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Akst: Doing little when much is needed

Published: Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

I hope the third time is a charm because I’ve already written two columns this week.

But a few summers ago, my family rented a beach house on the New Jersey shore about 500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the best vacations I ever hoped to have.

I don’t think the house is there now. It certainly isn’t inhabitable. Much of Strathmere, N.J., where the house was located is ravaged. Google showed me a picture of a guy kayaking down a main street.

Not far away, the Atlantic City boardwalk has become driftwood.

Not far away, residents of Breezy Point, N.Y., (along with millions of fellow Americans who ache for their loss) are wondering how several dozen of their homes burned to the ground surrounded by so much water.

So when I think of millions struggling to regroup, at least 50 deaths, and damage estimates as high as $5 billion to $10 billion in insured losses and $10 billion to 20 billion in economic losses (according to Eqecat, one of three primary firms the insurance industry uses to calculate disaster exposures), it was clear the first two columns just wouldn’t work.

In a very real way, journalists also are first responders, but how we help is much less directly useful. Starving people need food long before they need their plight compellingly told. But we all must do something, so here’s what little help and insight I can offer for now.

1. The Red Cross needs two things: blood and money.

Martha Carlos of the Red Cross in Chicago told WBBM Newsradio that “As a result of this storm, there were nearly 300 blood drives that were canceled.

The Red Cross has a constant need to keep the blood supply replenished. We supply nearly half the nation’s blood supply.”

The Red Cross does NOT want clothing, food or other supplies. Donate to the Red Cross at redcross.org, by calling 1-800-Redcross or by texting Redcross to 90999.

2. I wanted to convey what journalism texts and organizations tell reporters to do if they’re first on the scene and encounter people (or animals) needing help. I didn’t find anything. I tell my students that if emergency responders are already there, don’t interfere and do your job. However, if there’s no one else, help.

3. Climate change should have been more of a major focus of the presidential campaigns.

4. I think Gov. Mitt Romney is completely unworthy of becoming president. There are many ways I could support this view, but Hurricane Sandy has provided the best example.

On Tuesday, Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters about whether he would eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a Tuesday “storm relief” appearance in Ohio (in reality, a campaign stop somebody realized at the last minute would look bad, like when Paul Ryan washed clean pots and pans at a nonpartisan soup kitchen) showing Romney doing exactly what the Red Cross is discouraging: Collecting canned food.

The question was legitimate, and Romney’s blatant refusal to answer is deplorable.

During the GOP primary race, asked about FEMA’s cash flow problem in the context of the Joplin, Mo., tornado disaster, Romney said on CNN:

“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

Severely Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sees it differently. Besides praising FEMA this week, Christie said (on ABC, CBS and NBC) that Obama was “outstanding” in his handling of the crisis. On Fox News, Christie said, “I have to give the president great credit.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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