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A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 5 2005 7:03 AM

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The New York Times leads with the news that New Orleans is beginning to search for its dead. The Los Angeles Times leads with the related news that the official death toll is mounting. The Washington Post lead wonders who Bush might appoint as chief justice, reporting that he is considering John Roberts for the spot.

Everyone continues to devote most of the front page to covering disaster relief in New Orleans, where operations widened to include a house-by-house search for survivors in an effort to evacuate all residents. The NYT leads with news that mortuary teams began the sickening task of collecting the dead. The National Guard finally has control of the streets, although there was yet another shootout. Contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers were fired on as they crossed a bridge en route to making some repairs. Police escorts returned fire, killing four people. Why did people open fire on the contractors? The WP quotes a witness who calls it, "Shooting just to be shooting." The NYT's summary: "There was no explanation for it, only the numbing facts."

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The LAT leads with the rising death toll, but the papers continue to hold off on a precise estimate of the number of dead. In Baton Rouge, the state's official death toll is 59, but everyone agrees that the real number is probably in the thousands. One morgue was expecting 1,000 to 2,000. The LAT also reports that Americans donated a record $400 million for disaster relief, and thousands of people offered to house refugees.

The WP leads with a banner headline announcing a "scramble" to fill the vacancy left by William Rehnquist, noting in the subhead that Bush is considering nominating Roberts for chief justice. The NYT gets anonymous wind of the same thing, but saves it for paragraph 14. The LAT notes the possibility (but has no specific source) and points out that given the reception so far to his nomination, Roberts' confirmation as chief justice would likely be easy. The move could guarantee a chief justice by the Oct. 3 opening day. Another option is for Bush to revisit the short list he chose John Roberts from, although he's now under more pressure to choose a woman or a Hispanic. The third option is to elevate Scalia or Thomas to chief, which would mean three confirmation battles at once.

All three papers repeat that Bush's poll ratings are at an all-time low: the NYT in its Katrina coverage and the WP and LAT in their Supreme Court coverage. The WP calls this "a perilous point in his presidency," and the NYT points out that Bush's response to Katrina, "widely viewed as slow and ineffectual," might have the effect of "endangering his Congressional agenda."

The WP fronts a separate piece of analysis reporting that "Bush has enjoyed none of the rally-round sentiment that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, as Americans confronted not only tragedy and devastation but also a common purpose in retaliating." In this case, since there is no common enemy, "anger has been focused on Bush and his administration to a degree unprecedented in his presidency."

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The NYT reports that in response to criticism of the federal government's handling of the emergency, the Bush administration "rolled out a public relations offensive," sending Chertoff, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers to tour devastated areas, and putting Chertoff on TV to denounce Katrina as "probably the worst catastrophe or set of catastrophes" in U.S. history.

The NYT fronts a separate story on the "blame game," reporting that the only consensus between federal, state, and local officials is that "the system had failed." But everyone, including Chertoff, seems also to be acknowledging that FEMA should have done better. According to the president of one parish who dramatically broke down sobbing on Meet the Press, Wal-Mart trucks loaded with water were turned away by FEMA officials; the Coast Guard was prevented from delivering 1,000 gallons of fuel; armed guards restored the parish's emergency communications line and posted armed guards to protect it from FEMA workers, who had cut it. Hillary Clinton has a plan to remove FEMA from the DHS and restore it to the Cabinet level.

The LAT fronts a story explaining that FEMA was "MIA" because it has been "hobbled by cutbacks." Another problem is that most of FEMA's budget is for terrorism, not natural disasters, even though local officials have long said that what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents.

The NYT fronts news that a "significant number" of New Orleans residents have refused to leave, hoping to protect their homes or stay with their pets, which are not allowed on evacuation buses. "We were basically forced out at gunpoint," said one resident quoted in the WP. But officials warned that without a reliable source of food or drinkable water, and with the threat of cholera, typhoid, malaria, and West Nile virus, staying put is not a reasonable alternative.

Through the looting glass… The New York Times reports on the pair of wire photos that incited the blogosphere last week. In one photo, an African-American man wading through water carrying groceries is described as "looting" in the caption, but the white couple in the other photo is described as "finding bread and soda." Yahoo posted both photos with unedited captions, and the contrast prompted cries of racial bias. The NYT makes no conclusions, but does note that the parents and grandparents of the photographer who wrote the "finding" caption lost their homes in the disaster, quoting him as saying, "Now is no time to pass judgment on those trying to stay alive."