The Digital Journalist
The Gulf

by Beverly Spicer

Most of us have been completely engulfed - for lack of a better term - this September by events along the Gulf Coast. At the mercy of a powerful storm, we began a harrowing tide of events by anticipating the building threat, then witnessing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Those of us in relative physical safety were ourselves mentally and emotionally trapped by the horrors and human agony that followed, brought into our living rooms by a storm-charged media bound to tell the story of what was unfolding right before their eyes. Because of the immediacy and unfiltered nature of what they were reporting in photographic images and news broadcasts, the rest of us also witnessed what was happening in the Gulf. There is another gulf we were seeing as well, which has spawned a great struggle to keep all eyes on reality. It has something to do with the disconnect I spoke of in September's E-Bits, about what we saw vs. what would be said about it later. The individual characters of the two back-to-back storms, Katrina and Rita, were completely different in preparations, evacuation, landfall, aftermath, response and media coverage.

The odds seemed against another gigantic storm of similar magnitude following immediately in the wake of Katrina. She was so big and so devastating, surely another could not follow. In light of the dismal events during the week after she delivered devastating blows to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and a knock-out punch to New Orleans, however, anyone could have predicted that the response on all levels to Rita would be categorically different, and with it, so ensued a difference in the perceived realities of Katrina vs. Rita. Katrina awakened the press to a human tragedy of unthinkable proportions right here on our own soil, and has kicked off what is already being called the biggest story in the United States since the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 30s. The shocking events of the week after the levees broke notwithstanding, the diaspora of over 1,000,000 people caused by this 2005 tragedy in the Gulf region is the greatest since the Mississippi flood of 1927, which displaced 700,000, the majority of whom were black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. According to writer Brad Edmondson, the only event in U.S. history in terms of shattering and scattering communities that might have been bigger than Katrina is the Civil War.

Hurricane Rita, though a monumentally devastating storm in her own right, seemed somehow a relative non-event, anti-climactic in almost every way compared to Katrina in the minds of the public. But, was it? And why? Because of Katrina, we gained a more alert, responsible, and aggressive press, but the local, state, and federal responders to Rita also became more alert and aggressive, and much more politically self-conscious. We are all learning lessons from the two storms, and that applies to officials on all levels, the press, as well as we who witnessed these events second- or third-hand. After the dismal failure of initial response in the aftermath of Katrina, we saw the moment arrive when something did take control, not only of New Orleans and the Gulf area but also of the press, and has remained so throughout the drama of Rita. Suddenly one day, there was a shift, almost imperceptible to the traumatized public, as if gauzy blinders and mufflers had been placed on the media - our eyes, ears, and voices on the scene. It was not like reporting and images stopped altogether, but there was a change. We began seeing days-old images repeated in an endless loop, and suddenly new stories were soft. No doubt tensions were relieved when relief arrived, but at the same time, a curtain dropped over the very raw reportage we had been seeing. I was reminded of "happy talk," a term used for propaganda in WWII that was euphemistically acknowledged by a song of the same name in the movie "South Pacific." We started hearing happier talk and seeing happier images.

Happy talk has now matured into very sophisticated "perception management," and eventually the sordid details of the cleanup in New Orleans were "managed," as journalists were restrained by the military from being eyewitnesses with panoramic vision. A court fight ensued between CNN and the government, which refused to let journalists photograph the dead being removed from their houses. CNN won, but we still didn't see the images. As one photojournalist said of the body-removal blackout, "Even with a legal victory, you try to go into an area but are forbidden to go further. You are told, 'No admittance. This is a military operation.'" He told us there is a saying, "There you are with your laws, but there they are with their guns." As a shroud of mystery swallowed some of the story, disturbing images and details were downplayed and heroics were played up. Suddenly sanitized, like war reportage. I ask you to remember the coverage by an unrestrained media in the days before federal help arrived, when images from that time, some so horrific we'll never forget, were burned indelibly into our minds. In days that followed, however, the newly harnessed press, trying as they might, gave us reports from somewhat shallower depths - no more wading into waters over absolutely everyone's head. With all that in mind and your memories intact, view this PowerPoint presentation, COVERAGE OF HURRICANE KATRINA, presented by the Pentagon Channel, the military TV station. Photos and presentation by Major Francisco G. Hamm of The Department of Defense, Public Affairs.

Numbers of the Katrina's dead seemed to be downplayed in a sudden move where spontaneous individual framing of a story gave way to identical talking points. We heard of the thousands of houses still underwater and could see for ourselves the spray-painted numbers of the dead on house after house. Hospitals and nursing homes produced shocking numbers of persons who did not survive, some euthanized. By any estimate, the final death toll will surely be enormous. However, one day, around September 22nd, every official said the same words, that the death toll was going to be "far less than we expected." Coincidentally or not, that was the same day journalists were banned from photographing the search for and recovery of bodies. The day the forecast of smaller numbers began, those of us who were listening carefully also heard that the official death toll would only include bodies completely processed and positively identified, an almost impossible task at any point after the complete dispersal of the surviving population. Neighbors are gone, medical records have vanished; there is no one to identify the unrecognizable remains. DNA is harvested, but to match to what, and when? If a person died in the aftermath but not by the storm itself, say from a gunshot wound or heart attack, exhaustion or exposure, then he or she is not included in the official Katrina Death Toll. Will those who died of "unknown causes" be included in the total? Are we ever to know the number of corpses picked up and how they compare with the initial 25,000 - one report said 40,000 - body bags ordered by the coroners and emergency authorities? One report said it could take as much as five years to identify some of the bodies, if ever. All of this is compounded by new reports that the toll is stabilizing and the door-to-door search has ended. The official search, that is. But what about the many houses which haven't been entered yet? There will be more, they say, and further retrieval has been outsourced to a private Texas company named Kenyon, a subsidiary of Service Corporation International. The number of dead reported in Louisiana alone varies inconsistently from FOX's 964 to CNN's 972 to other reports of 974 to 976 to 984, to "around a thousand." When will we know the true numbers of loss of life related to Katrina? My first guess is, not any time soon. My best guess is, not ever. And one thing is for sure: the information will not come from photographic evidence.

A makeshift tomb at a New Orleans street corner conceals a body that had been lying on the sidewalk for days in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Sunday September 4, 2005.

AP Photo/Dave Martin

The most notable minimization of Hurricane Rita was of the nightmare evacuation made by an estimated 2.5 million people. On Thursday night before the expected landfall two hours after midnight Friday, Houston Mayor Bill White worried the highway could become a "death trap" for anyone caught there in the storm, but soon after, he expressed confidence the traffic would be cleared. A frantic concern continued into Friday evening as those following the drama developed dire expectations. And then, coverage stopped. Four hours later, at 11p.m., anchors reported almost off-handedly, "We have reports the highway is all clear now." In what seemed to be another visual blackout, officials warned evacuees to stay off the roads for the next 48 hours, long after the storm passed, and we heard abandoned cars were being impounded and those of us who had experienced evacuation news interuptus, wondered about the cleanup and what all had happened out there on the highways. Following is a gallery of photos from three staff photographers at The Galveston County Daily News, Kevin Bartram, Chad Green and Dwight Andrews, and we present a video about the evacuation by David Leeson of The Dallas Morning News.

Staff photos/Galveston Daily News

Evacuees from the fourth largest city in the United States became part of one of the largest traffic jams in American History - more than 100 miles long. Video by David Leeson/The Dallas Morning News

Stories are pouring out about what it was like to be in the horrendous, 100-mile long traffic jam for a 3- to 4-hour drive that took instead 15 to 37 hours. Some had no food or water, and all had to use the sides of the roads, cups or the woods to relieve themselves. The heat was difficult to bear as evacuees turned off their A/C's to save gas, and then they ran out of gas anyway. Service stations sold out of gas and closed, out of water and food as well. Tankers with fuel arrived on the scene, but had incompatible nozzles with the cars. Growing desperate to get off the highway, people abandoned their cars and doubled up, sometimes with strangers, to keep going. Some animals died on the road, and a bus exploded killing 24 elderly passengers from a nursing home. According to The Houston Chronicle, the numbers of dead from the evacuation are counted at about 100, with 30 from Galveston County alone, where, ironically, Rita did not hit with the force expected. The evacuation is still a very big story especially in the evacuation cities and counties, but not much is being made of it in wider coverage. Evacuation scenarios are monumentally important in the age of terror. Fleeing disaster is another national debate, yet there seems to be another gulf to be bridged before that debate is heard loud and clear. Links to photographic coverage of both hurricanes are available on The Dallas Morning News photo Web site.

Firefighters cover the bodies of mostly elderly evacuees from Bellaire killed in a bus explosion on Interstate 45 in Wilmer, TX.

Jim Mahoney/The Dallas Morning News

At the NPPA Flying Short Course held in Boston, Austin and Eugene this past weekend, editor and photographer David Einsel, formerly of the Houston Chronicle, said, "If you are far right wing, you're watching FOX. If you're far left wing, you're watching DemocracyNow. If you're smart, you're doing both." I couldn't agree more. But for those of us who do follow each end of the continuum, how will we ever bridge the gulf between extremes of contradictory facts, viewpoints, information and debate? Perhaps it is the purview of artists to express that which resonates most authentically, and it is our challenge to recognize that resonance within ourselves. In that case, we must all become as alert and compassionate as those who witness at the central vortex of events, and find the truth that is the highest, rather than the lowest, common denominator. In a moving video obviously created with awareness and compassion, Green Day's song, appropriately named "Wake Me Up When September Ends," is paired with images and broadcasts from Katrina by blogger/media artist Zadi. Click the following image to view in Quicktime.

September 2005 is finally over, but the challenges we face are in many ways just beginning. I leave you to the month of October with one parting shot by an unknown photographer, which hopefully will delight you as much as it does us. We have no idea if this photo is real or not.

Onward to November.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

The links that appear in this column are from the World Wide Web. Credit is given where the creator is known. The Digital Journalist and the author claim no copyright ownership of any video or photographic materials that appear herein.