New Orleans Paper Worries that Media Attention Might Drift

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By: E&P Staff

For more than a week, the Katrina catastrophe has drawn the full, almost undivided, attention from the press. But now the waters are starting to recede and the helicopter rescues dwindle, leaving some in New Orleans, such as the city’s main newspaper, worrying that media attention may begin to fade as issues surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court and other subjects gain force.

In an editorial today, the Times-Picayune itself turned to the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but closed with this plea: “The existence of two simultaneous Supreme Court vacancies is a rare event, one that could well divert attention from the catastrophe that is still unfolding on the Gulf Coast. For a number of news organizations, the chief justice’s death turned news about Katrina’s aftermath into a secondary story.

“This is a worrisome sign. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and other elected leaders — along with anyone else who cares about the fate of New Orleans and the rest of the state — must keep pressing for relief, no matter how contentious the battle over Chief Justice Rehnquist’s replacement.”

Once again, the newspaper published a print edition out of its new home in Houma. It reportedly distributed 60,000 copies on Monday.

One story highlights the grim task remaining. Its opening section follows.

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Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks stepped through the food service entrance of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Monday, flipped on the light at the end of his machine gun, and started pointing out bodies.

“Don’t step in that blood – it’s contaminated,” he said. “That one with his arm sticking up in the air, he’s an old man.” Then he shined the light on the smaller human figure under the white sheet next to the elderly man.

“That’s a kid,” he said. “There’s another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut.”

He moved on, walking quickly through the darkness, pulling his camouflage shirt to his face to screen out the overwhelming odor. “There’s an old woman,” he said, pointing to a wheelchair covered by a sheet. “I escorted her in myself. And that old man got bludgeoned to death,” he said of the body lying on the floor next to the wheelchair.

Brooks and several other Guardsmen said they had seen between 30 and 40 more bodies in the Convention Center’s freezer. “It’s not on, but at least you can shut the door,” said fellow Guardsman Phillip Thompson.

The scene of rotting bodies inside the Convention Center reflected those in thousands of businesses, schools, homes and shelters across the metropolitan area. The official death count from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana was 71 as of Monday evening, but that included only those bodies that had been brought to a make-shift morgue in St. Gabriel.

Nearly a full week after Hurricane Katrina, a rescue force the size of an invading army had not yet begun the task of retrieving the bodies Sunday. What’s more, officials appeared to have no plan.

Daniel Martinez, a spokesman for FEMA working on Interstate 10 in eastern New Orleans, said plans for body recovery “are not being released yet.”

Dozens of rescue workers questioned Monday said they knew of no protocol or collection points for bodies; none said they had retrieved even one of the many corpses seen floating in neighborhoods around the city as they searched for survivors.

Scores of rescue workers this week repeated the same mantra, over and over: We can’t worry about the dead; we’re still trying to save the living.

But as rescue teams across the city said they had checked nearly every house for survivors, the enormity of the death that lay in Hurricane Katrina’s wake came into sharp focus even as the plans for taking care of the dead remained murky.

Mayor Ray Nagin, addressing the potential body count for the storm for the first time, said the storm may have claimed more than 10,000 lives.

In a news conference Monday morning, Deputy Chief Warren Riley said his department was “not responsible for recovery.”

“We don’t have a body count, but I can tell you it’s growing. It’s growing,” he said.

As the rescue missions covered more and more ground but yielded fewer survivors, New Orleans Police Deputy Chief Steve Nicholas said that the time has come to start dealing with the dead.

“I know we’re still rescuing people, but I think it’s time we start pulling out the bodies,” he said.



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