Dead? So What?

At some point, there might have been some sort of emergency logic in not picking up bodies lying (or floating) in public view in New Orleans: Help the living first, because you can’t do much for the dead. But does that logic still hold two weeks after the disaster? At some point you’d have to think that leaving corpses lying in the open might be considered harmful both physically, for the disease potential and encouragement of vermin, and psychologically, for the impact on morale of such callous disregard for the dignity of the deceased.

Reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune, it looks like the “authorities,” whoever they are, haven’t reached that point:

“Traveling by pirogue through the flooded Broadmoor neighborhood Saturday, two men spotted a body floating in a side yard at Rocheblave and Octavia streets. They reported it to National Guardsmen and a civilian airboat operator, who said they were aware of it .

“For 13 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the body of Alcede Jackson lay on a porch at 4732 Laurel St., wrapped in a plastic bag and covered in a blanket beneath a sign quoting the evangelist John and commending Jackson to ‘the loving arms of Jesus.’

“Across town, a left turn at Fern Street in the Carrollton neighborhood provided a clear view of the corpse of a man lying face-down on the sidewalk near a vacant lot. He wore blue jeans. His head was uncovered. Residents who witnessed the scene also informed a pair of National Guardsmen stationed on North Claiborne Avenue. They said they knew.”

Compared to this, the “bring out your dead” scenario in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was downright humane and efficient.

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Post-Katrina Reading

Highly recommended: The New Yorker’s extensive collection of current and historical storm pieces from the September 12 issue, including a clutch of Talk of the Town mini-essays and two classic pieces: One by James B. Stewart on the flooding upriver in 1993, and John McPhee’s 1987 history of the Army Corps of Engineers projects designed to keep New Orleans and other parts of the lower delta dry. on the history of the Army Corps and its effects:

“The river goes through New Orleans like an elevated highway. Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, is on high ground with respect to the rest of New Orleans, but even from the benches of Jackson Square one looks up across the levee at the hulls of passing ships. Their keels are higher than the AstroTurf in the Superdome, and if somehow the ships could turn and move at river level into the city and into the stadium they would hover above the playing field like blimps.

“In the early nineteen-eighties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a new large district headquarters in New Orleans. It is a tetragon, several stories high, and it is right beside the river. Its foundation was dug in the mainline levee. That, to a fare-thee-well, is putting your money where your mouth is.”

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Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu appeared on “All Things Considered” tonight. He tried to make nice, like everybody else who might be implicated in the post-Katrina atrocity (amazing to see Bush and crew turn into statesmen so sudden-like: Please! Let’s not play the blame game!), but he made one point that I haven’t heard from other mainstream politicos: A lot of what happened with the people who couldn’t make it out of New Orleans is a much deeper issue than just finding buses and shelters for them, and one most of us have been content to more or less ignore:

“One of the things that troubled America so much was, you know, we didn’t really have to see the poor, because they were dispersed. And everybody got a pretty good glimpse of what all a lot of poor people look like standing together, and I think it made America very uncomfortable. We looked in the mirror and we didn’t like what we saw. Now people are going to talk a lot about, as you have already started, who’s got the blame for not moving people out of where they are. There’s a much bigger question, because poor people get trapped, but they get trapped in poor education, they get trapped without transportation, they get trapped without technology, they get trapped without the things that many other people have. And that trap puts them in front of the Convention Center and in the Superdome. And so the country has to ask itself, what are we going to do relating to poor people, and what public policies are we going to put in place now that they’re standing right in front of us and we can’t ignore it any more?”

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‘Rebellion of the Talking Heads’

Sunday night — a long, long time ago in the Hurricane Katrina era — I offered an obligatory scoff for the predictably breathless TV news coverage of the storm’s imminent landfall. I suggested that there might be a better way — turn coverage of such events over to the people who make reality TV. But it turns out that all it took for the TV news people to get past their trademark melodrama and cheap showmanship was to subject them to a genuine crisis for several days, with no hope of relief, right in the middle of the United States of America. Slate’s Jack Shafer had a great writeup Friday on how those covering the hurricane aftermath for CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and yes, even NPR, finally got to the point this week that they actually started demanding answers from the pols and bureaucrats they usually let smile and say nothing.

A former deputy chief of FEMA told Knight Ridder Newspapers yesterday (Sept. 1) that there “are two kinds of levees—the ones that breached and the ones that will be breached.” A similar aphorism applies to broadcasters: They come in two varieties, the ones that have gone stark, raving mad on air and the ones who will.

In the last couple of days, many of the broadcasters reporting from the bowl-shaped toxic waste dump that was once the city of New Orleans have stopped playing the role of wind-swept wet men facing down a big storm to become public advocates for the poor, the displaced, the starving, the dying, and the dead.

It’s about friggin’ time.

No Warning

An excellent, and bitter, review (registration required) in Friday’s Los Angeles Times about in-depth reporting from three separate news organizations — some as recent as last month — about the danger hurricanes posed to New Orleans and the lack of federal and local response to the widely understood hazards.

“These days, media criticism has become a kind of blood sport. One of its practitioners’ most frequently repeated complaints is that mainstream news organizations have become increasingly — if not solely — reactive, retailing the sensation of the moment to an audience hooked on titillating irrelevancies.

“Well, that didn’t happen here.

“Three years ago, New Orleans’ leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio’s signature nightly news program, ‘All Things Considered,’ and The New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana’s leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.”

The Times-Picayune has reposted its 2002 series on the hurricane threat.

Hurricane Hastert

I’m proud to be a native of the state that produced Speaker of the House Dennis “Hurricane” Hastert. At last, a common-sense politician brave enough to speak his mind. As all around him wring their hands over the catastrophe in New Orleans, Hastert alone is clearsighted enough to see beyond the suffering and try to chart a sensible course for tomorrow. “It doesn’t make sense” to spend federal money to help rebuild the city, he said. And: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” Sometimes that’s the toughest thing: having the courage to move on.

Hastert noted that federal money is spent on rebuilding other disaster-prone locales sometimes: “But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild, too. Stubbornness.” (I like the fissures part; he must have seen that in “Superman”).

There’s a cost, of course, to such plain-spokenness. People who’ve lost their city react emotionally to your ideas. The principled thing to do amid the wounded yowls is plow straight ahead and enlighten the folks about the careful reasoning behind your blunt honesty. You might say something like this — or at least Hurricane Hastert did:

“ I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated. My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt.”

Truly: A profile in courage.

Hurricane Relief: Mission Accomplished

On Monday, as Hurricane Katrina was beginning the process of turning New Orleans and the Gulf Coast into something like hell, the president was talking up all the great things he’s done for Medicare recipients at a senior center in Southern California. He wanted to touch on some current events, though, before he started into telling everyone how much better he’d made their lives:

“… We’re praying for the folks that have been affected by this Hurricane

Katrina. We’re in constant contact with the local officials down there.

The storm is moving through, and we’re now able to assess damage, or

beginning to assess damage. And I want the people to know in the

affected areas that the federal government and the state government and

the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help

get your lives back in order.

“This was a terrible storm. It’s a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity. It’s a

storm now that is moving through, and now it’s the time for governments

to help people get their feet on the ground.

For those of you who prayed for the folks in that area, I want to thank you

for your prayers. For those of you who are concerned about whether or

not we’re prepared to help, don’t be. We are. We’re in place. We’ve got

equipment in place, supplies in place. And once the — once we’re able

to assess the damage, we’ll be able to move in and help those good

folks in the affected areas.”

“For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we’re prepared to help, don’t be.” He didn’t quite say “mission accomplished.” But you have to view the clip — Bush with his cocksure “we done showed Saddam” smirk — to see that he really was saying “mission accomplished.”

Reality TV


Watching the relentlessly turgid cable news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, I wonder: How long until Mark Burnett, the brain behind CBS’s "Survivor" franchise and many other reality TV series, gets into staging programming for natural calamities (or potential calamities) like this? Don’t laugh. Roone Arledge made his name in sports television for ABC and wound up taking over the network’s news division. The next logical step is to bring Burnett’s sense of drama, character, pacing, and production values to set-piece stories. To the extent that Arledge and many others have pushed news toward entertainment — an old development — both producers and consumers long ago started to make this shift.

Of course, most of the people doing electronic news are bad at both  journalism and entertainment. So the problem for Burnett would be he’d have to undo much of what news divisions have undertaken to appeal to their audiences: the flimsy veneer of theatrics laid over every square inch of a story like a hurricane. He’d have to find a few good Jeff Probst types to act as team leaders/anchors, and a bunch of adventurous and photogenic amateurs to send to the beaches to get blown all over the place. Maybe he’d set up competitions to decide who gets what storm-coverage assignments: winners of a challenge might get to stay inside a well-fortified four-star hotel while losers would have to ride out the storm on the beach.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it would almost be preferable to watching the news pros knit their brows and search for words to convey what a horrible spectacle nature is unleashing.