Weather Warning Paradoxes

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   No question, weather warnings are critical.  Despite the unpredictability of nature, preparation is important regardless of how eminent the danger might be.  Despite the president’s reallocation of billions from FEMA funds as fires rage in California and the Gulf Coast areas face a rare, not since 1959, twofer where double trouble hurricanes might wallop us from different directions, we have to be ready.

The question is always for what and when?  Every family, business, and government try to appraise the information to make a plan.  It’s dangerous neoliberalism at our doorsteps.

The National Weather Service should be our primary source.  They have the chops.  They have the staff and resources.  Or, at least they did.  They have been subject to privatization and subcontracting for decades at the level of community information gathering.  We know because Local 100 represented hundreds of weather observers at one point.  One federal retrenchment after another has meant that most of these stations have been shuttered from small to large airports.  Of the ones that remain, lowest bid contracting flips the personnel every few years with the attendant problems that come with turnover in essential positions.

Then there is politics, when President Trump bullied the weather service director to overrule meteorologists to show a threat to Alabama and change the maps in the last hurricane season when they were not in the path, as their inspector general has verified.  Trump, the TV news president, was really just part of a trend of what we call “weather terrorism” around my house.  The Weather Channel and about every talking head on television has a vested and pecuniary interest in hyping the danger of weather events in order to keep eyes fixed on their channels, stations, and websites, often overwhelming the most cautious and accurate reports from the weather service in their spin.

New Orleanians, only days away from the 15th anniversary of cataclysmic hurricane Katrina, are easily moved to the razor’s edge.  No occupant in City Hall wants to take the chance of not having told people to get out of the way, but inevitably duds like the Hurricane Marcos nonevent that hardly gave the city a sprinkle, inure people to the latent danger as the credibility of the warnings decline.

I take as a prime example the black 60-gallon garbage cans lined up as sentinels on the neighborhood streets as axiomatic of this problem and the paradox.  The Mayor announces there will be no garbage service and city hall will be closed, but one house after another still puts their garbage cans out on the street.  Days later, they still stand tall and of course uncollected.  Everyone knows that the cans and their contents can go flying throughout the community in a hard breeze, much less a hurricane.  The fact that they all continue to stand out front, house after house, sends the real signal that none of them believe the reports anymore.

When no one knows what or who to believe, they believe no one.  We see that in the pandemic.  We see that in hurricane warning response.  The head nods don’t do it, when the feet contradict them.  The danger then increases when real threats emerge.  The masks and the garbage cans tell the real story, and it’s a horror tale.