The Second Battle of New Orleans

By

As the last of the evacuees from New Orleans settle into shelters, the levees are plugged and the water begins to recede, what is being revealed is not the tens of thousands of dead bodies predicted for the past two weeks but some of the most inaccurate reporting of a major news story in memory. While the mainstream media has been climbing all over itself trying to find ways to tie George Bush to the New Orleans disaster, it might be better served trying to figure out how they could have so uncritically accepted a body count from New Orleans that could easily be ten or more times the actual number.

As the days passed and the body count in New Orleans stayed in triple digits, shouldn't some of the talking heads at the major networks or the pundits at the national newspapers have begun to ask themselves where were all the bodies?  Before self—appointing itself the role of discovering all the failures of the Bush administration in the ongoing national disaster, perhaps they should try to account for how they could have spent so much time informing the American people of a catastrophic loss of life that never occurred. Much of the public perception of governmental incompetence and failure in the relief effort was based on their vastly exaggerated projected body count.

The media filtered what they were reporting through their preconceived political biases and racial stereotypes and emphasized those stories that re—enforced their preconceptions. From the outset, the TV reporters started talking about two disasters: the natural disaster which was caused by the hurricane and the man—made disaster which happened in New Orleans, the blame for which was laid at the hands of George Bush. According to the script, the tragedy of the original hit from the hurricane was turned into a human catastrophe by the failure of the federal government to respond in an effective and timely manner. The levees gave way because Bush had refused to authorize the money to upgrade them, the National Guard was unavailable because they had all been sent to Iraq, the federal government didn't respond quickly because it would have interfered with Bush's vacation, the hurricane was the result of global warming, which of course was caused by the Bush Administration sacrifice of the environment for the profit of Bush's cronies, the indifference to the suffering of the people in the region was due to Bush's lack of concern for those who are black or poor, the inefficiency in the relief effort was due to the appointment of unqualified friends and supporters.

The media was also filtering the events through racial stereotyping of blacks as either criminal or hopelessly poor, incompetent and wholly dependent on governmental largesse. Complementary to this was the portrait of the Bush Administration as white, wealthy and indifferent to poor blacks. This narrative of catastrophic loss of the lives of thousands of poor blacks at the hands of an uncaring and incompetent white administration played out day after day with nobody seeming to notice that events weren't really following the script. Tales of anarchy at the Superdome with large numbers of rapes and murders did not turn out to be true (though they have done enormous damage to our international reputation), as police reported no claims of rapes and few weapons were found. Ominously, twenty—five thousand body bags were ordered to the New Orleans area but in one of the all—time cases of over ordering, it seems they have a need for less than 3% of them.

Simple logic indicated that these predictions of massive numbers of dead were very unlikely. The reporting of the event largely ignored or overlooked some very important factors.

The catastrophic disaster scenario never occurred. The feared event was that New Orleans would be hit by a category four or five storm and a storm surge twenty feet high would flow over the levees. Once there, the levees would trap the water and New Orleans would become a bowl that filled up too fast and the ensuing rush of trapped water would drown tens of thousands of people. That simply didn't happen. Instead, the levees broke under the pressure of the rising level of the lake and the water flowed into the city, equalizing the water level in the city and the lake. In the initial stages, there was rapidly rising water that led to some drowning but not on anything like the catastrophic scale envisioned by the mayor and members of the media.

While the water posed a significant threat to the functioning of the city, it for the most part did not pose an immediate threat to lives. To the extent that it did, the saving of lives of people trapped by the flood in houses and on roofs became the main focus of the initial rescue efforts. Thousands of trapped people were rescued by boats and helicopters from the flooded streets of the city as Coast Guard personnel, police and volunteers worked round the clock for several days getting to every survivor they could find.
Many of the people of New Orleans who did not evacuate took precautions to prepare for the ordeal. Those who chose to wait it out at home mostly stocked up on bottled water and canned foods. Among those who chose to seek shelter at the Superdome or the Convention Center, many heeded the advice to bring provisions to last two or three days. There had to have been some provisions at these evacuation centers since almost everyone survived the ordeal and they certainly wouldn't have lasted three days in 95 degree heat if they didn't take in any fluids.

Most people know how to swim. People who die in floods fall victims to rapidly moving water, rampaging rivers, storm surges, tidal waves, broken dams, or are dragged under by rapidly moving currents. The pictures of New Orleans showed that a great number of the city streets were covered by water.  But they also showed that the water in most places was not over people's heads and where it was more than five or six feet deep, it was calm enough for people to swim. People managed to climb onto roofs, hold onto things, climb into boats, or could swim well enough to simply keep their head above water until help arrived.

The media assumption that all the victims were poor and black was based on the fact that the vast majority of people in the Superdome and the convention center were black. There have been over 1,000,000 people at least temporarily displaced to shelters and homes all over the country. Who they are, how wealthy they are and how many of them are black is not at clear. Nor is it clear who have lost the most and who are in the most difficult situations. 

The most catastrophic loss of life occurred in places in the direct path of the hurricane, primarily along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, realtively ignored by the mass media. There have been no statistics given for the racial identity of the known dead from the storm but there is plenty of reason to believe that a substantial proportion of them were white. Far from being forgotten, the black victims of the storm dominated the coverage. Playing out the usual script of America as a racist society that ignores the poor and the black, the media coverage was heavily focused on the plight of the evacuees at the Superdome and the Convention Center who were mostly black, while paying considerably less attention to the outlying regions where most of the tragedy occurred but the victims were more economically and racially mixed, with a majority in most locales white.

Furthermore, to make the case of administration incompetence and indifference to black people, the media emphasized lack of security at the Superdome, showing the same videos of young black males looting stores and reporting every unsubstantiated rumor of criminality they could find. The picture presented was one of chaos and anarchy. But in spite of little food or water and in spite of frightful heat, humidity and a complete lack of sanitation they survived. They had to have shared what little food and water they had, they had to have kept up each others spirits, they had to have shown great courage throughout the ordeal, and in the end the media presented them as victims when they deserved to be portrayed as heroes.

There will be 'Katrina Commissions', and in depth newspaper articles and TV news programs about the aftermath of the storm. They will all be filled with what went wrong and recommendations for how to do it better next time. But you can't plan for every contingency in a natural disaster. Things will happen that can't be predicted and we will have to rely on the courage and ingenuity of the people who are caught in it. The story of this storm is that in spite of the potential for catastrophic disaster, almost everyone survived.
 
In a matter of hours, nearly an entire city was destroyed and its infrastructure rendered useless.  80% of its streets were underwater, and the city was left with absolutely no communications, water, electricity, commerce and almost no public authority. Yet within a week, over a million people were safely evacuated to places of shelter with almost no loss of life. This is a very positive story about human resilience under unbelievably difficult conditions. Of course, each of the hundreds of lives lost is a terrible loss. But given the magnitude of the hurricane, we have come out very well indeed. Possible criminal negligence in a nursing home is exceptional, and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

While the talking heads and newspaper pundits were focusing on a fairy tale about tens of thousands of deaths due to the Bush administration's indifference and incompetence they were missing the real story of Coast Guard pilots, doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens whose round the clock heroism saved the lives of almost everyone who hadn't perished in the original storm. Why did we see so little of that on the news?
 
Jonathan Cohen is Professor of Mathematics at DePaul University, Chicago

As the last of the evacuees from New Orleans settle into shelters, the levees are plugged and the water begins to recede, what is being revealed is not the tens of thousands of dead bodies predicted for the past two weeks but some of the most inaccurate reporting of a major news story in memory. While the mainstream media has been climbing all over itself trying to find ways to tie George Bush to the New Orleans disaster, it might be better served trying to figure out how they could have so uncritically accepted a body count from New Orleans that could easily be ten or more times the actual number.

As the days passed and the body count in New Orleans stayed in triple digits, shouldn't some of the talking heads at the major networks or the pundits at the national newspapers have begun to ask themselves where were all the bodies?  Before self—appointing itself the role of discovering all the failures of the Bush administration in the ongoing national disaster, perhaps they should try to account for how they could have spent so much time informing the American people of a catastrophic loss of life that never occurred. Much of the public perception of governmental incompetence and failure in the relief effort was based on their vastly exaggerated projected body count.

The media filtered what they were reporting through their preconceived political biases and racial stereotypes and emphasized those stories that re—enforced their preconceptions. From the outset, the TV reporters started talking about two disasters: the natural disaster which was caused by the hurricane and the man—made disaster which happened in New Orleans, the blame for which was laid at the hands of George Bush. According to the script, the tragedy of the original hit from the hurricane was turned into a human catastrophe by the failure of the federal government to respond in an effective and timely manner. The levees gave way because Bush had refused to authorize the money to upgrade them, the National Guard was unavailable because they had all been sent to Iraq, the federal government didn't respond quickly because it would have interfered with Bush's vacation, the hurricane was the result of global warming, which of course was caused by the Bush Administration sacrifice of the environment for the profit of Bush's cronies, the indifference to the suffering of the people in the region was due to Bush's lack of concern for those who are black or poor, the inefficiency in the relief effort was due to the appointment of unqualified friends and supporters.

The media was also filtering the events through racial stereotyping of blacks as either criminal or hopelessly poor, incompetent and wholly dependent on governmental largesse. Complementary to this was the portrait of the Bush Administration as white, wealthy and indifferent to poor blacks. This narrative of catastrophic loss of the lives of thousands of poor blacks at the hands of an uncaring and incompetent white administration played out day after day with nobody seeming to notice that events weren't really following the script. Tales of anarchy at the Superdome with large numbers of rapes and murders did not turn out to be true (though they have done enormous damage to our international reputation), as police reported no claims of rapes and few weapons were found. Ominously, twenty—five thousand body bags were ordered to the New Orleans area but in one of the all—time cases of over ordering, it seems they have a need for less than 3% of them.

Simple logic indicated that these predictions of massive numbers of dead were very unlikely. The reporting of the event largely ignored or overlooked some very important factors.

The catastrophic disaster scenario never occurred. The feared event was that New Orleans would be hit by a category four or five storm and a storm surge twenty feet high would flow over the levees. Once there, the levees would trap the water and New Orleans would become a bowl that filled up too fast and the ensuing rush of trapped water would drown tens of thousands of people. That simply didn't happen. Instead, the levees broke under the pressure of the rising level of the lake and the water flowed into the city, equalizing the water level in the city and the lake. In the initial stages, there was rapidly rising water that led to some drowning but not on anything like the catastrophic scale envisioned by the mayor and members of the media.

While the water posed a significant threat to the functioning of the city, it for the most part did not pose an immediate threat to lives. To the extent that it did, the saving of lives of people trapped by the flood in houses and on roofs became the main focus of the initial rescue efforts. Thousands of trapped people were rescued by boats and helicopters from the flooded streets of the city as Coast Guard personnel, police and volunteers worked round the clock for several days getting to every survivor they could find.
Many of the people of New Orleans who did not evacuate took precautions to prepare for the ordeal. Those who chose to wait it out at home mostly stocked up on bottled water and canned foods. Among those who chose to seek shelter at the Superdome or the Convention Center, many heeded the advice to bring provisions to last two or three days. There had to have been some provisions at these evacuation centers since almost everyone survived the ordeal and they certainly wouldn't have lasted three days in 95 degree heat if they didn't take in any fluids.

Most people know how to swim. People who die in floods fall victims to rapidly moving water, rampaging rivers, storm surges, tidal waves, broken dams, or are dragged under by rapidly moving currents. The pictures of New Orleans showed that a great number of the city streets were covered by water.  But they also showed that the water in most places was not over people's heads and where it was more than five or six feet deep, it was calm enough for people to swim. People managed to climb onto roofs, hold onto things, climb into boats, or could swim well enough to simply keep their head above water until help arrived.

The media assumption that all the victims were poor and black was based on the fact that the vast majority of people in the Superdome and the convention center were black. There have been over 1,000,000 people at least temporarily displaced to shelters and homes all over the country. Who they are, how wealthy they are and how many of them are black is not at clear. Nor is it clear who have lost the most and who are in the most difficult situations. 

The most catastrophic loss of life occurred in places in the direct path of the hurricane, primarily along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, realtively ignored by the mass media. There have been no statistics given for the racial identity of the known dead from the storm but there is plenty of reason to believe that a substantial proportion of them were white. Far from being forgotten, the black victims of the storm dominated the coverage. Playing out the usual script of America as a racist society that ignores the poor and the black, the media coverage was heavily focused on the plight of the evacuees at the Superdome and the Convention Center who were mostly black, while paying considerably less attention to the outlying regions where most of the tragedy occurred but the victims were more economically and racially mixed, with a majority in most locales white.

Furthermore, to make the case of administration incompetence and indifference to black people, the media emphasized lack of security at the Superdome, showing the same videos of young black males looting stores and reporting every unsubstantiated rumor of criminality they could find. The picture presented was one of chaos and anarchy. But in spite of little food or water and in spite of frightful heat, humidity and a complete lack of sanitation they survived. They had to have shared what little food and water they had, they had to have kept up each others spirits, they had to have shown great courage throughout the ordeal, and in the end the media presented them as victims when they deserved to be portrayed as heroes.

There will be 'Katrina Commissions', and in depth newspaper articles and TV news programs about the aftermath of the storm. They will all be filled with what went wrong and recommendations for how to do it better next time. But you can't plan for every contingency in a natural disaster. Things will happen that can't be predicted and we will have to rely on the courage and ingenuity of the people who are caught in it. The story of this storm is that in spite of the potential for catastrophic disaster, almost everyone survived.
 
In a matter of hours, nearly an entire city was destroyed and its infrastructure rendered useless.  80% of its streets were underwater, and the city was left with absolutely no communications, water, electricity, commerce and almost no public authority. Yet within a week, over a million people were safely evacuated to places of shelter with almost no loss of life. This is a very positive story about human resilience under unbelievably difficult conditions. Of course, each of the hundreds of lives lost is a terrible loss. But given the magnitude of the hurricane, we have come out very well indeed. Possible criminal negligence in a nursing home is exceptional, and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

While the talking heads and newspaper pundits were focusing on a fairy tale about tens of thousands of deaths due to the Bush administration's indifference and incompetence they were missing the real story of Coast Guard pilots, doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens whose round the clock heroism saved the lives of almost everyone who hadn't perished in the original storm. Why did we see so little of that on the news?
 
Jonathan Cohen is Professor of Mathematics at DePaul University, Chicago