This week’s discussion topic concerns a large-scale natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina. Since then the Gulf Coast has been hit by more storms and what has been called the “Slow Motion Katrina”, the BP Deep Water Horizon oil drill blowout that poured hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf and its fragile wetlands.
The aftermath of Katrina as the long-feared “Big One” hurricane event quickly became a national tragedy. We watched as troubling images and near hysterical pleas from citizens and reporters poured in. We learned that much of the Gulf Coast had been swept away and we witnessed from a distance as New Orleans sank ever deeper desperation for 5 days.
This week’s discussion assignment: Read Notes on the Eve of Destruction below and the article Symbol of the Storm and then respond with your thoughts to the following question:
What meaning do you make of the reactions of those stranded in New Orleans, an American city?
NOTE: Be sure to focus your response not on personal opinion but on the application of a psychology of disaster theory. The question here isn’t about whom to blame for not leaving the city when warned or for the looting (some took necessities and, of course, some just destructively took advantage of a tragedy), for not rendering fast enough aid or for not reporting on the event as you or I believed it should have been covered. It has already been observed that there was an unparalleled catastrophic failure on all levels of government response to this large-scale emergency. Additionally, we can’t blame the media for the New Orleans residents’ reactions immediately following the storm and levy breach because some of the people at the Superdome and Convention Center may have been in contact with reporters on the ground but they weren’t watching the wall-to-wall coverage that so many of us on the outside saw. Here we want to focus on the reaction of the people stranded in New Orleans. Gradually, steadily, initially very cooperative, “civilized” behavior eroded into wild-eyed fears and an inability to recognize the humanity in each other. For this discussion, we enter the situation on the days after the levees are breached, when it is too late to leave. There are heroes as we expect to see them during such events, but there are also helpless and hopeless persons, seemingly paralyzed by desperation. Drawing on what you have read and learned in the course so far, what disaster models or theories would you use to explain the images we saw daily on television for 5 tragic days in August/September 2005.
Remember to respond to at least three classmates during the week in the discussion forum.
Notes on the Eve of Destruction
by Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor
NBC Nightly News
September 5, 2005
I suspect millions of Americans passed this Labor Day weekend the same way: Alternating between watching the coverage (heartened to see relief arriving and rescues progressing as we near the one-week mark, somewhat unbelievably) and steeling themselves to turn away from it to enjoy some semblance of a holiday weekend.
Just enough progress has been made… just enough relief is visible on the television screen… to allow the first early, furtive glimpses over our shoulders at what went wrong initially. It is a kind of slow-motion, ongoing outrage that lives are still being lost in this most robust of all nations on earth.
In a strange way, the most outrageous news pictures of this day may be those of progress: The palettes of food and water that have just been dropped at selected landing zones in the downtown area of New Orleans. It’s an outrage because all of those elements existed before people died for lack of them: There was water, there was food, and there were choppers to drop both. Why no one was able to combine them in an air drop is a cruel and criminal mystery of this dark chapter in our recent history. The words “failure of imagination” come to mind. The concept of an air drop of supplies was one we introduced to the director of FEMA during a live interview on Nightly News on Thursday evening. He responded by saying that he’d been unaware of the thousands gathered at the Convention Center. Later that evening an incredulous Ted Koppel on ABC was left with no choice but to ask if the FEMA director was watching the same television coverage as the rest of the nation.
Complaints are still rampant in New Orleans about a lack of information. It’s one of many running themes of the past week: There were no announcements in the Superdome during the storm, none to direct people after the storm, no official word (via bullhorn, leaflets or any other means) during the week-long, on-foot migration (and eventual stagnation) that defined life in the downtown section of the city for those first few days. One can’t help but think that a single-engine plane towing a banner over the city would have been immeasurably helpful in both crowd and rumor control.
There are a few details from a week ago that are strikingly telling in the light of day a week later. Our team arrived in Baton Rouge Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28. After renting cars, we headed to top off our gas tanks before one last stop at a Wal-Mart for provisions. The air was already frantic, the snack aisles empty and the last of the bottled water were selling out as we watched. I will never forget one particular moment: I was on the phone with my wife while at the checkout area when a weather bulletin arrived on my Blackberry, along with a strong caveat from our New York producers. The wording and contents were so incendiary that our folks were concerned that it wasn’t real… either a bogus dispatch or a rogue piece of text. I filed a live report by phone for Nightly News (after an exchange with New York about the contents of the bulletin) and very cautiously couched the information. Later, we learned it was real, every word of it. Below are actual excerpts, in the urgent, all-capital-letters style of the medium. Note the time on the message… but more importantly… note the content.
URGENT – WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005
…DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED…
HURRICANE KATRINA…A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH…RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.
MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS…PERHAPS LONGER.
AT LEAST HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL…ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED…ALL WINDOWS WILL BE BLOWN OUT.
THE VAST MAJORITY…OF TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING…BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED.
POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS…AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS.
The last sentence in that statement is as concise a summation of conditions in New Orleans as is possible. We talked about the document en route to New Orleans. It turned out to be an advance copy of the script for this storm, predicting in unbelievable detail the level of destruction that was by now less than 24 hours away. To me it conjured up the image of a lone forecaster, known but to his or her co-workers, struggling to merge decades-old boilerplate Weather Service wording with the most vivid language possible in a final attempt to warn an entire region.
Our team arrived at the Superdome an hour later, as the first rain bands came ashore in New Orleans on Sunday night. I filed three special reports for primetime on both coasts, and chatted with some of those seeking shelter. They had been kept in tightly-controlled lines in the pouring rain… they were later allowed to wait under an overhang after protesting. Security was very tight and very physical. A National Guard sergeant told me it was because they didn’t want any weapons or alcohol inside. The Guard soldiers were also told to enforce a smoking ban in the Superdome, so they confiscated all cigarette lighters (I should also quickly note that the military meal pouches handed out the next day all contained a pack of matches). Tempers ran high, and many folks in line complained of rough verbal, some of which we certainly witnessed. I remember calling the Superdome “the shelter of last resort” on the air that night. That would turn out to be a colossal understatement. I remember a distinctly bad feeling in the air as people stood in long lines that night. It, too, would turn out to be an accurate predictor of what was to come.