Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Body Count & the Media

As many in the nation were outraged at the government’s slow reaction to help New Orleans and surrounding areas immediately after Hurricane Katrina, many news outlets warned of further outrage and horror when the final casualty count comes in. As the response is ongoing, how many bodies will be recovered is unknown.

Originally, the estimates given were considered “high.” ``We need to prepare the country for what's coming,'' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on ``Fox News Sunday.'' ``We are going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, got caught by the flood. ... It is going to be about as ugly of a scene as I think you can imagine.'' ``I think it's evident it's in the thousands,'' Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Sunday on CNN, echoing predictions by city and state officials last week about the death toll. Craig Vanderwagen, rear admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service, said one morgue alone, at a St. Gabriel prison, expected 1,000 to 2,000 bodies.

Prior to August's hurricane, a 400 page report on a simulated Hurricane in the New Orleans area that planned for a weaker and slower-moving storm than Katrina, said tens of thousands of deaths and injuries would overwhelm local officials.

Officials have set aside 25,000 body bags as federal workers and specialists from across the country descend on the Gulf Coast to help retrieve the bodies and counsel grieving families.

But as the federal response took over, it was announced that the expected death toll was now much lower. “Some of the catastrophic deaths some people have predicted may not have occurred," said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city’s director of homeland security. "The numbers, so far, are relatively minor as compared with the dire predictions of 10,000."

But at the same time as federal officials lowered the estimate, they also barred reporters from the recovery process.

On Saturday September 10, 2005, after being challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.

But on Monday, in the Bywater district, that assurance wasn't being followed. The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations.

Originally, the high estimates were explained as necessary to prepare the nation for the high number of victims. Now it appears, away from media scrutiny, the federal response team wants to prepare the nation for lower numbers.


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