Disaster Coverage Blind Spot For Low Income Victims
Days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, the national news media expressed collective alarm at the discovery that in modern America, many people shelter in place during storms for the simple reason that they can’t afford to get out (Extra!, 7–8/06). As CNN commentator Jack Cafferty (9/1/05) said, in the wake of scenes of poor New Orleanians trapped at that city’s convention center with no food amid the bodies of their dead neighbors:
Many of them didn’t follow the evacuation orders because they didn’t have the means to get out of town. They just couldn’t do it. A lot of them are sick. A lot of them don’t have cars. A lot of them just didn’t have the means to leave the Big Easy.
Numerous media outlets (e.g., CNN’s Reliable Sources, 9/18/05) vowed to do better in the future—though within months, reports on poverty and the poor had retreated to background levels, and CNN(2/27/06) was approvingly reporting on how New Orleans had ripped out the carpet at the convention center to “[bring] it back ahead of schedule,” even as at least half of the city’s actual residents remained displaced.
Twelve years later, as Hurricane Harvey has wreaked devastating flooding across southeast Texas, reporters’ ability to notice the nearly one-third of Americans living in or near poverty has again been put to the test. And though direct comparisons with Katrina are tough—Harvey is a different storm, playing out over days of rising waters instead of mere hours, and Houston chose not to call for residents to evacuate as New Orleans did in 2005—news coverage has revealed some of the same blind spots that have plagued reporting on previous natural disasters.
The slow progression of floodwaters made for plenty of ready-made drama: At times, CNN seemed to have converted itself into a 24-hour rescue network, with tales of narrow escapes and heroic first responders. And as more deaths have been discovered, including a mother who died trying to save her three-year-old daughter from floodwaters (Washington Post, 8/30/17), much coverage has focused on these stories, with investigations of the storm’s broader impacts having to wait.
Much of the more in-depth coverage has focused on the floods’ impacts on the aged and infirm, like the nursing home residents who were rescued after the daughter of one tweeted a photo of her walker-bound mother in waist-deep water (USA Today, 8/27/17). CNN (8/29/17) reported on how “there are still plenty of people back there who either didn’t want to leave or haven’t been able to leave,” focusing on two wheelchair-bound Houston residents, one who was rescued by jet ski, another whose fate was unknown.
But if the elderly got special notice in Harvey coverage—rightly—there was relatively little focus on another group that is especially susceptible to natural disasters: the poor.
“Whatever the inequalities of your society, those are very often replicated in the disaster,” says Jacob Remes, who teaches disaster studies at New York University. This plays out in several ways, he says:
People who have more money are likely to have friends who have more money, and so when they have to stay with friends, they’re going to stay in a guest room. When poor people have to evacuate, they stay on a floor or on a couch—and that’s if they’re lucky.
During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, when his college shut down for two weeks, “it was like a two-week vacation for me”—but “for people who work hourly, they were out of money.”
To discover what Harvey has meant to south Texas’s low-income residents—nearly 600,000 Harris County residents live below the poverty line—one had to read carefully between the lines. The New York Times followed up its in-depth report on storm survivors (8/27/17) with a long, sympathetic report (8/28/17) on residents temporarily being housed in Houston’s convention center.But aside from the former story’s brief mention of an immigrant hotel worker who’d waded through waist-deep waters to get to her $10-an-hour hotel job, washing and ironing sheets and towels—and who, in the Times’ description, “seemed to epitomize Houston’s work ethic, its resolve and its shock”—the paper paid little attention to the wherewithal of those fleeing the storm or why they were there. The Times (8/27/17) did send a reporter on Saturday, as Harvey first hit, to report on homeless Houstonians trying to ride out the storm under flood-prone highway overpasses, but never followed up to see how they’d fared once the waters rose.
One question that reporters could easily have asked Harvey survivors, but generally did not, involved flood insurance. Only 17 percent of homeowners in affected counties have flood insurance, according to the Washington Post (8/29/17), while CNN (8/29/17) pegged that number at 15 percent. (No one seems to have asked about renters, who may lose to flooding both their personal possessions and, significantly to their economic well-being, their cars.)
The Associated Press (8/29/17) managed to write an entire report on Texans lacking flood insurance without talking to a single resident (it did note that “people in those areas and near them have complained for years that the premiums are too high,” without elaborating), while the Washington Post (8/29/17) worried only that “Houston’s middle-class homeowners are unlikely to have the savings or insurance to rebuild, and that could have devastating consequences for years to come.”
Largely uninvestigated in Harvey coverage, meanwhile, were the reasons why Texans might be deciding to go without flood insurance. The cost of the federal National Flood Insurance Program, the most commonly used policy, has been on the rise thanks to an increasing number of damaging storms that has drained the program’s finances (New York Times, 4/7/17; The Hill, 8/30/17) —a result of both stronger storms thanks to climate change, and increasing development sprawl that has left more residents in the path of danger. President Trump has proposed cutting funding for updated flood maps that would let residents know their risk and thus their need for insurance, a cost that the National Flood Insurance Program is likely to pass along in the form of higher insurance premiums (Forbes, 3/18/17); Just days before Harvey made its first landfall, Trump’s FEMA administrator, Brock Long, endorsed the idea of requiring either policyholders or state and local governments to take on higher costs of flood insurance (Bloomberg, 8/23/17).
“Houston is the fourth-largest city, but it’s the only city that does not have zoning,” explained Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard on Democracy Now!. “And what it has is—communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution.”Another disaster impact that falls unevenly on the poor is environmental. Even before the explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Democracy Now! (8/29/17) noted that neighborhoods near petrochemical facilities, according to environmental justice activist Bryan Parras, were “literally getting gassed” by effluents from shuttered oil refineries. A Houston Chronicle map (8/31/17) shows how petrochemical facilities are clustered on the city’s poorer east side; these largely low-income neighborhoods already suffer from high rates of respiratory disease and cancer (The Nation, 6/3/14), as well as high unemployment as both residents and businesses have pulled up stakes and fled the recurrent toxic fumes, leaving behind those who can’t afford to relocate.
By contrast, most mentions of the petrochemical industry in Harvey coverage have been regarding its possible impact on car drivers in the rest of the US: As CNN’s Alisyn Camerota (8/29/17) put it, “The torrential rain and catastrophic flooding impacting America’s oil industry in a big way, and that means higher prices at the pump for you.”
Virtually every news outlet (e.g., Washington Post, 8/28/17; Wired, 8/28/17) devoted attention to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to call for residents to evacuate—noting the lessons learned from Hurricane Rita in 2005, when dozens of people died on the roads during an evacuation panic. But few noted the problems faced by those who might want to evacuate, but lacked cars or the money for gas or a place to stay—though the LA Times (8/28/17) did note in passing that one reason not to call for an evacuation was that “the city would also have to scramble to transport the poor, the elderly and the disabled who did not have cars.”
In fact, remarkably few outlets investigated people’s reasons for staying put, financial or otherwise. A Guardian report (8/30/17) on Cajun Navy volunteer rescuers who had trouble convincing residents to be evacuated by boat never asked any of those declining help why they were choosing to stay put, despite reports that floodwaters could rise another four feet. A Vox report (8/25/17) on the eve of the storm, meanwhile, elaborated multiple possible reasons people might choose to remain in harm’s way, including disabilities, fear of looters or not wanting to be separated from pets—but not lack of a car or other resources—before spending much of the article discussing ways to frighten people into leaving, including using markers to write Social Security numbers on their skin so their bodies can be identified by search and rescue teams.
“Most reporters don’t understand what it’s like to live under severely constrained economic circumstances—and media rarely help people learn such things,” says Stephen Pimpare, a University of New Hampshire professor who has authored several books on Americans’ attitudes toward poverty. “So they are baffled by some people’s inability to do what, to them, seems easy and obvious.”
There were some improvements over Katrina coverage, which was notable for reports, later revealed to be unsubstantiated, of widespread violence and looting. When ABC News reporter Tom Llamas (Twitter, 8/29/17) reported on “looting” at a Houston supermarket—and then noted seemingly in passing that a dead body had been discovered nearby—he was lambasted on social media, and in several news reports (MarketWatch, 8/30/17), and even columnist Becket Evans of the conservative Washington Examiner (8/29/17) cited “Christian theology” as justification for taking another’s property when in fear for your life.
“I think there’s been a lot of realization that that rhetoric of dangerous, animalistic people in New Orleans was seriously harmful, because it kept away real aid,” says Remes, noting that he’s seen articles for journalism students on this very subject.
Some of the most incisive reporting, meanwhile, came from the international press. The BBC (8/27/17) reported on residents of “hardscrabble” Rockport who were hit by the brunt of the storm, unable to flee because, as one resident said, “I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come home and, you know, tough it out.”Looting panic did break out in some corners of the media, but remained relatively contained. Both Fox 5 San Diego (8/28/17) and the Daily Caller (8/28/17) repeated the Facebook claims of Clyde Cain of the Louisiana Cajun Navy rescue team that thieves had tried to make off with one of their boats—a charge that other news outlets revealed to be unconfirmed (Miami Herald, 8/29/17). The Houston Chronicle (8/29/17) reported without questioning statements by Houston Police Officers Union vice president Joe Gamaldi that looters had fired shots at police and firefighters responding to the scene, which also turned out to be unverified.
The Atlantic (8/27/17) was one US-based exception, noting that “while many South Texans evacuated North per the recommendation of Gov. Greg Abbott, poorer or disabled residents may not have had the resources or the capability to follow that advice,” and pointing out that poorer residents tend to be concentrated in areas more prone to flooding.
Poor people being subjected to misery, of course, aren’t news in the same way that the wealthy are. The New York Times (8/31/17), in a puzzling article headlined “Storm With ‘No Boundaries’ Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike,” reported on two flooded-out Texans, one a working-class construction worker, one a well-off doctor. While the Times briefly noted that “there are huge differences between the options open to the poor and to the well-to-do”—the doctor has savings and flood insurance, the construction worker does not—it concluded that “the devastation is connecting people of disparate means in one common experience: loss,” leaving readers with the impression that the true tragedy here was that the flooding hadn’t spared those with expensive homes.
And on Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News, 8/29/17), correspondent Trace Gallagher remarked over footage of flooding that the damage included “hundreds of houses in a very upscale neighborhood here in Lake Houston,” where “400 people [were] taken out on rescue boats.” Carlson’s response: “And not just people, but deer.”
In fact, there were occasions throughout the Harvey disaster where animals appeared to be getting more attention than poor people. NBC News (8/30/17) and Fox News (8/30/17) were among the outlets reporting on pet rescues, while an image of a dog named Otis carrying a bag of scavenged dog food went viral, with the pooch being called “sweet” by AOL.com (8/29/17) and “resourceful” on the Today show (8/28/17). No outlets, at least, accused Otis of looting—if that’s progress, we’ll have to take it.
Research assistance: Gunar Olsen