Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

Eye On The Hurricane

by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondnet
Lake Worth, Fla.

Printable version of this story

LAKE WORTH, Fla., Oct. 30, 2005 -- "After Al Roker fell down, the national story was over. It's as simple as that."

Richard McFadden is talking. He has produced most of the major radio talk shows in the United States. From his Washington, D.C., studio yesterday he explained why the national news media has virtually ignored the first week of post-Wilma disaster recovery in South Florida.

"Listen, it's Rosa (Parks), Harriet (Miers) and Scooter (Libby), and if there's a hurricane story, it will be Katrina aftermath in New Orleans," he explained. "After (NBC-TV Today Show meteorologist) Al Roker fell down, the national story was over."

He was referring to the mandatory television network stand-upper where reporters are seen swaying in the breeze. As Wilma made landfall Roker slipped while being held by a technician and was blown to the ground in the wind. Since most of us either had no tv, or a 2" battery-powered black-and-white set with a fuzzy picture, not many local residents saw his spill, but it apparently was aired over and over again.

No one has ever accused me of having a small ego, but I'll save my own bona fides for the end of this column. I'll also send a copy to Editor & Publisher, the Bible of the newspaper industry, and see if they pick up on any of my thoughts. I tend to doubt it.

You watch tv (when you have power), and perhaps read your local newspapers. [Editor's note: Currently, 1.7 million residents of South Fliorida are without electricity ion the aftermath of HurricaneWilma.]

I'll ask you to go through the items below and decide whether you think any or all of these are worthy of wide national print and broadcast coverage.

I opened the sometimes maligned but widely considered national paper of record this morning: the Sunday New York Times.

As I scanned Page One and found no relevant headlines, my eyes brightened as I spotted a Boca Raton dateline. Nope. No hurricane aftermath, only a story about how rich people here in Palm Beach County and elsewhere can "buy" private "concierge" or "boutique" medical services dfor anywhere from $1,500 to $20,00 a year.

To be sure, the inside news hole of the Times had hurricane coverage - two stories about New Orleans.

Try this on for size: on its best day, the City of New Orleans and its contiguous suburbs had perhaps 550,000 residents. More than six million residents of southern Florida were impacted by Wilma.

A copy editor for today's Palm Beach Post hit the nail on the head with a poignant headline that explained the problem: "Destruction but not Devastation."

Those killed are in the dozens, not the hundreds.

Houses completely flattened are in the hundreds, not the thousands.

People whose jobs, schools, schedules, and futures have been torn apart are in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions.

"I had no idea! I couldn't reach friends in Boca, but after the first day, I had no hint of the extent of the trouble," Manhattan realtor Anita Gross told me in a phone call. "Still no electric? I didn't know that!"

Schools: Tomorrow morning the sixth-largest public school district in the United States begins a second week with no classes. About 100 of our 172 schools are without power, without secure rooftops or walls, with structural cracks, serious landscaping hazards and problems, or all of the above. Of the 180,000 public school students, the tens of thousands who rely on a free breakfast and nutritious lunch must fend for themselves.

Electricity: Florida Power & Light brags that 50 percent of the people impacted now have electricity. Duh? Factor out small rural counties, and in the hardest-hit counties, Broward (including Fort Lauderdale) and Palm Beach, only 30 percent have been restored.

The Palm Beach Post Page Two gossip columnist reported today that the CEO of FP&L was given a performance "bonus" for his dismal job of restoring power after four hurricanes last year. But this did not stop him from putting a big, fancy emergency generator in his own mansion in Palm Beach Gardens, installed by his own employees, the paper said.

For the third time in Palm Beach County in 15 months, FP&L trucks rolled immediately after the storm - not to repair anything, but to "perform macro damage assessments" and come up with a "schedule" for restoration. This, despite the advice of commissions and committees (and their contingency plans) that studied previous hurricane hits up the wazoo.

For most of southern Palm Beach and northern Broward Counties, "95 percent of service will be restored by 22 November," FP&L says. The police chief of the ritzy town of Palm Beach simply told residents, "Go north and don't come back until after Thanksgiving." Today, more than a million Floridians have no power.

Seniors: "There are 70,000 residents of Century Village in Boca Raton who came to Florida to share the American Retirement Dream. For 20,000 of the poorest, or least healthy, or least ambulatory, or perhaps the most proud and stubborn of them, it has become a year-'round enclave whose nasty critics refer to as "God's Waiting Room."

Pinkie and his wife Sadie live in the Brighton area of "the Village." I'll spare their children (who may or may not be around, except for a free room enroute to Disney World each year) their last names. They are neighbors of my mom.

They live on the third floor and are entering week number two with no elevator and no air conditioning and no electricity. They are both age 90.

Pinkie, a former prize-fighter who is healthy and feisty, drives to nearby shops for food and ice for the neighbors. He still works part-time as a "bag boy" at a local Publix Supermarket.

His building looks okay, but two other Brighton buildings have crumbling walls - serious damage - and exposed, ripped, and demolished corner apartments. A local legislator had a friend across the state in Sarasota donate a truck filled with $25,000 worth of ice to hand out to residents. The Red Cross (after four days) brought food to the area "clubhouse."

No one with a sound truck announced the arrival of the food, and anyway many residents are homebound, or had no gas or even strength to get the food. Some local residents are helping, but not enough.

In one town to the north, Delray Beach, the Huntington condos are seven stories highh. Paramedics have rescued people door-to-door. Some people were suffocating in hot, stuffy apartments with little or no food for a week. In posh Boca, some neighborhoods have sewage backing into the streets as generators that are running sewage treatment pumps run out of diesel fuel. I guess CNN missed that one.

A county emergency “preparedness” spokesman had the "chutzpah" to dress down a local reporter who reported parks and beaches were closed. He insisted, "All parks and beaches are open! Only the ocean (now blanketed with raw sewage along the coast) is closed!

Official Relief: Gov. Jeb Bush, by some accounts the Republican presidential nominee-wannabee, looked as if he might just lose his bladder with glee on tv the night before Wilma hit Southwest Florida.

Everything we would want or need was stockpiled near the old Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. Florida was ready to roll. In reality, it was ready, shoot, aim.

When I went to Pompey Park in Delray Beach the day after Wilma's landfall for ice, I arrived at 9:24am for a 2 p.m. distribution. The Florida National Guard arrived for traffic control at 10am. After several excuses, at 3p.m. a FEMA worker told us that this same location for the past four hurricanes was "under contract" to the American Red Cross, which said the ice was sent to Jacksonville (six hours to the north) by mistake.

On radio, a Red Cross spokesman said no fuel was available for trucks or generators to keep the ice cold. That excuse was shot down on tv by groups of drivers who said they had plenty of fuel but were told not to leave the staging area. (Four days later, 80 Wal-Mart drivers with ice and water told newsmen the same thing).

By 4:30p.m and facing a 7pm countywide curfew, almost everyone went home. The same "song and dance" heard in Katrina was echoed by the governor. He basically told residents, "Well, even with the best planning, no one can respond to a storm for the first two or three days."

Why not?

Phones? What Phones?: Through twisters in Kansas, blizzards in Boston and tremors in Sausalito, you can usually rely upon your local dial tone. Not in Florida.

In Palm Beach County, as week two post-Wilma began, 600,000 Palm Beach County residents had no landlines at home. Cell phones were hit or miss. My Cingular/AT&T account connects once in every three calls. The others invite me to pay $2.99 a call and $1.99 per minute through some system in the Bahamas.

BellsSouth reports it doesn't have fuel and generators to keep backup batteries charged much past one or two days. Many residents last year finally got electricity only to find their home phones went dead. Communications Workers of America union members hit by downholds and cutbacks worked 12-hour shifts trying to restore service. In the age of telecom deregulation, they seemed to be losing the battle as well as the war. Private Relief: As landfall-plus-one day dawned, the Publix supermarket on Federal Highway and Camino Real in southernmost Boca Raton had a full parking lot. Employees had left their own damaged homes and opened the store for non-perishables. Managers and stock boys brought bread, batteries, candles, and charcoal to the front of the store. Every single register was working.

A decision was made to use emergency power for ATM and credit cards, rather than conveyor belts or full lighting. Anticipating community needs, a reasonable $75 cash-back limit was placed on debit cards. Some Winn-Dixie Stores, like Publix a Florida-based chain, also opened quickly.

The Business of Stupidity: Many local companies took full-page ads in local newspapers to thank employees, empathize with victims, or give instructions for insurance claims, auto adjusters, etc. Most banks and insurance companies have taken the high road.

I don't have the rate cards handy, but it looks to me as if Bank of America needs a course in low finance. They apparently paid somewhere between $50,000 and $80,000 this weekend to inform us (yes, I'm one of their customers) that they had donated $100,000 to the Red Cross to help the recovery effort. Maybe they should have just taken the $180,000 and told their local executives to go into their branch's neighborhoods and show the world that they can actually serve coffee and doughnuts every day in a setting other than their fancy lobbies.

Another Level: I guess London's Financial Times, which still turned up on my lawn every morning at 5 a.m., or the Wall Street Journal and CNBC doesn't consider this stuff national news, but the Albertson's supermarket chain (hurt by smaller margins and Wal-Mart Supercent competition that has put it on the merger-and-acquisition track) took hurricane relief to a new level of excellence.

Their store on suburban Lantana Road got some power back the day after Wilma, making it the only food store operating for about eight square miles around it. When the curfew was lifted at 5 a.m., some employees who had spent the night working in the store were already in action. The manager, shouting through cupped hands in a darkened store at 6 a.m., walked the front of the store as people stumbled in, calling out: "We have no ice! We have no ice! What I was able to do last night is run some generator power to the ice freezers and we tried to freeze about 1,000 gallon jugs of drinking water. I'm sorry if not all of them are frozen hard, but grab what you need."

At checkout, people expected to pay $1.64 for a bag of ice. "No way. Sixty-nine cents. It's just a frozen jug of water," the clerks told customers.

Local residents were able to chill coolers for insulin and other medications and prrishables, with these handy blocks of ice. The store also found cases of Parmalat skim and whole milk in premixed quart boxes.

By the end of the week they had commandeered a large Albertson's shipment of Coleman propane two-burner cooking stoves, which they sold at the regular $59 price. This morning, there was no ice or jugs of frozen water. A man who another employee said was a regional manager was unloading lamp oil, and when questioned told me, "We're trying to re-stock. We made a corporate decision to pour every ounce of people and merchandise into this store, 'round the clock, for six days. We are physically drained. Many other area stores are now open and picking up the slack. I still have 26 other stores in my area that either because of generation problems or physical damage I still cannot open. We've got some disappointed customers who wanted ice this morning. I'm sorry."

A Point of Light: This is not sour grapes, because my street (perhaps because we are on an electric grid with a nursing home) had power restored on Day Two, but in the first three days there was no, as in zero presence from FEMA, the Red Cross, the National Guard or anyone else save a shift supervisor from the Palm Beach County Sheriff;s Department, who cruised through a few times a day to make sure there were no chain-saw, hammer, or generator injuries, heart attacks or other life-threatening emergencies.

This was until two vans marked NAPS, the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation, pulled up. I recognized the vans from my trip to Biloxi and Gulfport after Katrina. Filled with two dozen college kids, grills, tools, generators, extra gasoline and helping hands, these vans are part of a project sponsored by Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala.

"You're here, too?" one driver asked. I had first encountered NAPS when I joined local friends here in Florida in driving a truckload of relief supplies to Katrina's victims in Gulfport and Biloxi. (Editor's note: see "Merciful Journey: Observations On Disaster," on AR's homepage.)

Learning that I lived across the street, they asked for some guidance on suitable locations to set up a base camp. They refused hot showers, coffee, or anything else. They had driven all night from Huntsville, and gotten off the Florida Turnpike at Lake Worth because they heard on the radio "Palm Beach County is hurting."

A little research online showed that Oakwood is an historically black college which has provided more black medical students to U.S. universities than any other college since its founding in 1896. Students believe in helping others and put their beliefs into practice at the first drop of a barometer.

In an age when BET, ESPN, and MSNBC debate suits and neckwear for black NBA stars, perhaps the missing media needs a primer on what makes a quality human being. I've seen these kids in action. They are magnificent young people. Did you get it the first time? These are magnificent young people who humble all the so-called "relief agencies."

Except for a few timberland counties in Maine, Palm Beach County is the largest geographic county east of the Mississippi River. A third of all local nursing homes have been closed or have limited power. FEMA literally could not find Palm Beach County with a map. Oh yeah, I'm sending my check to NAPS c/o Oakwood College, Box 196, Huntsville, AL 35896.

Intellectual honesty once again requires kudos to the Southern Baptist Convention (as with Katrina), who were first to many areas of South Florida with hot food. Their Virginia branch set up shop in Martin County to the north in Stuart, Fla. On the first Sunday after the storm, local churchgoers surprised the Virginians by getting up extra early and making them a hot breakfast!

Print Media: Cox Newspapers' Palm Beach Post was rocked, but not knocked out by Wilma's 110-mph punch. They scurried to put out special hurricane editions. In 6 hours and 34 minutes on line outside Pompey Park, young volunteers handed out special editions of the Post for the fuming residents to read.

Deliveries were remarkably good and many radio outlets picked up their stories. Photos posted in online galleries allowed residents outside of the region and their relatives to see what tv didn't show them. The Tribune Co.'s Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was damaged but shuttled papers from their Orlando area plant. Particularly in Boca and points south, the Sentinel's saturation coverage and Website were superb.

Broadcast: With the exception of one weak moment in which Oprah's welcome for the new World Champion Chicago White Sox was aired, Scripps-Howard's NBC-affiliated WPTV-5 was all over Wilma like blue on a roof tarp. They had the most comprehensive helicopter coverage, mixing photojournalism with emergency service, zooming in on dangerous power lines, condo damage, and open gas stations.

In particular, meteorology Rob Lopicola, a young former Noo Yawker with the same aggressive, urgent, edge in his voice as many local residents, called it clear and loud.

ABC and CBS affiliates poked in and out of regular programming. The CBS affiliate, which is also the Fox news production team, didn't seem to understand that mini black-and-white battery sets were five inches wide, if that. They insisted on "shrinking" the size of the hurricane eye and damage area so the other half (of my 2" screen) could have a head shot of a reporter no one wanted to see. We need to see the oncoming eye wall and the area of damage, not Mr. X in a rain slick.

As for local radio, it is the story of local news/legacy radio in the United States. A few stations simulcast with tv. Some AM stations kept running their infomercials. This morning, when clocks were turned back and at what seemed like 8:55 a.m. for us (7:55 a.m.), the one "news talk station," Clear Channel's WJNO, was running a syndicated doctor show while another Clear Channel "cluster" station ran an infomercial on the benefits of green tea.

Even worse were the under-staffed, computerized AM stations that tried to turn program directors or board operators into news people. After frequent mispronunciations of local streets and local politicians' names, most folks I know just turned the stations off.

It was clear that these "news" people weren't from the area, or if they were, they had no clue about anything but the Dolphins. In fact the only FM station with long-form hurricane coverage was some morning "zoo" team called "Real Radio," where the young-sounding "personalities" actually spent hours talking about beer consumption at Dolphins games and security problems at airports.

The Miami NPR affiliate, just like the other networks who followed President Bush and his brother to the Orange Bowl in Miami despite the fact that heavily Republican and Cuban-American Miami-Dade County fared much better than more-Democratic Broward and Palm Beach, mixed newspaper reports and national and local coverage with special programming.

The sadly duplicative Palm Beach NPR station WXEL-FM had to beg on-air for diesel fuel for their generator (one guy actually bailed them out with 300 gallons, but, duh? Don't you know there are hurricanes in Florida?), and could not figure out how to patch news and traffic reports without a screeching 60-cycle tone on the line.

My own attempts at short wave reception garnered a few stories from the German World Service and Radio Havana. In four nights of listening I heard no English language hurricane coverage from Voice of America, the BBC, Armed Forces Radio, or perhaps nothing was being beamed to South Florida.

News Enterprise:There might be a suspicious anti-GOP tone in this tome, from a guy who is usually an equal opportunity political basher. Something just seemed rotten in the State of Bush. It was the enterprising work of the Palm Beach Post that got the few landlines and cell phones buzzing.

Not that anyone outside of Palm Beach County heard about it, but the Post uncovered this little tidbit: after four major storms belted Florida last year, and people could not pump gas for lack of electricity, the lobbyist for the mom-and-pop gas stations remaining in Florida proposed a deal: Florida would post $3 million for the fast-dwindling, non-mega petrol stations to buy generators. One-half the cost would be a grant and one-half a loan to be repaid - a drop in the fiscal gas can.

As millions of Floridians waited online for gas which often wasn't there, the Post pointed out that the allegedly Everready fast-response, FEMA-friendly governor had vetoed the package to get gas from the ground to the cars. [Editor's note: The generators reportedly cost $70,000 each.]

The Bottom Line: Everyone believes the fatal auto crash on their corner is the biggest local story of the day. Most people feel their local high school winning the state football title should be the lead item on ESPN Sports Center. Ironically, Fox coverage of the World Series actually offered more "good wishes and prayers" for their friends in South Florida," along with a mention of the Latin Legends in South Florida who could not reach Chicago, than many other network venues.

Yet the megalopolis from Miami to Stuart or even Vero Beach would probably be the sixth- or seventh-largest market area in the nation. Miami-Fort Lauderdale alone, depending on your source, ranks 11th, 12th or 13th. South Florida is a "destination" headline, like Las Vegas or New Orleans. Everyone has been here, or has an Aunt Floence or Uncle Larry living here. Millions each year cruise from our ports, and tens of millions change planes in our airports.

Sadly, the lack of prominent, in-depth national coverage of the youngest citizens and the oldest citizens is nothing new. As opposed to cultures where young and old are revered or treasured, dead people in nursing homes and kids without breakfast are just sidebars.

The CEO of a stock exchange-member firm I know has a mansion in Boca Raton. No money in the world got him electricity any sooner than anyone else. He cranked up a gasoline generator. No money in the world kept his infant's chest cold from getting worse. A day after Wilma the baby was in West Boca Medical Center with pneumonia. There was no air conditioning, and the top floor of the facility had been damaged. On emergency power, my friend and his wife took turns sitting each day and night with the baby, who made a good recovery four days later.

But what will be the situation if Sadie or Pinkie should break a leg or suffer a stroke? Somewhere in Erie or Evansville, Denver or Dallas, Manchester or Monterey there are readers, viewers, and listeners who were cheated this week. Surely, mystory seems bigger to me. Our editors rush the copy out onto the Web, and your editors decide that the visual and visceral apex of the story was when Al Roker fell on his butt.

About those bona fides: American Reporter Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum is a former newsman for United Press International; he was part of an investigative team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize at the (Bergen) Record (N.J.); he spent four years on the network assignment desk, special events and election units of ABC-TV Network News in New York. For six years, his national radio talk show was syndicated by American Radio Network, and he spent eight years hosting talk radio programs in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, winning two regional A.I.R. awards; he was co-founder and editor of Success business magazine, and business columnist for www.Money.net; his weekly columns area syndicated by America's first on-line daily newspaper, The American Reporter; he was in the original seminar class in Urban Minorities Reporting at the New School in New York, sponsored by his employer at the time, Dr. Leo Cherne, president of Research Institute of America and the International Rescue Committee. His news coverage has included the White House, space shots, patrolling with U.S. troops in Bosnia, United Nations Security Council teams in Panama, and many breaking national stories. Since 1994 his full-time work has been as chief investment strategist to Boston Stock Exchange member firm, Kaplan & Co.; He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College of the City University of New York; an M.A. in Poltical Science and Social and Behavioral Sciences from the University of South Florida in Tampa, and spent three years as teaching assistant and doctoral student in Political Science/International Comparative Government at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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