Posts about neworleans

Misery loves company – OR – Safety in numbers

If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you’d likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.

But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time — if you are one among a big number — then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.

Is that fair? No, logically, it isn’t. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics. This is in a sense an extreme example of the inequality of power law Clay Shirky writes about: The people at the top of any number curve get the attention.

If life, government, and media were fair — if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity — then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region’s infrastructure — its roads, schools, utilities, services — were also disrupted or destroyed.

So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss — and who will argue with that? — then, it has been asked, why don’t the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

But this isn’t about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media’s, first and foremost. Part of the reason behind that is obvious: In a world of scarce paper and airtime, only the big news gets big attention and big numbers mean big stories. Part of this is our fault: We watch the big story because of the big numbers. So big numbers make business sense: Big begets big.

Then the politicians exploit the numbers, too, of course. Especially after messing up the rescue and relief on the Gulf Coast, Bush and Congress ran to throw big money at the big numbers of victims: $200 billion is the latest figure we’ve heard. But we haven’t yet heard a substantial debate about how best to use such money: Is it to rebuild New Orleans? Or reimagine New Orleans? To support the building of housing there, as has been proposed? To support the creation of jobs there? To support mortgages and jobs and schools elsewhere in the country, where these people are going?

Whenever numbers grow big, you can count on a big backlash. The other day, I took Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman to task for scolding media because they reported predictions of death tolls that — thank God — apparently turned out to be too dire. And then an AP reporter called following a similar angle. I told him that it is a nonissue. What were reporters to do: Not report what officials said? Question their numbers with no basis in fact to do so? Follow what the officials said with some blanket caveat — “but they could be wrong” — as if we’re all an idiot and didn’t know that already? And what if — God forbid — the numbers turned out to be even worse than predicted? Then how would the reporters look? If the number were smaller or greater, is the story and the tragedy and the need any different? Or is it just the numerical perception, the headline value and political value that changes? And as a practical matter, if the government would not jump fast enough in a disaster where 10,000 were believed to have died, then you could argue that the local officials should have predicted 100,000 to get faster action. Because everybody responds to a bigger number.

This is all a product of mass think from mass media and plaint-by-numbers politics. But to quote Raymond Williams as quoted often by Jay Rosen: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

We see — and use — the victims and even the dead as masses. But, of course, they are a mass of individual stories and today, on the internet, each of those individuals can tell his story. We are coming into the age of the empowered individual: as consumers, as publishers, as businesspeople, as citizens. We have to learn that when we hypervalue the mass, we undervalue each of us. Whether part of a tragedy of huge numbers or a tragedy of one, each of us is the same, just one person with the our own pain and the our own needs. That is the ethic of the individual over the ethic of the mass.

: LATER: David Carr wrote in The Times today about other kinds of exaggeration that came into Katrina aftermath coverage — just as happens with other too-big stories: the reports of rapes and murders in the Convention Center, for example, which came from major media and which I linked to. Fears and stories get overblown. That may not excuse the journalists who reported without verification. But even here, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the neglect, and that is the real story.

It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city’s SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.

If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not, if one person died becuase of this or five or 10, the story of neglect is still the same.

Schadenfreude as media bias

The Observer reports that in a conversation with Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair “denounced the BBC’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina as ‘full of hatred of America’ and ‘gloating’ at the country’s plight.” It says that at his confab in New York, Bill Clinton “also attacked the tone of the BBC coverage at a seminar on the media. He said it had been ‘stacked up’ to criticise the federal government’s slow response.”

The BBC’s report on the criticism says:

Earlier, the BBC’s world editor Jonathan Baker defended its coverage to Newswatch after similar criticisms from some BBC News viewers and users.

He said most of its output had been “absolutely down-the-line straightforward reportage”, but added the president had made himself the “figurehead” of the disaster response.

“If things are not going well, he is there to be criticised, and if they were going much better he would expect to take the credit,” he said.

That’s an odd thing to say: There’s plenty of substance to criticize without having to make a “figurehead” as a sponge of criticism.

I haven’t seen the BBC’s coverage, so I can’t get specific in return. But we all saw last week’s Economist cover: The shaming of America. And God knows what other foreign press is saying about us, bringing us down a few pegs. But then again, what did we say about the French when they let their old people whither and die in a heat wave after they had acted so high and mighty about Iraq?

Is the bias anti-Americanism? Or is it a nationalistic bias of knocking the other guy who knocked us? Or is it a journalistic bias of schadenfreude?

Says it all

The Times-Picayune posts an excellent summary of the tragedy-turned-scandal of inadequate response to Katrina:

His frequent public pronouncements notwithstanding, Brown clearly saw himself in a supporting role in the disaster drama. He issued a directive to FEMA employees Monday not to respond to hurricane-ravaged areas “without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities.”

The directive revealed an allegiance to bureaucratic processes that proved maddening to some as FEMA demanded written requests for food, troops and fuel. A Florida congressman said the agency turned down an offer for flat-bottomed air boats because it didn’t want to sign a contract with the supplier.

Save for the Coast Guard’s dramatic air rescues, a detached, legalistic approach set the tone for the federal government’s response. Brown is a lawyer as is his boss, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. And the founding document of U.S. disaster planning reads like a legal brief.

The National Response Plan is chock full of legalese, case law and statutes, but it doesn’t clearly spell out something as basic as who is responsible for getting food and water to flood victims. The 426-page plan was supposed to have remedied the command-and-control problems that plagued the response to the terrorist attacks in New York City. But it’s hardly a model of clarity. Its authors thought it necessary to attach an 11-page glossary of “key terms” and a three-page explanation of acronyms. On the seminal question – Who’s in charge? – the Federal Response Plan is murky.

It says incidents are “typically” managed at the lowest levels of government. On the same page, however, it says that “Incidents of National Significance” put the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in charge. The next page seems to reverse course again. It says that “Incidents of National Significance,” emergencies declared by the president, puts the federal government in a supporting role to protect state sovereignty. That is, unless the president decides he wants to be in charge, in which case the governor is secondary. Under those circumstances, the plan says, the president will consult with the governor, “if practicable.”

: And here’s the Washington Post on the red tape that continues to hamper relief efforts for evacuees.

Like father like daughter: A must read from Nola

My friend and former colleague Jon Donley, editor of, worked nonstop through the hurricane and flood not knowing for days whether his daughter, Sarah, was safe. He had to post a missing-persons alert for his own daughter on his site. She finally was found not in her own home nearby a broken levee but huddled in the family’s home across the lake. So now “as payment for sleepless nights and a father’s fears,” Jon made Sarah write her story for his blog, which is filled with the human details of this huge event. It is just one story with a million like it from the Gulf Coast but it is incredibly dramatic and, as you’d expect from the daughter of a writer, well-written. You won’t be able to stop scrolling.

That night we were invincible. We had no idea a bitch named Katrina was waiting in the wings….

The last call I received was from my friend Toni, who was staying in Baton Rouge. She informed us that part of the Superdome roof had been ripped off, and windows in the Hyatt had been broken.

Then I lost cell phone service.

Then started the longest four or so hours of my life.

Because then had started the storm, raging through our small corner of the world.

We didn’t spend the storm huddled in my father’s closet. Nor did we spend the storm sitting on the roof. We spent the majority of the storm sitting on the front porch, an alcove protected from all winds save the ones coming straight at us, from the east.

I’ve always loved watching storms, for as long as I can really remember. But I’m fairly certain after watching this one I won’t be eager to watch another anytime soon.

It’s downright scary to watch 90 foot pines bow their heads to the ground in a strange obedience to the awesome power of Mother Nature.

I remember Justin trying to light a cigarette, facing away from the storm, into the house, and commenting that he wasn’t too impressed with this hurricane. At that exact moment i heard a groan that sent chills down my spine. Followed closely by a crack that left me feeling like a child for the first time in years. I turned Justin around just in time for him to see a large oak tree rip itself free of its restraints and in a matter of a few seconds, rip off a corner of a house. We stared mutely at the sight. For anyone who has never see or heard this happen, imagine a horror movie, the ones where the victim is hiding in a room from the killer, and the killer opens the door. That slow groan. Hearing it for yourself is untold amounts more terrifying. It is quite possibly the most eerie sound I have heard in my life….

My parent’s garage is set back from the house, not attached to it. This morning the garage housed three of my parent’s dogs. One loud bang we heard came from that area. The wind was gusting, at moments it would calm down. During one of these “breaks” I ran out to the garage. I figured if the roof had been broken I could open the door and let the dogs fend for themselves. The garage was crunched but not destroyed . . . getting back to the porch was hellish. The wind had picked up, and I was left grabbing onto whatever I could find to pull myself along. The helmet-heads on the news didn’t have anything on me struggling against those wind gusts. Leaves were flying around me as I finally made it up the driveway and back into the front yard. A tree in my neighbor’s yard fell across our street. I prayed, for the first time since it had all started, I prayed to get back onto the porch. I felt like Alice falling down some sort of strange rabbit hole. It seemed like the world was moving in slow motion around me, and at the same time sped up so fast that I wasn’t able to focus on what was going on. Perhaps this was how Dorothy felt as her house was picked up in a tornado. The wind died long enough for me to scramble unhindered back onto the porch. …

Go read it all. (And to find it, you’ll have to scroll until you see “Sarah’s Story” because the permalinks are acting funky.)

Missing the point

Jon Friedman, the media guy at Marketwatch, can drive me batty on occasion and this is one of those occasions: He bitches at news media for reporting at least one public official’s worst-case fear of the death toll in New Orleans and then nya-nyas them for being wrong and then acts of as if, gee, it’s not such a bad story after all. Hundreds have died and the counting is, tragically, not over yet. A city stands destroyed. Americans were abandoned in their hour of need. That’s bad, no matter the count. But Friedman says:

Perhaps they were being sincere, if misguided, in their projections. Or, maybe they were taking advantage of the tragedy to put their spin on the disaster and save their necks.

We’ll probably never get to the bottom of that question. We can be assured that the media deserve stinging slaps on the wrists for getting the facts so very wrong.

Listen, they quoted a public official and had no basis to question, disprove, or verify that estimate. There were no facts. So what exactly do you expect them to do: wade into the water, dodge bullets, and start counting bodies? And when the toll on 9/11 did not rise to similar fearful predictions, did you sit back and say, gee, it’s not so bad, is it? This is pointless.