Monday, November 21, 2005

Saving the fish bowl

Congratulations 60 Minutes! I salute you for presenting "New Orleans Is Sinking."

New Orleanians were starting to complain about the lack of national press attention to the ongoing tragedy here. Finally, a major press organization went down to New Orleans to do more than a fluff piece like this afternoon's pathetic NPR story about how one New Orleans family is going to celebrate Thanksgiving.

60 Minutes spent time in the lower Ninth Ward talking to residents in the most devastated part of New Orleans (largely forgotten since the national press left). 60 Minutes interviewed Greg Meffert, the Chief of Technology, who threw down a gauntlet at the Bush administration and Congress, challenging them to show the world that we (the United States) are what we say we are, and inciting them to rebuild New Orleans. 60 Minutes interviewed Mike Centineo, the Director of Safety and Permits, talking about how insane existing building guidelines are, and going into his flooded house where he broke down over the family photos he lost. Despite appeals by Louisiana officials not to show him, 60 Minutes also interviewed Tim Kusky who, at the end of September, wrote a controversial Boston Globe opinion piece in which he painted a grim picture of New Orleans' future:

The projected setting of the city in 2100 is in a hole up to 18 feet below sea level directly on the hurricane-prone coast. The city will look like a fish tank battered by coastal waves, surrounded by 50- to 100-foot-high seawalls that are barely able to protect it from hurricanes that are only as strong as Katrina. Such a city is untenable, and we as a nation need to face this reality.

Andy Kopplin, executive director of Louisiana Recovery Authority, asked CBS to reconsider airing the New Orleans segment, according to the Times-Picayune. I can understand why - Kusky's argument is not that the city should be saved, but that it should be abandoned.

Joining Kopplin in his criticism of Kusky is Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Boesch disputes Kusky's conclusions, comparing his research to an undergraduate paper full of factual errors and little analysis.

Kusky might be wrong - but his dramatic premonition of what New Orleans will look like in the future has gotten people's attention. For that, he can be thanked. Indeed, this is definitely not the time to avoid hyperbole. We're beyond hyberbole. New Orleans could only be worse if every building were knocked to the ground, because quite frankly, a majority of the buildings in the city are being gutted to the bones, and will have to be, effectively, rebuilt. Through a vast expanse covering most of the city, the dirty water line from flooding can be traced half way up the wall on house after house. Picture 60 to 80 percent of Los Angeles destroyed by a freak Tsunami, or two-thirds of San Francisco leveled to the ground by an earthquake. Nothing could be more surreal. That's New Orleans. It's surreal - beyond comprehension. Unlike other natural disasters, however, New Orleans was flooded not necessarily by the hurricane, but by faulty engineering on levees which, we were told, would hold up to a Category 3 storm. It's a national disgrace that this happened.

Truth be told, the marshes of coastal Louisiana are in serious trouble, and that can only mean worse problems down the road for New Orleans. We still haven't gotten that Category 5 direct hit, but it's out there somewhere.

A less controversial environmental scholar is Shea Penland, director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of New Orleans. His discovery of a high number of "marshballs" in Chalmette, south of New Orleans, is a sign of very sick marshes. The marshballs are actually large clumps of mud, roots, and vegetation - actual pieces of the marshland to the east of New Orleans, an area that leads out to the Gulf of Mexico. A large swath of this area no longer exists. It simply disappeared in Hurricane Katrina's storm surge and wind. The marshes have been weakened by canals and pipeline construction, cutting up Louisiana's wetlands into a multitude of non-contiguous pieces vulnerable to erosion.

Oliver Houck, an environmental law expert at Tulane University, along with a host of other scientists, are saying that Louisiana will have to retreat from the coastline. They're talking about drawing a new map of Louisiana to indicate which of the small towns south of New Orleans will have to be abandoned. It's not a political decision anymore. Mother nature will get the last word.

This isn't just a national disaster, it's a national emergency. All the people who don't get it, and who think we can handle this problem in a business-as-usual mode should be ejected from office immediately. And the press needs to get their asses down here to New Orleans and start covering the vital stories about what is happening here, because, as much as we'd like it, we bloggers just don't get the exposure that forums like 60 Minutes get - although at least we have integrity.

So, again, I salute you 60 Minutes. For all the rest of the corporate money-whoring press, you better shape up or we'll put some gris-gris on you!

We know it's possible. A number of bloggers here all agree that the local Times-Picayune used to be good for nothing more than the club listings. Since Katrina, they've gotten religion and are challenging the status quo. Today, the paper criticized leaders in Washington who find it convenient to ignore the significant economic contribution Louisiana makes to the nation:
Some people in Washington don't seem to remember that. They act as if we are a burden. They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble.

The paper then called on citizens to reach out to a list of principals in Congress, listing their contact information, and telling readers to "Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina."

I read in The Advocate about another good attention-getting tactic recently you might consider when you're contacting Congress. Referring to the scenes of people who broke through roofs after rising water forced them into their attics:
Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter for The Times-Picayune, jokingly asserted that New Orleanians ought to grab their Sears catalogs, cut out a picture of an ax and send it to their congressmen with this rueful message:

"Please send me this for Christmas if you are not going to rebuild the levees."

Hey, if the federal government is going to shirk its duty to help Louisiana, then we're seceding and keeping all the oil extracted off of our shores.

Take a few minutes each day this week and work your way through that list of contacts, and tell everyone you know how important this is.


At 11/21/2005 05:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is truly amazing to me that the MSM has completely forgotten New Orleans! For all the 24 hour coverage there was directly after the storm, there is little or no interest in the REAL aftermath -- people trying to get their lives back, trying to go back to their homes, etc.

Keep blogging it, Schroeder, because you're pretty much our only source at this point.


At 11/21/2005 07:45:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

I'm just venting, but thanks. The local Times-Picayune has finally discovered the importance of independence and good investigative writing.

At 11/21/2005 09:20:00 AM, Anonymous humidhaney said...

Dear 60 Minutes,

I have to admit my respect and interest in your program is deteriorating. This evening I was excited to see the piece on New Orleans. I like many others who are back here trying to put our lives back together are in need of Media attention to help the rest of the Nation and world understand what has happened to this city and why it needs to be rebuilt. In the National media there has been so much footage of the 9th ward and East New Orleans. There has been so much footage of the areas that were totally destroyed. Yet there has been no footage of the areas of town that went without flooding and are up and running. There has been no media attention on why the levees and the 17th Street Canal broke.

In these next few weeks New Orleans will see if its population will remain away or return and if the Federal government will help us rebuild and protect this important city or renege on its promise for funding and protection. So now, more than ever, we need people to understand that the city is coming back. We need people to see that businesses are open (and I am not talking about Bourbon Street). Our neighborhoods are coming back, people are cleaning up. Our politicians and business leaders are trying to put together plans for the city's future.

What did I watch tonight? I saw you interview a scientist who specializes in Natural Disasters, but not a scientist who specializes in this area. You allowed him to share his dooms day opinion, but spoke to no one else to verify his claims. I watched as you went into the 9th Ward like everyone else has done and film the same footage. Nothing new was provided. You took what has been online and on network news and repeated it. No new ideas. No journalistic attempt to seek new angles. Tonight there was no attempt at educating your audience, only drama and hopelessness.

What did I want to watch? I wanted you to show the areas hardest hit and the areas that were relatively unscathed. I wanted you to talk to individuals who are experts on this area. I wanted you to ask not just "should New Orleans be rebuilt" but examine "why New Orleans should be rebuilt." I wanted you to ask why this happened. Why did the Levees and the 17th Street Canal fail? There is a story there. I wanted you to explain to people why we live here and why New Orleans matters to this country. But you didn't do any of these things. I wanted you to do your job and be journalists.

Ed Bradley has been to New Orleans so I bet he could have been able to have told the story better. Instead you had Scott Pelley take the easy way out and offer your National audience nothing more than justification for the opinion not to rebuild this essential city. You offered nothing new tonight and did the city of New Orleans a great disservice.

60 Minutes is sinking.

At 11/21/2005 04:35:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Good letter. I agree with everything you said. I felt they deserved a compliment because, having gone down to the Ninth Ward myself, every emergency worker I talked to pleaded me to get some national press there to tell the story. They want somebody to take note of the scale of the devastation, and the utter impossibility of the people who live there to rebuild on their own. It just won't happen. I also think the Cat 5 protection issue needs to be the number one thing on the national agenda. If dire predictions and scare tactics work, I'm all for it. I wish it didn't require that, but I'm afraid nothing sells in commercial media better than disaster. The problem is that the disaster happening now isn't catchy for the cameras -- some grandma looking over her devastated home is probably not what the big news organizations want to run next to Viagra and Cadillac ads.

I don't know -- I just think that right now any attention of a serious issue is worthy of some praise.

At 11/22/2005 07:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TIME Magazine has NOLA as its cover story this week. I wonder what kind of coverage they give it -- I haven't had a chance to read it yet.



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