Monday, September 12, 2005

Good Work

WSJ (subscription):

But now it is known that major levee breaks occurred much earlier than that, starting in the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Even as the storm veered off and many observers felt a sense of relief, the Industrial Canal levee in eastern New Orleans was giving way, and a rush of water swiftly submerged much of the Lower Ninth Ward and areas nearby, trapping thousands of people on rooftops and in attics. The 17th Street Canal levee also was breached early Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now believes, resulting in a slower-rising flood over a larger area.

Yet it wasn't until Tuesday that most people across the country, apparently including Mr. Chertoff, realized that any levees at all had been breached. Did media outlets get it wrong, as Mr. Chertoff claimed? Some did, some didn't.

A look at news reports of the events of Aug. 29 paints a picture of confusion, miscommunication and conflicting information among some government officials and news media. Several major news outlets, including Viacom Inc.'s CBS network and National Public Radio reported the breaking of the Industrial Canal and flooding on Monday, although not all of the reports acknowledged the extent of the devastation. The Wall Street Journal reported the Industrial Canal breach but no others.

The New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday, saying "a levee breach occurred along the industrial canal at Tennessee Street. 3 to 8 feet of water is expected due to the breach." The media largely ignored it. The NWS's source of information was ham-radio transmissions by the Orleans Levee Board, a city-state agency. The 8:14 warning was the last one the local office issued before its communications were cut off. The statement was repeated only once more, at 10:52 a.m., by the National Weather Service office in Mobile, Ala.

Yet some government officials certainly appeared aware of a breach and said so on network television. At 7:33 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, Gov. Kathleen B. Blanco said on NBC, "I believe the water has breached the levee system, and is -- is coming in."

In its Aug. 29 online edition, the New Orleans Times-Picayune first reported a breach in the 17th Street Canal levee at 2 p.m., citing City Hall officials. No other major news outlets picked up that report. The newspaper's Web site also reported massive flooding near the Industrial Canal, writing that city officials "fielded at least 100 calls from people in distress in the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans." At about 2:30, it reported that the Industrial Canal had been breached, citing a National Weather Service report.

But in the hours immediately following the storm, some news organizations seemed to play down the damage in New Orleans. Introducing "World News Tonight" on Aug. 29, anchor Charles Gibson said: "In New Orleans, entire neighborhoods are underwater, but the levees held. The nightmare scenario of an entire city underwater did not happen." A spokeswoman for ABC, a unit of Walt Disney Co., had no comment.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers said last week that one canal breach came to the attention of corps personnel early Monday, Aug. 29 and another by midday. But the "fog of war" and "massive logistical problems with communications in the hours after the storm hit" created some confusion, said John Rickey, a spokesman for the corps.

No major newspaper printed a headline that literally said New Orleans "dodged a bullet," as Mr. Chertoff claimed. But some did say the city had escaped a direct hit -- which was true, but misleading -- while others focused on the levees along the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, it was the levees along canals extending south from Lake Pontchartrain that gave way.

"But the city managed to avoid the worst of the worst," read a front-page Washington Post article on Tuesday. "The Mississippi River did not breach New Orleans's famed levees to any serious degree, at least in part because Katrina veered 15 miles eastward of its predicted track just before landfall."

Leonard Downie Jr., the Washington Post's executive editor, says the paper's reporting was hampered by communications problems caused by the hurricane. "Unfortunately, where our communication was good was where it wasn't flooding," he says. "All the media were hampered by the fact that people on the ground didn't know what happened."


In the 5 p.m. news report on News Corp.'s Fox News Channel, anchor Shepard Smith informed viewers of "late word" that the levees had held. But a few minutes later, in the same program, a public-health expert told the channel the exact opposite: "Well, the National Weather Service are reporting that one of the levees was breached. ... People have been forced out onto the roofs of their homes."


Many reporters, working on foot, isolated in higher, drier sections and focused on the survival of the city's tourist districts, were unaware of the unfolding disaster in poor neighborhoods of New Orleans. It wasn't until Monday evening that a private helicopter company, Helinet Helicopter Services of Los Angeles, began feeding the first aerial images of New Orleans to Fox News, ABC, NBC, CNN and CBS. By early Tuesday morning, most major media had become aware of the awful extent of the destruction.

Maybe all they read in Washington is the Washington Post? Would explain a lot.