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My dad, who essentially taught me how to be a bitter cynic, likes to refer to it as “selling lumber.” It happens every year from June 1 to November 30: the endless drumbeat of fearmongering that engulfs Southern meteorologist types, The Weather Channel, and, scandal permitting, the 24-hour news networks. It’s a classic example of modern “sticky” programming, a way to keep viewers glued to their TV sets (laptops, phones) in between commercials. Commercials that are, very often, for places which sell hurricane supplies. And Katrina gave this practice enough juice to keep it ramped up for another two decades. There are other examples of this kind of thing in modern news media, of course: every winter, the flu scare begins. But you can’t track an approaching virus every four hours on a map. Let’s hope not, anyway. Of course, lumber’s not as big as some industries, but in between moving plywood (to board up your windows, which is actually not all that necessary) or bottled water (which will probably gather dust in your garage) or batteries (which you probably already have, but why take a chance?) there are endless other ways to get the economy moving again. So here’s a handy guide for all you budding media types, in order to maximize your potential to keep America’s sphincter clenched in suspense, and move some product in the process.

1. Give them The Big Picture.

Hurricanes are big. Whoa, they’re big. The major Atlantic ones are sometimes big enough to fill up the entire Gulf of Mexico. Let’s look at the current threat to America, Hurricane Sandy:

Oh my God we’re all dead! Our Father, who art in heaven… But wait. Maybe we should take a look at the actual winds of this hurricane, and see how bad they are:

Whew! The actual hurricane-strength winds of a hurricane do not extend out very far. In fact, on the projected path, the majority of the inland American continent wouldn’t see any hurricane-force winds at all. Not Category 2 or 3 winds, any hurricane winds. At all.

Let me further prove my point. Here is a map showing the entrance point (red target) of Katrina, the Worst Hurricane of All Time. And the black target to the left? That’s where I was during the storm.

Looks bad, doesn’t it? And it was. But not as bad as you were led to believe. As the handy scale at the bottom has no doubt informed you by now, I was approximately 50 miles west of the eye. And yet, I watched the storm from my family’s back porch. With about 15 other relatives, some of whom were old. Why? Well, the power had been out for a while at that point, and it was much cooler outside. We were also behind a section of the house. But my point is this: unless you’re within 50 miles of the eye of a hurricane, you’re not actually in a hurricane. You’re in a tropical storm. Here are the actual wind speeds for Katrina all over the area it affected.

Now, Atlantic storms tend to be strongest in their NE quadrant, due to circulation and other factors. So being to the East of the eye would have been a somewhat different story. And Katrina was a King Kong championship Super Bowl motherfucker of a weather event, legendary and historic. It eventually caused tropical storm-force winds in Ontario. Yet you can still see here that the gusts (and this map represents gusts, not sustained winds) only made it to Category 1 strength where I was.

The lessons of Katrina were actually about decaying infrastructure and the threat of storm surge anyway, at least in New Orleans. Not about wind. But that is for another day. Storm surge, which is the water pushed inland by the force of the storm, can be a concern, especially for a big, powerful storm that’s come a long way. But it has to do so over deep water, like in the Gulf. A storm zipping up the coast, like Sandy, doesn’t have much water to churn up. The predictions for Sandy’s storm surge are 3-5 feet above normal — cause for concern and planning, yes, but not panic.

2. Take a trip to the Islands.

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya.

For all its problems, America is still a first-world nation. For the moment. However, our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean are not so lucky. Largely because of colonial imperialism. (Practiced by America. Let’s leave that one there for now, too.) They get hurricanes quite often, passing right over their tiny island dwelling. And when they do, because they don’t have our infrastructure, the power goes out there’s massive flooding and people die and buildings collapse. So be sure and use this to scare people. Give ’em statistics, see if you can get some video. People will think that the homeless children in Jamaica and/or Cuba will soon equate to homeless children in America. They’ll lose their minds. And keep obsessively watching for updates.    

3. Ignore Nature.

Did you know that when hurricanes pass over mountains — or any kind of land, actually — they get severely damaged? It’s true! Hurricanes need open water to survive; that’s why Iowa doesn’t get any. They also need warm water, the warmer the better. Katrina went from a Cat 2 to a Cat 5 in a matter of hours because it hit a pocket of superheated water. But folks in New York usually don’t have to worry about hurricanes, because the water’s not warm enough up there to keep them potent. So when that hurricane heads up the East Coast, just tell them how strong it is now,not how much it’ll weaken. Also, when the storm passes over Cuba or the Yucatan peninsula, concentrate on the damage it’s causing, not how weak it’s getting — and always, always assure the public that the storm could strengthen. Speaking of which…

4. Speculate, Speculate, Speculate!

Karl Rove and David Frum must really appreciate the phrase “Cone of Uncertainty.”

Who knows what will happen in the future? Criswell, maybe. And perhaps God. Not even those geniuses at the National Hurricane Center, however, know for sure, leaving a giant hole for you and your team to march right through. There could be massive flooding, structural damage, and loss of life. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man could also turn out to be real and march right down the streets of your fair metropolis. Of course, one is more likely to happen than the other. But not that much more. The terms “could be” and “possibly” are your best friends; use them. Here’s a classic example from last of year of how to do it, straight from Reuters.

Irene Could Spell Disaster for New York

In the annals of natural disasters, it doesn’t get much worse than a major hurricane directly striking New York City and Long Island. Hurricane Irene is on a course that will take it up the East Coast from the weekend. While there is still uncertainty about where it will hit and when, the forecast models increasingly suggest some parts of the greater New York area will face some type of storm or hurricane impact. According to New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, the last hurricane to pass directly over the city was in 1821 – and it caused tides to rise 13 feet in one hour, flooding all of lower Manhattan to Canal St. But for Long Island, the threat is much worse. People still talk about the Long Island Express of 1938, a Category 3 storm that the U.S. government has said would cause $40 billion in damage if it hit today.

I’ve highlighted the bullshit to make it stand out.

Notice that the article assumed that Irene would make landfall as a major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) “when” it hits downtown NYC, a statement it immediately backed off of, replaced by the more vague “some parts of the greater New York area.” It then raised the specter of a hurricane hitting Manhattan, while glossing over the obvious takeaway: this happens about once every two centuries. And the massive flooding of downtown in 1821 was perchance somewhat exacerbated by the fact that it was the early 19th century.  Manhattan in the late 19th century looked like this:

That ’38 hurricane? It mostly missed downtown NYC. It hit Long Island, though, causing $4 (not, as the article incorrectly states, $40) billion in damage in 2011 dollars. And about 800 people were killed, which was not uncommon for a major hurricane in those days. Most of those deaths, however, occurred in Rhode Island. Which apparently does not merit a story.

Hurricane Irene caused $19 billion in damage across a dozen coastal states, killing almost 50 people. The storm surge was 1 to 5 feet above normal tidal level, causing massive flooding of rivers and the areas around them. About a foot of rain fell on the East Coast, and since even tropical storm winds are powerful enough to knock down trees and power lines, millions lost power. All this made Irene… a hurricane. The destruction of New York? No.  

5. Generate the Cycle of Fear.

This is an easy one. People, as Howard Beale once informed us, think like the tube. So when you scare everyone half to death, be sure and send a local camera crew out to show everyone freaking out, lining up to buy gas, stocking up on water and bread, eating each other’s babies, etc. That makes the fear seem justified, which frightens people even more, and then you can show that. It’s a great scam. (Bonus points if you film old ladies crying. That’s always a winner.)

People lining up for gas in Miami. Which Irene did not get near.

6. Pretend you’re helping. 

Yeah, I know. The station sent you to meteorology school for some six-month course. You don’t actually know a lot about the weather. You get the latest updates and probability estimates from the National Weather Service, you read them on the air, and then you head to the bar downstairs and knock back a few before the next hourly update, which will find you saying the exact same things over and over again, because the next real update doesn’t happen for three hours. It’s exhausting. So spice it up! Read some report of a farmer who thought he saw some rain. Send some poor bastard out to the beach to show how the waves are slightly higher than normal. Take the stray aberrations in those spaghetti models and spook your audience with a “what if.” Talk about what would happen if that high pressure system moved away, which you already know it won’t. Above all, remind the viewers that you’re only doing all this to protect them, and that they can never be too safe with this kind of thing, and that you’re mere tireless public servants. And now a word from Home Depot.

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