With the second anniversary of the disaster approaching (the hurricane crushed New Orleans late August 2005), and the Army Corps of Engineers report noted in The New York Times last week that said “large swaths of the city are still likely to be flooded in a major storm,” the Current wondered: Was the news service a casualty of Katrina fatigue, or, like *Road Home and other programs meant to rebuild the Gulf Coast, was its funding source unreliable?
Project Manager and investigative journalist Jenni Bergal talked via phone from Washington D.C. about her one-woman effort to produce Katrina Watch (with the exception of those six months when a research librarian helped out) and City Adrift, a new book she and six other journalists wrote about the botched local and federal response to the catastrophe.
On the cancellation:
Well, we didn’t cancel `Katrina Watch` all of a sudden; we gave about a week’s notice. I was laid off from the center, along with others. It was for financial reasons, not performance reasons. The reason is because the funding ran out — it ended. We kept it going as long as we could, but the funding was only for a specific period of time.
And the penny pinchers were …
`The Florence and John Schumann Foundation — currently named the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy` funded Katrina Watch and the book. There was a specific period and it ended … That decision was above me. There was just no additional funding available.
On whether or not the porch light is being turned off as Gulf Coast evacuees still look for a home:
Being a journalist, I cannot give you my opinion, but I have seen that is a common feeling among a lot of evacuees looking to Washington for federal aid, those waiting for housing, permanent housing, rebuilding money, those living in FEMA trailers. I think there is a feeling among many evacuees that they are being forgotten.
On where all the TV news vans went:
Coverage has died down somewhat since the one-year anniversary. But there are still great stories being done about the aftermath, partly in local newspapers like the Times-Picayune, The Advocate, and the Biloxi Sun Herald, as well as the national media, which has set up many bureaus with local TV. But, by and large, after a certain amount of time, the media move on to cover new stories.
On moving on to cover other stories, too:
I think the Katrina Watch newsletter served a good purpose for those trying to follow up across the country. I’ve received a lot of letters from people who were subscribers who were upset by the cancellation, some from Houston who relied on Katrina Watch. It was nice and heartfelt, and I feel it served its purpose.
On City Adrift:
The book continues to place emphasis on Katrina and the people who were affected. It goes into what went wrong and that this could happen again, anywhere in the country. It puts a spotlight on policy-makers, especially when it comes to preparing for disasters.
There were seven investigative journalists and each of them examined part of an area related to Katrina: health care, emergency preparedness, social services, and many others. We examined these things during and after the storm.
Prior to the storm, they looked at the preparedness. Many areas had audits before, Congress even tested them and they examined problems with each system and what needed to be changed — then Katrina struck.
Now everyone is scrambling when the problems had been exposed prior to Katrina. The system failed during Katrina. It was not something new and we felt they needed to re-examine how they reacted to these areas.
Federal, local, and state governments, as well as private systems — It’s important to know how well-prepared they are.
On saying goodbye:
I found all the stories and I produced all of them … Katrina Watch was my baby.
* The U.S. News & World Report says the federal, state, and local institutions along the coast are still duking it out over billions of dollars in federal aid: Due to miscalculations for the expected number of applicants, Road Home, the federally funded assistance program for evacuees, was $3 billion short on payouts, leaving 100,000 accepted applicants in limbo. On June 5, Road Home unvieled a new plan, adding an extra $300 million for property-owner assistance. (The news is changing every day, without Katrina Watch how will we keep up?)