Posted June 5, 2014
Watching the weather on television both informs and infuriates me. Back in the day, the chance of rain and the movement of weather patterns were a form of news. Now it is infotainment, aimed not at just updating you on the chance of rain but scaring you, as well. As much as I relish a stirring warning (having issues countless ones myself), I have serious doubt about the effectiveness of exaggeration.
I was watching a weather update the other day. A blinking red bar at the bottom of the screen grabbed my attention. As far as I could tell, It wasn’t highlighting anything, but it kept throbbing away and changing size. Signaling what? Something bad was happening somewhere on earth? Something bad was going to happen sooner or later, and then they could insert a headline? I filed away the red bar as fodder for a later rant. Then, recently, I heard a teevee meteorologist describe a passing thunderstorm as being capable of producing “potentially life-threatening lightning strikes.”
OK, I guess. Lightning strikes the U.S. 20 million times each year (some estimates are as high as 40 million), and it kills an average of 51 Americans (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). You can figure out the odds that your neighborhood thunderstorm has your number as it passes overhead.
Nevertheless, I don’t like the precedent set by that scary-sounding phrase. If rattlesnakes live in a park that has a hiking trail, and if once in a blue moon someone gets bit, and if one of those people dies, is a hike in that park “potentially life-threatening”? If someone drowns in the Atlantic at Virginia Beach, and if I take my body board out to catch some modest shore break one Saturday morning, and I playing footsie with the Grim Reaper?
I once watched a documentary about some people who had far better things to do than insert meaningless, blood-colored bars and dream up forbidding phrases: the scientists and government officials monitoring Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, during the three months before the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
Earthquakes had begun in mid-March. During the first weeks of April, small eruptions blanketed nearby areas with ash. Seismographs recorded hundreds of small earthquakes every day. In May, sulfur dioxide emissions rapidly increased, implying a rising column of fresh magma beneath the volcano; next, they substantially decreased, implying that pressure was building in the magma chamber.
There was no question that government officials, relying on scientific data, had to order evacuations. The question was when and for how many people. Premature warnings would make people doubt follow-up alerts that implied, “No kidding, we mean it this time.” Delayed warnings would put thousands of local residents at extremely serious risk, since 40,000 people lived within the second of three evacuation zones, 6-to-12 miles from the volcano.
Zone 2 was evacuated on June 7, the day of the first large magma explosion, which blasted ash more than 4 miles into the sky. Between the 12th and the 15th, explosions and earthquakes culminated in an ash column 21 miles high and pyroclastic flows that reached nearly 10 miles. Without question, forecasters had successfully navigated the murky waters between “could be real bad” and “definitely going to be awful.” Timely, accurate predictions and warnings saved as many as 5,000 lives.
I can’t help thinking that if the volcano had been in New Jersey, and American television had been covering the developing crisis, there wouldn’t have been enough red and purple to handle all of the danger-zone graphics. No font would have been big enough for the text, they’d have run out of exclamation points, and the talking heads would have gone hoarse – just during the early earthquakes.
The year before Hurricane Isabel, I was ensconced in a hotel room off Canal Street in New Orleans, unable to evacuate as Hurricane Ike boiled north through the Gulf. My wife was home in Norfolk, glued to the televised terrible-weather chart that appeared to include New Orleans in its garishly colored swatches. I was looking out my hotel room window. She told me things looked real bad. I replied that (with all due respect to the magic of pulse-Doppler radars) I could see a guy walking his dog and another guy carrying a pizza down the sidewalk across the street. There was a little wind and scattered raindrops.
I think people need honesty and accuracy, not hype.
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