Accuracy in Media

Isn’t it interesting how former FEMA director Michael Brown is looking better all the time? AIM was virtually alone at the time in standing up for Brown, in the sense that it was clearly the case that he was being unfairly victimized by the press. They wanted a scapegoat and he was it. Official reports now coming out seem to indicate that the problem in addressing Katrina wasn’t Brown so much as the federal bureaucracy of which he was not necessarily the key component. In addition, a very revealing article in Popular Mechanics magazine exposes some of the media myths about the disaster.

The latest report comes from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and among their recommendations was to dismantle the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and restructure it. It agreed with a previous House of Representatives report that part of the problem was insufficient communications gear in advance of the storm reaching land. In this context, a perceptive article in the online publication The Post Chronicle by Michael J. Gaynor offers a more favorable view of FEMA’s role and Michael Brown.

Until recently, the narrative has gone something like this: Katrina was a once-in-a-lifetime Category 5 hurricane. When it hit New Orleans, the federal government was nowhere to be found. Despite pleas from the local and state authorities for the federal government to take over the rescue and evacuation efforts, those pleas fell on deaf ears. Mayhem dominated the Superdome, where rape and assault were common occurrences among the people who sought refuge there during the days immediately after the hurricane hit. Outside the Superdome, there was widespread looting, as the people were abandoned by their government officials at all levels. Katrina created a major interruption to oil and gas drilling and refining. But now, the rebuilding has begun, and the Gulf Coast area will come back “bigger and better than ever.”

It turns out, however, that much of what we know to be true isn’t exactly true. Popular Mechanics magazine has published a much overlooked story, The Lessons of Katrina, in its March issue. It got some attention at the time in the blogs and on certain online publications. But very little, if any, attention has been devoted to it in the mainstream media.

As the editors of Popular Mechanics pointed out in the introduction, “No one should have been surprised. Not the federal agencies tasked with preparing for catastrophes. Not the local officials responsible for aging levees and vulnerable populations. Least of all the residents themselves, who had been warned for decades that they lived on vulnerable terrain. But when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, it seemed as though the whole country was caught unaware?In the months since the storm, many of the first impressions conveyed by the media have turned out to be mistaken. And many of the most important lessons of Katrina have yet to be absorbed.”

For example, it was not a once-in-a-lifetime category-five hurricane, but rather a “midlevel Category 3 hurricane at landfall.” Winds 55 miles south of New Orleans reached 125 miles per hour, but “winds in the city barely reached hurricane strength.” According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, “the Atlantic is in a cycle of heightened hurricane activity due to higher sea-surface temperatures and other factors. The cycle could last 40 years, during which time the United States could be hit by dozens of Katrina-size storms.” In other words, these will become routine weather events, “not once-in-a-lifetime anomalies.” And they are part of a cycle, not evidence of human-induced global warming.

What about the federal response? “Bumbling by top disaster management officials fueled a perception of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors. In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest?and fastest?rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm’s landfall.” It goes on to point out that dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters were flying rescue operations within the first two hours after Katrina hit, and that by the end of the week, “50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4,000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000.”

On the matter of reported death and violence at the Superdome associated with Katrina, the magazine says that a total of six bodies were found, as opposed to the 200 speculated; four from natural causes, one from suicide, one from a drug overdose. Regarding the voluntary evacuation, 1.2 million people out of a metro population of 1.5 million successfully evacuated in just 38 hours, far less than the 72 hours estimated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Most that remained had transportation available to them, but chose not to leave, with the tragic exceptions of hospital patients and nursing home residents. The Corps also determined that the sheet-pile foundations supporting the floodwalls had been properly built.

Following this report, a House of Representatives committee released its report on the preparation for and response to Katrina. Popular Mechanics matched it up with its report and said that the House report highlighted the lack of a unified communications system for emergency professionals, and the need for a comprehensive national review of all threats, both natural and manmade. Also it pointed to the need to create “comprehensive playbooks by which everybody, from local levels to the federal government.”

Katrina exposed flaws in the government’s ability to manage such a catastrophe, but it also highlighted the media’s failure to get the story right and its general unwillingness to correct their mistakes once the truth was revealed.




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