Today we learned that the federal cost of relief and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is likely to be substantially lower than some of the earlier estimates. Rather than the $200 billion figure that had been thrown around in the aftermath of the catastrophe, the Congressional Budget Office now says the total is likely to be less than $150 billion. Yes, I know, those aren't staggering figures for folks in Congress who are now used to working closer to the trillion-dollar mark. Still, as the late Senator Everett Dirksen famously observed, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."
Likewise, the death toll from the storm hasn't approached the apocalyptic predictions thrown around before the flood waters began to recede. Over and over, we heard the mayor of New Orleans and other officials warn the public to brace for a casualty count that would number in the thousands – even as high as 10,000. According to the state medical examiner in Louisiana, the official death count had reached 998 as of yesterday. By any standards, a devastating toll, but much less than originally feared.
I point this out not in any way to diminish the horror left by Katrina but because it is part of a disturbing pattern in the information the public receives. In many ways it's reminiscent of the rush of the press to report supposed atrocities happening in the Superdome and convention center that turned out inflated at best. Reports of rapes, murders and roving gangs of thugs certainly now seem to have been hyped by both officials and the press.
Is this a matter of fault? Should the mayor not have speculated aloud about his fears of 10,000 casualties? Should the price tag have waited? Should the press have taken that number and run? Should they have been more cautious in relating estimates, knowing from past experience such guesses can be inaccurate -- either high or low? What do you think?