A Word About the Americo-Centric Nature of Our Storm Coverage


Sep 14, 2017

Written by Mary Buffett

Like most people, I found myself watching the recent hurricane coverage and kept my fingers crossed for my friends and loved ones. Whether you are in Los Angeles or Thailand, you know when a brewing storm is getting serious when Basic Cable art departments and CNN are coming with new storm graphics and ominous sounding theme music. However, watching a storm emerge while you are in Asia on business makes on feel far more helpless; instead of being stateside in front of a television, I found myself thousands of miles to the East.

There is an odd choreography of what takes place on Basic Cable when these terrible storms emerge and wreak havoc. At first, it may only merit a small mention but as it picks up strength and gets closer to the Caribbean, these storms dominate coverage. We see network correspondents blown around in color coordinated windbreakers. There are obligatory shots of people who are wandering around the shoreline for one last look when they should be miles from harm’s way. We hear from Old Codger-types who claim that they have never run away from a storm and have no intention of leaving anytime soon. Sadly, there is always some tragedy of a surfer who dies because he wanted to hit the waves one last time before the storm slammed into the beaches. Finally, Weather Channel viewership explodes and they become The New York Times of all things storm-related because they are chock full of meteorologists. Finally, and for a moment, phrases like “eye wall” or “storm surge” become part of our national lexicon, only to recede once the storm passes.

However, when you watched the coverage of Hurricane Irma on American Basic Cable, you would think that only American coastal cities suffered the largest blow when in fact the opposite is true. These storms have no national allegiance; they track where the weather patterns take them.

I am surprised that Basic Cable has largely bypassed the Category 5 obliteration of Caribbean islands like St Martin/St Maartin or the northern shores of Cuba. When I look at the aerial shots of many Caribbean islands impacted by Irma, among them the United States Virgins Islands, these communities and their populations have been decimated. While they might be in Irma’s wake, the growing story of deprivation in these places merits more coverage.

Yet Americans yawn.

Why is that? Perhaps part of it goes to an unconscious native bias held by domestic viewers of American basic cable—American stories always overshadow international news. It also reminds me of how American Olympic coverage is shown on domestic networks, which features the United States as well as a number of athletes from other countries who almost appear as supporting players. Having spent part of the summer abroad on business in Asia, I am struck how objectively the BBC and CNN International covered the storms verses how they were covered domestically in the States. They followed the storm’s path and as it passed through a variety of locations before it turned north to Florida’s west coast, there was detailed coverage with people on the ground in places like St Martin/St Maartin or St Barts, where an overwhelming majority of the structures were either destroyed or seriously damaged.

They had time to spend in a number of these ravaged islands that American Basic Cable lacked.

Perhaps Americans don’t want to hear from the Chief Meteorologist of Anguilla because they are more concerned about American ports of call; that is a fair comment. However, our backyard extends beyond the beaches of Florida and our national attention span should not be distracted just because something takes place beyond territorial waters. What’s more, whatever fuel shortages remain in Tampa is minimal and temporary to what is going on in both sides of St Martin/St Maartin. For these battered island cities where tourism drives their economy, it will take years—maybe even decades— for a full recovery.

However, there is one great point to consider during the Hurricane Irma coverage and it should deliver a great deal of pride. Today, we have so much technology decked against storms that emerge in the Atlantic and we have never been better when it comes to identifying them, tracking them using a variety of predictive models, and getting people out of harm’s way. When you look at the collection of geosynchronous satellites over the Atlantic, and army of meteorologists, the loss of life has been dramatically reduced in the past century. While that offers little comfort to families who have been impacted by the loss of a loved one, we are getting much better.

To see how far we have come in the last century, compare the response of Hurricane Irma to the Great Galveston Hurricane, which took place in September 1900. This was long before anybody at the National Hurricane Center gave these tropical storms names. There were certainly no NOAA satellites high above the earth or any early warning system to facilitate evacuation on the ground. This was also long before there was a regulatory framework where structures were built to withstand wind gusts. All these residents knew in 1900 was that the barometric pressure quickly dropped along the Texas shoreline but it was too late for anybody to escape to higher ground before all hell broke loose along Galveston Island.

In the end, the loss of life was both catastrophic and between 8,000 and 12,000 people died as the Category 4 storm slammed into the coastline.

Also since Hurricane Katrina, the interagency communication has improved dramatically. Nobody wants to be Ray Nagin, the now-incarcerated former mayor of New Orleans who seemed to be unsure of how to manage the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, which was coming his way. Federal state and local agencies and personnel have also learned the hard lessons of Katrina too. Governor Rick Scott of Florida appeared on television 24-7 communicating to both residents as well as federal, state, and local agencies.

Yet as I write this from Asia, I see a serious humanitarian crisis emerging in some of these island communities that were bypassed during Irma’s media build up. Stories of looting and violence are popping up in both sides of St Martin/St Maartin and other places. People forget that the US Virgin Islands is actually part of the United States, not some far-off resort destination for those with air miles to burn. Hurricane Irma brought that economy to its knees.

We are now hearing that the basic staples of life, including adequate food, water, and fuel are in desperate supply. European leaders have been slow to deploy the necessary armed forces to quell the local disturbances. The basic infrastructure has been wiped out and the draw of tourism, which has sustained their economic development for generations, has gone dark and will remain so for some time to come.

This part of the story remains somewhat invisible to many Americans because for all of the coverage on The Weather Channel and other basic cable outlets, once the storm dies down, the real story will fade away in our consciousnesses. Yes, Tampa, Miami, Orlando, Naples and Charleston, SC survived. The chain of Florida islands known as the Keys took a serious hit but they will bounce back.

Basic Cable has a short attention span, but the shortages taking place in the Leeward Islands, St John, St Croix, Philipsburg, and Tortola will fester out of control if massive intervention does not take place very soon. Waterborne diseases like cholera could explode into full-blown epidemics. We Americans have got to realize that once a terrible storm passes through town, there are a number of other off-shore communities who could be in terrible shape—far worse than any American community. When we realize that and come to terms with that stark reality, we become better citizens. We should expect more from Basic Cable too.

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