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From The New York Times - 2 September 2005

Cameras Captured a Disaster but Now Focus on Suffering

By Alessandra Stanley

A woman in a wheelchair, her face and body covered by a plaid blanket, dead, and left next to a wall of the New Orleans convention center like a discarded supermarket cart. There were many other appalling images from Hurricane Katrina on Thursday, but that one was a turning point: after three days of flood scenes, television shifted from recording a devastating natural disaster to exposing human failures.

All morning, cable news networks showed scene after scene of victims, most of them black, stranded without adequate food, water or shelter, helpless and enraged. Outrage was also in the voices of television reporters on the ground, working without satellite trucks or car batteries and trying to describe the scenes of misery and chaos. Even the network anchors dispensed with neutrality to register their dismay. Brian Williams anchored a special one-hour edition of "The NBC Nightly News" in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La., telling viewers that his news division had determined it was not safe to be in New Orleans.

Those on the scene concurred. "There is nobody in charge," said Chris Lawrence of CNN, describing the despair and lawlessness in and outside the convention center. "It's a complete free-for-all."

It was as those images of mounting desperation and disorder began dominating the screen that Washington suddenly seemed to snap to attention. The mounting indignation on the ground spilled over into a televised appearance by Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security. As Mr. Chertoff tried to reassure viewers that the federal authorities had matters under control, CNN and Fox News split the screen and had him speak alongside images of stranded refugees, looters, and a bare-chested man, knee-deep in water, battering a store window with a baseball bat.

Normally, hurricane stories are mesmerizing because they give us a sense of control. The queasy thrill of looming disaster is usually mediated by famous anchormen ritually rigged out in waders and slickers, reporting over gale winds. Even the montage of familiarly strange images - the whirls of a satellite map, shattered houses, felled trees, the sirens of hastening fire trucks, neighbor helping neighbor and officials numbingly reciting the emergency procedures - tamps down fear. We've seen it before, and we know how it ends.

But after three days, Hurricane Katrina still looked nothing like what Americans are used to seeing. The morning began with reports of people shooting at rescue helicopters. In New Orleans, cameras recorded dead bodies in the street, old people and children left unattended and pitiful groups of refugees wading through contaminated water, clutching plastic garbage bags. Hoda Kotb, an NBC reporter, sounded bewildered as she described a sea of stranded victims, including a woman with a 10-day-old baby. "It's a scene out of another country," she said.

At times, the scenes on television were so woeful they looked as if they could have been filmed in a former Soviet republic or Haiti. And that was how television correspondents put it. "This is not Iraq, this is not Somalia," said Martin Savidge of NBC. "This is home."

Even some of the coverage was unusually primitive. In a nation that put live cameras on the space shuttle and into combat in Iraq, film crews were unusually hamstrung. The news channels had to work around power failures, disrupted cellphone service and lack of fuel to maintain contact with correspondents and producers. A lot of the images were fragmented and confusing, underscoring the raw magnitude of the disaster. "We were expecting a naval armada," said Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor reporting from Louisiana. "It hasn't happened."

The image of helplessness was one the White House worked hard to defuse, vowing to restore law and order and politely declining offers of aid from overseas as unnecessary. The networks broke into their regular programming to broadcast President Bush's reassurances to the nation; he was flanked by his father and former President Bill Clinton. Later, the two former presidents spoke in a CNN interview with Suzanne Malveaux. Mr. Clinton could not suppress a smile as he reported that the ambassador from Sri Lanka had offered to coordinate the tsunami countries to raise money for the Katrina victims.

By late afternoon, there were images of helicopters landing and convoys of military trucks and volunteers unfolding green cots in the Houston Astrodome. But emotions and frustration were still running high. On CNN, the normally unflappable Wolf Blitzer was not mollified: "So much is not being done for these people."