There’s a direct correlation between how well national media have covered a hurricane and the number of hours before its forecast landfall that my dad calls to ask if I know one is coming. As a disasterologist, I am always well aware of impending hurricanes.
He called just a few hours before Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle.
Unlike Hurricane Florence, which moved slowly and provided ample time to issue warnings and evacuations for the Carolinas, Michael moved quickly and forcefully. Warnings and evacuations were still issued. Alerts were sent from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, among others, as the category of the storm evolved, and the Weather Channel maintained 24/7 coverage.
We have not, however, seen the same nonstop, wall-to-wall media coverage that we saw last month leading up to and during Hurricane Florence.
There are a few reasons for this. The nature of the fast-moving storm meant less time for national media to mobilize. And Michael’s strong winds meant many in the media were unable to venture out into the storm to capture footage; as of Thursday afternoon, reporters were still unable to reach certain communities because of unsafe conditions on the ground.
But I worry that all of us, including the media, are experiencing hurricane fatigue ― fatigue that may be influencing our response to Hurricane Michael and could have disastrous implications the next time a major storm hits the U.S.
National media have been slow to cover a number of disasters in recent memory. In 2016 the national media were widely criticized for inadequate coverage of Louisiana flooding, which killed 13 people, required 20,000 rescues and damaged more than 60,000 homes; The New York Times acknowledged its slow response. Last year an analysis from FiveThirtyEight found national media drastically undercovered Hurricane Maria before, during and after the storm, especially in light of the extent of the damage and loss of life.
Americans tend to take media coverage for granted ― until reporters don’t show up.
I suspect future analyses will uncover similar findings when comparing coverage of hurricanes Florence and Michael; Michael is the fifth devastating hurricane to hit the U.S. in two years.
Besides the obvious sentiment that all disasters are worthy of appropriate news coverage, there are tangible and logistical implications when the media fail to adequately cover an unfolding disaster. Americans tend to take media coverage for granted ― until reporters don’t show up.
The media are critical stakeholders in disaster management. The vital function they serve before, during and after a crisis cannot be overstated; they provide a primary avenue to share information about an unfolding disaster.
When a hurricane is imminent, the media ― usually at the advice of government officials and experts ― inform the public of potential risks. It’s reporters who explain the size of a hurricane, the wind speeds, expected rainfall and storm surge. They outline the path of the storm and anticipate how long it will last. They help identify which communities are most likely to experience the worst effects and help disseminate warnings to those in harm’s way.
We regularly see heroic coverage from local news reporters and meteorologists who stay on air as their studios begin flooding, as KHOU did during Hurricane Harvey. The media spread advice from local officials about what people in the storm’s path should do. Shelter in place? Evacuate? What supplies will they need? How long are they likely to be on their own before help might arrive?
During a storm, the media provide updates on hazard conditions. For those who have not evacuated (assuming they have a way to access media reports), this can be lifesaving information. For those who have left town, ongoing media coverage provides a way to monitor a disaster’s progress.
And after a hurricane has passed, journalists are often among the first people back into affected areas. They broadcast vital information for search and rescue and other lifesaving operations. They provide news on which roads are still closed and where it is and is not safe to go in affected communities. They tell survivors where to find help, disseminating info on shelters, medical assistance, supplies and family reunification. For those not in the immediate area, they provide visuals of the damage. Evacuated civilians often learn their whether homes have been damaged or destroyed via media coverage. It is not unusual for communication systems to go down during major storms, so we rely on the media for information on how areas fared where our friends and family members are.
With storms the size of Michael, Maria, Florence and Harvey, formal disaster management systems (for example, emergency management agencies, first responders and the Red Cross) cannot meet every need in the affected region. They depend on help from all of us to address the needs of those affected. We often find out through media coverage what kind of assistance is needed and where it’s needed.
This is why it’s critical that national media stick around and continue to cover a storm’s aftermath, even after lifesaving needs are addressed. We regularly see a sharp drop-off in news coverage after a storm has passed, despite the fact that survivors are just beginning the long, arduous recovery process. And with billions of federal dollars flowing to private contractors, we also need journalists to provide oversight for the use of those funds. Of particular concern: monitoring the recovery progress of marginalized communities, which often face the brunt of the inefficient and often unjust recovery process.
It’s highly likely we’ll continue to see disasters like Hurricane Michael. We must find a way for national media to maintain their capacity and interest in disaster coverage. That this system is already showing signs of inconsistency and fatigue is deeply troubling, particularly given the findings of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released this week, that we have only a few years to drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid consequences of global warming even more serious than those we’re already experiencing. We must mitigate climate change, yes, but we must also prepare our systems and communities to manage the consequences.
Part of that preparation includes reliable media coverage. Journalists must be able to quickly recognize when a disaster warrants national attention, and local media must be provided resources necessary to continue their coverage through the response. Because Hurricane Michael and other disasters like it are not stand-alone events occurring in a vacuum; they take place within a much bigger story about climate change, poverty and the many ways we must work together to keep our communities safe.
Samantha Montano has a doctoral degree in emergency management from North Dakota State University. She writes at www.disaster-ology.com.