FEMA Puts, Then Lifts, Gag Order on Katrina Victims

A reporting team for the Baton Rouge Advocate was booted out of a FEMA trailer park; the agency says it was a misunderstanding. Will FEMA’s new rules help?

It began earlier this month, when the Baton Rouge Advocate sent reporter Sandy Davis to a FEMA trailer park in Morgan City, La., to do a story about why a $7.5 million, 30-acre park, constructed to house those made homeless by Hurricane Katrina “remains almost empty three months after being built.” As Davis was interviewing park resident Dekotha Devall, a security guard knocked on the door of the trailer, demanded that Davis leave and prevented her from giving Devall her business card so they could speak further. Davis wrote that the security guard told her, “residents aren’t allowed to talk to the media in the park.”

Davis then visited another park in Plaquemines Parish, “where 242 new travel trailers in a FEMA park in Davant recently were empty,” where security guards ordered her and a photographer to talk to no one and take no pictures.

CJR Daily contacted the Advocate’s Davis on Tuesday, about an hour before she was scheduled to speak with FEMA representatives concerning the rules regarding reporters. She said that after getting the boot, she and the photographer she was working with assumed it was just a big misunderstanding, and that “we thought that once we called FEMA, they’d be outraged, but not only were they not shocked, they said that was their policy.”

“The reason FEMA gave us [for restricting access] was the Federal Privacy Act, but we’ve yet to figure out how it applies to the parks,” she said. “They say they’re protecting the privacy of the other residents of the park.”

Pat Philbin, FEMA’s director of communications, told CJR Daily Tuesday that “the original policy was to have public affairs people facilitate interviews, and this was interpreted literally,” by the security officers. Effective yesterday, he changed the policy.

The rules were that once a reporter signed in at the front gate, she or he should be allowed “unescorted entry” to the site, but even getting to that point required some effort. “At no time,” the rules read, “will FEMA grant any media outlet ‘blanket’ approval to come on site at media discretion.” What’s more, media outlets were required to “contact the FEMA News Desk to provide notice of their intended visit,” and once the request was approved, the outlet would then be contacted to confirm the date. If a reporter showed up unannounced, “they are to be directed to the PIO of that area, the Area Field Office in that area, or the News Desk.”

Given those restrictive rules of engagement, it’s not hard to see how a by-the-book security guard might apply them a little too forcefully.

The original media ground rules for those FEMA sites, while not restricting reporters outright, smack of the rules embedded reporters have to follow while on a military base. Worse — according to Davis — the rules weren’t even disseminated to many reporters until after the incident at the park in Morgan City.

Philbin said that when he was made aware of Davis’s experience (after the Advocate published two stories and an editorial about FEMA’s policy over the past 10 days), he scratched the rule that reporters had to make appointments. Now, as long as a reporter shows credentials and a photo ID, he or she can “sign in and sign out with our security people there, and the press can knock on trailer doors and if people want to talk to them, they can.”

Of the original policy, Philbin said that “I don’t think it was done initially with any sort of malice or forethought that we were trying to restrict the right of people to express their concerns, or quite frankly, to keep people away. The original intent, as I understand it, was to help protect some privacy concerns for people on public assistance.”

The new rules, which Philbin provided to CJR Daily, allow reporters unescorted access to the sites and the people living there, and “The fact that a public information officer is not available cannot be a reason to deny media access to the group site.”

For her part, Davis said that she hadn’t made a prior appointment with FEMA to visit the site, and didn’t identify herself as a reporter at the front gate (since she was never told she needed to). She had been invited by a resident of the park, and thought that was enough.

As for the new rules FEMA adopted yesterday, it did not provide the Advocate with a copy, through the two sides did talk about the issue. CJR Daily forwarded our copy along to Davis.

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