It’s been five days since Hurricane Ike hit the Texas gulf coast. Millions remain without power. The local, state, and federal governments have clamped a lid on media access and communications to the most affected areas. And the finger pointing for slow disaster response has started. Sound familiar?
Commentary By: Richard Blair
Earlier this year, a cyclone ripped through the Indian Ocean country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The complete casualty figure will never be known, but hundreds of thousands died from the storm, flooding, and lack of basic services following the disaster.
The government regime in Myanmar was strongly criticized for many things in the aftermath. NGOs were not allowed into the affected area for weeks to provide relief assistance. Offers of help from foreign countries such as the U.S. were slow-tracked by the junta. Journalists were not allowed into the affected area to document the devastation. The government of Myanmar said it could handle the situation by itself (although it was plainly clear that this wasn’t the case), and didn’t want interference from outsiders. In a press conference at the White House on 5/5/08, two days after the disaster unfolded, First Lady Laura Bush was among the most critical of the Myanmar junta’s response:
The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta’s failure to meet its people’s basic needs.
I wonder if she would say that about the regime of her own husband, who visited the Hurricane Ike disaster area today, but left without making a statement of any sort.
It’s been almost five days since Ike ripped through southern Texas. This past Saturday, the media was wall-to-wall Ike, as the huge storm came ashore in Galveston, and tore a path well inland through Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. The following day, when media reports started flowing in about blown out skyscraper windows, and power and basic services being knocked out, I had a gut feeling that things were pretty bad. Incidental reports that I was receiving through my own back channels only verified the extent of the damage in Houston.
But precious little information has been coming in regarding the situation south of Houston.
A no-fly zone has been established over the most devastated areas of the barrier islands on the Texas gulf coast, including Galveston, ostensibly “to provide a safe environment for disaster response and relief operations”. The thing is, no one has been able to determine who issued the no-fly order. News organization helicopters and others have not been allowed into the areas, and no media has been allowed in on the ground on the Bolivar Peninsula. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas has clamped a lid on any city officials (other than her and the city manager) speaking to the press. There is even an unconfirmed report that FEMA has restricted all cell phone communications on Bolivar Peninsula.
There’s no indication as to why this media blackout is taking place – but it’s pretty clear – DHS, FEMA and the Bush administration are trying to manage the story. They don’t want another Katrina-style PR disaster on their hands, particularly in an election year. Take a look at this Coast Guard video, shot on 9/12 before Ike came ashore, and you might understand why.
It’s unclear how many people are still without power in southern Texas, but the number is in the millions, as of this evening. No lights, no air conditioning, no refrigeration for food. Gasoline (where available) is being restricted to 5 gallon purchases, at inflated prices. Businesses are closed. Schools might not reopen for weeks (or longer, in the most affected areas).
The finger pointing has already started. FEMA apparently belatedly showed up with manpower, but no relief supplies, and no distribution plan. They blamed the State of Texas. The State of Texas blamed local authorities. Sound familiar?
In the aftermath of Ike, federal and Texas officials blamed each other over delays in getting provisions, water and ice from staging areas in San Antonio and Fort Worth to relief workers and public distribution centers in the storm zone.
After taking criticism from U.S. Reps. John Culberson, R-Katy, and Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claimed the state had failed to provide promised workers to run distribution centers. The supplies eventually arrived, and Houston Mayor Bill White downplayed the dispute as “a little drama.”
And according to today’s Houston Chronicle, FEMA is still “days away” from establishing a “mega relief center”.
It’s apparent that the only thing the Bush administration and DHS and FEMA have learned from the Katrina disaster of 2005 is message control. Maybe they asked for some pointers from the Myanmar junta that they so strongly criticized.
Update: Apocalypse Ike at Crystal Beach, Tx.:
(Found here in a huge gallery of Ike photos you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.)
Update, 9/17: New info – it’s only a matter of time before the pot starts boiling over in S. Texas:
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff returned to Texas for a second time to check on recovery efforts amid growing criticism about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response.
In Houston, most people in the nation’s fourth-largest city remained without power for a fifth day, making it tough to track the latest information on where to pick up supplies. For most, the electricity wasn’t expected back on for at least another week…
Residents again waited in line for hours Wednesday at the nearly two dozen supply distribution centers set up in Houston to hand out food, water and ice. Mayor Bill White complained FEMA wasn’t bringing in the supplies fast enough, and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett had personally taken over coordination of efforts to hand out relief supplies.
FEMA officials in Houston said they were refining glitches in the relief effort and delivering millions of meals and water every 24 hours…
Heck of a job, Chertie.