Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hurricane Ike Information Embargo: Politics, Economics and the Media

AP photo

Within hours of hurricane Katrina’s passing all the major TV news organizations had crews on the ground and in the center of the disaster.

It has now been four days since hurricane Ike made landfall and where are the major news teams? Has anyone seen even a 15-minute report on MSNBC, CBS, ABC Fox or CNN on the aftermath of Ike over the past four days?

Of course the financial news that broke on Monday and is continuing to break every day this week is the new big story but the only other major interest of the media apart from economics at the moment is politics, in the form of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin.

Well, Ike is a significant economic story that is being excluded from the news.

Whilst Fannie Mae and AIG are being promised collectively around $100 billion in taxpayer bailouts the cost of Ike is currently roughly estimated at about $18 billion which is hardly chump-change.

It is unclear if that estimate includes the damage to the inland oil-processing plants and the offshore rigs that comprise 20% of the national oil infrastructure. If there’s any significant damage to the facilities will the oil companies demand taxpayer-funded disaster relief proportionate to that being offered to individual citizens? Given that they’ve consistently been handed tax breaks over the last few years despite making record profits I see no reason for them not to claim poverty once again—and of course bolster such claims as being an issue of “national security”.

Ike is also a significant political story.

In 2005 Bush staged a photo-op in NOLA to deliver “the message” he said he was going to deliver at an earlier Rose Garden press conference which he’d already iterated, and then having delivered the message he left, turning out the lights he’d brought with him and leaving NOLA in the dark again.

On Monday Bush said to the press:

I'm going down tomorrow. I'm looking forward to going down. Members of my administration will be going down. We're looking forward to hearing from, you know, the local folks. I'm confident there will be people that are very frustrated because their lives have been severely affected by this storm. My message will be that we hear you and we'll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Once again, anyone with a working television and an interest in what the President had to say would have heard Bush’s message then, without Bush visiting the area where most of the victims of Ike wouldn’t be there to hear his message personally due to them either having evacuated days before and having been instructed not to return or due to them still being stuck in the attics of their flooded homes and without power.

There is also the political issue of how authorities are treating Galveston and its environs compared to NOLA. Toxic FEMA trailers apparently haven’t been deployed this time. The hardest-hit communities of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula had no higher-ground stadium in which to gather for relative safety so there have been no scenes of huddled masses desperate for aid. This time the mass evacuation appears to have been more organized and pets, the elderly and infirm and those without their own transportation were accommodated. It would seem that the DHS and FEMA have learned at least something from Katrina.

The authorities were quick to report to the Associated Press that some 2,000 people stranded by flood water had been rescued by Monday.

I watched one such rescue live on MSNBC; a fit-looking man about 25-30 years old who had decided to stay-put despite all the warnings and despite the fact that his home sat atop a bait-shop that stood on stilts at the end of a low jetty that jutted-out about 100 yards into the Gulf. The jetty had vanished, the shop had been completely demolished and the second floor apartment was left perched precariously on the remaining stilts most of which were far from upright. When he was brought to shore by the helicopter the MSNBC reporter at the scene asked him about his decision to ‘ride-out’ the hurricane but at that point he dismissed the question and quickly walked away (and got a friendly lift in a police car to points unknown).

On Tuesday evening ABC ran a 5-minute (at the most) report interviewing a couple (or three) of people who had stayed behind and were now trying to pick up the pieces. One reported that he had already encountered some break-in attempts at what was left of his property and declared his intent to shoot anyone else who might try the same. This was repeated with the others interviewed in the piece and their attitudes were greeted with a chuckle by the ABC anchor back in the studio as the report was wrapped-up: “Well of course, it’s Texas!

Such a report contradicted earlier statements by local interviewees elsewhere claiming that everyone would help each other in the circumstances. Obviously an attempted break-in would have to be conducted by another local. The word ‘looting’ never passed the lips of the interviewees or the reporters, in contrast to its judicious use regarding events in NOLA.

In fact according to a combined ABC/Associated Press report

During house-to-house searches in Galveston, about 1,500 people were found to be safe, according to ABC News affiliate KTRK. Five dead bodies were also found. Eleven looters were arrested, and one person was airlifted out of the area with hundreds of mosquito bites.

In 2005 MSNBC reported: With much of the city flooded by Hurricane Katrina, looters floated garbage cans filled with clothing and jewelry down the street in a dash to grab what they could.

In some cases, looting on Tuesday took place in full view of police and National Guard troops. At a Walgreen’s drug store in the French Quarter, people were running out with grocery baskets and coolers full of soft drinks, chips and diapers.

Looters filled industrial-sized garbage cans with clothing and jewelry and floated them down the street on bits of plywood and insulation as National Guard lumbered by.”

Whilst grabbing jewelry and clothing in such circumstances is certainly looting in my view, grabbing food, water and hygiene products isn’t—especially when such products would be claimed on insurance anyway, as the DHS and FEMA weren’t supplying people properly and as the National Guard stood by and let it happen (and quite rightly). I note also the repetition of the “jewelry and clothing’ claim and the addition of “industrial-sized” adjective to the original and ordinary “garbage cans”.

Further in the article it was reported:

At a drug store on Canal Street just outside the French Quarter, two police officers with pump shotguns stood guard as workers from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel across the street loaded large laundry bins full of medications, snack foods and bottled water.

“This is for the sick,” Officer Jeff Jacob said. “We can commandeer whatever we see fit, whatever is necessary to maintain law.”

As Dr. Greg Henderson wrote in an e-mail on August 30th, 2005

"I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New Orleans.


We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that are admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement. This is tough because looting is now rampant. Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and no medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous.


The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight. Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children. Many other guests have unusual diseases

We have set up a hospital in the the French Qarter bar in the hotel, and will start admitting patients today. We are anticipating to dealing with multiple medical problems, medications and and acute injuries. Infection and perhaps even cholera are anticipated major problems. Food and water shortages are iminent.

The biggest question to all of us is where is the national guard. We hear jet fignters and helicopters, but no real armed presence, and hence the rampant looting. There is no Red Cross and no salvation army.”

So the police rallied to the needs of an ad-hoc hospital and maintained a sense of perspective given their own limited resources.

From the MSNBC/AP report:

Another officer, D.J. Butler, told the crowd standing around that they would be out of the way as soon as they got the necessities.

“I’m not saying you’re welcome to it,” the officer said. “This is the situation we’re in. We have to make the best of it.”

Right-wing radio in particular insisted that all the NOLA looting was criminal in intent despite the evident appreciation of the police and Dr. Henderson (amongst others) of the realities of the situation. So what’s the situation in similarly devastated Galveston and Bolivar now?

Well, clearly in Texas some looting has been attempted and has occurred as reported above.

But the fact is that the rest of nation has no idea of what is really going because the federal authorities are applying one lesson learned from Katrina that has nothing to do with their ability to provide aid and relief to victims of a natural disaster and everything to do with controlling media access to their activities so that no comparisons may be drawn between Ike and Katrina, between Galveston and New Orleans, between Texas and Louisiana or between the Federal Government’s actions of 2005 and those of 2008,

Media coverage of Ike has been embargoed.

In looking at the web-site reports about the Ike-afflicted area it appears that every MSM outlet—FOX, MSNBC, ABC. CBS, CNN---has AP attached to every single story. There appears to be not one exclusive report from any of these national news organizations and typical of these reports are paragraphs that read as follows:

emergency crews feared they would find more victims than survivors.

It was the first time anyone had gotten a look at the damaged resort barrier island of Bolivar Peninsula, just east of hard-hit Galveston.

Crews had no idea what they would find on Bolivar Peninsula, which from the air, revealed house after shattered house. “

Search and rescuers from the Sacramento Metro Fire Department found 60 survivors on the Bolivar Peninsula, the sliver of sand that sits across Galveston Bay from the city of Galveston, according to the Associated Press.”

The AP appears to be functioning as the middle-man between officials and the MSM and the MSM seems to be acquiescing to this arrangement. The FAA has restricted over-flight of Galveston and the Bolivar peninsula to 2000 feet “to provide a safe environment for disaster response and relief operations” and disallowed helicopter-borne news crews from landing in the worst-affected areas.

According to one ABC News/AP report (referenced here earlier)

"The storm's fatal reach extended beyond Texas: Six people died in Louisiana, two in Tennessee, six in Indiana, three in Missouri, one in Arkansas and three in Ohio."

As hurricane death-tolls in general go that’s a bit above average, but then Ike was 900 miles across and most of its death-dealing potential still stretched over a 550 mile radius.


Emergency officials estimate that 400 to 500 of the 30,000 residents remained on the [Bolivar] Peninsula during the storm.

Bolivar may have been the hardest hit by Ike's 110 mph winds and estimated 16-foot storm surge. Towns all along the peninsula were virtually flattened by the treacherous winds, rain and floods from Hurricane Ike.

Over the town Gilchrist, seen from a helicopter, a single home stands alone, behind it a long stretch of waterfront homes have disappeared, pulverized by the wind and the storm surge. The bridge to this coastal area has buckled and officials found a car wrapped around a house. “

In Crystal Beach, the scene was even grimmer. A camper that had been ripped to shreds lay submerged in the canal alongside a mobile home and a giant sailboat that had both been destroyed.

Despite the devastation and reports of residents who decided to ride out the storm, Gov. Rick Perry would not confirm any deaths on Bolivar.

The AP reported that according to Galveston City officials at least at least a third of the community's 60,000 residents remained in their homes.

We know that 60 were rescued at the last minute after being cut off and we’ve heard since that another 2,000 (as of Monday) were also plucked from dire straits. Others certainly changed their minds at the last minute whilst they still apparently had the means to evacuate so it is likely that the 1/3rd figure was reduced though it is impossible to say by how much, but assuming that the official estimate of 1/3rd were halved just before Ike made landfall that would leave 10,000 behind. Would it not be reasonable to imagine that 10% of those may well have been killed? That would mean a thousand people dead, despite all the warnings and the evacuation facilities laid on by the authorities.

Currently the Texas death toll is being reported as 30, the overall perhaps 60. Hopefully it really is that low. Michael Chertoff’s warning to those still resident during Ike’s landfall that they “may face certain death” would appear to be an exaggeration in hindsight but at the moment we the public just don’t know and the authorities aren’t willing to say.

Of course when so much is blown to smithereens it’s not fair to expect the precision of reporting that, for example, followed the California train crash of Sunday; but recall the effort in reporting on Katrina or the Eastern Seaboard blackout—that level of interest, effort and communication regarding Ike seems remarkably lacking in comparison, especially when it is surely a major economic story too.

Within the media reports I’ve found there have been some complaints about FEMA’s services. Oil pollution has been briefly noted and the occupants of graveyards have been disinterred by the flood-waters and are floating around with the usual storm detritus. These are as yet seemingly small details, but as yet, on the fifth day, even the larger picture is not being revealed as one might have expected by now.

When Katrina hit, authorities were so spectacularly unprepared they didn’t think of controlling media access and they were burned, rightly, by that over-sight but now it seems they have learned at least that lesson.

With Katrina the religious right immediately blamed the event on the inherent wickedness of NOLA’s civilians and pointed to subsequent looting as proof of it.

The likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage embraced that meme and added that those who stayed had only themselves to blame for their subsequent plight.

Certainly with the apparent press embargo of Ike’s aftermath the right-wing is being denied sources for political hay-making and so too is the political left, but consider which side might gain if the MSM were to report from Texas with the same commitment and given the same access as they had in New Orleans?

Texas is a staunchly Republican state. Anywhere from 40,000 to 90,000 Texans, presumably mostly Republicans, ignored their Republican governments warnings to evacuate.

Are they now being blamed for their current destitution as so many of NOLA’s citizens were? Apparently not.

Are the reported lootings (as noted above) being used to condemn the entire community on Galveston? Apparently not.

Has Ike been declared a holy retribution from God for Texans’ wickedness? No.

The right wing media has kept its mouth shut this time for political reasons (just as it opened its mouth for political reasons during Katrina). The MSM has once again dropped the ball to focus on a new shiny object and once again let the authorities serve them the news as they see fit as has been allowed without significant protest since the beginning of the Bush administration, even now.

Even now the main stream media is still making political and economic decisions that favor the Republicans. The Republican presidency and its appointees are still making political and economic decisions that favor its own vested interested—to not get found-out for incompetence and self serving actions. Together, by the latter controlling information and the former acceding to that control in a partnership that extends for almost 8 years they are both still controlling not just the public discourse but life and death and the fortunes of all just so they can maintain their own relevance and elevated positions for the present and the future.

These are the politics and economics that surround the embargo on the aftermath of Ike. It may not be worse than Katrina but it is surely just as bad and cognizant of that the authorities and their surrogates in the media would far prefer that the rest of us not know that--especially with a presidential election looming on the horizon. .