Sloppy thinking can matter more than months of good reporting. In New Orleans, we learned that after Katrina. No amount of solid journalism from the Times-Picayune, NPR, or the New York Times could overcome the perception that a hurricane, and not a massive engineering failure, caused the flooding in New Orleans. It was, people continue to say even today, a “natural disaster.”

Since oil started pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, the New York times has covered the crisis better than any other national outlet. Today, though, the paper added its voice to the growing murmur of spin that casts what happened on that BP platform as a “natural disaster.” In a story on the political implications of President Obama’s handling of the crisis, Helene Cooper writes:

Natural disasters provide great opportunities, or great peril, for presidents. President Bush’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, magnified by his now-infamous “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” praise of his FEMA director, Michael Brown, cemented an impression that his administration failed to act with enough urgency to address the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

This morning I wrote an email to the NYT:

Dear Editors,

An article today by Helene Cooper states that both the BP oil spill and Katrina were "natural disasters." That is false.

The spill and the damage from Katrina, at least in New Orleans, were both caused by human error and engineering failures.

Todd Price

This is the paper’s reply:

Dear Mr. Price:

We are aware that many people want us to make the distinction between Katrina and the flooding.

But Ms. Cooper did not call the flooding in New Orleans a natural disaster. She called the hurricane Katrina a natural disaster. And that is correct: a hurricane is a natural disaster.

I think all the families who were displaced and who lost loved ones would agree that a hurricane did exist.

Best regards,

Greg Brock
Senior Editor/Standarde

I considered many responses. In one of the politer versions, I wondered if Mr. Brock’s failure to address Ms. Cooper’s characterization of the oil spill as a “natural disaster” means that the New York Times stands by that description?

I also wanted to point out to Mr. Brock that a hurricane is actually a storm and not a natural disaster. Hurricanes often make landfall without causing damage that anyone would call disastrous. In fact, if our levees had worked as designed, that’s exactly what would have happened in New Orleans.

In the end, what’s the point of a response? I don’t have the impression Mr. Brock is looking for a conversation.


57 Responses to

  1. This is a very very interesting letter from Greg Brock, Senior Editor/Standarde.

    He reveals that “many people want” the NYTimes to make a distinction between Katrina and flooding. But notice he did not say “flooding of New Orleans.”

    To my knowledge NO ONE contests that Katrina was a natural disaster in Mississippi. But in New Orleans, nearly everyone agrees the flooding was civil engineering failure (the levees)

    We note that Ms. Cooper was careful to describe Katrina in general terms not relating to New Orleans. We believe that was intentional. That is walking the fine line.

    In closing, maintains that, in New Orleans, saying Katrina flooded New Orleans is like saying traffic broke the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. Both Katrina and the traffic exposed structural flaws and blatant civil engineering mistakes.

    Sandy Rosenthal, wife, mom, Who-dat and founder of

    We close by saying that for Cooper to call

  2. This arrogant fop more than just “Walked the Fine Line”,
    he committed the Fallacy of Equivalency, the Straw Man and Begging the Question in his hubris-encrusted statement:
    [I think all the families who were displaced and who lost loved ones would agree that a hurricane did exist]
    Yes, well, I’d wager nearly all of those same families would agree that that hurricane missed New Orleans and devastated MS.
    If Brock wants to walk such a fine line, it could be argued that a Hurricane is only a Natural Weather Event and the Disaster comes as lagniappe after Man-Made Structures fail to take that into their design as in New Orleans and as well the BP Oil Disaster.

    To allude even tangentially to either man-made disaster as a “Natural Disaster” is to lie in the face of facts.
    And I know an Editor wouldn’t want to do that.

    Thank you for running this!

  3. Kevin says:

    “I think all the families who were displaced and who lost loved ones would agree that a hurricane did exist.”

    What a coincidence. I think all the families that were displaced and that lost loved ones would agree that Greg Brock is a snotty sonofabitch.

  4. Kevin M. says:

    It’s funny because the passage in the paper was only a little annoying; just sloppy writing, perhaps. But, Brock apparently decided to double-down on the stupid, and throw in a little condescension for good measure. I would bet that this is not the kind of defense Ms. Cooper would want.

    There was an easy response to your complaint which was: Fine, maybe it should have said “disasters” and not “natural disasters.” But, the point remains the same: They provided opportunities or peril.

  5. Roy Arrigo says:

    For Mr Brock to make such insensative statement about people who lost all their earthly possessions, even their loved ones and neighbors, he must have a heart made of a natural material….stone.

  6. Leslie Lopez says:

    He really needs to get his facts together.

  7. Leslie Lopez says:

    He really needs to do his research/Leslie

  8. Eileen O'Sullivan says:

    Thanks for sharing awareness of this goof(Both the statement and the person). I think what we’re up against is the unshakable arrogance of the New York Times, the reason so many people hate the Mainstream Media. Once they’ve made a statement, you couldn’t torture a retraction or admission of error out of them, no matter how far astray they are.
    But we’ll all keep refuting their error every time they print it: Katrina was a horrendous storm in Mississippi, but really skirted New Orleans. What flooded N.O. was an engineering failure, brought about partly by years of diverted funding — a bit of corruption a serious newspaper would have exposed long before there was so much damage.

  9. Gerry White says:

    Wow, that Greg Bock! What a master logician! His implied syllogism: “a hurricane did exist”; a flood followed that hurricane; therefore the hurricane caused the flood. Greg, if you apply to your own life that same razor-sharp reasoning and commitment to fact, you will become, if you have not already, a natural disaster yourself.

  10. Lillian Orlando says:

    Greg Brock seems to have chosen to remain ignorant. If he can’t differentiate between hurricane damage and insufficiantly built levees that failed and caused major flooding he’s also stupid. Our city survived Katrina but not the Corps of Engineers.

  11. Why should any one be surprised at at the New York Times lack of accuracy and ignorance in reporting the news. Lets start with the man made oil spill. Did the NY Times raise the question as to where was the Obama administration’s EPA prior to the drilling and after the disaster in terms of response time and mandating redundant fail safe systems in deep water drilling? Mr Bock’s article reflects a lack of competency and reinforces the demise of the NY Times due to ongoing customer loss and readership. Both disasters are the result of incompetency of engineering and government.

  12. Clay Waggenspack says:

    If Editor Greg “All the News that’s Fit to Print” Brock had been alluding to a natural disaster that had skirted Manhattan, followed 24 hours later by a flood resulting from a quarter-century of Corps of Engineers incompetence and neglect, and had that flood,centered at Times Square, caused as much death, despair, and desolation as afflicted us, surely he would have been less cavalier and heartless in his flippant closing paragraph.

  13. Eric Swanson says:

    Mr. Hoyt,

    Katrina was a natural disaster along the coasts of Mississippi and Lousiana, but not a disaster in New Orleans.

    When trees fell onto and into houses in Mississippi this was a natural disaster. The ocean storm surge that wiped Mississippi coastal houses off their foundation was a natural disaster.

    In metro New Orleans, the hurricane caused minor wind damage. The hurricane moved north and New Orleans had survived the hurricane.

    After the hurricane passed the levees failed. The levee failure was a man made disaster of poor engineering and false government promises.

    Katrina massacred the coast, but spared New Orleans.

    To generalize the completely different experiences of the Mississippi/Louisiana Coast and metro New Orleans is just plain lazy reporting. While it is easier to lump these two different things into one, it is your responsibility to understand the differences and report them accurately.

    Do you truly not understand the difference between a hurricane wiping out the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the levee failure in metro New Orleans? Do you not understand the different times these two separate disasters took place? I ask because I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

  14. Johni Prinz says:

    As a child I would rather have thought that NYT was once again foolish in its choice of words. Since I am an adult I can assimilate.
    This will never be allowed to happen. This newspaper spin to see if it is still too soon to start rewriting the real fate of New Orleans.
    We will NEVER allow you to REWRITE this history as you are already trying to do re: offshore today.
    If you NYT editors cannot distinguish between natural and man-made perhaps its time to close shop. After all you are supposed to be capable of reporting news AS IT HAPPENED, not rewrite it. This is not journalism 101.

  15. Chere Coen says:

    Greg Brock missed his calling. He needs to be working for insurance companies.

  16. The oil disaster is crazy because the leak is so deep. I hope BP do all against the spread of the oil. The nature will be destroyed for a long time.

  17. I’m glad that BP is finally starting to get the spill under control.

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