The Los Angeles Times Adds Another Piece to the Puzzle

We’ve written a few times over the last week about the hard task facing reporters in finding out just how the government failed — at all levels — to both anticipate and react to Hurricane Katrina. Along the way we’ve noted a couple stand-out examples of reporters doing just that — pulling back the curtain on the decision-making process from the local level all the way to the top of the political food chain.

Today we were pleased when we found another excellent story about the federal government’s decision-making process in the Los Angeles Times; the only problem was that it was buried on page A18.

After some thorough research, reporters Peter G. Gosselin and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar wrote a compelling piece headlined “Limiting Government’s Role” (subhead: “Bush favors one-time fixes over boosting existing programs to help Katrina victims”). One of the most eye-opening revelations is this gem:

Two days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced plans to issue emergency vouchers aimed at helping poor storm victims find new housing quickly by covering as much as $10,000 of their rent.

But the department suddenly backed away from the idea after White House aides met with senior HUD officials. Although emergency vouchers had been successfully used after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the administration focused instead on a plan for government-built trailer parks, an approach that even many Republicans say would concentrate poverty in the very fashion the government has long sought to avoid.

And what of this plan? The Times reports that in lieu of offering victims those $10,000 vouchers, FEMA is paying as much as $16,000 per trailer in the parks it is building. “Even many Republicans, the reporters note, “wonder why the government would want to build trailer parks when many evacuees are now living in communities with plenty of vacant, privately owned apartments.” Good question, but before the Times posed it, not many even knew that it was out there to be asked.

The piece makes the heretofore unmade point that the White House, going against proposals floated by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, is thus far declining to make use of long-established programs that normally deal with housing and healthcare. Instead, “the president has generally tried to create new, one-shot efforts that the administration apparently hopes will more easily disappear after the crisis passes.”

That the story ended up on page A18 isn’t the end of the world, but it is a shame. Granted, a newspaper’s top editors must make quick decisions about where to place stories that come flying at them fast and furious late in the day — and on this day we were not privy to their decision making process — and to be fair, it was a busy news day at the Times. Above the fold on page one (and rightly so) are two stories dealing with the evacuation of the Texas coast in preparation for hurricane Rita. Below the fold are five other stories, including one on the JetBlue landing gear saga from Wednesday, and one dealing with further mismanagement at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. Both are first-rate tales. But it still seems hard to believe that, faced with seven slots, editors at the Times couldn’t find a place on page one (or two or three) for the work of Gosselin and Alonso-Zalvidar.

That said, hats off to the Times for publishing this well-reported story at all — no one else has — and an extra tip to the two reporters who dug up some new, and very important information on a national story of vital importance.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.