Monday, September 26, 2005

Reviewing Rita

Hurricane Rita is no more. So now, with a little more than two months left in this dismal Hurricane Season, we can turn back to watching Cape Verde developments, the growing multi-billion dollar scandal over government contracting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Iraq's descent into civil war.


At least one man died on Pensacola Beach Sunday, apparently as he was leaving the water, and several others nearly drowned in the surf. These unfortunate developments ironically came right on the heels of a PNJ editorial praising the SRIA for its decision two years ago to put real money into lifeguarding visitors to the beach (an initiative courageously spearheaded by former SRIA board member Don Ayres).

Rita left at least two dead in Louisiana. That's in addition to the twenty-three who died in the spectacular bus fire during the Houston evacuation chaos. It's likely that even more lives have been lost in the "Cajun swamps of south-west Louisiana."


A photo gallery of Rita damage around Texas and Louisiana is available here at the Houston Chronicle web site. The New Orleans Times Picayune also has more.

Locally, as the Pensacola News Journal reported Sunday there was considerable sand erosion of the beaches -- particularly west down Ft. Pickens Road. Vigorous waves ate at Quietwater Beach on the Sound, too. Rita's outer wind bands easily reached the Pensacola area, ripping into newly-installed siding and other repairs which had just been finished at many homes on the beach, in Gulf Breeze, and in western areas of Escambia County.

Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden says, "For all the punishment that Rita handed out in Beaumont, Port Arthur, Lake Charles and other points northeast of metropolitan Houston, Rita will be remembered by most of the people who live along the Gulf Coast as a near miss." Still, many properties across Texas and southern Louisiana suffered serious flooding, fires, and more. As on-site reporters for the St. Petersburg Times report today --
"While Hurricane Rita may be remembered as just a tepid encore to Hurricane Katrina, a clearer picture of the misery and destruction it wrought on southwestern Louisiana emerged Sunday.

Entire towns were wiped away. Fishing villages were in splinters. An enormous chunk of the heel that makes up the state's boot-like shape was swamped with water.

"This is terrible," said Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, head of the Louisiana National Guard, after a tour of the worst-hit areas. "Whole communities are gone."


For coastal properties in Mississippi and Louisiana -- as Sunday's Pensacola News Journal observed following a group tour -- Hurricane Katrina earlier this month was far worse than our own Hurricane Ivan, never mind Rita:
A group of editors, reporters and photographers from the News Journal did tour the Biloxi-Gulfport coast last week, and absorbed a sobering lesson. As bad as Hurricane Ivan was, there is no comparison between what it did to our beaches and what Katrina did to Mississippi. Not even close.

For those who saw our beaches after Ivan, that might sound shocking, even disrespectful. But the Mississippi coast can only be described as a 50-mile-long Grande Lagoon ... only the destruction is more complete.

Yet as bad as it is, Escambia Sheriff's Office deputies, who have been providing crucial support to law enforcement agencies in the area, say the destruction only gets worse as you go west.

It is difficult to convey the completeness of the destruction in Mississippi from Katrina's storm surge. It is even more shocking when you understand that in Biloxi, just a quarter mile north of the beaches, the damage looks significantly less than what Ivan did here (except in low-lying areas on bays, bayous and canals -- the storm surge overflowed there as well).
Measured against Hurricane Katrina and what Rita could have been had it not weakened and veered away from Galveston and Houston in the last hours before landfall, Hurricane Rita was a disappointment to anyone who was expecting a dress rehearsal for Armaggedon. Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman seems to be among them:
Hurricane Rita barely brushed Galveston and pretty much missed Houston. A little of me was disappointed, I wanted to see what a hurricane felt like, but a lot of me was relieved.

* * *
When this is over, and everybody's home, two things need to be investigated and corrected: Houston's evacuation plans — and television news' role in making us all crazy this past week.

Lessons To Be Learned - Or Maybe Not

Evacuation plans? Most assuredly. The utter chaos attending Houston's evacuation exposed the fact that across the nation large city evacuation and relocation plans are embryonic or nonexistent." Someone urgently needs to find the answer to the question we asked the other day: "Where did all that Homeland Security money go?"

Beyond natural disasters, Newsweek is worrying that the Houston mess also holds disturbing lessons in the event of another terrorist attack. But Armchair Generalist isn't convinced. He thinks "the destructive power of a hurricane is perhaps unique, and an honest assessment of any future terrorist incident will be that the scale of destruction is much, much smaller."

Television Coverage

As for television, most people might agree that it wasn't as sensationally bad as in past storms. Katrina seems to have sobered much of the media.

To be sure, there were a few foolish television personalities -- one hesitates to call them "reporters" -- who went on camera to put themselves, unnecessarily, directly in harm's way. Overall, however, as the Associated Press observes, this time "there was little showboating from reporters."

Shepard Smith won wide praise for his uncompromising Katrina coverage. But even he fell flat at least once, you might say, during Rita:
"Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith was blown over while reporting from Beaumont Friday night. He struggled to his feet in the mud, then held onto a street sign for balance.

"It's just stupid to be out in this," he said.
Calling "stupid" what he was no doubt directed to do by some news producer may be about 'fairest' and most 'balanced' commentary in Faux News history.

One of these days a detached road sign or sharp piece of siding will slice through the air and decapitate someone's blow-dried hair -- live and on camera. No one needs that.

Ratings R Us

It's somewhat unfair to place all the blame for bad TV coverage on television. After all, those TV faces you see being pelted by rain are seeking to dramatize the wind and water for you, the television viewer. "Record ratings" convincingly prove that a great many of you want to see it, probably for the same reasons a great many people go to stock car races hoping, deep down, to see a flaming wreck.

Yes, television can be very foolish at times. In that, however, it merely mirrors our own occasional foolishness.

Perhaps as consumers of television hurricane reporting, we need to be "more better", as George Bush would say.

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