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:
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.
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.
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.