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Media Sounded Early Warnings of the Worst

How haunting it must be for a news organization to fulfill its core function by sounding the alarm as the public's watchdog – and then to go unheeded.

Take a look back at the coverage of the threat of flooding to New Orleans by the city's major paper, The Times-Picayune: A five-part series, published in June 2002, clearly set out the likelihood that New Orleans would ultimately be flooded by even a relatively mild hurricane once levees were breached. The series made the case for significant expenditures and a shift in policies affecting development and the environment. Given the past days' television coverage with extensive aerial footage of the flooded communities along the Gulf Coast, the warnings now seem particularly acute.

NPR's 2002 Coverage

(NPR's own Daniel Zwerdling did a similar analysis of the situation in an extensive two-part series that aired on NPR's All Things Considered in September 2002. And U.S. News & World Report revisited it as recently as July.)

The Times-Picayune series by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein detailed how building patterns, the levee system and development generally left the area ever more vulnerable to disaster. (The series spelled out the mechanics of that disaster with an eerie prescience.)

As the two reporters wrote:

Today, billions of dollars worth of levees, sea walls, pumping systems and satellite hurricane tracking provide a comforting safety margin that has saved thousands of lives. But modern technology and engineering mask an alarming fact: In the generations since those [earlier] storms... south Louisiana has been growing more vulnerable to hurricanes, not less.

And astonishingly, they documented how the efforts to protect the area from floods sharply increased the risks.

Sinking land and chronic coastal erosion — in part the unintended byproducts of flood-protection efforts — have opened dangerous new avenues for even relatively weak hurricanes and tropical storms to assault areas well inland.

Here's another excerpt on an aspect of the disaster that, unfortunately, we may be reading more about in the coming months:

In Jefferson Parish, most of the buildings and other property owned by the government are not currently insured at all. The parish could not find an insurance company to cover more than a third of the value of the $300 million worth of property, and the cost of doing that was a budget-busting $6 million in a total budget of $318.5 million...

The fundamental problem with the region is, of course, its very location, picked out by a French explorer nearly three centuries ago. But you didn't have to know pre-Revolutionary American history to know a threat loomed in plain sight. It was spelled out, in print and on the air. As The Times-Picayune put it in a headline back in 2002: "It's Just a Matter of Time."