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Hot on the Web

Disasters, the media and the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 30, 2005
(Issue 2339, Wi-Fi Winners)

The horrific devastation of Hurricane Katrina has, as all such disasters do, brought out the best and worst of all of us, and the news media – print, broadcast and the new third leg of the national media, online – is no different.

On the up side, it was the media that made clear that the various levels of government were not moving fast enough to help the survivors in New Orleans and elsewhere in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

While federal and state officials gave rosy press conferences about how help was on the way, TV and online outlets were broadcasting video of the grim reality in New Orleans – where public order had broken down to the point that people's bodies were being left to rot in the streets and gangs were looting every gun store in town.

It was largely this reporting that led President Bush to admit that early relief efforts had been inadequate, and to order his staff to increase efforts to help those in need from the hurricane.

On the down side, there was something decidedly unseemly about having the media's helicopters hovering above desperate survivors just so they could take their pictures. What made it even worse, almost ... well, sinful, was that the survivors couldn't tell the media helicopters from the rescue helicopters, and thus stood on the roofs of their flooded homes waving desperately for the cameras. Would it have killed the media to take along some food and water in those choppers to bring to the survivors? Yes, I know we in the media are supposed to simply report on what's happening – but that's a self-imposed expectation. It seems to me that basic humanity demands more of us in instances such as this.

And then, after having milked this disaster for all the advertising dollars it was worth, to have the talking heads on TV and the newspaper editorials excoriating the federal government for not doing enough – well, the hypocrisy was enough to induce nausea.

Local heroes

If there were any heroes among the media, they weren't to be found in the hundreds of outsiders who descended on the suffering in a sort of paean to voyeurism. Instead, it was the men and women of the local New Orleans media who continued to do their jobs even as their own homes were destroyed, as their families remained missing or evacuated.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune staff managed to keep updating their Web site throughout the disaster, even as they had to abandon their building to find safer, drier digs, forcing them to suspend publishing a print edition for a few days.

The Web site, especially, was a remarkable testament to community service, to ingenuity under the greatest pressure.

Not only was the T-P's daily edition posted online, and not only did the online staff update the daily report with fresh news throughout the day, but they used the Web site as a way for the New Orleans community – wherever they are geographically in the days, weeks and months following the evacuation – to stay in touch.

One of the most useful tools was an online bulletin board where folks could post notes to family and friends letting them know they were OK, and where they were staying or heading. There were other bulletin boards set up where people could sign up to volunteer, offer rooms in their homes, and post names of missing friends or relatives in hopes someone knew of their whereabouts.

There were also forums set up by neighborhood, so folks could ask specific questions.

If doesn't win a Pulitzer for its service to the community and its excellent reporting during these trying weeks, then it is the award that will have been tarnished.

Online news not always enough

Of course, with power out, and with so many homes razed either by the winds or the flooding, not many people in New Orleans have access to the Internet as this is written.

But surely of the hundreds of thousands who had evacuated either before the storm hit or in the aftermath, those staying in hotels, motels and with family, there were a substantial number with Internet access.

For the others, though, was invisible. For them, radio remained the only real means of receiving information – at least, as long as their batteries held out.

Many of us have come in recent years to view the Internet as an indispensable part of modern living – as essential a utility as electricity or running water.

But when you see an entire region of the United States going weeks or more without running water, without electricity or phone service – well, you realize that as valuable and important as the Internet is, people can live without it. People were dying in New Orleans because of the lack of clean water, because of the lack of electricity to the hospitals, because of the lack of transportation.

Nobody died because their Internet service was down.