Hurricane Katrina: Going Overboard

One might wonder how it would be possible to go overboard in describing the devastation that could have occured had Hurricane Katrina come ashore just a few dozen miles west of where she did. Nonetheless, CNN managed the feat.

The network talked to Ivor van Heerden, identified as an expert from Louisiana State University, who actually speculated that people stranded by flooding would be eaten by fire ants. If anyone from CNN is reading this, I'd really like to know: Is this guy serious? Fire ants?? I really want to believe that at least that part was van Heerden's attempt at a joke -- albeit a morbid one -- but there is no indication in the online story that he is anything but sincere. Far be it from me to discount the danger of fire ants; they're nasty little buggers. But if my house disintegrated around me and I found myself hanging from a lightpole -- as van Heerden's scenario would have it -- I can assure you that fire ants would be just about the least of my concerns.

The Columbia Journalism Review online skewers the CNN piece, so I'll leave the rest to them.

By Emily Messner |  August 31, 2005; 1:00 PM ET  | Category:  Misc.
Previous: This Week's Issue: Hurricane Katrina | Next: Bush Takes Time Off From Vacation to Respond to Hurricane


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Actually, if you read van Heerven's entire discussion (Monday midday) he correctly called the levee breach, which was most likely indeed caused by the 12+ hours of surge waters wrapping around the eastern and northern portion of the inner and middle eyewall, then being "punched" southward against the levee(s) as the eyewall passed and for at least 4-6 hours after (remember, all weather observing sites and/or comms were down at this point, so we have no concrete values for wind speed. We do know that Lakefront Airport failed with routine wind gusts in excess of 90 mph from the NE early Monday morning).

So...was the "fire ant" comment far fetched? Sure. But the predicted devastation, occurring after many in the same media thought that N.O. had "dodged the bullet", was far premature.

Credit van Heerven for continuing to watch for the ominous when others were dropping off. In this age of "news now", patience and precaution are still virtues.

Thank you.

Posted by: wxman1 | August 31, 2005 02:23 PM

I am horrified at this disaster on so many levels. Having lived though 9|11 in NYC, a few blocks away with both my home and business I witnessed the unique ability of NYC to choreograph a seemingly anarchist dance of workers to engineer a magnificent testimonial to the human spirit. I do remember George W was missing for a few days. Hiding in a bunker. No one spoke up about that. Now George W has to cut his precious vacation short and it is front-page news as if he is sacrificing so much. When are we going to wake up and not be spun like a cheap suit in a dryer? Sorry we knew Katrina was coming, we didn't know about 9|11 or did we. And all that CNN can do is talk fire ants. Shame on us all.

Posted by: Marko | August 31, 2005 02:28 PM

Perhaps fire ants was a bit over the top, but everything else he said was pretty close to the mark. People were, in fact, hanging on to trees as they climed out of homes that were floating down the street. The levees did break, as he predicted they might. And now the levees serve as a further obstacle to getting the water out, as van Heerven also indicated. The water, which reaches over 20 feet in some places, is, in fact, filled with garbage, petrochemicals, animals, dead bodies, and many other things that we just can't imagine.

Posted by: James | August 31, 2005 02:57 PM

Actually when flooded out fire ants will form a floating ball. If you have the misfortune to run into one, they will climb all over you and sting mercilessly. Not to defend CNN or anything...

Posted by: Carl | August 31, 2005 03:08 PM

Fire ants are a very real problem in southern flood waters.

Posted by: Bob | August 31, 2005 03:45 PM

According to this cite, from the Texas Extension Service, fire ants are a big problem during floods:

I particularly like the idea of using diluted Dove dish soap to fight them. Would generic brands work as well?

Posted by: Arthur | August 31, 2005 04:44 PM

Why must you put down a competing news service just because they were able to predict the devastation ahead of time? Sure, there wasn't much fire, but "It's gonna flood a lot and there's gonna be fire and lot's of people will die" is a lot closer to "It's gonna flood a lot and lot's of people will die" then "New Orleans is gonna be okay".

The CNN article was written two days ago and I think it was a pretty good prediction.

And fire ants are a real problem during floods as they gather together to form flotation devices for themselves until they find objects to crawl on (which with the masssive flooding in Louisiana have people on them too).

Normally, I like Washington Post better than CNN and think that the Post usually does a very good job (I moved to New York and I still get most of my news from the Post, wouldn't have even read the CNN article except that I clicked on the linke here), but stooping as low as to criticize an opponent for an article that gives a better prediction of the devastation that could be caused, well, it just seems a little low.

Posted by: Jim | August 31, 2005 07:38 PM

I followed the CNN link, and you changed what the "expert" said about fire ants. It seems ironic to accuse another news venue of exaggeration when your accusation was based on an exaggeration.

Posted by: Gifford | August 31, 2005 07:54 PM

As someone who has suffered a single bite from asingle fire ant, I required paramedic attention. However I'm certain that a single bite from a cotton mouth snake or an alligator would have likely left me unable to respond to this blog, ever! Thank you Mrs. Messner for pointing out the irrational & absured.

Posted by: stuB223 | August 31, 2005 09:20 PM

What a pathetic attempt to take on CNN - there you are, sitting at your desk, all dry and safe and ridiculing someone who knew what he was talking about. Don;t they provide Google or dictionaries at WaPo. Then all you newspaper types are wondering why your readership is falling.

Posted by: Jinny | August 31, 2005 09:32 PM

Y'all accuse Ms. Mesner of taking things out of context and rip into her for sniping at CNN, but aren't y'all taking HER out of context? She doesn't say that the ants aren't a problem, she just says that they would be the least of her problems if she were in the flood. Let me quote: "Far be it from me to discount the danger of fire ants; they're nasty little buggers. But if my house disintegrated around me and I found myself hanging from a lightpole -- as van Heerden's scenario would have it -- I can assure you that fire ants would be just about the least of my concerns."

Mr. van Heerden lists a lot of very reasonable issues, like the toxicity of the water, etc. that would definitely be higher on my list of concerns than fire ants. Come on, all you folks who say things like "there you are, sitting at your desk, all dry and safe and ridiculing someone who knew what he was talking about" - if you were clinging to a pole in a raging torrent of effluent, are you seriously going to tell me that fire ants are your top priority??? Riiiiight. Whatever floats your boat, I guess (no pun intended).

And as far as y'all jumping on Mesner about her "pathetic attempt to take on CNN" - did you bother to read her whole post and click on the CJR link? This WHOLE POST is referencing a CJR link, which I must say is a lot more scathing of CNN than Mesner is. If you feel so strongly about all these accusations, I hope y'all posting the same things on the CJR website. Of course, if you'd bothered to read all of Ms. mesner's post, you might have found said link to CJR.

Posted by: Derek | August 31, 2005 09:49 PM

Emily: When Isabelle hit NC two years ago it flooded our town. The fire ants were absolutely awful. Don't criticize the man's comment without having any idea what you are talking about.

Posted by: Doug | August 31, 2005 10:50 PM

Yet another example of the distortions spred by news media. This is the exact quote about fire ants from CNN...

"Imagine you're the poor person who decides not to evacuate: Your house will disintegrate around you. The best you'll be able to do is hang on to a light pole, and while you're hanging on, the fire ants from all the mounds -- of which there is two per yard on average -- will clamber up that same pole. And eventually, the fire ants will win."

That was the only reference to fire ants and it was a small part of the article about the devastation in New Orleans.

You are insensitive nit picking jerks.

Posted by: | August 31, 2005 11:12 PM

Oh, Ms. Messner, I am disappointed with you. CNN's expert didn't predict that fire ants would EAT people; he just said that in a contest between a person and a glob of ants as to who could remain clinging to a telephone pole, the ants would win. Damn right they would! If van Heerden had indeed said what you accuse him of saying, he could be rightfully lampooned. But he didn't, and you fail journalism 101 in misrepresenting his comments. Indeed, many of his predictions sound spot on at this point. Or is the Post going overboard in today's story "City's Bleak Future"?

Posted by: Clark | September 1, 2005 12:03 AM

This whole debate about fire ants arises because some folks still think of CNN or MSNBC ar serious news channels. It's entertainment, folks. The disaster in the gulf region is just a filler until the next runaway bride comes along. Aside from a few serious people, like Lou Dobbs, it's all just show biz. Either show biz or ideologues showcasing their pet delusions.

Posted by: laime | September 1, 2005 12:36 AM

This whole debate about fire ants arises because some folks still think of CNN or MSNBC ar serious news channels. It's entertainment, folks. The disaster in the gulf region is just a filler until the next runaway bride comes along. Aside from a few serious people, like Lou Dobbs, it's all just show biz. Either show biz or ideologues showcasing their pet delusions.

Posted by: laime | September 1, 2005 12:37 AM

What kind of screening policy does the WP have when they are looking for journalists? Mr. Van Heerden predicted superbly what would happen and this girl should rather praise him instead of making readers waste their time. And by the way I have been in the south and I know how bad fire ants can be in a flood. Anyone who knows how hard it is to predict the outcome of a hurricane should be impressed with the interview of Mr. Van Heerden. I wish journalists would have 10% of his knowledge and professionalism, whether they cover natural disasters or war buildup.

Posted by: Frank | September 1, 2005 01:37 AM

I'm gonna score this debate:

Flood Geek: 1
Cute Blonde: 0

Oh why do the pretty ones have to be so dumb?

Posted by: ManinDC | September 1, 2005 01:58 AM

Have there been any food drops into the affected areas yet? Many people have had no food or water for days, are stuck in hotels with no amenities (including no flushing toilets) and cannot go searching for more food and water because people point guns at them if they try. ( Will hungry people be treated the same as looters? I think there are too many guns around and possibly not enough generosity.
Thanks, and sorry about the terrible disaster. Kim, Australia.

Posted by: Kim | September 1, 2005 03:47 AM

Wow! Y'all are venemous!!! For everyone who is suffering from "bash the journalist" syndrome, refer to my earlier post. If you have such a bone to pick with Ms. Messner, then ATTACK THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW. Ms. Messner was highlighting an article THEY were carrying. Way to go shooting the messenger.

And those of you who turn to insults, like "why do the pretty ones have to be so dumb?" should get a life. 'And for my next trick, I'm going to see how else I can mindlessly insult this person...' Good job, guys.

When y'all talk about distortion, you should all take a look in the mirror (before it cracks, that is).

Posted by: Derek | September 1, 2005 11:46 AM

If Mrs. Messner was male, would you all be so nasty to her?

Posted by: Karen | September 1, 2005 11:49 AM

People, let's get real for a moment. Think about it: You're reading an article about devastation, with homes flooded, you're out in the elements, facing what seems to be the next worst thing to the wrath of God himself, and this guy finishes off by talking about fire ants? It just seems a little absurd, and that absurdity is worth mentioning. Does that mean the fire ants are not a concern? Heck, no, it doesn't! I remember when I had my leg covered in them, and they are definitely a concern. But after everything else, fire ants?!

Also, the blog world is incestuous. Other news outlets will be mentioned. This does not mean that Emily, or any other Post blogger, will be "out to get" CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc.; unless you work for one of those outlets, I don't see the reason to be so thin-skinned.

Posted by: Aaron | September 1, 2005 12:02 PM

Well said, Aaron. I, too, have been covered in fire ants (and it is not fun), but if I were in a flood I agree it would be the least of my worries. When I first read the van Heerden piece, I tought it was a bit absurd that he'd be talking about all these enormous calamities and then fire ants. Sure, they're a concern, but not like the toxic soup everyone's swimming around in.

Good job, Emily. I would never have found the Colubmia link otherwise. Don't let the haters get you down!!!

Posted by: Louis | September 1, 2005 01:00 PM

Is anyone reading what Van Heerden ACTUALLY SAID? He said nothing, repeat NOTHING, about fire ants eating anybody. He simply pointed out that if you climbed up a pole (or tree?) and so did hundreds of fire-ants, eventually they would 'win' as in their bites would force you to fall back into toxic waters and drown or be poisoned. I agree that whoever distorted that to being 'eaten by fireants' represents everything wrong with the media today!

Exact quote:
"Imagine you're the poor person who decides not to evacuate: Your house will disintegrate around you. The best you'll be able to do is hang on to a light pole, and while you're hanging on, the fire ants from all the mounds -- of which there is two per yard on average -- will clamber up that same pole. And eventually, the fire ants will win."

Posted by: Pia | September 1, 2005 03:32 PM

ManinDC--I think it's still too early to call the score. We need to wait until we get better reports on the fire ants. Does anyone actually know if they've eaten anyone yet? And is she really that pretty? It's hard to tell from the pic; maybe we need a full-body shot.

Karen--I think you mean "If Mrs. Messner WERE Male..." I guess you can't expect a woman to know the subjunctive.

Posted by: Sonny | September 1, 2005 05:18 PM

Emily, whether you were just the messenger or not, I still think this was not one of your finer moments. But your other Katrina posts have restored my faith in this new column. I'll cut you some slack . . . and keep reading.

Posted by: Clark | September 1, 2005 06:38 PM

It isn't that he's like, "hmm, fire ant bites hurt, I'll say RUN FROM THE FIRE ANTS, THEY'LL EAT YOU!". He is a flood expert and since fire ants are often a MAJOR problem in flooded areas where such ants are common do to the way they react to floods (see how this has to do with the flood yet?) he brought it up among other things that went wrong.

He never said they'd eat anybody, but the whole thing that the flood expert said about fire ants swarming onto fixtures that have people clinging onto them and forcing off the people is a big problem that has occured in many passed floods.

Even so, to me it seems like the writer of this article (and even moreso, the CJR writer) saw that "wow, this article actually predicted the devastation that would happen ahead of time when all the other news sources said it would be okay (he even correctly predicted the wall breaking). Let's find some way to not make CNN look good from this by picking a small part of the article (fire ants) and without doing any research to find out that fire ants are actually a big problem in floods, accuse the person who correctly predicted the devastation of being silly."

The whole city is devastated. Thousands of people are dead. The CNN article was so much of a better prediction of the devastation than any articles at the time it was written that there really isn't competition here.

Washington Post should've been "well, CNN beat us here, let's be quiet about it and hope nobody will notice and then we can beat them next time" but instead they were like "well, CNN beat us here so were going to show everybody the article they beat us in and draw attention to it and then call them stupid for writing it"

It is not about the gender of the author. It isn't even about who the author is. It's more about the newspaper. This isn't the onion and people read it to get news, not to hear people who get the news made fun of for it. The Post is usually good when it comes to this, but this time they weren't.

In fact, this article isn't THAT big of a deal and I wouldn't have even posted this if it wasn't for so many "you all suck, don't be mean to the journalist posts". We aren't trying to be mean to the journalist (well, maybe some are, but they're just jerks), instead we're(me at least, I hope the others are) more worried about news organizations spending their time throwing stupid flamewars at each other than actually going over the news and if we have to point out the mistakes made by one journalist(and everybody makes mistakes) to do it, we'll do so.

Posted by: James | September 1, 2005 08:38 PM

First of all, I want to say it's just a blog. No need to get pressed over it. And second of all, wanted to say that apparently the toxic soup has happened as factories are leaking into the water and there have been lots of fires. Haven't seen anything about fire ants, though. Seems there is more of a problem of being shot off whatever you're holding onto amist the gunfire than getting bitten by ants.

Posted by: Tom | September 2, 2005 07:16 PM

Van Heerden is an expert in these matters, one who quite rightly predicted much of what is currently happening in NO. Here's what he said about the future of NO flooding in 2002 :

While his example in the recent CNN article was a possible worst-case scenario, fire ants & flooding are a real problem in the South. As he states, if you WERE competing with the fire ants for a very small piece of real estate, the ants WOULD win.

If you don't live in the South, it's doubtful that you fully undertstand the scope and impact of the fire ant infestation. factsheets/fapfs038.2002rev.pdf

Posted by: joedrumma | September 3, 2005 10:50 AM

This isn't to you but to everyone who will can and will read. I just about threw up my supper listening to Christianne Ammanpour on Larry King Live tonight talking about the world's general impression that the Katrina response is a racial issue. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. If that is the best Ms Ammanpour can do then she needs to GET OFF THE AIR. If the world's impression is that somehow the American government has shortchanged African-Americans in the Katrina response, then that is because the television media, CNN in particular and Anderson Cooper specifically has made it so. They made it so by continuously reporting on one tiny speck of the disaster to the exclusion of all other areas, totally ignoring the tens of thousands of square miles of devastation that knew no color boundaries. They made it so by not giving any context, perspective or background WHATSOEVER as to why there are a large concentration of African-American survivors in and around the Super Dome. NONE. No intelligent or even objective analysis as to why this might be so. No perspective on municipal plans that might have pre-ordained that condition, little to no parallel reporting on the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama communities that were just as hard hit so that there might be an accurate portrayal of the extent of this disaster. Just a constant diet of Superdome. And Ms Ammanpour is surprised that caring people around the globe gradually conclude there are human rights violations visited upon one segment of the American population by a seemingly uncaring government. To me, and I live in Pensacola so I've seen my share of hurricane damage lately, this has been at once the best--the cameras...when allowed...when allowed to display all the damage throughout the gulf coast...have left an unmistakable image of how extensive this devastation is--and at the same time the most shameful display of television reporter narcisscism and irresponsible demogoguery I have ever seen. If there are misperceptions across the globe, and they are msperceeptions if not outright slander, they are entirely the fault of the US media coverage. Where else does anybody get their news? I have read numerous calls for accountability throughout these threads. I hope everyone watches the media reporting from here on out with a more critical eye and takes the television media to task for it. To me Ms Ammanpour, once a favorite for her ability to get anywhere and report, has lost all credibility in my eyes by showing up in New Orleans for a few minutes with conclusions already drawn and then using her considerable world recognition to lend credence to an incomplete story that misrepresents the truth to a believing world audience just to keep her face refreshed on the world's TV screens. Shameful.

Posted by: Willy | September 3, 2005 09:49 PM

Reports by survivors say that fire ants are indeed a problem, and are eating at corpses as well as biting the living. Imagine yourself trapped in an attic, with your head in small pocket of air, and frantic fireants biting at your face...

Kinda makes Emily's snugly dry, safe, and rather middleclass smugness seem pretty stupid in retrospect, doesn't it?

Posted by: Jim | September 4, 2005 11:58 AM

joedrumma wrote:

"If you don't live in the South, it's doubtful that you fully undertstand the scope and impact of the fire ant infestation."

Columbia Journalism Review, I doubt they know where Palmetto bugs live (under those ant mounds, where they exist off of scraps -- so clever to cloak themselves with ant scent the ants don't attack them), let alone how nasty their bites are.

Have 11 bites from last week's weed wacking, and that "distinguished" review mag should review my legs to see the damage those %*#%)#%)# things can do. Imagine a mound that uses a tree or lampost as refuge. The kids and elderly WILL let go after they crawl up their face and start stinging their eyelids!

Get your facts straight folks. Fire ants aren't called FIRE ants for nothing -- they leave some nasty wounds that can take months to heal and scar badly.


Posted by: SandyK | September 5, 2005 06:53 PM

It ain't the fire ants that are a problem, as the Germans reported.

If ever there was a picture that characterized Bush admistration, this is it. Everyone else on the planet sees it. We don't, but then you won't find this picture in our media either, which may explain why.

Posted by: Big Al | September 8, 2005 12:06 PM

The Boston Herald reported that one man was in fact rescued from being eaten by fire ants:

Posted by: asd | September 8, 2005 06:45 PM

Why is not big news that some administration official floated a "LIE" to The Post and the paper printed it with only a "correction" hidden away later on.

Fact: Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a State of Emergency for her state on Friday, Aug. 26. Full disclosure: The Post reported last week -- erroneously, it turned out -- that Louisiana had not issued such a declaration. A correction was published on Sept. 5.

F'in nonsense !!!!

Posted by: Bill | September 9, 2005 12:15 AM

For those without fire ant experience a reference might help understand the situation of competing for "pole space" with a colony. By the way, it is a sting, not a bite. A few people go into shock with a few stings. Many people will when covered with stings.


Imported Fire Ants:

The spread of fire ants is a real concern. Studies on climate that fire ants can endure indicate spread much further north.

Posted by: Ray | September 9, 2005 12:22 PM

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