As bodies recovered, reporters are told 'no photos, no stories'
San Francisco Chronicle/Cecilia M. Vega | September 14 2005
New Orleans -- A long caravan of white vans led by an Army humvee rolled Monday through New Orleans' Bywater district, a poor, mostly black neighborhood, northeast of the French Quarter.
Recovery team members wearing white protective suits and black boots stopped at houses with spray painted markings on the doors designating there were dead bodies inside.
Outside one house on Kentucky Street, a member of the Army 82nd Airborne Division summoned a reporter and photographer standing nearby and told them that if they took pictures or wrote a story about the body recovery process, he would take away their press credentials and kick them out of the state.
"No photos. No stories," said the man, wearing camouflage fatigues and a red beret.
On Saturday, after being challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.
But on Monday, in the Bywater district, that assurance wasn't being followed. The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans. If reporters wrote stories or took pictures of body recoveries, they would be reported and face consequences, he said, including a loss of access for up-close coverage of certain military operations.
Dean Nugent, of the Louisiana State Coroner's Department, who accompanied the soldier, added that it wasn't safe to be in Bywater. "They'll kill you out here," he said, referring to the few residents who have continued to defy mandatory evacuation orders and remain in their homes."
"The cockroaches come out at night," he said of the residents. "This is one of the worst places in the country. You should not be here. Especially you," he told a female reporter.
Nugent, who is white, acknowledged he wasn't personally familiar with the poor, black neighborhood, saying he only knew of it by reputation.
Later Monday, the recovery team collected a body from a green house on St. Anthony Street in nearby Seventh Ward. The dead man, who was slipped into a black body bag and carried out to one of the white vans, had been lying alone on the living room floor for nearly two weeks, neighbors said.
"I told them weeks ago he was in there," said Barry Dominguez, 39, who lives across the street and has refused to leave the neighborhood he grew up in.
After the recovery team took away the St. Anthony Street body, two workers urinated on the side of a neighbor's house.
The CNN suit was in response to comments Friday at a news conference in which officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency said members of the news media would not be allowed to witness the recovery of hurricane victims' bodies.
Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security director, had said Friday that the recovery effort would be done with dignity, "meaning that there would be no press allowed." Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore later said there would be zero access to the recovery operation.
During a hearing Saturday morning in U.S. District Court in Houston, a lawyer who represented the government said FEMA had revised its previous plans to limit coverage.
Government agencies may still refuse requests from members of the media to ride along, or be "embedded," on recovery boats as crews gather the dead. "But, to the extent the press can go out to the locations, they're free to do that," said Keith Wyatt, an assistant U.S. attorney, according to a transcript of the hearing. "They're free to take whatever pictures they can take."
Army Lt. Col. Richard Steele said the government's position as explained in court Saturday didn't represent a change in policy. Reporters can watch recovery efforts they come upon, but they won't be embedded with search teams.
"We're not going to bar, impede or prevent" the media from telling the story, he said. "We're just not going to give the media a ride.