It was a rough week for the Galveston County Daily News. On Saturday, Hurricane Ike tore off its roof and left reporters with a single cell phone from which to operate, according to the Houston Chronicle:
[Editor Heber] Taylor was blogging as the eye of the storm passed over Galveston Island and the natural gas that powered the generator was cut off. The power went out as Taylor put the period to his last sentence: “We are about to lose contact.”
The newspaper plunged into darkness, and the wind tore off the roof soon afterward, allowing in rain that soaked the interior. The storm surge lapped at the newspaper’s doorstep.
Covering the hurricane’s aftermath brought additional challenges. Literally adding insult to injury, Galveston’s mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas, “on Monday ordered all city employees not to talk to news reporters. She did not say when that order would be lifted,” according to an article by the Daily News’s Rhiannon Meyers:
Thomas and City Manager Steve LeBlanc will be the only officials allowed to talk to reporters But at a noon press conference Monday, Thomas and LeBlanc talked for less than 30 minutes and refused to answer more than five questions. Thomas said she would try to hold another conference today.
Daily News reporters who tried to speak to city employees were denied and told no one could talk except for the mayor and city manager.
A conversation about the complaints of media obstruction broke out on the Society of Environmental Journalists’ list-serv. (It is a private, off-the-record list, but the individuals here granted permission to quote their e-mails.) One reporter, speculating that “something’s definitely up,” pointed out a CNN article from last week, which quoted Mayor Thomas saying, “We do not intend to evacuate Galveston Island It’s the last thing we want to do. Our job is to protect lives and property, [and] right now we feel that sheltering in place is the best action for our citizens to take.”
Hurricane Katrina was proof that such poor advice can come back to haunt a politician. And whether or not Thomas’s earlier decisions factored into her media blackout, authorities are very sensitive to how the public perceives their response to emergencies. On the SEJ list-serv, Dr. William Freudenburg, a professor of environment and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concurred:
I’m not sure what’s going on in Galveston, but as someone who has paid attention to disaster research for a very long time, I can tell you that a secrecy instinct actually a fairly common reaction after a disaster. The people we call “officials” feel they’re supposed to be “in charge,” but they don’t know what the hell to do. So they clamp down, in any way they can.
The Daily News was not the only paper frustrated by obstructions to its reporting. New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Chris Kirkham, who has covered four hurricanes, said in an interview that roadblocks were the biggest impediment to his work. “Usually a press pass gets you through,” he said. But in his opinion local authorities were trying too hard to be “a step ahead of the media.” Earlier this week on the SEJ list-serv, Kirkham wrote:
I was there in Galveston from the beginning, and at one of the earlier news conferences the City Manager said police would take reporters out to certain areas but that “there may be things we don’t want you to see.” Also tried to ban footage of any bodies (though only 5 reported so far).
Of course everyone just went out on their own anyway, but it seemed they were pretty clueless about how to be in the middle of a national story. They also keep restricting access to the heavily damaged west end of the island, for no apparent reason (roads no longer flooded).
Ostensibly, authorities want to exert some measure of information control in order to avert panic and incendiary rumor. As freelance writer Joseph Davis pointed out on the SEJ list:
[I]t’s also interesting to take a few grab samples of the blogosphere-buzz someone referred to — secrecy of course shifts all of us paranoid schizophrenics into overdrive, a category some put me in So far I have read items suggesting that they will be pulling 20,000 bodies out of there, that there is a bio-defense facility on the island, that FEMA has taken over cell phone service there, etc. I know of no reason to think any of these true.