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Column: Despite Framing, Iowa Flood No Katrina

This story was written by Emileigh Barnes, The Daily Iowan


"This is our version of Katrina." That's what Johnson County Emergency Management spokesman Mike Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune.

Mike Sullivan should be ashamed.

As a transplant from Mississippi, I've known both natural disasters intimately. In both, water rose, ravaged. People were affected. That's where the comparison ends.

For Hurricane Katrina, the death toll is still unknown. Sourcewatch.org argues that, because of the disaster's lasting effects, it's still rising. Some counts put it higher than 4,000.

And how many people have died in Johnson County?

No doubt exists whether this flood has been catastrophic, has changed lives, has altered our view of the world. I was there with you all. I sandbagged, worried, evacuated my own newsroom by hand in the pitch black when electricity was cut. I cried as I read stories from our newspaper and others. I prayed for those affected. I'm still waiting for the water to recede, and I hope just as much that the damage is minimal.

Meanwhile, for those of you who weren't there, I'd like to tell you a little about Katrina:

When Katrina ravaged my Mississippi as well as Louisiana, I watched on the DI television, and I was helpless. My mother relayed to me via the telephone which coworker had lost a husband and baby, who had drowned in their attics as they tried to break through the roof to escape rising waters.

I watched the death toll rise, the government not send aid for days.

People were angry; they were forgotten. They died. And even after they died, they were still forgotten. One news story recounts a woman who tried to flag down police as she stood next to the corpse of her husband. Their advice to her was how to effectively move the smelly body as far away from the road as possible.

At that time, I was in my first semester here in Iowa City, and I knew I couldn't get back until Christmas. When I did visit to the coast in December with a church volunteer group, entire cities were still gone. Most of the highways were closed, and we wove in and out of back streets, among FEMA trailers and volunteer tents.

For miles on each side of them lay only slabs and leafless trees, which were decorated with an array of home furnishings that had been lifted in the wind and placed onto their branches: couches, wallpaper, plastic bags.

We passed several blocks of houses that had made it through the storm, upright, and in various forms of disrepair. Some had X's spray-painted on the door. A family friend explained, the first slash of the X was painted as a tally of how many bodies needed to be removed, the second slash as a mark that someone had picked them up.

More houses had only the first slash painted on, bodies still rotting inside.

My friend Ryan warned me things would be bad. He had spent the many weekends shoveling sludge from houses.

"Careful," one bedraggled homeowner had told him as he scooped mud from her kitchen into a wheelbarrow. "My dog is in there somewhere."

Those memories, vivid, acrid, will always be with me. I can still smell the cool coastal breeze, feel it as it felt on my neck when I bent over a pile of rubble and removed from it a glass tea-light holder, intact save a few bistre flecks of mud. All of these things tug at me, years later, and in that disaster, I was only part of the periphery.

Right now, Iowa City is in a time of worry. Many business owners may have lost their livelihoods, but that's not the same as lives. People have lost their homes, but that's not the same as families.

I am a reporter. I know a thing or two about media framing, or theway stories are organized. I also know that we're deeply influenced by the way our sources present information to us.

A quotation such as "This is our version of Katrina" is a powerful one, hard for a writer to pass up. See how it affected me? At the same time, any death related to flooding is a tragedy. It cannot be diminished or comprehended. My heart is broken to see homes and lives in disrepair.

But to compare one disaster to another is wrong. It needs to stop right here. Instead, I charge you (both press and people) to create our own frames, our own stories.

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