Saturday, September 9, 2017

An Epic Storm of Inane Hurricane Articles

Numerous articles have been written about Hurricane Harvey, in what continues to be a destructive hurricane season. Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, too many articles took advantage of the already trying circumstance of Hurricane Harvey, to bash Houston in particular, and politics in general. It helps no one, for the media to use major storms as yet another tool to divide public opinion.

In times of devastation and tragedy, which are already difficult enough, why not write instead about the positive efforts of countless heroes and volunteers, as they come together to help one another? Or at the very least, provide useful discussions regarding infrastructure design options which are short on inappropriate blame, and long on potential solutions.

Hurricane Harvey was a most unusual storm, which remained in our coastal regions far too long. Consequently, local municipal systems were strained to the limit, and we are fortunate these systems held up as well as they did. Harvey, with its record setting levels of rain across Texas coastal regions, was a storm in which the least bad option for many of us was to shelter in place. Just as one emergency management director said, re ongoing evacuations for Hurricane Irma, "Honestly, I can't tell you where safe is." And many emergency coordinators remember all too well what took place when millions tried to leave Houston in advance of Hurricane Rita. As Wikipedia noted, regarding that ill fated evacuation:
The combination of severe gridlock and excessive heat led to between 90 and 118 deaths even before the storm arrived.
Dietrich Vollrath, an economist at the University of Houston, expressed his frustration with a onslaught of "Hurricane Harvey as X" articles which were written even before floodwaters worked their way downstream. This hurricane was a catastrophe, not some ill begotten metaphor, and Vollrath's rant is worth reading in full. From his "Harvey" post:
For those of you wondering why the whole city didn't evacuate, do you really think that the city was shocked to discover it could be hit by a massive hurricane? Sheltering in place was not some shoot-from-the-hip wild guess of a strategy. It's the best of a bunch of crappy options. If you want to have a discussion, say a month from now after the worst of this is all over, about whether there are ways to effect an evacuation, during the next Harvey-like event, great. Let's do it. In the meantime, your homework is to devise a plan to evacuate the entire state of Massachusetts subject to the following constraints. (A) you have 48 hours. (B) You can't use Rhode Island, Connecticut, or New York, and (C) everyone needs shelter for up to 10 days. Go.
Unfortunately, even some economists didn't get Vollrath's "Harvey as metaphor" memo. The most recent example I came across was Joseph Stiglitz, who used this major storm as yet another excuse to assign further blame with the Trump administration. One doesn't have to be particularly fond of the inanities of Washington, to find Hurricane Harvey an odd connection to such goings on. For those who would enjoy a good rebuttal to similar narratives, Leo Linbeck at the New Geography blog, provides an apt synthesis of various major media complaints, and addresses them one by one.

At the very least, the informal use of social media platforms has been more positive. These platforms made possible a level of decentralized rescue and relief efforts which was not feasible during Hurricane Katrina. And despite what anyone thinks about the "appropriate" nature of centralized efforts, neighbors helping neighbors becomes all the more important, when people need to shelter in place and then respond to local events as the situation changes.

Two articles in particular had the right idea, hence deserve to be highlighted. Ian Bogost, in an article for the Atlantic ("Houston's Flood is a Design Problem"), wrote:
It's not because the water comes in. It's because it is forced to leave again.
Indeed, the same system decentralization which could assist and augment knowledge use, could pair people who opt to shelter in place, with water systems which capture water in place. In "How Long Will it Take Houston's Floodwaters to Drain?", Laura Geggel offers suggestions for site specific solutions to water management. She explains how Houston is slow to drain, which in turn puts additional pressure on its systems. Again, infrastructure design is important.

If there's any takeaway from the deluge of unhelpful hurricane articles, one question in particular comes to mind: Why can't formal media outlets be more helpful and positive in outlook? A more positive approach could make everyone feel better, in the uncertain times of the present.

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