National News Coverage of Tropical Storm Barry Is Its Own Disaster

Yesterday, “America’s weatherman,” Al Roker, provided some unsolicited advice to the good people of New Orleans: If he lived here, he would “make plans now” to evacuate. It’s a good idea to be prepared to evacuate any time you find yourself located within a potential hurricane’s “cone of uncertainty.”

It’s a bad idea for people in New Orleans to listen to Al Roker instead of the actual experts on the ground in Louisiana, and it’s an even worse idea for people like Al Roker to imply, as he did, that they have a better understanding of the situation than Mayor LaToya Cantrell or Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Right now, as Barry marches on its path toward Morgan City, the wind is beginning to pick up in New Orleans, but the only people who want us to panic seem to be those who think the main lesson of Hurricane Katrina was that the city should have evacuated more quickly.

New Orleans, of course, did not flood in 2005 because it was hit by a hurricane. It flooded because the federal government’s levee protection system failed. The catastrophic flooding began after Katrina left.

Both CBS and CNN have emphasized the possibility of Barry being a bigger rain event than Katrina. But rain didn’t cause the city to flood; levee failures did.

If New Orleans is decimated by a slow-moving tropical storm, it will have absolutely nothing to do with the reason Al Roker thinks. Ironically, the flash flooding that occurred on Wednesday- more than seven inches of rain in an hour- ended up proving the city’s pumping system is performing well, which should be reassuring and not a reason to panic.

The reason the city received such a deluge is a different story, but, apparently, it’s not polite to talk about climate science in a state dominated by Big Oil and the petrochemical industry. So, the official version remains what it always has been: This 301-year-old city was built in the wrong place. Pay no attention to the fact that this flooding occurred in parts of the city above sea-level.

Al Roker is not a meteorologist.

Al Roker has never lived anywhere even close to the Gulf of Mexico. He is, however, second cousins with Lenny Kravitz, and Lenny Kravitz once owned a house in the French Quarter.

I’m singling out Roker because he calls himself a weatherman, but he isn’t the only national reporter who has completely misrepresented the on-the-ground reality.

This morning, MSNBC reported that New Orleans was “already underwater.” Not true. And it’s not just standard sensationalism.

No one is predicting the levees will breach, but, once again, the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t been inspiring confidence. And the confusion and ambiguities they created are the pretense currently being used by the national press to still cite the wrong numbers.

No y’all. No one thinks the water could rise to more than 20 feet.

Thus far, though, the Washington Post failed the most spectacularly, publishing a brazenly false story that suggests some sort of mass exodus is currently underway. Their story was so egregious that it merited a response from the City of New Orleans:

To fully appreciate the absurdity of WaPo’s presentation here, you have to see the featured image that accompanies the headline:

Those aren’t anxious residents fleeing the city; they’re two white tourists dudes rolling their suitcases outside of Brennan’s, a fine dining restaurant, in the French Quarter. Oh, the humanity!

There are notable exceptions: The New York Times smartly scooped up two veterans of the Times-Picayune to work on their coverage; it also helps that Dean Baquet, their executive editor, is a New Orleans native.

However, they’re the exception to the rule.

We understand why the nation’s attention is on New Orleans right now, and it’s something we all welcome. But if you’re here to cover a potential hurricane flooding New Orleans and you’re already lying about the weather outside or suggesting there’s some sort of mass exodus underway, you’re not interested in getting to the real story. You’re just here to film some disaster porn and leave as soon as possible.

We learned countless lessons fourteen years ago, most of which have been forgotten already. But we’ve known one thing for certain: There’s always a story in Louisiana.

The New York Times should bring back on a full-time New Orleans correspondent, and if the Washington Post is committed to never again making the same embarrassing mistakes, then they need to set up a New Orleans bureau.

This weekend marks the first major test of the John Georges’ mega-paper, which he is calling three different things but we will henceforth refer to as the Times-Picayune, and thus far, they have done a spectacular job.

As was the case in 2005, our local media is providing national reporters with a master class in how to report on an incoming hurricane.

Take notes y’all. This is a test you cannot afford to fail.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar White, Jr. is an award-winning writer and the publisher and founder of the Bayou Brief, Louisiana’s only statewide news and culture publication. Born and raised on the banks of the Red River in Alexandria, he is a proud product of the Louisiana public education system and a graduate of Rice University in Houston and SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas. Lamar has been writing about politics and public policy in Louisiana for twenty years, beginning as a weekly youth columnist for his hometown paper, the Town Talk. After earning his undergraduate degree in English and Religious Studies, Lamar moved back to Alexandria, where he launched a popular blogsite, CenLamar, and worked for five years as the Special Assistant to the Mayor. He exposed significant problems with Louisiana’s school voucher program, which resulted in a series of other investigations and ultimately in the removal of several schools from the program. He was the last person to argue online with Andrew Breitbart. He investigated and then broke the report that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had once attended a white supremacist conference. He was the first to share a photograph of Bobby Jindal’s portrait in the state Capitol. He exposed U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s incomplete timesheets while the then-representative moonlighted as a physician. He earned headlines in Texas after the gubernatorial campaign of Greg Abbott falsely claimed he had been exploited as a “campaign prop” by Abbott’s opponent, Wendy Davis, and after exposing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for relying on online “bot farms” to counter Beto O’Rourke, and he earned headlines in Mississippi after publishing videos of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making bizarre comments about public hangings and voter suppression tactics which were both perceived as racist. Lamar was the recipient of the 2011 Ashley Morris Award, given to the writer who best exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans, and in 2019, he was honored as one of Gambit’s Top 40 Under 40 and as the year’s Outstanding Millennial in Journalism at the annual Millennial Awards. He has been the subject of profiles in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Above the Law, and the Advocate and has appeared multiple times as a guest on CNN and MSNBC. Lamar currently lives in New Orleans with his two golden retrievers, Lucy Ana and Ruby Dog.