Much rain, little information
A trip to the bathroom led to an impromptu media interview for the governor’s emergency director as Hurricane Isaac lashed Louisiana.
Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, ventured out of a secure area at the Baton Rouge compound to answer nature’s call.
GOHSEP — as it’s known in state government circles — is where reporters and officials gather during storms. It’s where the governor receives weather updates and meets with his cabinet. For this storm, the governor tightly controlled the information that his cabinet gave him, forcing the media often to wait for hours to learn about evacuations, flooding and the staging of supplies for hurricane victims.
In a digital age in which the news unfolds immediately through the Internet, Twitter and 24-hour newscasts, the wait for facts and figures caused frustration. The information was kept confidential until the governor revealed it at his televised news conference.
Finally, one reporter spotted Davis going into the men’s room and alerted another reporter. Pretty soon, a handful of print and television reporters hovered outside the bathroom door, waiting to waylay Davis for confirmation on reports of Plaquemines Parish residents stranded by the floodwaters.
After overcoming his surprise at the ambush, Davis told reporters that a levee broke on the parish’s east bank and flooded 18 miles, putting people in danger. The interview ended shortly after the arrival of Davis’ spokeswoman, Christina Stephens.
Davis retreated behind doors that open only with the swipe of an identification card. Stephens remained behind to remind reporters that Gov. Bobby Jindal would update them in a few hours on the storm response.
Reporters sarcastically apologized for trying to get information to the public. Stephens sarcastically apologized for not allowing media interviews to outweigh her boss’s scheduled conference call with parish presidents grappling with the storm.
The media’s point was that Davis’ five-minute interview allowed them to report reliable information to people worried about relatives living in Plaquemines Parish.
The episode was just one example of relations that frayed as reporters and the Jindal administration found themselves at odds on how each should handle the other during a crisis. The media wanted a steady flow of information and access to cabinet secretaries. The Jindal administration seemed to want the governor to dispense facts at a daily news conference, supplemented by emails sent by spokespeople.
Reporters sat for hours awaiting the governor’s lunchtime news conference or stood in the hallway begging passing officials for information. At one point, the governor announced that bottled water and food were being delivered for residents to pick up in storm-ravaged areas. Aides subsequently ignored questions for hours on where residents needed to go to get the supplies. Reporters were left to wonder if the governor had mispoken or if they all misunderstood what he said.
Louisiana State Police — headed by Col. Mike Edmonson who used to be a media spokesman — gave regular updates on road closures. The governor’s coastal director, Garret Graves, came in to explain how a levee is intentionally breached. Other high-ranking Jindal administration officials shied away from the cameras, giving the governor the monopoly on sound bites.
There were generous moments.
The governor’s staff tasked someone with driving the media past barricades in Plaquemines Parish to report on the evacuation of a nursing home.
At the state emergency center in Baton Rouge, Stephens pulled up a chair at the media’s work table and patiently outlined the complicated process for receiving federal storm aid.
For the most part, though, the Jindal administration seemed to build a dam and then create a controlled release of information. Reading from notes, the governor fired off reams of information during his news conferences. Reporters struggled to keep up with his rapid delivery and begged for a copy of his notes, which usually arrived hours later.
Columnists who weren’t at GOHSEP praised the governor’s news conferences for their breadth of information. Reporters who were there reminisced about Hurricane Katrina, when Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s staff assigned spokespeople to work with the media on gathering information and cabinet secretaries would answer questions.
The governor’s communications director, Kyle Plotkin, said the media approach can be reviewed for the future.
“We can always look to change things and make them quicker for you guys,” he said.
Michelle Millhollon covers the governor for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.