Jan 1 2013

Covering Sandy Relief in Superhero Mode

Residents' criticisms and media portrayal at odds

FEMAAs soon as the water receded from the streets, media trucks and journalists descended upon coastal areas of New Jersey and New York City to report on Hurricane Sandy’s damage. But recovery efforts by public and semi-public officials were slow in developing, leading to a media portrayal of the response that was a far cry from what many residents and activists saw.

Media have two basic narratives for disaster or crisis recovery: the “bungled response” story, which allows them to cover the scandal of an obvious mishandling, such as FEMA’s infamous response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, and the superhero story, which—as after 9/11—celebrates the heroism of the recovery efforts, discounting a few blips and hiccups.

Certainly the opportunity to describe relief efforts as having redeemed themselves from past mistakes, like Katrina, makes not only for good media but for good politics as well. But the Sandy recovery effort was neither a miserable failure nor a heroic success. What’s lost in the simplified media coverage is the ability to tell a more complicated truth.

Three days into the recovery, the Washington Post (11/1/12) announced “positive reviews” for FEMA’s response, in an article filled with quotes praising the “reinvigorated” agency’s “level of agility,” with the only criticism the arguably self-interested claim from Michael Brown, head of FEMA during Katrina, that storm preparations were “premature.”  The Post only took into account the opinions of “public officials” and “experts.”

Similarly, disaster experts on CNN (11/2/12) gushed, “This is the all-new FEMA, and the leadership is very, very good, very focused.” The redeemed-agency narrative was underscored: “Score one for FEMA’s attempts to come back from its infamous failure after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005.”

An early challenge to the response narrative was made in Staten Island as residents complained about the absence of aid (Slate, 11/2/12) and that FEMA was MIA; an outraged borough president took the Red Cross to task for a response described as a “disgrace” (NBC, 11/1/12).

The contradiction of having the Staten Island borough president suggest that people not give to the Red Cross (YouTube, 11/2/12), even as many media were imploring viewers to do exactly that (Washington Post, 11/1/12), was remarkable. CNN (11/2/12) seemed to push back, reporting from Staten Island that a FEMA bus was down the street, “doing everything they can,” and that the Red Cross was “around”… they were “told.”

Had more victims been talked to, and for more than a soundbite, many more might well have reported, as the Village Voice (11/21/12) pointed out, that for them, “the vaunted presence of FEMA and the Red Cross was next to invisible.”

The media narrative could have adapted and focused on these rising voices of concern emanating from the disaster zone. Instead, ABC (11/5/12) chose to embed itself with the official responders when reporting on the official response. CNN (11/18/12) and NBC (11/11/12) addressed the mounting criticism eventually, but only by interviewing representatives for FEMA and the Red Cross and leaving it at that.

Sourcing, then, largely determined whether official response efforts were presented as largely laudable but for a few “snags” (Bloomberg, 11/15/12) or some-thing far worse. So whose story is it?

In local media, representatives of Rockaway, Queens, echoed Staten Island’s criticisms, describing the official response as an “absolute failure” and “an utter disappointment” (Queens Chronicle, 11/21/12). Residents of nearby Broad Channel put up signs that read “FEMA Please Help Us” more than a week after the hurricane.

Those in low-income neighborhoods and public housing projects in New York City relied more on volunteers than on officials for medicine, meals and manpower (Daily News, 11/7/12)—particularly when FEMA shut its doors a week after Sandy hit, due to a snowstorm (Gothamist, 11/7/12).

These substantive indictments matched my experience in my own Queens neighborhood. But perhaps the poor response impressions were exceptions to the well-managed official effort that the media were reporting, and not the majority? I spoke with activists on the ground in Rockaway to get a broader firsthand view.

Milan Taylor, president of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, a grassroots community youth group based in Rockaway that coordinated its own response efforts, described the official response as “very, very slow,” and “unprepared” to meet the needs of residents, the elderly and disabled in particular. And when disaster recovery centers were initially set up, they were miles away from many residents, Taylor explained.

Nastaran Mohit, organizer and medical coordinator with Occupy Sandy, a branch of Occupy Wall Street doing relief work in many of the affected areas since the first days after the storm described the official response as a “complete failure,” and the Red Cross specifically as being “nonexistent” in the crucial first few weeks. When asked if a media narrative of a well-managed response matched her own experience, she responded:

If the media are painting a rosy picture of the response effort…it’s a total misrepresentation…. If you speak with residents, if you speak with people who’ve been on the ground, that does not jibe with that picture.

These grassroots activist efforts got some very positive mentions in national media. Taylor and the RYTF were featured on CBS Evening News (11/7/12). Occupy Sandy’s efforts were covered by the New York Times (11/9/12), though not without the Times (11/16/12) taking an unsurprising dig at a racial divide between volunteers and residents. Other volunteer efforts chronicled by media were positive and reassuring, and marveled at the spirit of help that was emerging in the disaster zones.

But absent from much of that well-deserved praise of volunteer groups was the less heartening conclusion that these efforts were being made at least partly to fill gaps left by an inadequate official response.

Josmar Trujillo, a former FAIR intern, is a student, community activist and freelance writer.