It was November 4, 2005, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Wilma, a wicked blow sometimes overlooked in the wake of Katrina’s devastation, but a storm that nonetheless left six million people without electricity and thousands homeless. Post-hurricane rainstorms in South Florida brought down trees and weakened power poles, while blowing poorly secured tarps from hurricane-splintered roofs. The water damage was devastating.
I was interviewing Mary Bello, an articulate 88-year-old widow, in her leaking top-floor condo in a sprawling senior housing complex called Century Village west of Boca Raton. Water was trickling down the indoor walls of her apartment as workmen pulled out sodden carpet and set up giant industrial fans. "Why are you staying here when the sign is posted downstairs that says there may be electrical hazards because of water in the walls?" I asked her.
"What am I supposed to do?" she asked, incredulous at my question. "Where do I have to go? I don’t have a car, I can’t afford a hotel, and they’re already closing the shelters."
Bello lives in Century Village along with hundreds of other seniors, many in their 80’s and 90’s, with their nearest relatives in New York or New Jersey. Most rode out the 2005 hurricanes in their modest condos, which are among the more affordable housing units in increasingly affluent Palm Beach County. Red Cross volunteers delivered bottled water and emergency meals to them, but now, nearly two weeks after Wilma, they were scaling back their operation as "things returned to normal."
Normal became a highly relative term in South Florida. Typically it meant electricity was slowly being restored and downed power poles and trees removed. But the lives of Bello and her neighbors were still far from normal. When would their building be safe? When would they live under a roof more solid than the thin blue tarp that workers tacked to the building before they disappeared? On that day, no one could answer these questions.
Nor could I answer them now, since I never returned to Century Village because I was soon assigned to interview Katrina victims who had fled New Orleans and were being housed in a large horse-training facility and putting their kids in schools in western Palm Beach County. Like the Red Cross and power company repair crews, I and other reporters moved on.
The poor and elderly, struggling to live on limited incomes, suffer a double whammy when hit by unpredictable hurricane winds and flooding. It must be little solace that the authorities advised them in advance of the storms to prepare by stocking seven days worth of food, enough prescription drugs to last for several weeks, emergency medical supplies, bottled water, plus fresh batteries for flashlights and radios. When evacuations were ordered, they were advised to flee with those supplies, a full tank of gas in their car, and plans to stay with relatives or in hotels out of harm’s way.
At first blush, that might sound like a reasonable plan to young, well-educated reporters who sprung mainly from the middle class and are eager for a major hurricane assignment. But how reasonable is it for an elderly person, who lives alone and spends almost every dollar of their Social Security check on housing, prescriptions and food? How doable is it for a single mother with a couple of preschool children who takes the bus to work, gets food stamps to help feed her kids, and whose medical care is paid for by Medicaid (if she qualifies) because her job at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s doesn’t include health care benefits? Economically and politically marginalized, the poor have little choice but to stay put, ride out the weather, and hope for the best.
Remembering the Poor
Last year, with its record 27 named storms, 15 of which were hurricanes — several of particular ferocity — proved most unkind. These storms brought plenty of news to keep journalists busy and inspired in some cases excellent coverage such as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s scathing, nationwide FEMA investigation and The Miami Herald’s revelations that repeated cuts in federal funding for the National Hurricane Center have hampered its capacity to predict hurricanes’ paths and severity.
But during last year’s storms, when the incredible damage was being well reported and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of the human tragedies shot, how many editors thought of assigning reporters to spend time with poor families or elderly people as they prepared for a predicted hit by a Category 4 or 5 storm? And how many journalists — not to mention editorial writers — in Florida questioned Governor Jeb Bush’s reasoning as he calmly urged Florida residents to take "personal responsibility" when preparing for approaching hurricanes?
Perhaps the governor’s guidance, by itself, should have prompted editors to assign a story looking at what personal responsibility in hurricane preparedness actually means to poor, disabled or elderly people. Where are people on limited incomes supposed to get the resources to purchase an extra week’s worth of food and emergency supplies if a storm approaches at the end of the month, as did Katrina, Rita and Wilma? Most likely, their food stamps had been spent earlier in the month. And what about the elderly whose first-of-the-month Social Security checks might not afford an unplanned trip to the market and pharmacy?
In the previous issue of Nieman Reports, journalists eloquently recounted experiences covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Their words spoke to what I’ve noticed while covering hurricanes in Florida, and these observations, if heeded, could offer us guidance for future coverage of disasters, whether they involve nature’s fury or more predictable crises whose impact will be differently experienced by those of varying economic and social backgrounds.
The poor and near-poor tend to be clustered in areas most vulnerable to flood waters. And once their homes and neighborhoods are damaged, these communities don’t return "to normal" with the same speed as nearby, more well-off areas do. With the devastation of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward — and the debate about rebuilding it — reporting has made this set of circumstances become quite obvious to most Americans. But this situation was evident, too, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992, when Homestead, Perrine, Naranja and other small towns south of Miami with high concentrations of low-income Americans and migrant workers were totally devastated, and rebuilding was delayed in some cases for more than a decade. And this awareness did not translate into more attention being paid to these poorer communities as other storms have approached.
As television brought the devastation of New Orleans into most American’s homes, these circumstances have been amplified. Within a short time, reporters were explaining to many who never thought much about why a poor urban family who relies on public transportation might not have been able to get out of the area before the waters rushed in.
But this retrospective dynamic of our coverage — addressing such fundamental issues only after disaster has struck — repeatedly causes journalists to miss, or belatedly discover, similar angles in other major news stories. For example, who are the people who lose out in the new Medicare drug program? Who serves disproportionately in high-risk military assignments? Whose jobs are outsourced first?
The unfortunate reality is that American journalists do not systematically or analytically cover the plight of the poor, the marginalized, the isolated, or the powerless. When we put together elaborate hurricane coverage plans, organize medical beats, determine Iraq war coverage, or decide on approaches to stories about globalization of the economy, our focus generally is on implications for the affluent and what "experts" have to say, while keeping a watchful eye on breaking news.
Perhaps last year’s unprecedented hurricane season can convince us to factor in the life circumstances and needs of poor and low-income people as we think about coverage of disasters, natural and man-made. To try to avert massive tragedies like those experienced by so many New Orleans families stranded on rooftops or abandoned for days in the Superdome, journalists should draw attention to the obvious fault lines that exist in how well various communities are equipped to respond to an impending disaster. This can be said of hurricane preparedness, but also of potential spread of diseases, such as bird flu, or of how a community could respond to a terrorist attack. As journalists, poverty, disenfranchisement and isolation are as important for us to examine before tragedies strike as they are for us to scrutinize after the harm is done.
Jane Daugherty, a 1984 Nieman Fellow, is a four-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for coverage of the disadvantaged. She covered the impact of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma last year for the Palm Beach Post and recently joined the faculty of Florida International University’s School of Journalism as associate professor.