A Mumbai in New Orleans

IN Media Practice | 02/09/2005
The most sensible comment came from the Boston Globe that recalled the Mumbai floods and said that the real name of the hurricane is not Katrina but global warming.


Dasu Krishnamoorty


As nature delivered death, destruction and devastation to more than a million living in New Orleans, the media played its role, positive, constructive and reflective. TV images brought into the living rooms of a dazed nation flood waters, dead bodies, wreckage, tops of submerged houses. Different though, the holocaust brought back excruciating memories of 9/11. At the same time a paralysis of resourcefulness hit the administrators. New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin said the hurricane might have killed thousands in his city alone, an estimate that, if correct, would make it the nation`s deadliest natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 6,000 people.

There was no bickering of any sort from any quarter, political or otherwise, because, in the words of a New York Times editorial, "This seems like the wrong moment to dwell on fault-finding, or even to point out that it took what may become the worst natural disaster in American history to pry President Bush out of his vacation. All the focus now must be on rescuing the survivors." The Los Angeles Times too stressed the point of rescue and rehabilitation saying, "For now, though, the chief concern is grasping the magnitude of damage to lives and communities, and the perseverance that will be needed to rebuild them."

In the opinion of the Washington Post, it was inappropriate to `blame` anyone for a natural disaster. But given how frequently the impact of this one was predicted, and given the scale of the economic and human catastrophe that has resulted, the Post said it was certainly fair to ask questions about disaster preparations. "Congress, when it returns, should rise above the blame game and instead probe the state of the nation`s preparation for handling major natural catastrophes, particularly those that threaten crucial regions of the country," said the Post.

The broadest lesson was the reminder that in the contest of nature vs. man, nature at its most powerful retains the upper hand, wrote the USA Today. "For all the satellites, mass communications and emergency preparedness that seem to convey omniscience and control, our ability to mitigate nature`s fury is marginal." In a detailed editorial analysis, the New York Times traced the roots of the tragedy. "At the same time, there must also be an honest recognition of the fact that no amount of engineering - levees, sea walls, pumping systems, satellite tracking systems - can fully bring nature to heel. Indeed, the evidence is indisputable that systematic levee-building along the Mississippi upstream of New Orleans has blocked much of the natural flow of silt into the delta. That, in turn, has caused the delta to subside and made the city and its environs even more vulnerable to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which itself has been rising."

The vulnerability of the levee dikes system became an issue with every newspaper. The below-sea-level New Orleans was protected by a system of levees, two of which broke on Tuesday. Some of the deaths, and much of the drama, was a result of residents who could not -- or would not -- heed the evacuation order. There will be the inevitable questions about beachfront developments in a vulnerable area. Meanwhile, news accounts focused on people who obstinately clung to their homes hoping they could ride out the storm. Some of them had to be pulled out from attics, roofs and trees. A lot of people could have saved themselves had they heeded evacuation appeals.

Katrina did not spare the media either. The New Orleans Times-Picayune did not come out on Wednesday but offered an Internet edition. Louisiana`s largest newspaper, it found no place to print the 260,000-circulation paper. The 168-year-old newspaper continued to publish stories and photos on its website nola.com.  The crisis at the Times-Picayune showed the challenges media faced throughout the flood-hit region. It was among several news outlets that moved into temporary workspace outside the flood zone and struggled to communicate with reporters, who were bedeviled by spotty phone service. On Mississippi`s Gulf Coast, the Sun Herald managed to publish two print editions and also set up a blog, eyesonkatrina.blogspot.com, that encouraged readers to report their experiences in the hurricane and established an "I`m OK Line" for readers to call so they could be listed among the survivors.

NBC affiliate WDSU-TV Channel 6, whose transmitter conked, moved its news anchors and other staffers to WAPT-TV Channel 16 in Jackson, Miss. A reporting crew from the station remained behind and recorded images of the rising floodwaters.  CNBC provided a detailed analysis of the economic devastation from the hurricane, focusing on damage done to oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and refineries onshore. Several CNN reports made the immense power of the storms evident — particularly one showing an oil platform that had been anchored miles offshore beached on the coast at Dauphin Island.

Several newspapers, including one of the most conservative newspapers in the US, the Union Leader of New Hampshire, lambasted Bush`s response to the hurricane havoc. The Leader said,  "A better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone and announced the immediate mobilization of every available resource to rescue the stranded, find and bury the dead, and keep the survivors fed, clothed, sheltered and free of disease," The New York Times called the Bush response a ritual. It thought the President appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. "He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end," said the Times. The Washington Post pointed out how the President`s most recent budgets had actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration had long ignored Louisiana politicians` requests for more help in protecting their fragile coast, the destruction of which meant there was little to slow down the hurricane before it hit the city.

David Brooks, writing for the Op-ed page of the New York Times, said such hurricanes exposed the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. "When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation`s history, it`s striking how often political turbulence followed. What`s happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come," he said. Jack Shafer says the same thing: This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.

But the most sensible comment came from the Boston Globe that recalled the Mumbai floods and said that the real name of the hurricane is not Katrina but global warming.  A report by Ross Gelbspan said, "When a severe drought in the Midwest dropped water levels in the Missouri River to their lowest on record earlier this summer, the reason was global warming. When a lethal heat wave in Arizona killed more than 20 people in one week, the culprit was global warming.  And when the Indian city of Mumbai received 37 inches of rain in one day - killing 1,000 people and disrupting the lives of 20 million others - the villain was global warming.  As the atmosphere warms, it generates longer droughts, more intense downpours, more frequent heat waves, and more severe storms."

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