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FEMA bans Katrina Photos
Morth Jersey.com
Friday, September 9, 2005

The Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't want the news media photographing dead bodies in New Orleans. A FEMA spokeswoman told Reuters that "the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect." It's a little late to talk about dignity and respect.

The world watched in horror and disgust at the poorly coordinated relief efforts mustered by FEMA and state and local rescue agencies.

People with money, cars and good health fled New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. That left a city full of the poor, disabled and elderly. They could not get out before Katrina and they cannot get out now. Many of them are floating inside homes or through the streets of New Orleans.

More than a week after the storm hit, rescue workers are arriving at nursing homes, discovering bodies. They discover evidence that residents did their best to stave off the rising water. They could not. And they died where they were.

It is not just nursing homes. Other bodies are trapped in attics. The aged dead were left in wheelchairs with a note attached, letting whoever finds them know their identity.

Inside the Superdome, evacuees huddled with rapists, drug addicts and the dead. The dead were everywhere. It is almost comical that FEMA would talk about treating these victims with dignity and respect. FEMA did not afford the living dignity and respect; that is why there are bodies floating today.

New Orleans is not Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The federal government cannot block news media from doing their jobs. FEMA can deny photographers a spot on their rescue boats. But the media can get its own boats. It is important that all the horrors of New Orleans are documented. It is essential that the World According to FEMA is exposed as fiction.

Photographers since the Civil War have captured images that scared us, scarred us and horrified us - scenes from battlefields, from prisoner of war camps, from the Nazi death camps, to the brutality of Vietnam to the devastation of tsunamis.

These photographs did not disrespect humanity - the wars did that, the natural destruction of earthquakes, floods and fires did that.

There are parallels to the Bush administration's ban on photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover. The administration wants to hide death. It does not want the public viewing a sea of red-white-and-blue coffins. FEMA is equally uncomfortable with images of a veritable sea covering much of New Orleans, dotted with floating bodies. The living waited for help that did not come. Now, as the dead, they wait for retrieval.

There is no dignity in such a death. Hurricane Katrina is not equal to Sept. 11, as some suggest. It insults the victims of both catastrophes to equate them. Sept. 11 was a man-made apocalypse. Katrina was a natural disaster made worse by incompetent leadership.

President Bush's prior response to failures in his administration is to publicly laud the person responsible for the failure. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice became Secretary of State; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stays in charge at the Pentagon. Yet Rice failed to recognize the warnings about al-Qaida and Rumsfeld failed to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. The buck stops at the Oval Office. Bush is responsible and he must hold federal employees accountable for this massive failure. Officials at FEMA should be fired, starting with its director Michael Brown.

The president has not been camera shy since Katrina hit. Photographs of Bush leaning toward a window on Air Force One looking pensive as he surveyed damage were spun out to the media. The president posed with grieving victims of Katrina days later. The first lady has been photographed. The president's mother Barbara Bush managed to one-up her son for gaffes by saying that since the majority of storm victims were poor, living as refugees in a football stadium was really a step-up.

Photographers must chronicle all of this - the destruction, the heroes, the rescues - and the dead. FEMA's call to respect the dead by not photographing them is hypocritical. The moral high road washed away early last week.

Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of the Herald News. Reach him at doblin@northjersey.com

Tough call? Maybe. But I think we should see war dead and the dead caused by hurricanes as long as we show respect for the dead--which means we don't have to show their faces etc. If we can watch cities being blown up, or destroyed by hurricane, we can see an unsanitize version of that reality.