gustav: the overhype of the century

i’ve always had a pretty healthy disregard for television news and rolling news channels in particular (CNN, Headline News, etc.) but it wasn’t until i watched Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe special on news that i could understand my distaste for it in concrete terms. Now whenever rolling news tries to put itself in the spotlight during big stories, all of the faults that Brooker brings to the forefront seems amplified to me, and now that i live inside of the city of New Orleans, the overhype of hurricane gustav is a glaring example.

clearly anything that has destructive potential of this magnitude is not something to be taken lightly and measures need to be taken to preserve both life and order.  And in that sense, i think the city of New Orleans was fairly successful – the mandatory evacuation of the city, though inconvenient, was, in my opinion, a decent preemptive measure that helped create a sense of calm amongst what was potentially chaotic even though the landfall prediction at the time of hurrication wasn’t slated to hit the city.

the problem is that when something like this is poised to happen, it’s going to cause stress in the citizenry, even those who are used to dealing with hurricanes and particularly those that went through katrina three years ago.  And whether the public’s individual level of stress is high or low, it should be the responsibility of the news and the media to help alleviate that stress and keep the public calm, and the approach that the media took did exactly the opposite.

In the third part of the Screenwipe episode starting around 05:55, Brooker discusses the incident in which Northern Rock Bank was suposedly in danger of going bankrupt and his theory that the media helped contribute and almost seemed to *will* the public to panic based on the way they presented it, and it bears a striking resemblence to how i feel the media handled Gustav several days before the impending landfall.  Local New Orleans news and rolling news channels were giving out contradictary signals in their broadcasts – they would spout out the obligatory, “everyone is urged to stay calm,” while at the same time flashing “GUSTAV IS COMING!!!!!” in big bright letters on the screen, showing weather projections that made it look like it was a certainty that it was going to hit New Orleans dead center, and saying things like, “If this storm remains a category 4 for landfall, there could be catatstrophic consequences!  And it could turn into a category 5, which is not something you want to mess with!”  Mayor Nagin went on record to say that “You need to be scared.  You need to be concerned.  You need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans right now.  [Gustav] is the storm of the century.”

Let’s make sure we have our facts straight.  When the National Hurricane Center makes a five-day forecast projection path, the “projection circle” is predicted based on historical hurricane data for the past 50-60 years.  About a week before landfall, the “projection circle” was stating that the storm could make landfall anywhere from about Houston, TX to Tallahassee, FL – a 700 mile span that had its own margin of error of up to 250 miles.

The reason for this is because even with all of the advancements that have been made in weather technology and prediction, weather in its finest detail is ultimately unpredictable due to chaos theory.  The movement and intensity of tropical storms/hurricanes fluxuates so often that relying upon a five-day landfall projection forecast to tell you what you should do and where you should go is no better than relying on gambling on a roulette table to pay your rent.

But the public isn’t given those sorts of facts.  Instead, they’re given a projection map without proper understanding, they’re given news stations and public figures that scream, “IT’S THE NEXT KATRINA!”, and they’re overwhelmed with other alarmist sorts of sensations that perpetuate and encourage the potential landfall areas to panic and the rest of the nation/world to be given a horribly skewed picture of what is actually happening.

The whole thing was pretty sickening.

And what was even more disgusting to me was watching some of the news coverage after Gustav actually made landfall because i got a very strong sense that the media was *disappointed* that Gustav didn’t hit New Orleans directly.  CNN and CBS’s strong hurricane disaster erections never got to orgasm, and reusltingly they’re all scrambling to find *any* sort of nonsense to report.  Video footage of the Industrial Canal levee which frustratingly refuses to actually break, talk about how New Orleans “isn’t out of the woods just yet!  You never know!”.  And they put on a public face of relief and an implied message that they should be congratulated for helping people feel watched over and thankful that Gustav had little damage impact whilst behind closed doors their debriefing about the whole affair is probably something like, “well, at least Hurricane Hanna could give us good disaster coverage in Florida.”

One of the things that stuck out to me about my first hurricane experience was how different people’s reactions were to it, particularly some of the old citizens that have lived in New Orleans all of their lives.  The common feeling amongst those people was annoyance – annoyance that the city and the universities and the general populace were panicking prematurely based on overhyped and skewed information.  Out of all of the stories and reactions and etc., that one was the one that resonated most strongly to me, and when i thought about it, i realized that their attitude is purely a product of their generation – the ones that grew up before the current paradigm of rolling news and alarmist style media, the ones that watch all of those people scurrying around like headless chickens and laugh, sit on their front porch with a scotch and a cigarette, and wait to ride out whatever comes their way.  The experience and the attitude they have feels like it can be summed up into one basic credo: “Life happens.”  Hopefully it’s one that i will continue to abide by.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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