Hurricane Ernesto: Natural Disaster as a Media Event

It's pretty common in South Florida to think of a hurricane as Mother Nature's version of the SuperBowl. It's also a scary kind of holiday -- you get to leave work early, spend time at home, eat foods you wouldn't normally eat (trying to clean out the fridge in case you lose electricity).

It's the only time, and I mean the only time, anyone watches the Weather Channel. We Floridians also tune into our local news channels to watch young, handsome meteorologists assure us of the inevitability of our destruction with a certain latent glee.

We're reminded to cower under a mattress or the dining room table when trees come flying through the windows, showering us with glass shrapnel. We're reminded that, if we try to escape now, we'll likely be caught on the open road by the hurricane and slaughtered. Storm surges may flood your house. Lightning can start fires and kill the unsheltered. Roofs can blow off, leaving you exposed to the storm.

And so on, whipping audiences to frothing, mindless anxiety. (The interesting thing about this anxiety: normally, when anxious about something, I seek out more information. The only information I can find is not reassuring, but frightening. This sends me, and presumably others, into a feedback spiral that culminates either in nervous collapse or a fistful of klonopin.)

Despite the certainty of our destruction, each local channel dispatches teams of reporters to the most dangerous patches of beach, where hurricane winds are expected to be most fierce. The duty of these "journalists" is to report to us exactly how bad the storm is, exactly how fast the wind blows, exactly how much the wind-borne sand stings. To film pieces of roofs that blow away, or signs torn down, or palms uprooted. To provide constant updates when there's really no new information at all.

That's another thing: updates are constantly flooding in. Constantly -- every five to ten minutes. Even when nothing's happening. There's a storm surge of information that is almost totally meaningless.

It's all terribly entertaining in a low-key, reality-television sort of way. And because you're caught up in the anxiety spiral of the event, you may find yourself unable to pull away from the TV until your electricity flickers and dies. Then, you'll hunch over your battery-powered radio for more of the same.

A friend of mine once observed that television programming is designed to create anxiety among the audience. Because anxiety creates a need for reassurance (more information, more "updates"). The purpose of all this? Not to keep the audience informed -- not at all. The purpose is to sell advertising. Potato chips. It's possible to drive people to the verge of nervous collapse to sell potato chips.

We'll see even more of this when the next hurricane rolls through.