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Buffalo News: Another Poor Response Masked by Official Censorship

September 28, 2008
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By GAP Homeland Security Director Jesselyn Radack.

Hurricane Ike is being hailed by some as a victory for disaster preparedness, but it should really serve as a warning. Local congressmen on both sides of the aisle have accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of botching the response in Texas, just as it did with Katrina. The storm made landfall early on Sept. 13. Yet FEMA did not begin to open any relief centers, necessary to provide critical supplies, until Sept. 15.

FEMA blamed the delay on logistics and . . . bad weather.

Thousands have been left homeless. Millions were without electricity for days. People are still desperate to find food, water, ice and gasoline. They are trying to locate family members through disorganized “survivor lists.”

Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which now contains FEMA, toured flooded areas and then held a news conference during which he tried to shift responsibility for delays in receiving meals and supplies to the local city and county government. He said it was the fault of state officials, who handed his department the “unexpected challenge” of having to prepare distribution points in addition to delivering supplies.

Perhaps most atrocious, the federal government has been controlling the story and trying to hide the ball that FEMA dropped. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an unprecedented “No Fly Zone” order that kept all news helicopters from flying within one mile of the areas hardest hit.

This censorship was supposedly meant “to provide a safe environment for disaster response and relief operations,” a position belied by the glaring lack of food and supplies. Many survivors suspect this was really just damage control — an attempt to keep the American people from seeing images reminiscent of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans shortly before a general election.

It took four days after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf — when America was distracted by the Wall Street meltdown — until we began to see close-up photos and video footage of the West End and Bolivar Peninsula.

Censorship is a hallmark of repressive regimes and is contrary to America’s founding principles. When the government tries to stop or impede the media from disclosing what may be perceived as government failures or illegalities, it threatens the very core of a free and democratic society.

Yet the prevailing theory of secrecy and silence abounds. If we can’t see the damage, maybe we won’t notice the failure. And if we don’t notice the failure, we won’t bother to think about the larger implications.

But the question remains: If our government can’t organize a response to a weather event that was forecast days in advance — if the fourth-largest city in the country and the nation’s energy capital can be crippled by a natural disaster — how prepared are we for a man-made one?

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