Cashing in on Crying Wolf

How news networks profit via hurricane fear mongering

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One of the painful truths about weather journalism is that television networks tend to exaggerate the threat posed by killer storms like Hurricane Irma to manipulate the public, lift their ratings and increase advertising revenue.

This tendency is illustrated by the satellite photo below. It depicts Hurricane Floyd - not Irma.

The photo was taken in 1999, not 2017, when a hurricane even bigger than Irma threatened Florida and the other Bible Belt states of the Southeast. Floyd packed maximum winds and prompted the same Armageddon-like warnings.

How much damage did this killer storm do to Florida?

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Nevertheless, the talking heads of The Weather Channel, CNN and Faux News have conveniently neglected to include Floyd in their historical comparisons. They do this because it's easier and more profitable for them to cry wolf than to tell you the painful truth, which is that these "killer storms" often peter out before reaching the United States.

Simplistic messages that treat viewers like idiots are the only messages the publicly traded networks seem to be capable of sharing. They neither trust their own ability to communicate painful truths nor our willingness to take precautions which may not seem justified after the fact.

Why?

It's sheer elitism.

Apparently the masses are only smart enough to build the homes these elitist gas bags live in, grow their food, build their cars and educate their children. But we cannot be trusted to think for ourselves or to add up two and two to equal four in an emergency.

Hurricane Floyd swerved north just shy of the coast and rumbled over the Bahamas, doing terrible damage, as a huge contingent of U.S. reporters and photographers shadowed its every move from the coast. 

It reversed course a few days later and pulverized the poor Bahamas yet again. The same band of gypsy journalists and storm chasers continued to shadowing it from the mainland U.S. like a huge flock of locusts. Everywhere the media went went, pizza and beer died.

When Floyd finally made landfall in North Carolina a week later it did so as a tropical storm, which washed clean the occupants of the Tarheel State's densely populated pig farms. Overflowing pig manure lagoons were the biggest danger to Weather Channel viewers.

What's the moral of this story?

Scientists still cannot predict where these Cape Verde Hurricanes will go with precision. They have a general idea of the most likely path the storms born in the warm waters off West Africa will take. Nothing more.

That's what a storm track is.

Does that mean you should do nothing?

Hell no.

You need to get your ass to safety. That means high ground and big, old, concrete courthouse-style buildings. It means packing the kids into the SUV and heading inland for some Chicago Deep Dish for a few days.

You head inland because mountains severely weaken hurricanes.

Nine out of 10 times these "killer storms" don't live up to all the excitement they generate, but you cannot do anything at the last minute in them. So you have to be an adult, take precautions, and act as if the odds of them hitting your area are 100 percent.

A good place to start is with our Hurricane Prep for Dummies - 2017 Edition

Why do we give it such an insulting name?

Because we know who we're dealing with here. Ya'll ain't fooling nobody.

However, we also know that even a dummy is a lot smarter than the Weather Channel thinks. And we know that we're capable of communicating the threat to you honestly and compellingly. Sans bullshit.

Listening to people who have never been hit head-on by a killer hurricane talk about storm prep is like listening to a 13-year-old boy talking about sex. It's not particularly enlightening.

You need to understand that if Irma doesn't hit your hometown, you're not an idiot for taking the proper precautions. Any more than you are for thinking you can win in Las Vegas or by playing the Lottery.

How do I know?

I've covered more than 15 of these things as a journalist and been through at least another five as a civilian. I did the body count in St. Rita's after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and lived though three weeks without power and potable water in Houston after Hurricane Ike in 2008.

I was on the first relief flight into the Bahamas after Floyd in 1999. What I saw there was sobering.

The geography of some islands had been remade. One enormous hill on Marsh Island was transformed into a yellow spit of land reaching across the marina below, where it was surrounded by a forest of aluminum masts from sunken sailboats. The homes built on the hill were gone.

In short, you don't want to fuck around with storms like Irma or Floyd even if the odds of not being hit are in your favor. When meteorologists start tossing around phrases like Category-3, Category-4, Category-5 you need to shift into Not-Fucking-Around mode. Immediately.

If you need to be frightened out of your mind to take precautions, watch the Weather Channel.

I don't. I just go.

I have some fun for a few days and then turn around and head home. Laying waste to entire generations of Dark Roast Coffee, Egg McMuffins and Whoppers along the way.


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