And so it was with Hurricane Katrina. In addition to Ad Age turning over its entire front page to hurricane coverage, many of our papers concentrated on the safety of workers in the New Orleans area and how difficult it was to communicate with them.
At Pan-American Life Insurance, staffers took out an ad in the electronic version of The Times-Picayune (the print version was shut down) to let employees know that it wanted to hear from them, Investment News reported. A sales manager told us tracking down workers was like "throwing a pillow at a grizzly bear."
Our coverage zeroed in on how Katrina would affect sales. Automotive News reported that dealers in the area would face hard times with rebuilding and insurance issues and employee shortages. But AN also noted that after Hurricane Charley, Florida dealers saw business improve three months later. "There is a lot of insurance money floating around after the second, third and fourth months," a dealer said.
Crain's New York Business said that although New Orleans canceled conventions there until 2006, a fully-booked New York will inherit very little of that business.
TelevisionWeek, in an editorial, praised TV journalists in the affected communities "who have responded by going far above what we would normally expect." It singled out WLOX in Biloxi, which managed to stay on the air despite 4 feet of water flooding its studio.
RCR, our weekly on the wireless-phone industry, said Cingular Wireless set up free emergency calls at its open company-owned stores in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and that it would deploy mobile calling vans in the area to provide free phone calls.
Our editorial people at Business Insurance were kept especially busy, since Katrina caused huge reverberations in insurance. We reported Katrina would rank as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, more destructive than the four storms that hit the Southeast last year combined. "It's going to be a very long, long process" to adjust the losses, one broker told BI. We printed an interesting chart giving insured losses for major hurricanes. Andrew, in 1992, had losses of $20.33 billion; Katrina is projected to have insured losses of up to $35 billion.
BI editor Regis Coccia told me our publication had a very personal interest in Katrina. "We were anxious about our colleague, Michael Bradford, who lives just north of New Orleans. Mike is fortunately safe, and his house suffered amazingly little damage compared with others.
"As Katrina approached, Mike evacuated to stay with family in central Alabama. His experience in reporting on risk management for nearly 20 years at BI no doubt helped him make the right decision." Regis added that the hurricane season has a couple of months left, and another Katrina may be on the horizon. 2004 showed starkly that storms can strike the same places again and again. "We can only hope that another monster storm doesn't hit the Gulf as it struggles to recover."
While the general press has received plaudits for its heart-rending coverage of Katrina, I submit that the reporting lacked any semblance of balance as to the shortcomings of local government. After all, there was no comprehensive evacuation plan in place nor was there action to mobilize National Guard troops in sufficient numbers to aid in the evacuation. The federal government has taken a big rap (and rightly so) for slow and uneven response, but fairness dictates that the local and state role in the disaster be given equal time, and it wasn't.