New Orleans After the Storm

When Hurricane Katrina first happened, even the most docile reporters began to cover race, poverty, and inequality. But since then everyone has dropped the story.

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A FEMA trailer sits in front of home in the Lakeview area of New Orleans. U.S. health officials have confirmed that toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes in trailer homes the government provided to Gulf Coast hurricane victims have made as many as 300,000 people sick. (AP/Alex Brandon)
A FEMA trailer sits in front of home in the Lakeview area of New Orleans. U.S. health officials have confirmed that toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes in trailer homes the government provided to Gulf Coast hurricane victims have made as many as 300,000 people sick. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Back nearly three years ago when New Orleans was underwater and its poorer and less mobile residents languished on rooftops or in the Superdome, many in the media enjoyed their finest hour. The press seemed to suddenly find its backbone, and even the most docile reporters began to cover race, poverty, and inequality in a life or death context.

The New York Times’ Jason DeParle began a story like this: “The white people got out. Most of them, anyway…. it was mostly black people who were left behind. Poor black people, growing more hungry, sick and frightened by the hour as faraway officials counseled patience and warned that rescues take time.”

On MSNBC, Lester Holt asked then-House majority leader Tom DeLay: “People are now beginning to voice what we’ve all been seeing with our own eyes—the majority of people left in New Orleans are black, they are poor, they are the underbelly of society. When you look at this, what does this say about where we are as a country and where our government is in terms of how it views the people of this country?”

On CNN, Paula Zahn grilled Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown, saying, “you said earlier today that part of the blame for the—what you think will be an—enormous death toll in New Orleans rests with the people who did not evacuate the city, who didn’t heed the warnings. Is that fair, to blame the victims, many of whom tell us they had no way out, they had no cars of their own, and that public assistance wasn’t provided to get them out of the city?”

(Of course, we exempt Fox News from this praise, since they carried on in typical fashion, either numb or openly dismissive of the race and class implications of the tragedy. They invited guests who advised the victims to “play it down and pray it up,” and Fred Barnes blamed the residents and lamented the cost to taxpayers: “They know they’re going to flood. And when these things happen, they want the taxpayers all over the country to pay, and they do.” Barnes and Charles Krauthammer joked about the damage that might reach their vacation homes).

But as the storm waters receded from New Orleans, so too did much of the media’s tenacity—or even interest in the story. Subsequent and equally shocking developments related to the government’s care (or lack thereof) of Katrina victims have generally been noted by the media, but not widely discussed.

As New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie told NPR’s “On the Media” last year, “The great thing about American media is that most of the stories get told, but unless they are told repeatedly, unless you have one media outlet breaking a story and another one attempting to come up with a better day two story, the stories aren’t important. I cannot think of anything that has not been reported, but it does not get analyzed and it does not get viewed in the context of the national implications.”

What follows is but a small sampling of stories that have only glided through news pages, victims of the aborted post-Katrina discussion on class, race, and the government’s duty to care for its citizens. It’s not as if they go unreported at all; it’s just that there’s no pickup on them or discussion afterward. We salute those reporters who’ve stayed with the story; unfortunately they are desperately few and far between.

In late May, the Washington Post reported that in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, FEMA ordered $2.7 billion worth of emergency housing in the form of trailers, but in some cases these trailers had only a single page of specifications—notably absent from these scant guidelines were any meaningful safety requirements.

In the following months and years, residents of these trailers suddenly began falling ill—as many as 300,000 people, many of them children. It turns out that many of the trailers contained formaldehyde, an industrial chemical sometimes used to embalm corpses, and which can cause nasal cancer and worsens asthma and respiratory problems. (It also may be linked to leukemia).

The Centers for Disease Control says that one can only be exposed to these levels of formaldehyde safely for 15 minutes—and hundreds of thousands of people were living in them year-round. But the Post reports that “manufacturers did not discuss, nor did FEMA ask, if it would be safe to house evacuees in trailers for 18 months or more with such materials.”

FEMA’s culpability may be even more severe. House Democrats issues a report in January alleging that FEMA “ignored, hid, and manipulated government research” on the seemingly obvious risks of living in a small dwelling tainted with that toxic material. The report cites a letter written by a Center for Disease Control expert to a FEMA lawyer, which stated there was no “safe level” of formaldehyde, and that “failure to communicate this issue is possibly misleading and a threat to public health.” The researcher’s letter was ignored, and his office was bypassed when FEMA was investigating the safety of the trailers—they found no safety risk that couldn’t be cured by “opening windows,” according to the report.

These stories have been largely absent from the mainstream media’s major narratives of current events. CNN, which blasted FEMA’s negligence again and again in the aftermath of Katrina, has only mentioned the trailers twice since April. Fox News, of course, took no significant notice of the story. When one activist brought it up to Bill O’Reilly, he ignored the formaldehyde and wondered why the trailers were even being provided at all, saying, “Do you give these people houses and other entitlements in order to have a decent living? Or do you leave them under the bridge? Because that’s your choice. They can’t work. They spend their money on drugs and alcohol…. You’re giving it to people who are irresponsible in many, many cases.”

The story of poisoned trailers for FEMA victims is only part of the tale of government negligence on Katrina. Nearly 40 percent of those displaced by the storm live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, and nearly one-third couldn’t find jobs, with thousands more no longer even trying.

The estimated cost of hurricane-related destruction in K-12 and higher education in Mississippi and Louisiana is $6.2 billion, but “the federal government has provided only $1.2 billion,” according to the Southern Education Foundation. Foreign governments contributed $131.5 million to recovery funding for Louisiana colleges, only slightly less than the $135 million contributed by the U.S. government.

And in his 2007 State of the Union speech, President Bush didn’t mention New Orleans once. This year, he only mentioned it briefly, mainly to note that the North American Summit would be held there.

Congress is currently considering cutting $73 million in housing aid for disabled Katrina victims. “Homeless advocate groups are becoming increasingly desperate to save the funds, which would provide about 3,000 housing assistance vouchers to mentally and physically disabled Katrina victims; nonprofits say they are the neediest segment of New Orleans’ swelling homeless population,” reports the Associated Press.

Sounds like a story to us….

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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