BROOKE GLADSTONE: For media professionals, hurricanes offer the very best kind of bad news because the story arc is predictable and invariably compelling. First, the gripping countdown as the storm approaches the coast, then shaky shots of tumbling cars and heroic rescue operations, survivors surveying the wreckage, tears of rage and grief. It doesn’t seem hard to understand but, in fact, it is. And it's harder, still, to learn from.
So as the weather wreaks havoc at ever-increasing rates, we offer you, our listeners, the latest in our series of Breaking News Consumer’s Handbooks: American Storm Edition.
About 24-1/2 trillion gallons of water fell on southeast Texas and southern Louisiana this week. Water levels reached over 50 inches in Houston, and the media drew on statistical jargon to convey just how rare that was.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: At this hour, the flooding that is taking place there is being called a “500-year flood,” historic.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: That would be an “800-year flood” event.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s got to be a “500-year flood” or [LAUGHS] a “1000-year flood,” it’s ridiculous.
DR. ROBERT HOLMES: One thing that really bothers me, when I see people calling it a “1000-year flood,” [LAUGHS] we don’t have enough data to really know what the “500-year flood” is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Robert Holmes is the National Flood Hazard Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.
DR. ROBERT HOLMES: The 100-year flood has a 1 in 100% chance of occurring in any given year, technically a 1-percent annual exceedance probability, which means it has a 1% chance. We use existing data that we've been collecting and, in some cases, we have 100 years. In many more cases, it's much less than that. So we’re using 40 to 50 years of data to project out and figure out statistically what is the true 100-year flood. It’s a huge amount of uncertainty. So saying anything more than it's greater than 100-year flood, it really bothers me. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, so what we’re saying is those numbers really aren't that good.
DR. ROBERT HOLMES: Well, the more data we’ve got, the better the estimate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But they don't really say what it sounds like they say.
DR. ROBERT HOLMES: Well, what people think they say [LAUGHS] is that we’re 100% sure what the 100-year flood is. We have uncertainty, and what we do as engineers and scientists is when we give you an estimate of that 100-flood value, we’re also going to give you an uncertainty band. We might tell you that the 100-year flood is X, but there’s a boundary around that that says the true answer lies within me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do we deal with the problem that “100-year flood” heard casually suggests that it's a flood that occurs every 100 years, as opposed to the idea that there is a 1% chance that this flood could occur every year?
DR. ROBERT HOLMES: We’re doing the best we can to educate the public, trying to get that idea across.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that’s Point 1. The one-in-a-century or a five- or ten-century storm designation, often used to determine whether you have to buy flood insurance, may be based on the scantiest of data, which is why those probabilities come with a warning label that you never get to hear.
Moving on, over the course of the week, Harvey lived, thrived and died, as storms do.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This is the radar view of what is Hurricane Harvey, as you just mentioned, downgraded now to a Category 2 from the Category 4 landfall. And it is rapidly starting to weaken.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Hurricane Harvey has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm but it is still slamming the Gulf Texas coast right now.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Hurricane Harvey has now weakened to a tropical storm but the authorities in the United States are warning that Texas will be hit with catastrophic and life-threatening flooding.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It has been downgraded to a tropical depression, but it’s still packing plenty of rainfall as it moves eastward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We think we know what that means, but those categories refer only to wind, which is crucial. It’s also Point 2. A downgraded storm can be as deadly, even deadlier, than those categories suggest.
Gina Eosco is a risk communication consultant, currently working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
GINA EOSCO: Hurricanes encompass many risks, not only wind but storm surge, inland rain and flooding, which we’re seeing devastatingly with Harvey, as well as tornadoes, which we've also seen quite a bit with Harvey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But journalists love to go out in the wind. In fact, during a storm on the East Coast some years back, our own Bob Garfield went out on his deck just to sound windblown.
[CLIP/SOUND OF WIND]:
BOB GARFIELD: I’m standing here on the deck of my home in Virginia, being buffeted by the rain and wind of Hurricane Isabel. I’m here because I live here but it’s an image that you’re probably not unfamiliar with these past few days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the problem isn't so much with the emphasis on wind but on the word “downgrade”? When a hurricane is downgraded to a tropical storm, there's something inherent in that word that suggests the worst is over.
GINA EOSCO: Last Saturday morning, that was my issue. I looked at the national headlines and what I saw was the following, “Harvey downgraded, just a tropical storm. And I thought, oh, no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why?
GINA EOSCO: It’s an invitation, in my opinion, potentially, to return to daily activities, and I didn't want one piece of our message to indicate that the risk has been lowered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the uncertainty of catastrophic weather events, news media can have a hard time saying no to stories about chaos and criminality.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Now, as the situation continues to worsen Houston law enforcement has set its sights on saving lives and preventing looters!
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We’ve got armed robbers last night in the middle of the night.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Does anybody have the courage to say, you're not allowed to steal or hurt other people just because there was a storm?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I mean, what kind of like certifiable savage man-beast do you need to be to walk into a small business — and there are videos of this on Twitter, sadly. I wish I — you know, you can’t un-see it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Point 3. Looting and are the exception, not the rule. Disasters usually bring out the best in people.
SCOTT GABRIEL KNOWLES: Fifty years of social science research indicates that widespread looting is really pretty much a miss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Scott Knowles, professor of history at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.
SCOTT KNOWLES: Looting gets to the media's responsibility to be very careful in the way it portrays neighborhoods that have low socioeconomic status or neighborhoods that are diverse. There’s pretty good evidence, looking at Hurricane Sandy, for example, that crime can actually go down in the midst of a disaster. People want to help, and that is at the local level, you helping your neighbor, it’s at the neighborhood level and it could be at the citywide level. And the media has a responsibility here to be very nuanced in the way it talks about crime in the midst of a disaster, which is that if people are overly concerned about that they may not evacuate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So beware coverage that focuses on the rare case of crime in stressful situations. The same goes for coverage that judges those who stay in harm's way. That’s Point 4. Houston did not declare mandatory evacuation ahead of Harvey but residents who declined to evacuate, even under orders during Matthew in 2016 and Katrina in 2005, were met with public scorn.
BILL O’REILLY: Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans are in that condition [dependency]. They weren’t gonna leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t gonna get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.
SHEP SMITH: Despite the warnings, lots of people here in the United States have said they’re not going anywhere. We will not cover your funerals and we will not feel sorry for you. They’re stocking up supplies, boarding up their homes and hoping, which is moronic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator Rick Santorum even suggested imposing penalties on people who decided to stay in New Orleans. Scott Knowles.
SCOTT KNOWLES: Some people can't leave their homes because of disability or because they have chronic illness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of it has to do with being poor, not having a car, not being able to miss work, all sorts of things that make evacuation, which seems so simple, actually very complicated.
SCOTT KNOWLES: Absolutely. I mean, we also have to take into account the people living in Houston, just like people living in New Orleans, they’re habituated to the risk of flood. And, you know, there’s something a little ironic about this. We want people to be able to manage, psychologically, the risks of the cities in which they live. If people were constantly falling to pieces in Los Angeles every there was a tremor, it wouldn’t be possible to have people living in Los Angeles. So then the government has this very difficult task to say, most days, don't worry about it, but on this day worry about it.
Many people who stayed in New Orleans through Katrina told reporters that, hey, I was here during Hurricane Betsy and, yeah, it was bad and we survived.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another reason to withhold judgment and discount reporting that does, the poor are disproportionately affected by big storms because the cheaper parts of town tend to be the most vulnerable to flooding. Faulty infrastructure and zoning laws that place people in harm's way are products of social inequality, not mother nature, which is Point 5. There is no such thing as a natural disaster.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This morning, the City of Houston wakes up under a mandatory curfew, as authorities focus on public safety during one of America's worst natural disasters.
SCOTT KNOWLES: “Natural disaster” is a very problematic term because it seems to take human agency out of the equation. I actually prefer the term “slow disaster” as a way to get us thinking that disasters are not one-off events. If we think about Houston and Hurricane Harvey, maybe we should talk about a 100-year process of land development and industrial change and industrial development on the Gulf Coast as a way to understand why the water is where it is and why it's so risky to have that kind of flooding in this very densely-packed industrial part of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The various conditions that made southeast Texas right for such a huge flood were covered by many news outlets throughout the week but, as in any big storm, the news was dominated by the heroes, the first responders, the Coast Guard crews who saved thousands of people in Houston this week.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Coast Guard spent the last 24 hours pulling people off roofs in Houston, as Harvey left many residents with no way to go but up to safety.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They’re operating in visibility less than a mile, in some cases, winds gusting over 30 miles per hour. It’s, it’s very dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporters focused on their risky campaigns because it's cinematic and it makes us feel good. But consider the consequences of the hero narrative. In effect, says Knowles, we’re asking our first responders to pay the price for larger systemic problems.
SCOTT KNOWLES: I think when we talk about first responders as heroes, we also need to ask a deeper question about why we’re putting them in harm's way, in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, we’re doing it to save people. [LAUGHS]
SCOTT KNOWLES: Absolutely but, you know, I'm still haunted by photos of firemen going up the staircase in the World Trade Towers on September 11. The Fire Department in New York knew that this could be very difficult, to put out fires in those buildings, and yet, they went anyway, and that’s their duty. And in the culture of first responders, you know, complaining is not part of it. So I think it does fall to the media and I think it falls to the public to ask these questions about whether or not we’re putting them in too much danger. Do we want to have them be so heroic? And are we treating them after a disaster the way that they should be treated? Are they getting the kind of post- traumatic stress counseling they may need or the health support that they may need, as disasters become more frequent?
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m going to keep Professor Knowles here with me for a while because the last couple of points in our handbook are about politics.
SCOTT KNOWLES: I believe that disasters reveal society. They are opportunities for us to actually pull back the curtain and see what some of the deeper commitments and values of a society actually are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So news consumers can expect to see themselves or their nation in the mirror of that coverage.
SCOTT KNOWLES: And that's often, I think, surprising to people because they think of a disaster as an apolitical event and we should rally around our community and not talk about politics. But disasters show us where people live, why they live there and what kind of dangers they may face because of where they live, and it’s deeply political. Disasters reveal to us whether or not we've invested enough in our civil society. Do we have the kind of health care that we need? Do we have the kind of environmental protection that we need? And because disasters are so complex, it's all sort of revealed at once.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've observed that conservative outlets tend to focus on the looting, the sense of panic, you say, a sense that we need strong law enforcement, and, and the liberals will say, this is a flawed government approach, ignoring the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged.
SCOTT KNOWLES: It’s predictable. This sort of partisanship is understandable and it's understandable that the media wants to cover that, but what I would like to see is a much closer look at local politics, particularly around things that may not seem so flashy, like infrastructure spending or zoning, or the legacies of racial segregation, for example, the politics that actually matter in the midst of and after a disaster, not whether or not the President looked presidential when he was standing in the rubble or in front of the firehouse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Congress begins drafting an emergency Harvey relief bill, what sort of rhetoric should we expect?
SCOTT KNOWLES: I think we’re into a new period in American history here. Generally, discussions around relief have been opportunities for members of Congress to show convivial attitudes. You know, you have a senator from one part of the country joining hands with a senator from another part of the country and reaching across the aisle and drafting bills that can support one another. That held through Hurricane Katrina.
In Hurricane Sandy, we saw something very different. The response from Congress was slow, partisan, and the votes that passed the final Hurricane Sandy relief bill broke along party lines. Critics of the bill were saying, there are so many things in here that are pork, that are not related to the disaster. And that reflects, I think, a pretty consistent ideology of many conservatives who don't think the government should be much involved in infrastructure spending or science spending or health spending. A lot of that relief bill was focused on dealing with the deferred maintenance of the transportation system, for example, in New York and New Jersey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Almost all of the bill, whether it was marked for infrastructure or science, had to do with repairing damage, direct damage.
SCOTT KNOWLES: Yeah, there’s no evidence that the money that was spent was pork in any way, but that reflects an idea that I have that the government has a role in keeping our infrastructure in good shape, for example. And so, what you'll see play out, I think, with the Harvey relief bill is that Democrats will want to see spending that can have a long-term impact on making the next storm less costly.
The real thing to watch for will be fights within the Republican Party as to what exactly should disaster relief be. There’s one ideological viewpoint that says that disaster relief should be sandbags and water and temporary shelter and that's about it. Leave the rest of it to the churches, to the communities, to the city, to the local taxpayers and maybe the state. There will be other Republicans who will take a different attitude, and that's how we will predict, I think, the size of the Hurricane Harvey relief.
There’s another aspect of this that’s playing out at the state level. Houston is a Democratic city. The majority of citizens of Houston did not vote for President Trump and for the current governor. So you’re going to see debates playing out at the federal level but also at the state level about, well, does Houston really deserve all of this money and will it be well spent? Disasters are sort of a master class in American federalism. Understanding it in that way shows us, again, that disasters reveal the way we think about the welfare state, environment protection or economic growth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last question. How do you expect global warming to figure into the coverage and how do you think it should?
SCOTT KNOWLES: I’ve been fascinated to see a pretty high level of discussion in many stories about this very question, can we attribute the ferocity of the storm and the amount of water to climate change? That, to me, is a very hopeful sign that the media actually is capable of doing event-level reporting and slow-disaster reporting, at the same time, ‘cause climate change is a classic example of a slow disaster distributed around the world. The direct connection is difficult, and yet, it's impossible to not see that these storms are getting worse, more frequent, and the changing climate certainly must have some role to play in that.
So on Wednesday Craig Fugate, who was the previous FEMA administrator, sent out a really remarkable tweet, He said, my challenge to emergency managers, can you say climate change and climate-related impacts are happening, and then he asks, under political pressure not to? With the tweet, Fugate is basically challenging the emergency management community to actually [LAUGHS] be honest. If the political winds of the administration are blowing against belief in climate change, do you have the courage to say you believe in it? That's a pretty provocative statement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott, thank you very much.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
SCOTT KNOWLES: I enjoyed the conversation, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Knowles is a professor of history at Drexel University and the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.
Coming up, a look back at a great unjust laying of blame, amid the tragedy of Katrina. This is On the Media.
[PROMOS/MUSIC UP & UNDER]