Worst coverage of the year

Posted: Dec 23, 2005 12:05 AM

Reviewing the falsehoods, myths and misrepresentations spun by the press, politicians and pundits following Hurricane Katrina, one is reminded of Nora Ephron's bon mot: "No matter how cynical I get, I can't seem to keep up."
Most recently, we have word from the National Hurricane Center that Katrina was not a category 4 storm at all, but rather, a category 3 when it slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. So much for the notion that the levees were built to withstand anything less than a category 4. But this news is only the latest in a string of stories correcting, amending and often reversing what we were told at the time. The string is so long that the fabric of reporting on Katrina has unraveled utterly, and it's enough to encourage caution -- if not outright cynicism -- about all reporting, particularly during emergencies.

 In the hours and days after the hurricane struck, the press reported that conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center had descended to Boschian (Hieronymous) depravity. We were told that "little babies" were being raped, and that stabbings and murders were widespread. The mayor and police chief of New Orleans repeated these rumors on television, thus transforming them from scuttlebutt to "news."

 FEMA, believing the stories broadcast worldwide, showed up at the Convention Center with a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies. They were expecting, reported The Seattle Times, at least 200. How many actually died in the two locations? Six. One died of a drug overdose, another committed suicide, and four more died of natural causes. Eddie Compass, New Orleans police chief, conceded that badly needed resources, like police and rescue workers, were diverted to deal with emergencies that turned out not to exist.

 Another popular convention of the Katrina aftermath was the notion that because National Guard troops were "spread thin" by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. lacked manpower to deal with a domestic crisis. But as James Robbins noted in National Review Online, only 10.2 percent of the U.S. Army, including guard and reserves, is stationed in Iraq -- fully 74.2 percent are stationed in the U.S.

 If people are sure of anything, it is that poor African-Americans were hardest hit by the storm and its aftermath. There is no question that poor blacks suffered terribly, but according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Louisiana data, those who died came from rich and poor neighborhoods in about equal numbers.

 We were told that if only federal officials had invested in strengthening the levees around New Orleans, the disaster could have been averted. But as The Washington Post has reported, Louisiana has actually received more money over the past five years for Army Corps of Engineers projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion. California, with a population seven times larger, received $1.4 billion.

 Katrina was a monster, and the misery she caused was heartbreaking. But the instant analysis was beyond tendentious. We were told that poor people died or suffered because they had no means of escaping the storm and were offered none by local, state or federal officials (most of the press reserved its severest scorn for the federal response). But according to a careful examination of actual storm victims conducted by The New York Times, most of those who stayed behind either owned cars or were offered rides by others and chose, for a variety of reasons (some good, some stupid), to remain behind.

 Now comes the next deluge: the deluge of cash that will rain down on New Orleans and the surrounding area. Louisiana lawmakers have demanded $250 billion in aid. Karl Zinsmeister estimates that this is the equivalent of handing each Louisianan a check for $56,000. This is on top of whatever insurance reimbursements and charitable contributions hurricane victims receive. In the last days before Christmas, Congress was working on legislation to spend $29 billion on levee repair, new pumping stations, and a variety of other services to Louisiana residents. Sen. David Vitter called it a "down payment."

 All of this spending will go to the most corrupt state in the nation, and will doubtless be disbursed primarily to the good friends of politicians. And this miscarriage of public policy will be due entirely to myths.