In hurricane's wake, New Orleans-based press relations still chaotic

NEW ORLEANS - The media's blistering criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina extended to its media relations work this week.

Journalists on the ground in New Orleans described a situation still lacking obvious authority or clearly defined restrictions on access nearly two weeks after the storm hit.

"FEMA has just been very difficult to deal with," said Carl Redman, managing editor of Baton Rouge, LA-based The Advocate, adding that the agency had kept the paper's reporters from a makeshift morgue in New Orleans.

Reports on Thursday that FEMA had issued a ban on running pictures of corpses caused consternation in some corners of the media, though at least one FEMA official said the report was mistaken.

Public affairs officer Barbara Ellis said journalists had misinterpreted FEMA's rules.

She added that all journalists, including photographers, have been restricted only from certain areas of New Orleans where FEMA is performing search and rescue efforts.

Nonetheless, interviews with journalists in the region produced conflicting understanding of what was restricted and what was not - and by whom.

John Balance, director of photography for The Advocate, said he had not heard of any restrictions from his team of six photographers.

"I haven't had any photographers complaining," he said.

Alicia Wagner Calzada, president of the National Press Photographers Association and a photojournalist for Rumbo newspapers, has been covering the Spanish-speaking communities in the area. She said she has not been affected by restrictions.

"To me, [officials have] been pretty cooperative," she said. "As soon as you say you're media, they let you go through."

In spite of difficulties with FEMA, Redman said the paper has been able to provide adequate coverage.

"We're getting reporters into the damaged areas; we're getting photographers into the damaged areas," he said. "We're getting what we need."

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