Katrina Produces Its Own Wizard of Oz

After every natural or man-made disaster, relief workers need back-up generators. Journalists, on the other hand, need something slightly different:

Great quote generators.

Enter, to the delight of a quote-starved press corps, one Aaron Broussard.

Over the past week, Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish (just south of New Orleans) and a former Democratic candidate for governor, has become a ubiquitous component of hurricane coverage. He has popped up in dozens of publications, ranging from the Boston Globe to the Irish Times; made dramatic radio addresses; and, most famously, cried on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Reporters’ first clue that Broussard was a master of the memorable quote actually came in the days before Katrina’s arrival, when he told Newsday and others, “I’m expecting that some people who are die-hards will die hard.”

A few days later, the hurricane hit. Journalists suddenly found themselves in need of good quotes about the damage. Broussard’s engine was humming.

On September 1, Broussard told the Toronto Star that “They’re walking in here like zombies, like The Night of the Living Dead. Their basic jungle instincts are taking over because they have not eaten for days.”

That same day, Broussard provided the St. Petersburg Times with another colorful anecdote. “The situation had become so dire in nearby Jefferson Parish,” wrote the paper, “that parish council President Aaron Broussard announced he was declaring it a separate country named ‘Jeffertania,’ in hopes that would speed up federal aid.”

Great stuff. But Broussard was just warming up for NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he delivered his most dramatic performance to date: “Nobody’s coming to get us,” sobbed Broussard to Tim Russert. “The secretary has promised. Everybody’s promised. They’ve had press conferences. I’m sick of the press conferences. For God’s sake, shut up and send us somebody.”

Broussard may have been sick of press conferences — at least, press conferences featuring anyone other than himself — but the press was hardly sick of him. The next morning, while clips of his tearful plea ricocheted around cable television, Broussard appeared in three separate stories in the New York Times. In an article on the political fallout from Katrina, the Times devoted an entire paragraph to some of Broussard’s more striking stories from his appearance on “Meet the Press.” “When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water,” the Times reported, “FEMA officials turned them away, [Broussard] said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish’s emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.”

A few columns over, Broussard was adding energy to Alessandra Stanley’s rundown of television coverage of the hurricane at the same time that he was lighting up the Timespage one overview, which grabbed onto yet another sampling of Broussard’s “Meet The Press” material. ”We have been abandoned by our own country,” Broussard was quoted as saying. ”It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now.”

That same day, as residents returned to the parish to survey damage and gather up what belongings they could, Broussard provided a welcome back address for a consortium of local radio stations. Once again surrounded by microphones, Broussard generated another classic. “This is not the world that you knew from the Jefferson Parish that you left,” Broussard said. “Go back to the movie ‘Wizard of Oz.’ Dorothy’s hugging Toto. We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

No, we’re not. We’re in Jeffertania. Or perhaps, Broussardania.

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.