A week or so ago, those who run the city of New Orleans and the federal rescue effort there said The Big Easy would be closed for three-to-six months and the death toll could top 10,000.
Some businesses reopened in The French Quarter today and some estimates on the death toll now put the number below 1,000.
So, what changed in a week?
Hysteria lessened and reality set in.
Let’s not underestimate the devastating damage that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the Crescent City and other parts of the Gulf Coast. We’re talking major league disaster here: Too many deaths, homes and cities destroyed and damages in the billions.
But the post-hurricane hysteria blew more hot air than the storm itself, from the shrill finger-pointing and blame game to the over hyped estimates of death. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin led much of this hysteria, claiming 10,000 or more bodies lay rotting in the flood waters. Others chimed in with estimates of months, perhaps even years, before residents could return to their homes. One environmental group predicted the city would become a toxic waste site uninhabitable for decades.
Nobody, it seemed, escaped the disease of exaggeration and stupidity when it came to talking about New Orleans.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush should have kept her mouth shut but, instead, told an interviewer that the people who suffered lack of food and water, flooding and backed up toilets in the Superdome were still “better off” than their poverty-stricken lives at home.
Then Louisiana Republican Rep. Richard Baker told a lobbyist in Washington that “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
You have to wonder how people who put their brains on hold could get so far in politics. On second thought, we learned long ago that a functioning brain was neither necessary nor an asset for a political career.
Unfortunately, those who make decisions for what passes as “news” in today’s 24/7 glut of cable news, talk shows, blogs and Internet news sites apparently checked their brains at the door as well.
From a hysterical Anderson Cooper standing knee deep in water and crying in front of the camera on CNN to those constantly crawling news banners hyping inflated estimates of the dead, the news networks turned hurricane coverage into a sideshow, complete with freaks and “believe it or not” minutes.
The graphic and disturbing images coming out of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast told the story. We didn’t need the hysterics of wannabe news anchors seeing the disaster as their ticket to the big time.
When the flood waters finally recede and we get an official count of the dead we can start the long, painful process of rebuilding homes and businesses and repairing the lives that will be altered forever by Hurricane Katrina. And we can take the steps necessary to make sure screw ups like this never happen again.
But let’s do it with facts. Let’s do it with reason. Hysteria only confuses the issue. Exaggeration only delays the process. And partisanship will only doom whatever chance we have to actually learn from the mistakes.