By the nature of our work, we knock people. We knock journalists for falling back on tired and outmoded forms and formats; we knock them for lapsing into “he said/she said” journalism that doesn’t inform anyone; we knock them for favoring easy-chair speculation over the hard work of original reporting; we knock them for focusing on trivia; and we knock them for an aversion to taking on ambitious themes or asking big questions.
So today, at the end of this momentous week, let us pause to offer a little praise to those journalists — and their numbers were ample — who foresaw and warned of the tragedy that has since befallen New Orleans “with a prescience that now seems eerily precise,” as Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten put it today.
In his “Regarding Media” column, Rutten reminds us of the warnings that three major news organizations gave back in 2002:
Three years ago, New Orleans’ leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio’s signature nightly news program, “All Things Considered,” and the New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana’s leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.
As Rutten pointed out, the Times’ Adam Cohen, in his Editorial Observer column, noted in August 2002 that New Orleans was “a disaster waiting to happen. … If a bad hurricane hit, experts say, the city could fill up like a cereal bowl, killing tens of thousands and laying waste to the city’s architectural heritage. If the Big One hit, New Orleans could disappear.”
In April of that year, Jon Nordheimer reported for the Times’ science desk that “levees and luck” were no longer enough, according to engineers, “to protect New Orleans, much of it below sea level, from a devastating flood that could threaten it if a storm surge from a powerful hurricane out of the Gulf of Mexico propelled a wall of water into the lake and the city.”
In September 2002, NPR ran a lengthy two-part broadcast examining what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane hit Louisiana “just right,” which “could cause the biggest natural disaster in America’s history.” As Rutten noted, in the opening sequence reporter Daniel Zwerdling interviewed LSU researcher Joe Suhayda in the French Quarter as he demonstrated how massive flooding from such a storm would reach almost to the rooftop of a building:
Zwerdling: Do you expect this kind of hurricane and this kind of flooding to hit New Orleans in our lifetime?
Suhayda: Well, I would say the probability is yes. In terms of past experience, we’ve had three storms that were near misses that could have done at least something close to this.
Zwerdling: So basically the part of New Orleans that most Americans and most people around the world think of as New Orleans would disappear under water.
Suhayda: It would. That’s right.
More recently, U.S. News & World Report carried a story just weeks ago reiterating the various dangers New Orleans would face from a major storm, remarking that “New Orleans is more vulnerable today than ever.”