TUCKER CARLSON There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis, that appears to be what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Profiting off the virus? Just when things were looking so good. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. For years, U.S. preppers have invested time and money getting ready for imagined doomsday scenarios. So, are they prepped?
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR You can't make up the story anymore. It doesn't work. We've got coronavirus. And it's not hypothetical. It's actually happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, a new podcast about the government response to Katrina sheds light on what to expect in our current national emergency.
VANN NEWKIRK II A lot of the lessons that we should have learned during Katrina were about, how do we redirect government inertia into cutting the red tape to help people?
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
PRESIDENT TRUMP And to this day, nobody's seen anything like that. What they were able to do during World War II and now it's our time we must sacrifice together. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, there's a big difference between what we thought then and what we're fighting now.
PRESIDENT TRUMP It's the invisible enemy that’s always the toughest enemy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet, precisely the same threat is posed by what then and now could be called the enemy within.
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT The American people will not relish the idea of any American cities growing rich in fat in an emergency of blood and slaughter and human suffering.
TUCKER CARLSON There is no greater moral crime than betraying your country in a time of crisis. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fox’s Tucker Carlson Thursday night reacting to the story that Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina sold off a boat load of stock just weeks before the market crashed because of the virus.
TUCKER CARLSON And maybe there's an honest explanation for what he did. If there is, he should share with the rest of us immediately. Otherwise, he must resign from the Senate and face prosecution for insider trading. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE By now, you will have heard that on February 27, when the president said this:
PRESIDENT TRUMP It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We know thanks to some tape obtained by NPR that on the same day, Burr attended an event for deep pocketed North Carolinians who said this:
RICHARD BURR There’s one thing that I can tell you about this, it is much more aggressive in this transmission than we have seen in recent history, it's probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It wouldn't be unreasonable to imagine that he drew some of that insight from a private Senate briefing with government scientists in late January, also attended by Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler. The Daily Beast reported that she and her husband, who's incidentally chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, started selling shares the same day as that scientific briefing—somewhere between a million and 3 million dollars worth of shares—and also bought some in a telemarketing company that, thanks to working from home, is doing pretty well.
KELLY LOEFFLER I've seen some of those stories and it's absolutely false and it could not be true. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Loeffler told Fox's Ed Henry Friday that she doesn't control her portfolio. It's overseen by third party advisers.
ED HENRY Who are these third party advisers? They seem to have a pretty good idea about where the market was headed?
KELLY LOEFFLER Well, certainly I'm not involved in the decisions around buying and selling. There's a range of different decisions made every day that I'm not involved in. And certainly like any other trade, you can't see into the future. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE If the reporting is, in fact, true. Last month, Senators Loeffler and Burr and others could have chosen not to profit from inside information. They could have broken ranks with the president and warned the nation forthrightly based on the best available science of the peril they faced. And now, in response to calls across the political spectrum, they could resign. But this era is about money, not about shame.
HARRY LIME Look down there. Would you feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped - would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the 1949 film, The Third Man, Harry Lime, who profiteers in postwar Austria by selling tainted penicillin to kids, tells his friend Holly Martins, that's what the grown ups do.
HARRY LIME Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat. I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It's the same thing. They have their five year plans, so have I. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lime claimed to have a five year plan, and that puts him ahead of some of our current leaders who seem barely able to see a few weeks ahead. Here at On the Media, we've been thinking about time, how we perceive it as disaster approaches and when it strikes. Earlier this week, we heard about an art project, a video featuring a range of Italians offering comfort and advice to themselves of 10 days ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This exercise seemed quite familiar because when I was a kid, I'd often talk to myself in the past and sometimes the future. Guess I had a lot of time on my hands. But anyway, it was this Italian video that really got us thinking about time. Some people, like the cast of Big Brother in Germany and those people on a 25-day rafting trip across the Grand Canyon, and actor Jared Leto, just back from a long meditation, had no time to prepare emotionally or otherwise.
STEPHEN COLBERT Some people are just finding out about it now, like Jared Leto and this is true, who only yesterday became aware of Coronavirus after returning from a 12-day isolated meditation trip. Man, it must suck to return from isolation, only to have to find out, you have to go back into isolation, especially because Leto’s last entry and his vision journal said day 12 of isolation, can't wait to get back and spend time with groups of 10 or more people while we kiss on the mouth. But, first stop is the store. I'm all out of toilet paper. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But he and the others who couldn't see it coming have friends and family and local officials to help them get up to speed. Why did it take us so long, though, to act? Why? When we had ample warning and offerings of help. President Trump on Tuesday:
PRESIDENT TRUMP I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic. All you had to do is look at other countries. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Trump on the 10th.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Well, I don't think it's a big deal. I would do it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But let's skip past the proclivities of this president and consider America. This past week, Psychology Today posted a letter about the role perceptions of time play in a nation's response to existential threats. It was sent to psychologist Mark Whitman by the Italian clinical psychologist Massimo Agnoletti. Massimo talks about the theory put forth a dozen years ago by Philip Zimbaldo of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment that a person's behavior can be roughly predicted by whether they focus chiefly on the past, the present or the future, and whether they do so with joy or dread. And the same goes for societies. In fact, wrote Annuletti, that may be why South Korea and Italy, which he deems comparable in size and in the efficiency of their health systems, fared so differently in this crisis. Individuals and institutions that are more fatalistic, more focused on the hedonistic present underestimate possible risk factors and the consequences of their behavior.
According to Agnoletti, that helps explain the delayed Italian response. Whereas future oriented South Korea swiftly imposed highly restrictive measures respected by its citizens and thus suffered only a fraction of Italy's losses. It is, of course, a perilous thing to generalize about national character. No national character, including ours, can be easily drawn. But in Agnoletti’s equation, we may well have shown ourselves to be leaning more Italian with regard to COVID-19. We have an unhealthy relationship with time. We live in a present that is both contrived and confined. We vacation in a fictional past, and we talk about the future, but we don't go there. When COVID-19 was in the future, the nearest of futures, we didn't see it. Not really. Not enough to decisively act. Since our founding, we've suffered stock market crash, after panic, after bust, after recession, after crash, and we forget every one. We dismiss the climate change cassandras even as we're slammed by intensifying hurricanes, wildfires, drought and floods, we shut out the world, which is the present and the future and are not prepared.
COVID-19 is here now, and America will spend and spend for the present. But we won't pay for the preparations we need to weather the many heat-related diseases and disasters that await us because we're perched on a wafer thin slice of the present and have no vision to spare for a future that anyone, anywhere who believes in a future could easily see.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, they've been getting ready for the big one for years, but is the prepper community ready for this one?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. Whatever else we've learned amid this pandemic is that the world was and remains woefully unprepared. But not everyone in the world. For one cohort, COVID-19, has presented the very crisis and inevitable chaos they've long waited for. Sometimes called the big one. They are preppers also known as survivalists, who stockpile food, guns and emergency equipment in expectation of the eventual collapse of society. Our producer Micah Loewinger immersed himself in the prepper media sphere. Hey, Micah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD So you've been reading prepper blogs, reading prepper fiction, listening to prepper podcasts and watching prepper YouTubers. Anything that's jumped out at you?
MICAH LOEWINGER Well, the first thing that struck me was a kind of subdued glee. Here's a guy who calls himself John Jacob Schmidt, founder of Amran, a secretive prepper ham radio network.
JOHN JACOB SCHMIDT The preppers from being made fun of. Before now, the people that are easier to make fun of are the people that are panicking.
MICAH LOEWINGER I also listen to Forest Garvin, the founder of Prepper Net, a platform that organizes local prepper meetups all around the country.
FOREST GARVIN We knew this day was common. Some of us live for this day.
MICAH LOEWINGER And this is Jack Spirko, host of the Survival Podcast, which claims to reach 25,0000 daily listeners.
JACK SPIRKO You are an irresponsible clown if you don't have at least 20 to 30 days of staying power.
MICAH LOEWINGER One prepper influencer emailed me and said, we're not the ones rushing to the supermarket, all panicked, hoarding all the toilet paper. We were the people who were stocked up months ago, years ago, and we're sharing with our friends and family. The AP and The New York Times have run stories quoting preppers saying things like, “Our time has come. We're ready. People are asking for our help now.”
BOB GARFIELD So there's your barely suppressed glee, kind of who's the crackpot now? These canned goods are so delicious. But apart from the schadenfreude, I can't imagine that anyone in this crisis could really be gleeful. It isn't that, is it?
MICAH LOEWINGER Every time I encountered that line, you know, our time has come on a prepper podcast, it was also coupled with real concern, confusion, conflicting information.
We can't do our jobs effectively if we start from a point that is divorced from reality. Calm the F down.
I'm telling you, God has not given us the spirit of fear. We're not supposed to be afraid. You need to have the knowledge to be able to protect your family in all circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD I'm wondering about irony, because if this culture follows Fox News and the like, until a couple of days ago, they've been told that the pandemic is mostly political hype stirred by the media in conspiracy with the deep state and the left. Do they even believe in the catastrophe that they've been preparing for?
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, they're assessing the risk. But who exactly they should listen to, who they should trust has been a source of tension.
Some days you look at the news, it's taken over the world. We're all going to die.
MICAH LOEWINGER A tension between a fundamental distrust of the government and the hyperpartisan urge to defend President Trump, take him at his word, even as he downplayed messaging from the World Health Organization.
You watched Trump yesterday, he just kind of made a 180 degree turn and said, well, it's not that bad. Don't worry about it. We got it handled. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I heard this story about how the media and the deep state are intentionally sabotaging the stock market to hurt Trump's reelection chances.
The left is literally salivating, it's disgusting, but the left is literally salivating over the opportunity they have.
MICAH LOEWINGER Or that Coronavirus had been concocted in an American lab by liberal elites to combat overpopulation. And so the more time I spent in this prepper mediasphere, the less I bought into the narrative that this group of people are uniquely prepared for the pandemic. In fact, I spoke with one expert who told me that Coronavirus has rattled the prepper world to its very core.
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR I’m an ethnographer and I spent about 12 years in the field with right wing paramilitary organizations, survivalists, etc. I was a member. I was a participant observer. I belonged.
MICAH LOEWINGER Richard Mitchell Junior is professor emeritus of sociology at Oregon State University and author of Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times. He thinks that preppers were never really prepared for this moment and that the whole idea of survivalism has been turned on its head by Coronavirus. Bear with me while I spool out his argument. It's really psychoanalytical, but I think it helps explain some of the things we were just talking about. I'll start with what's probably the most famous depiction of this subculture, the National Geographic TV series called Doomsday Preppers.
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR We had very long discussions with the producers of that series. You know, we talked about the phenomena of survivalism and then they went out and created that utter fabrication. It was made to match what the expectations were about, what were people were going to find.
MICAH LOEWINGER The show mocked more than anything else. It was a punching bag depicting people acting out their fantasies and the least charitable way possible.
Today, Michael is teaching Emily about the importance of the Robin's distress call, which he believes could give the family a full five minutes to prepare for any approaching danger. All right. This one's not out, but tell me what it is, because it's really important. Ready? Yeah. Know that one. That means somebody is coming with a lot of angry energy. Okay? [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The New York Times called the series, “anti-life” and, “full of contempt for humankind.” Mitchell felt that NatGeo didn't make an earnest attempt to understand why people spend so much of their time and resources prepping. And this is before coronavirus, of course.
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR First of all, it's not a response to fear. People are not running away from, they're not escaping. They're in fact, looking for something that is missing in their life. Modern culture comes to us all packaged and ready, made. We've got Big Macs and election year politicians and stock trades. And we are given an opportunity to really only consume culture. And for most people, that's a comfortable notion. But it leaves us aimless and rootless and formless and some people would say useless. Survivalists resist this. They want a place between a rock and a hard spot, a place of resistance, a kind of a firm, gritty antithesis against which they can test their talents and engage their gumption. Imagining a kind of a hands on grappling with hypothetical troubles ahead gives them a sense of purpose.
MICAH LOEWINGER He says, what survivalists prepare for, you know, the end of society scenario that they imagine is deeply personal.
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR People tell stories that match the resources that they have. So if you have chainsaws and pickup trucks and an assault rifle, why then there's some sort of foreign invaders as some sort of hostile entity where we're going to need to be independent on our farm and chop wood and repel the enemy.
MICAH LOEWINGER I should add, there's definitely a spectrum here. I spoke with a 51 year old prepper living in Pennsylvania who told me that the disaster he imagines is losing power for a few months and not being able to get to the supermarket or the pharmacy. Compare that with a much more extravagant story of a chemical engineer--Mitchell calls him Major Suds in his book--who fantasized about a terrorist organization poisoning his city's water supply. He had stockpiled the chemicals necessary to clean up the poison and save the city..
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR Because he was an engineer and he knew all this stuff. He invented a scenario to go with his talent. I mean, I could tell you hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, but they all match what people have the resources.
MICAH LOEWINGER But how is that calculus shifting in the face of Coronavirus?
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR Because you can't make up the story anymore. It doesn't work. We only have one thing that's going on. We can't talk about invaders or floods or EMT now. We've got coronavirus and it's not hypothetical. It's actually happening.
MICAH LOEWINGER So how does that change how people are preparing?
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR People didn't prepare. Understand that? No survivalists ever did survivalism. They lived in a life of fantasy. Nobody ever came to the end of the world or fought off the invaders or started a farm or did any of those things. Did they? Any of those things that you saw on the National Geographic Channel, was any of that real? No. It was all what we're going to do in the future. But the future never came.
MICAH LOEWINGER But the futures come now. So what..
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR Exactly my point. All of those stories that they told don't work anymore. Now we have one tale and we have one empirical phenomena and everybody has to recalibrate their tails, their retelling the news, conspiracy tales to kind of regain control of the narrative. And it's hard to do.
MICAH LOEWINGER So we're starting over. Preparation starts now.
RICHARD MITCHELL JUNIOR No, there isn't any time for preparation. One of the things about survivalism is always comfortably in the future. But not so far in the future that there isn't some urgency. What we're facing, coronavirus, we're facing a phenomenon that is right now,
BOB GARFIELD Mitchell, saying that now that we're actually in the soup, the preppers aren't really prepared?
MICAH LOEWINGER A lot of people are ironing out the kinks in their preps. And that might mean picking up a lot of gear that you didn't have before. If you spend any time in the prepper mediasphere, it's hard not to notice just how many opportunists are out there beating their drum right now. This is a cash grab moment.
BOB GARFIELD To play, not necessarily to the prepper crowd, but to sudden onset survivalists, to exploit the paranoia, to sell them a whole bunch of stuff that they don't really need.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's hard to say who exactly is scrambling right now, but some people on the other end are making big bucks.
BOB GARFIELD Guns and ammo. Gold. Silver. Homeopathic supplements.
MICAH LOEWINGER Oh, yeah. All of the above. I've been looking at some of the online prepper stores and just all kinds of products are sold out like a 100 person survival kit sold out. Anti break-in reinforcements for, you know, your front door sold out. Solar ovens that when the power goes out you can convert the heat from the sun to cook, sold out. I spoke to the owner of domesdayprep.com, one of the many online stores that carries HASMET suits and other hardcore prepper products. He told me that business has never been so good.
CANADIAN PREPPER If you were a person who, you know, was getting up there in age and you find yourself in a high risk population or you have other comorbidities, then something like this, in this would definitely be a life saving option.
MICAH LOEWINGER This YouTuber, he goes by the name Canadian prepper, pitched his 360000 subscribers on military grade gas masks, which conveniently he sells in his own online store. Even the more mainstream influencers have gotten into the prepper game. Khloe Kardashian has used her Instagram empire to advertise Judy, a sleek, urban, millennial focused brand.
KHLOE KARDASHIAN So I wanted to share something with you. This is a Judy box. This is basically an emergency kit with everything and anything you could want in case of an emergency. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I just checked the Judy website and they're cheaper. Products are already sold out. It's
BOB GARFIELD Like, for example?
MICAH LOEWINGER Like a prepper fanny pack.
JACK SPIRKO And if you're listening to somebody that's selling you, here's all the things that you need to buy. And by the way, pay me for that information or buy it from me. You probably should stop listening to that source.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's prepper Jack Spirko. Again. Rather than cashing in and he seems to be playing the long game. There is one fascinating episode of his show, The Survival Podcast, in which he argues that rushing the market was the mistake that prepper companies made in the lead up to Y2K. Companies that advertise like it was the end of the world didn't last that long after the 2000s, when you know the world didn't end.
JACK SPIRKO And by 2008, 95 percent or more of them were gone. They didn't exist. And I said really, really quick to myself, “Hey, self, you can't build a business on preparedness with this model, because when the crisis du jour goes away. Right, then you are going to go away, too. If you build on hype and crisis only.”
BOB GARFIELD So basically, panic sells. But if you push panic too hard, the market will eventually punish you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Exactly. His podcast slogan is the things we can all do to live a better life. If times get tough or even if they don't, he doesn't think coronavirus is actually the big one. And the other prepper podcasters that I've been listening to seem to agree. If the people who claim to know the most about the end times don't think it's coming quite yet, I think I find solace in that.
BOB GARFIELD At a time like this, I guess I do too. Micah, thank you.
MICAH LOEWINGER Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD When it comes to shaping the prepper imagination, describing what the end of American civilization would look like. No author has been more influential than bestselling novelist and blogger James Wesley Rawles. His debut book, Patriots, secured a devout cult following and spawned a genre of prepper oriented post-apocalyptic fiction. Slate staff writer Rebecca Onion stumbled upon Rawles' work a few years ago. Rebecca, welcome to OTM.
REBECCA ONION Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Rawles seminal novel Patriots. It's the sort of doomsday preppers mates walking dead with maybe just a touch of The Turner Diaries. Is that about right?
REBECCA ONION Well, it's interesting because he very specifically calls himself not a racist. So he would contest at least that part of it. So the premise of the book is that there's a economic collapse. So his idea is that all of government is going to fall down.
[CLIP - from the audiobook for “Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles”]
The riots started soon after inflation bolted, passed, but 1000 percent more. Detroit, New York and Los Angeles were the first cities to see full scale rioting and looting. [END CLIP]
REBECCA ONION And the book is about a group of people who have thought this is going to happen for a long time and have gotten their place in Idaho ready for that eventuality.
[CLIP - from the audiobook for “Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles”]
While the Dow Jones average had slumped its first 1900 points, Padbury made his mobilization calls to the six members of his retreat group still living in the Chicago area. [END CLIP]
REBECCA ONION It's an extremely detailed book about everything they do down to a million different lists of the kind of food they have, the medical supplies, the knives, the guns, all the different modifications they make to the property. It's all part of the narrative in a way that a sort of our standard literary book would not be able to support.
BOB GARFIELD What's the story he's telling?
REBECCA ONION OK. So the story is of a group of people who together come to believe and convince each other that this economic collapse is going to come about. And it's about the different ways that they put aside money and then use that money to buy their read out.
[CLIP - from the audiobook for “Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles”]
It had a low population density. It was more than six hours drive from the nearest major metropolitan area, Seattle. The entire region had deep, rich topsoil and diverse agriculture. [END CLIP]
REBECCA ONION And to arm themselves and to get the groceries and to basically just to create everything that they need to create. It's also about how they think about what kind of skills each person is going to need, how they parcel out between themselves, whatever in specialties are going to be. They make plans for how they're going to get from where they live to this place. So some of them are living there and then some of them have detailed plans for how they're going to get the hell out of Dodge once everything goes down. Then it's about the collapse actually happening and them executing those plans.
BOB GARFIELD They have to deal with the threats that they perceive and they deal with them violently.
REBECCA ONION They do. And that is one of the major things that is hard for me in reading this genre of fiction. One of the sort of collective assumptions I think of all of the authors who write this stuff is that you will have to kill to defend your family.
[CLIP - from the audio book for “The Jakarta Pandemic” by Steven Konkoly]
How did things spiral this far out of control? So far gone that he found himself lying under a neighbor's place in a blizzard, eagerly waiting to kill. He had to do it for the good of the neighborhood and society in general, but most importantly, for the immediate safety of his family. [END CLIP]
REBECCA ONION And that the difference between the people who will survive and thrive and the people who will not is the ability to do that. And it's a foreign idea to me.
BOB GARFIELD Patriots has many of the trappings, as you mentioned, of mainstream post-apocalyptic fiction, the band of survivors working together to survive the socio economic apocalypse. But it's as you've alluded to, there are noteworthy differences. Least subtle is Rawles’ style of storytelling.
REBECCA ONION Sure. The inventory passages, it's as though he knows that his readers will not only tolerate, but kind of want to know what kind of, for example, knives people are considering buying. So he writes for skinning knives, most of the members bought standard mass-produced case and buck knives.
[CLIP -- from the audiobook for “Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles”]
But a few opted for custom knives made by Andy Sarchinella, Trinity Knives and Ruana. Most of them also bought a Leatherman tool and a CRKT holding knife. Kevin bought an expensive new Lyle gray ghost with Micarta grip panels. Against Kevin’s advice, Dan Fong bought a double-edged Syke’s Fairbairn British commando knife. [END CLIP]
REBECCA ONION Kevin warned him it was an inferior design. He preferred knives that could be used for both utility purposes and for combat. And of course, Kevin turns out to be right. I think of it as like a gearhead approach to fiction.
BOB GARFIELD Give me an example of quintessential post-apocalyptic fiction that is not quintessential prepper fiction.
REBECCA ONION Well, there's something like the book The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, which will hurt your heart right now, Lucifer’s Hammer, which is about a comet. Then more recently, there's been a number of ones that people are probably familiar with, like California by Edan Lepucki or Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which is the one that I've seen everyone talking about recently. That's about a pandemic. These are not stories of people who are prepared for what happens to them in any way. And in fact, often the story is about their woeful under preparedness and they're coming to terms with their under preparedness. There's also just not that many lists in them.
A major plot difference that I would see between more mainstream post-apocalyptic literary fiction and prepper fiction is in the former, you've got people who are sort of every man, every woman coming to terms with what is happening, some big event that has happened. And there's always a period of denial where they're sort of wondering if maybe the government will come to help them in the Walking Dead TV series. They're going to the CDC in the first season and then of course when they get to the CDC…
REBECCA ONION No one is there. And it's just a mess. Whereas in proper fiction. It starts with the protagonist already knowing all of that from the beginning. Having done a lot of reading and having done a lot of social theorizing and basically the horrible event that happens that tosses everyone and into chaos is there a time to start using all that stuff so the plot unfolds with them pulling knowledge out of their metaphorical rucksack to apply to this situation. Satisfied that they knew what to prepare for.
BOB GARFIELD Look, it's easy to be dismissive of this genre or even to ridicule it. But you think that prepper fiction is nothing to look down on. That it, “reveals dark truths about American virtues.” What does that mean?
REBECCA ONION Well, first of all, I think that it's always a good thing to do to have a better understanding of what the material underpinnings of your life are. I mean, the security stuff aside with the guns and the defensiveness against other people, what they would say, oh, you can never put that aside. But putting that aside, just like having an understanding of where your water comes from, an understanding of what the growing seasons are like in your area, all that stuff is stuff that reading this kind of book made me think more about. And it also makes me think more about what I would be willing to do to help other people in a situation like this if I had more than them, who I would ask for help if I had less, what the social configuration would be like in a situation like this. Now, would I necessarily hew to everything that these authors are arguing in terms of the morality of everything? I don't know if I would be that kind of person. But having thought about it is better than not having thought about it, even if it does make me anxious.
BOB GARFIELD You've been just completely sucked into this genre. How can you not at this stage be sitting in your apartment with your AK 47 locked and loaded ready to protect home and hearth?
REBECCA ONION You don't know that I'm not, Bob. One of the things about prepping you don't tell people what you've got.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca, thank you very, very much.
REBECCA ONION Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca Onion is a staff writer at Slate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, are there lessons to be learned from the government and media response to Katrina that could be applied to this national emergency?
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. A force of nature having its way, a monstrous calamity long predicted by experts. Governments too conflicted or indifferent to have funded a capable protective infrastructure, a catastrophic delay of days upon the monster's arrival. Wild rumors turning public, fear grounded in racism against the victims. And for the most vulnerable among us, death. We've been here before.
NEWS REPORT I think the biggest concern that they have is the survivability of these people that are still trapped.
NEWS REPORT Thousand upon thousands of homes were flooded completely up to the roof line. It was absolutely an amazing sight.
NEWS REPORT You could hear people yelling for help, you could hear the dogs yelping. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, the killer cyclone ravaged the Gulf states and particularly the city of New Orleans, which endured a nightmare of flooding, privation and more than 1400 deaths amid an utter failure of local, state and federal governments to manage the compounding crisis, much less to prevent it.
NEWS REPORT Again, I want to thank you all for, and Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24... [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There is a legal term: depraved indifference to human life. Also known as second degree murder. And it's hard to see Katrina as anything but such a crime on a grand scale. A new podcast series from The Atlantic called Flood Lines, hosted by staff writer Vann Newkirk II, reexamines Katrina, the force majeure natural disaster, but also the unnatural disaster. What Newkirk calls the betrayal.
VANN NEWKIRK II Because there is an expectation that the government will look out for your well-being when things go wrong. People begin to see that that's not quite true. And that's a betrayal.
BOB GARFIELD During disasters, some people are usually in it in the midst of it, and others are watching it in the comfort of their living rooms. You found someone who rode out the storm in a home that just happens to be one of the very few that had working cable.
VANN NEWKIRK II Yeah, that was Alice Kraft-Kerney She rode out the storm in her brother's house in the Lower Ninth Ward. They had this really surreal situation where they were waiting for help, but also were watching the media distortions of places like the Superdome, the Convention Center basically being spun up in real time.
NEWS REPORT Gangs of thieves who armed themselves from local stores now roam the streets, looting even the hospital.
NEWS REPORT It was open season. The city has been ravaged by the hurricane. And now it's being ravaged by some of the citizens.
NEWS REPORT Tourists likened to downtown Baghdad.
NEWS REPORT Ambulances halted their evacuation of people from the Superdome this morning when gunshots were fired. [END CLIP]
VANN NEWKIRK II Oftentimes, stories that had been reported by the media had gotten to people on the ground. They had then in turn, amplified and changed pieces of stories. They got back through the media and the media would report on the same thing as if it happened again, so many reports of looting that oftentimes were people having that weird feedback loop where they would see somebody coming out of the store, report it so many times that you would get the sense that there were just hundreds of people who were taking TVs from the same store. But it was really this one person that the police saw.
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned the feedback loop. I mean, with this narrative about the breakdown of civil order, the consequences were worldwide in terms of public perception, but also locally within the crisis itself. Tell me, please, the story of the bridge.
VANN NEWKIRK II The story of Danziger Bridge. Yes, a week after Katrina, groups of people had been basically coming back out to walk around, trying to find out if they'd go back home. There were two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison, on one side of the Danziger Bridge that leads out to New Orleans East. Another family on the other side, citizens trying to survive in a city that had been flooded. There was an erroneous report of an officer under fire on the bridge. Police pulled up to the bridge and a moving truck and began firing on these two families indiscriminately without ever announcing they were police. The families thought that they were being ambushed by a group of murderers. When it was all told, the officers killed two people on the bridge, JJ Rosette and Ronald Madison and wounded most of the other people on the bridge. And then they began a cover up that started with charging Lance Madison and another man, Jose Holmes, with firing at officers. And that was really the tragic end consequence of a week of bad reporting, of rumors, of racially biased reporting on violence.
BOB GARFIELD Well, one of the things we know it did was frighten authorities from sending in first responders or food and water aid to places that they had come to believe were just completely beastial. I'm thinking particularly of the convention center, the Superdome was the official place of refuge, but thousands of people also headed for the convention center, which was a horrific scene.
VANN NEWKIRK II We follow a young woman who was at the convention center in the time before it was recognized and relieved by federal authorities.
When we made it there my stepdad and Jumping Jack left to go find food. And I remember them coming back with pork skins and like three cans of beans. So we just were sitting there, sitting there, now nighttime coming. I remember we went to sleep. We went to sleep on the floor. All us.
VANN NEWKIRK II What is left to believe? Especially if you're there for three days and nobody ever comes. There’s no helicopters. There's no trucks still being at war in the Middle East, we see images of American might sending tanks and trucks and everything overseas. And yet you can't get somebody to come to the convention center to at least say we know you're here. What we found among people who were at the convention center, they were not noticed and relieved until Friday. Four to five days after the storm.
BOB GARFIELD And that actually was one of the moments when the national press did distinguish itself. There had been Anderson Cooper's live CNN demands for aid to the city. But there was one particular interview on NPR, former All Things Considered host Robert Siegel with then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
ROBERT SIEGEL We are hearing from our reporter who is on another line. Thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food, zero.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF As I said, I am telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something.
ROBERT SIEGEL Just a second when you say that, you know, when you say we shouldn’t listen to rumors. These are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes, they've covered wars in refugee camps. These aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF Well, I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water. [END CLIP]
VANN NEWKIRK II And actually, after he got off the interview with NPR, he sent a message back later.
ROBERT SIEGEL Secretary Chertoff spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of homeland security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center. And he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives. [END CLIP]
VANN NEWKIRK II After that moment, you started seeing a much more introspective coverage of the media itself. You saw the first David Carr columns on how badly the media had done its job in the early days. And also, you just had a better sense of the facts on the ground. The fall of war, the initial disaster, it started clearing up and media found the story, which was a basic lack of preparedness and response from government authorities.
BOB GARFIELD When you talk about the names and faces of the government response to Katrina, there's obviously Bush and then there's Michael Chertoff. And most notoriously, there's Michael, heck of a job, Brownie Brown, the former director of FEMA. Now, you interviewed him for like six hours?
VANN NEWKIRK II Yes.
BOB GARFIELD What did he have to say?
VANN NEWKIRK II I was a teenager when Katrina came, and I just always wondered, how could you just not care about people in that way? And so I was asking the questions that I carried with me for my entire life. Like, why didn't you do everything in the tool kit that you had to help those folks in the convention center? Why did it take so long to figure out what's happening? What was going on?
BOB GARFIELD Now, we heard tape of Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, denying to Robert Siegel having any knowledge of the people who were stranded in the convention center. And at the time, Michael Brown had made similar denials. But here's a part of your conversation with him.
VANN NEWKIRK II How could so many people have missed that people were, thousands of people were at the biggest building outside the Superdome in the city?
MICHAEL BROWN We didn't.
VANN NEWKIRK II Go on.
MICHAEL BROWN We knew they were there.
VANN NEWKIRK II So I'm trying to, how long did you know, after the storm?
MICHAEL BROWN I knew immediately.
VANN NEWKIRK II Immediately?
MICHAEL BROWN I knew that night that people had broken into the convention center.
BOB GARFIELD And what's his explanation for that?
VANN NEWKIRK II That's one that still tripped me up in interviews before hours. He said that he had misspoke and that they had known about them all along. He said that in three interviews that day he was sleep deprived. I don't really know what to make of all of it. But OK, let's say FEMA and DHS did know about the people in the convention center who were trapped there for four days. Why did it take four days to get there after they knew for the entire week? That answer baffles me a bit because it seems to be a justification. But actually, if you do know that people are suffering and then wait five days to come, save them. That sounds worse. I'm sorry, I'm still working it out in my head.
BOB GARFIELD So here we are 15 years later dealing with Coronavirus. And you look and you see the pattern of public response, official and otherwise, and you go, “oh my God, it's just horror show deja vu.”
VANN NEWKIRK II I am a bit ambivalent about direct comparisons of any disaster or any other disaster. I think they'll each have their own contours. However, a lot of the lessons that we should have learned during Katrina were about, how do we redirect government inertia into cutting the red tape to help people? I think we're seeing the same exact cycle play out right now with coronavirus, which is you have people who are rather comfortable who don't want to change anything about their lives. You have a government that doesn't really want to acknowledge the severity of what's happening because it's going to mean they have to make life inconvenient for some folks. They have to exhibit a level of care. This might be just an American motif in how we deal with disasters.
BOB GARFIELD The privileging of privilege and the indifference to the risk for the greater community.
VANN NEWKIRK II Indeed.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you one last thing, about 97.8 percent of this series is about contemporaneous events beginning in August of 2005. But you begin somewhere else, not somewhere else geographically, but somewhere else in time. A part of the bayou called Last Island and the year is 1856. Would you take me there?
VANN NEWKIRK II Last island in Louisiana doesn't exist anymore as such, but in 1856, it was a resort island where lots of the wealthy plantation owners and their families and the rich folks in Louisiana will go to hang out, relax. And it was hit by a massive hurricane in 1856 that by some accounts killed about half of the people on the island. And this one is considered by some writers to be the first in a line of storms and floods that have been baked into the cultural history of Louisiana. What I took away from it, though, was there was a man named Richard who was enslaved, who did live, who tried to convince his master and his family to seek shelter with him and they did something about his story, the fact that I didn't know much about him, the fact that he had been lost in history, despite being the one who was wise enough to live. I think it says something about memory. What we do remember, what we choose, remember and what we choose to forget.
BOB GARFIELD The rich white landowners and slaveholders were the ones who perished and Richard survived more or less the opposite of what took place in Katrina. Is there something you're trying to say?
VANN NEWKIRK II The people that I remember in the first case are the ones who didn't make it. He's forgotten. I really wanted to chronicle people in the present day who are like him, maybe descended from folks like him to make sure there are no people like that who are forgotten in the same way we're in it now. We're gonna be in it again sometime in the future. And if we don't learn from them, then history does tend to repeat.
BOB GARFIELD Vann, I want to thank you for this conversation and for the series, which is of staggering illumination and beauty.
VANN NEWKIRK II Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD Vann Newkirk II is the host of Flood Lines, a new podcast series from The Atlantic.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn. Major shout-outs, not just to our technical staff, but all of the New York Public Radio heroes without whom this show would not have been possible. Looking at you, Jason Isaac and the entire I.T. department.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.