I got a chance over the weekend to see the Newseum's new "Covering Katrina" exhibit, which chronicles media coverage leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's deadly and destructive landfall along the Gulf Coast in 2005. Even if you weren't directly affected by Katrina, the exhibit's display of newspaper front pages, a video of TV storm coverage, and artifacts such as a store owner's anti-looting sign are vivid reminders of the emotions that stirred inside many of us five years ago.
Several themes in particular stood out as I walked through the exhibit:
Maybe the most heartbreaking aspect of Katrina was that New Orleans at first appeared to have avoided true catastrophe. While the initial damage in New Orleans was dramatic -- and downright devastating along much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coast -- it wasn't until some hours after the storm had passed that everyone's worst fears were realized as numerous levees failed, inundating a large percentage of the city and surrounding areas with flood waters that were as high as 15 feet and remained for weeks.
With this came an "it's-not-over-'til-it's-over" lesson for the media, with many outlets and reporters having to back-step after first reporting that New Orleans had seemingly dodged a bullet. One such example was CNN's Jeanne Meserve, whose reporting is included in the exhibit's video documentary of TV coverage. "It is just unbelievable," reported Meserve after seeing the devastation firsthand. "I told you earlier today I didn't think that this had turned out to be Armageddon. I was wrong."
Sometimes a reporter can't completely take himself or herself out of a story -- and that's O.K. CNN's Anderson Cooper and Fox News's Shepard Smith were among those in the media who -- in the midst of chaos, death and despair on the streets of New Orleans -- reported the facts as they were from the ground, spun the spin right back in the face of government officials, spoke from the heart, and became advocates for the thousands who waited helplessly at the Louisiana Superdome and elsewhere for food, water and other bare necessities.
In a particularly memorable exchange captured in the exhibit's video of Katrina coverage, Cooper reacts with passion (watch here) during an interview with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu after she thanks "President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort" and "Senator Frist and Senator Reid for their extraordinary efforts," and goes on to say, "I don't know if you've heard -- maybe you all have announced it -- but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating."
"Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
And when they hear politicians slap -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.
Do you get the anger that is out here?
Don't give Mother Nature more credit than she deserves. Yes, Katrina was a powerful storm that will forever be remembered as one of the nation's worst. But to this day, as is often reflected in media coverage (especially that of local New Orleans outlets), the people of New Orleans view Katrina and its aftermath to be a manmade disaster as much as a natural one.
The main culprit is the Army Corps of Engineers, which in 2009 was ruled liable by a federal court for much of Katrina's damage due to poor maintenance of a canal connecting New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. According to court testimony, the failure of the Corps to prevent natural widening of the canal is what led to the waves that eventually overwhelmed the Corps-designed levees, the engineering of which has also been called into question. (The Army Corps had argued that the levees would have succumbed to Katrina regardless of the canal impact.)
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, for one, isn't letting anyone forget where the blame lies, as editor Jim Amoss explained earlier this year: "We avoid referring to the catastrophe as a 'natural disaster' because the floodwalls did indeed collapse because of engineering failures. ...While we don't insist on the 'manmade' language, we take care to point out the cause of the disaster -- i.e., shoddy engineering and insufficiently anchored floodwalls -- when it's germane to a story."
Amidst a sea of government failures, there was at least one smashing success: The National Hurricane Center's forecasting of Katrina, which was mostly spot on. Indicative of this is the exhibit's relative lack of focus on the forecast aspect -- had the forecast been faulty or flawed, you can be sure the press would've been all over it.
Quite the opposite, as CWG's Andrew Freedman detailed yesterday, forecasters had such high confidence in Katrina's track that they were able to issue a hurricane watch 44 hours prior to the storm's southeast Louisiana landfall, which was upgraded to a warning 32 hours in advance. More typical lead times are 36 hours for a watch and 24 hours for a warning. Most amazing was what turned out to be a sadly prophetic (at least for parts of the Gulf Coast) "doomsday statement" -- the text of which is blown up to larger-than-life size and featured as part of the exhibit -- issued by the National Weather Service almost a full day before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall.
Unfortunately, not all hurricanes are as predictable as Katrina was. CWG's Steve Tracton recently explored in a two-part series how far hurricane forecasting has come and what the prospects are for future improvement.
"Covering Katrina" runs at the Newseum through Sept. 5, 2011.