjust ways in which our society works. That's often the effect of natural disasters, as with the Mexican earthquake, where the laggardly efforts of the police prompted ordinary citizens to take matters into their own hands.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.