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Katrina Redux

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006; 11:12 AM

I am not a big fan of media anniversary hype. The avalanche of "one year after" and "five years after" stories always strike me as a form of journalistic laziness. It is, by definition, arbitrary--why is a story a big deal 12 months after the fact, but not 11 months or 13 or 15? At times, it seems more like an excuse for extravaganzas by news outlets that long ago lost interest in the story but want to appear engaged.

And yet, I find myself pleased that the one-year benchmark, artificial as it is, has produced a spate of good reporting about Hurricane Katrina and finally put the national spotlight back on the Gulf Coast. There have been moving, probing, textured pieces in the major papers, and Brian Williams's prime-time NBC special Monday night was raw and powerful.

I visited New Orleans a few months ago and was stunned, in surveying the miles and miles of ruined neighborhoods, vacant houses, abandoned autos and devastated shopping centers, at how little progress had been made. For all the billions that have been spent, it looks like Katrina just struck in major swaths of the area. It is at once surreal and heart-breaking as you attempt to contemplate the human impact. And several writers have reached a similar conclusion: Words, and even television pictures, cannot convey the magnitude of what happened.

What we have, and what the anniversary pieces are forcing the country to confront, is a major American city that has lost half its population, and the refugees aren't coming back any time soon, if at all. So many schools and businesses remain closed, so many areas lack power, so much rebuilding money is stuck in the government/insurance pipeline, that most of those who want to return are unable to do so. What's particularly infuriating is that the feds have appropriated more than $100 billion in aid, and yet as every story notes, much of it remains unspent due to bureaucratic hurdles.

While a handful of news organizations have been conscientious about sticking with the story, the media agenda marches on--Iraq, Hezbollah, the British terror plot, Joe Lieberman, JonBenet, Tom Cruise, Pluto, Hurricane Ernesto. New Orleans is like Iraq--it was a mess yesterday, it's a mess today and will still be a mess tomorrow. So it fades in and out of the news. And I fear it will continue to fade once anniversary week is over.

How is the press handling the Bush visit? Most papers, including the Los Angeles Times , take the upbeat route:

"Marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush today delivered a message of perseverance and hope, renewing his pledge to help New Orleans recover from the storm's still-devastating impact and, as he eventually did after the storm struck, taking responsibility for the federal government's much criticized response."

The New Orleans Times-Picayune : "In his 13th visit to New Orleans in a year, President Bush sought to reassure residents Tuesday that he and the federal government will stand by the region as it struggles to emerge from the darkest year in its history, with no end in sight."

The New York Times stresses the contrition angle:

"President Bush, still at pains to demonstrate his concern over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina a full year after the storm, said he took 'full responsibility' for the slow federal response to the disaster as he made a carefully choreographed pilgrimage on Tuesday to the city that suffered most."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter recalls writing a year ago that the time had come for a national assault on urban poverty, as typified by the Lower Ninth Ward:

"Some readers told me at the time that this was naive--that the president, if not indifferent to the problems of black people, as the singer Kanye West charged, was not going to do anything significant to help them. At first this seemed too cynical. The week after the article appeared, Bush went to Jackson Square in New Orleans and made televised promises not only for Katrina relief but to address some of the underlying struggles of the poor. He proposed 'worker recovery accounts' to help evacuees find work by paying for job training, school and child care; an Urban Homesteading Act that would make empty lots and loans available to the poor to start over, and a Gulf Enterprise Zone to spur business investment in poor areas. Small ideas, perhaps, but good ones.


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