Hand Me that Remote: Watching the Disaster in Real Time

People love to watch disasters unfold, especially from the comfort of their overstuffed sofas, remotes in hand. They may say it’s because they’re concerned about the people involved, and perhaps they are, or they enjoy seeing the sheer power of Mother Nature on display, but I’ve always thought it was because we all have a bit of the voyeur in us.

There’s plenty of material out there. It seems there’s been at least one fire in every state in the U.S. this summer. Avalanches abound, more storms are swirling around the globe, targeting vulnerable areas, and Mexico just experienced an unprecedented earthquake. Make no mistake, these are serious disasters. They have the potential to ruin and take lives, and they need to be covered. People should know what’s happening in the world around them.   

Sometimes, though, it can become a bit much. During hurricanes, cable networks split their screens into twenty segments in an attempt to feature as many soggy reporters as possible, hailing from as many locations as they can. Ordinary people “go live” on social media during storms, and other ordinary people eat it up like cream cheese cake frosting.

We predict dire consequences, usually with the understanding that if things end badly, we’ll be seen as having been correct. If it isn’t as bad as we claimed it would be, no one will remember that. This morning, I heard a quote from the mayor of Tampa, Florida, referring to Irma’s imminent landfall. “This,” he said, “will be what hell looks like.” I’m imagining him defending his apocalyptic pronouncement a week from now: “Well, I didn’t say it would look like the hell.”

We love to take ownership of disasters, too, especially when they happen right on top of each other. If the television networks are covering this fire, we reason, how will people know about that other one? Now that we’re all focusing on Hurricane Irma, how can we possibly remember Harvey from just a couple of weeks ago? It turns out scarcity, usually limited to things like money, fuel, and beer, also extends to the spotlight. Keep an eye on your social media feeds, and you’ll see updates asking, “Why isn’t the media covering this?”  

On the other hand, you have folks claiming natural disasters are messages from God, so maybe they’re secretly getting their jollies out of seeing residents displaced and homes burned or washed away. Not that they’d ever admit it, of course. But just about any time someone claims to speak on behalf of the almighty, they probably aren’t far from having their own backyard blown to smithereens. This has less to do with the vengeance of a wrathful God, I think, and more to do with probabilities, the idea that given enough time, something bad is going to happen to all of us.

Still, the media reports it, and we watch, every last one of us. For the past week, the attention of every man, woman, and domestic pet in the Western Hemisphere has been focused on the television coverage of Hurricane Irma. Television meteorologists, dressed in their best designer rain suits, are deployed to downtown streets and harbor districts. They lash themselves to light posts and traffic signs and point excitedly at every stray palm frond and coconut that blows past them.

“Don’t stand outside during a hurricane,” they yell through the driving wind and rain. “Only an idiot would do that.”

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“Hand Me that Remote: Watching the Disaster in Real Time”