Blackout and Brownout

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 13 2005 3:46 AM

Blackout and Brownout

The Washington Postleads with a New Orleans catchall, headlining the 45 bodies found at a city hospital. President Bush's visit gets second billing. The Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox and USA Todaylead with now-former FEMA chief Mike Brown bidding adieu. The New York Timesleads with the non-news from Judge John Roberts' confirmation hearings where, as the Post puts it, "Roberts was largely a bystander." Senators speechified, Roberts demurred, and generally no news was to be had. "I have no platform," said Roberts. The Q&A segment begins tomorrow. The Los Angeles Timesleads with much of L.A. losing power after some schlubs at the local utility mistakenly snipped a line. Power was restored in most places within about an hour.

The official appointed to at least temporarily replace Brown, R. David Paulison, is a former fire chief and has plenty of emergency-preparedness experience. The NYT notes that when Bush was asked about Brown's resignation, he did not offer an expansive answer. "Maybe you know something we don't know," he said. (An aide later said the president didn't know the news was public.) Asked about the government's response to Katrina, Bush declined to respond, adding, "Don't ask me again." The Post offers the latest poll measuring the president's approval rating at a record low, in this case 42 percent.

It's not clear when the patients died at the New Orleans hospital. A spokesman for the hospital, which never flooded, said "some" died before the storm. The LAT gets the most detail, talking to some hospital staffers who suggested that most if not all not died while waiting for evacuation. Helicopters arrived often, but they were dropping evacuees off, not taking them away. "We couldn't understand why nobody was coming to help us," said one nurse. The NYT talks to a doctor who spotted "several" bodies at another hospital.

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With the focus on the horrific find at the hospital, the larger context gets short shrift:  Searchers are still turning up very few bodies."It's hot. It smells. But most of the houses we are looking at are empty," one Guard soldier told the Post. (The NYT is an exception, with a piece inside on the lack of bodies.)

The LAT points out that the water level in many parts of the city is dropping sharply. A few neighborhoods that were in feet of water Sunday were basically dry yesterday.

The LAT goes on a chopper ride with a top Army Corps of Engineers official who said there is far more damage to the levee system than most think. In one eastern flank levee meant to protect against hurricane-generated storm surges, repairs could take years. "It is literally leveled in places," said the official. That means the city will be exposed to any category hurricane that rolls through.

Hot TP story tip: According to the latest from Solid Waste & Recycling (really), there is or perhaps now was a toxic waste landfill under part of downtown New Orleans. The Superfund site is right next to one of the levee breeches, meaning the toxins could have mixed in with floodwaters. Bonus material: The Times-Picayune's environmental reporter has been asking the EPA for data on what's in the floodwater and has been met with silence. "They basically are stonewalling me," he told a colleague.

A front-page Post piece flags concerns that FEMA is going to be in over its head in awarding relief and rebuilding contracts. "They've never spent anything even remotely on this scale," said one government auditor. "There are going to be fraudsters coming out of the woodwork." The agency has already taken heat for awarding millions in questionable payments for Hurricane Frances.

Previewing the coming congressional hearings on Katrina, the Journal notices some of the cuts FEMA faced in just the last year, including "$20 million for catastrophe planning, and $15 million to set up a center to help state and local emergency managers better understand new federal disaster-response management requirements."

USAT fronts a poll showing big racial disparities in views on the response to Katrina. Asked whether the president "cares about black people," 67 percent of whites said yes, 72 percent of blacks said no. (The paper doesn't offer pre-Katrina numbers.) A WP poll has nearly two-thirds of black respondents saying race played a part in the government's response; just over 70 percent of whites said that wasn't the case.

The Journal notices that Republican congressional leaders have put on ice plans to push for extending the president's tax cuts.

With the U.S.'s move in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar billed as the largest offensive since Fallujah, most of the papers are reporting on it from ... Baghdad. The exception is the Post, which files a dispatch from the city, and it's not pretty: Most of the "Iraqi Army" forces seem to be relabeled Kurdish militia. Meanwhile, in some neighborhoods, the U.S. took "every military-age man into custody." An informant then walked around deciding who could go free by pointing his thumb up or down. Such informants have something less than a perfect record. "We almost never get anything good from them," said one GI. "I think they just pick people from another tribe or people who owe them money or something."

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.