It’s just too tempting to compare the media response to government relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the response to Sandy. The dichotomy is stark.
The residents of Staten Island are pleading for help from elected officials, begging for gasoline, food and clothing three days after Sandy slammed the New York City borough.
“We’re going to die! We’re going to freeze! We got 90-year-old people!” Donna Solli told visiting officials. “You don’t understand. You gotta get your trucks down here on the corner now. It’s been three days!”
Staten Island was one of the hardest-hit communities in New York City. More than 80,000 residents are still without power. Many are homeless, and at least 19 people died on Staten Island because of the storm.
Three days after Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Nagin was on the radio, literally weeping about the lack of federal response to the desperation of the city (link is dead):
“You know the reason why the looters got out of control?” Nagin said. “We have most of our resources saving people. They were stuck in attics, man, old ladies. You pull off the doggone ventilator and look down and they’re standing there in water up to their fricking neck.”
“I need reinforcements,” he said. “I need troops, man. I need 500 buses.”
The relief efforts made so far had been “pathetically insufficient,” Nagin said.
“They are thinking small, man, and this is a major, MAJOR deal,” Nagin said. “God is looking down on this and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price. Every day that we delay, people are dying, and they’re dying by the hundreds, I am willing to bet you.”
Rolling now, Nagin described distress calls he’d heard. Nagin mocked the efforts to block the 17th Street Canal breach.
“I flew over that thing yesterday and it was in the same shape it was in after the storm hit,” he said.
“There is nothing happening there. They’re feeding the public a line of bull and they’re spinning and people are dying down here.”
Although much of what Nagin was bitching about wasn’t true, there is rough symmetry between his remarks about the federal response and that of the Staten Island resident.
There is no gaggle of national media today reporting around the clock about the desperation of Staten Island residents. There is no in depth reporting on conditions in New Jersey which is a little better off but hardly out of crisis with supplies running low and electricity still out for hundreds of thousands. There are no reporters relaying wild, unsubstantiated rumors about babies being murdered or “10,000 dead.”
In fact, I would say that media coverage of the aftermath of the hurricane has been subdued, rational, and factual. The question becomes: Since Katrina was a far more devastating storm in its destructive power and help for the victims was hampered by impossible conditions, how come the feds are getting a pass on Sandy despite obvious snafus and far less damage to infrastructure?
Well, there’s the distraction of the election. Reporters in 2005 didn’t have anything better to do and networks had no other big stories to cover. But any semi-independent observer would have to ask if there wasn’t a bias against President Bush and that the race of the Mayor of New Orleans (Nagin is black) didn’t play a role in assigning responsibility for the paltry response to the crisis.
Nagin panicked. He spread wild rumors about conditions at the Superdome which, while desperate, were nowhere near as bad as he was making them out to be. His demand for “500 buses” was ludicrous considering he had 300 buses available in a parking lot a couple of miles from the Superdome that he could have used to evacuate thousands prior to the storm making landfall. And most egregiously, he forgot to tell FEMA that there were thousands of additional residents taking refuge in the convention center — a place made a living hell because no one knew about the city using the facility as an evacuation center except Nagin.
The federal response could have been better. But as I showed in this timeline I prepared at the time, the delay in getting federal resources to New Orleans had far more to do with flooded and impassable roads, washed away bridges, and a fearful lack of coordination between state, federal, and local authorities than any inadequacies by FEMA. Who’s to blame for that? Take your partisan pick.
Am I playing the false equivalency game? To an extent, yes. No two disasters are the same and I would say that from what I’ve seen, the federal response to Sandy has the virtue of being better organized and not so ad hoc. But where the world came down on Bush’s head for the failures of government, Obama appears to be skating through undamaged.
And considering what the residents of Staten Island are going through, is that just?