Many Thousands Gone

The first disaster was the hurricane. The second was the federal government's response.

In March 2003, the Bush administration degraded matters further by demoting FEMA from a Cabinet-level agency to a division of the freshly spawned Department of Homeland Security. The merger involved a nonsensical split in the government's disaster-response duties: FEMA would remain in charge of disaster response efforts on the ground, but DHS was placed in charge of disaster-response planning. It was practically a recipe for making sure that one hand would not know what the other was doing. Especially when one of those hands was the Department of Homeland Security. One of the points the Katrina disaster has underscored is how little we know about the workings of either FEMA or DHS. The latter in particular has shown every sign of being a PR dirigible from the start. A full year after the department theoretically commenced operations, Homeland Security staffers were still complaining that they did not even have a working e-mail network.


Don't call them "refugees"

Hurricane survivors pass a body on the sidewalk outside New Orleans Convention Center
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Hurricane survivors pass a body on the sidewalk outside New Orleans Convention Center

The figures bruited around in the last few days are harbingers of a great U.S. internal migration: 10,000-plus dead in New Orleans alone. Thousands more in the Louisiana parishes farther south and along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Eighty percent of New Orleans underwater. Tens of thousands of jobs lost there. Tens of thousands more jobs lost, at least temporarily, in Mississippi and Alabama--15,000 in the floating casinos off Biloxi alone. Damage estimates run to $100 billion and higher.

Presently there are between 220,000 and 250,000 storm survivors being sheltered in Texas; about 20,000 in Arkansas; and 300-400,000 in the vicinity of Baton Rouge, which has doubled in size and is expected to remain Louisiana's largest city going forward. On Sunday night the TV newsreaders were talking about 1 million people temporarily or permanently displaced.


TV news: They came, they saw, they made music videos

The cable networks started running Katrina coverage around the clock on Sunday morning, 24 hours before the hurricane hit. Fox News far outshone its competitors at the outset. The network had two reporters, Shepard Smith and Jeff Goldblatt, inside New Orleans, and they continued their dispatches throughout the hours and first days after the storm passed. Fox reporters, oddly enough, were among the first to level brickbats at federal authorities. In fact, it was the conservatives on cable television who initially led the cries of outrage. Joe Scarborough, the execrable former Florida congressman turned MSNBC host, did an exemplary job of plumbing the disaster-response failures of the first days.

The tenor of the coverage changed dramatically when federal troops and talking heads started to arrive on site at the end of the week. Though reports from the ground made it clear that the aid-and-evac effort was far from consistent or thorough, the hourly drumbeat of TV news stayed on message: The cavalry is here! It was as if the networks had been restored to normalcy after a scary few days in which they were on their own to discern what the stories were and what they meant. By Saturday night the cable news terrain had grown familiar again: live on-camera family reunions staged in CNN studios, and lots of those awful music video montages featuring gloppy, tear-jerker pop songs--because, you know, suffering on this scale is so sad but so cool. NBC took top honors with a soundtrack of Aaron Neville singing a gloppy, denatured version of Randy Newman's absolutely bitter "Louisiana 1927," a song about that year's massive Delta flood.

Over the weekend there was a short fit of self-examination occasioned by a Slate column in which media critic Jack Shafer wondered why newscasts almost never commented on the fact that the vast majority of the people trapped in New Orleans were black and poor. Shafer suggested that perhaps reporters were afraid of saying something insensitive about race, and this quickly became the popular apology. Appearing on NPR Sunday, Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz expounded that newsgatherers were afraid of sounding "politically incorrect" or "stupid."

Shafer's column invoked the specter of Al Campanis, the former Dodgers baseball executive who amassed a long record of signing and promoting black players only to lose his job after musing that blacks might lack the capacity to be managers. The comparison was apt. The kind of racism at issue has little to do with express bigotry and lots to do with blissful ignorance held together by the residue of countless unflattering stereotypes. We've all seen the pair of wire photos from last week of two people wading through water with bags of food, the captions announcing they had "found" (white person) or "looted" (black person) what they were carrying. The media were so quick to condemn the "lawlessness" of people in absolutely desperate straits--yes, of course there were thugs and crooks among them, and what does this unsurprising fact have to do with anything?--because to most of educated white America, "black and poor" is synonymous with "criminal element." The reporters who kept their traps shut were right to fear they would say stupid things. In these matters, they are stupid.


Some questions going forward

1) Following the evacuation of the 30-50,000 people who gathered at the Superdome and Convention Center, how many other survivors remain in New Orleans now, and how will they be gotten out before disease or dehydration overtakes them?

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