Today's Papers

Katrina Catastrophe

Everybody leads with Katrina;the New York Timessays 55 deaths have been reported so far. Katrina’s last-minute jog to the east meant that downtown New Orleans was spared the apocalyptic scenario long envisioned. But many Mississippi coastal towns suffered what the state’s governor called “catastrophic damage.” Fifty of the known deaths were in Mississippi’s Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi. Storm surges in the area were about 25 feet. There are also—sketchy and haphazard—reports of devastation in some New Orleans residential neighborhoods. One widely quoted Associated Press dispatch cited officials as saying that 40,000 homes are underwater in the parish just east of downtown. 

Most of the papers acknowledge that, given the bad weather and limited mobility as of last night, the extent of the destruction, as the Washington Postputs it honestly, “can only be guessed at.”

The NYT’s Shaila Dewan has one of the few dispatches from what seems to have been ground zero: Gulfport, Miss. Eight schools being used as shelters lost their roofs. Three of five hospitals (in the county?) were left without emergency rooms. The city’s fire chief told Knight Ridder that downtown buildings were “imploding.” He told the NYT, “There [are] very few buildings that I’ve seen right now that do not have some type of damage.” The local newspaper in coastal Mississippi, the Sun-Herald, has reporters posting to a blog. USA Today also has a piece datelined from Gulfport, but it doesn’t have nearly the detail the Times’ Dewan gets.

Most of the levees around New Orleans appear to have held up, but there still is massive flooding. One state official told the Los Angeles Timesthe damage in East New Orleans was “about as bad a scenario as we could’ve had.” There was close to 20 feet of water in one parish, where a resident said emergency officials are themselves “operating from on top of a building.”

New Orleans’s big paper, the Times-Picayune, quotes an official in the parish west of downtown referring to “widespread devastation.” He added “life as we know it in Jefferson Parish is gone for several months.”

A front-page Post piece plays up the lack of catastrophic damage in New Orleans’ downtown: “AMID DESTRUCTION SOME FEEL RELIEF.” If the reporters were filing from the outlying neighborhoods instead of downtown, would they be offering up such silver linings? Given that they couldn’t travel to those neighborhoods, might it be a bit premature to write about “relief”?

Everybody has energy analysts biting their nails; the Gulf Coast is a major hub for both oil production and refining. “We are still in the soap-opera phase where everyone is still wondering what is going on,” one analyst told the NYT. The Times also speaks to a super-specialist, a guy who does disaster-risk analysis for refineries, and he didn’t seem too bothered. “Usually the refineries fare pretty well, as long as they batten down the hatches and wait it out,” he said.

Meanwhile, everybody notes that the White House suggested that President Bush is at least open to tapping the U.S.’s strategic petroleum reserve. Here’s what TP doesn’t understand: The strategic reserve is full of crude oil. But the potential Katrina-caused shortage isn’t of crude. As one analyst put it, “The crunch is on refineries.” So, if the reserves will just have to queue up for refining, apart from the PR (and market-calming?) effect, how much good would it do to open up the reserves?

So far as TP sees, the Post is alone among the papers in looking at how the storm’s destructive power was exacerbated by the human-caused erosion of the coastline. Then there’s the elephant in the atmosphere. “There’s a clear signature of global warming in this,” said one government-funded researcher. “While it’s not the dominant factor, in some things it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” A short NYT piece quotes another researcher pooh-poohing such global-warming talk. The Times addresses the erosion question elsewhere, in an editorial.

The papers, for mysterious reasons, feel compelled to stake their ground on guess-estimates (aka WAGs) of Katrina’s cost. The NYT: “INSURERS ESTIMATE DAMAGE AT $9 BILLION, AMONG COSTLIEST U.S. STORMS ON RECORD.” The Post: “KATRINA COULD COST INSURERS $25 BILLION.”

Writing an op-ed in the Post, one county director of emergency management says the White House, in a “preoccupation with terrorism,” is giving short shrift to natural-disaster preparedness and sticking a knife in FEMA:

This year it was announced that FEMA is to “officially” lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission. …To be sure, America may well be hit by another major terrorist attack, and we must be prepared for such an event. But I can guarantee you that hurricanes like the one that ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, along with tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, mudslides, power outages, fires and perhaps a pandemic flu will have to be dealt with on a weekly and daily basis throughout this country. They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them.