L. Neil Smith's
Number 336, September 11, 2005

"Freedom from Freedom Itself"

Katrina: Worst Hyperbole Ever?
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

I'm just going to level with you. I feel awful for the thousands affected by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans looks like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, the way water and lawlessness have flooded its streets. People are comparing the Big Easy to Pompeii now. They're tossing around terms like "Lost City." I feel awful about that. I feel so bad for the people going through this.

But part me of hopes it happens. Part of me hopes the city is lost.

And I know I'm not alone here—though I'm probably the only one with the balls to admit it.

But let me explain.

I'm an American. And like most Americans, I watch entirely too much TV. Now, I don't think this is a bad thing, in and of itself. A lot of TV is worthless, but a lot of books, magazines, movies, and newspapers are worthless, too. So I don't think it's fair to condemn the whole medium like so many people tend to do. But the problem with watching too much TV is, it really starts to warp your sense of... well, let's just say your common sense. (I was going to say your sense of proportion.) This is something I've been aware of for a long time, but it's only now—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—that I'm ready to admit it. The truth is, after many years of TV-news-viewing, I find myself in the precarious position of actually rooting for maximum damage from natural disasters. Not because I'm a cold, callous bastard (though I am), but rather because every disaster is like a chance to break the last disaster's record. Basically, disaster news coverage has become like watching sports.

Hurricanes are a perfect example of what I'm talking about because—unlike tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, and fires—hurricanes are disasters you can count on. For all intents and purposes, they're the baseball of natural disasters. Both occur every summer, and both hit hard when they come from Latin America. Baseball kicks off each season with an air of hope and springtime freshness—a desire to lay past achievements to rest for the meager feats we always knew they were. Will this be the year someone bats .400? Or plants 74 homers in the grandstands? Or hits safely in 57 games? Hurricane coverage works the same way. Every summer is a springtime of hope. Every "named storm" represents a promising opportunity to out-do the last one. And in this case, it seems, Katrina has out-done them all.

After hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Ivan pounded Florida last year, I found myself quietly hoping Hurricane Jeanne would hit there, too. Not because I hate Florida, but because four 'canes hitting one state in a year was a story. It was a dynasty—like the Patriots, Lakers, and Yankees winning multiple championships. Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and set the standard for hurricanes in my lifetime. I've spent the last thirteen years watching these things on television, hearing reporters talk about people "bracing for the worst." But only now has it finally happened. Only now has Andrew lost its title as the "worst" hurricane in my lifetime. Katrina has set the new standard. You have people looting not just for bread but televisions now. You have people shooting down helicopters—freakin' rescue helicopters! Andrew never accomplished any of this. And it's weird, but I find myself thinking Katrina is to Andrew what LeBron James will be if he lives up to the hype as "the next Michael Jordan." I won't claim I should be thinking this. It's an awful, anti-social thought to have. But in a strange way, I'm sort of glad I was here to witness what New Orleans is going through. It's such a surreal point in time to be living in. There's a sense of accomplishment in that.

Of course, I could lie about this and tell you, no, I only watch hurricane coverage because I feel bad for the people whose lives have been ruined. Well, that's why I watch post-hurricane coverage, but not why I watch the stuff leading up to it. And to be quite honest, sympathy's only part of the reason I watch post-hurricane coverage, either. Katrina's aftermath has taught me this. The truth is, I'm watching because—deep down—I want to see something happen. I want nature to wow me and hit a 500-foot homer. I want it to run faster than a speeding bullet, or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Watching from the safety of my home in the Northeast, hurricanes don't seem like the enemy to me. They seem like anti-heroes—like bad guy wrestlers who come to town and bash the locals. You hate how they're acting, and yet you respect their act.

Obviously, I'm saddened by the thought that these storms are hurting people. I've heard so many pass-the-blame, vengeful-God theories in the last week—i.e., abortion, gay rights, global warming, etc.—that I'm honestly starting to think the only reason God lets tragedies happen is so people will stop acting like dicks towards each other (though once we starting shooting choppers, all bets are off). But the reason I find myself "rooting" for these storms, so to speak, is because their victims aren't victims until the aftermath. Before that, they're just nameless, faceless lemmings. It's the storms—not the humans—who we humanize with names like Andrew, Camille, and Katrina. It's the storms whose stories we follow as they aim to achieve something—even if that something is nothing but senseless destruction.

On the roads, we call it rubbernecking when people slow down to look at accidents and disasters. It's a morbid curiosity, I hate to admit it, but, like many Americans, I often give in to the rubbernecking mentality. Sometimes it's because witnessing chaos helps me analyze my own existence. Other times it's because chaos helps me mythologize existence through hyperbole—a sure product of watching SportsCenter, which manufactures statistical categories out of seemingly everything. (Seriously, must every stinking human event be the "best [something] ever"?) When flames ripped through a Rhode Island nightclub during a Great White concert in 2003, I found myself semi-consciously hoping the death count would hit 100—for no other reason than the fact that 99 seemed "oh, so close." On September 11th, the media threw out wicked numbers like "as many as 50,000 casualties." That number dropped to 6,000... then 3,000... then settled in at "almost 3,000," where it remains today. It's a terrible thought, but those initial numbers sort of cheapened 9/11 for me. It was hard to sustain the same level of rage for "almost 3,000" victims that I felt for "as many as 50,000."

I never thought, "Gee, I'm glad 9/11 and that nightclub fire happened," though. That's the difference between those events and summerly hurricanes. Hurricanes, I actually get excited for. I look forward to their coverage every season; it's only afterwards that I realize how thoroughly idiotic this is. I wonder how I would feel if, instead of 9/11, we called it Terrorist Attack Henry. Or instead of the Great White fire, we knew it as Nightclub Disaster Sue.

I've never been a fan of saying the media "desensitizes" violence. But to some extent, it's obviously true. I wouldn't be having any of these thoughts if it weren't for the way the media covers tragedies. I guess that's just one of the side effects of following the news. It gets to a point where some disasters need to be covered as disasters; there are too many victims—too many stories—to cover them all individually. I cringe when I turn on the tube and see all those broken homes down on the Gulf Coast. All those people stranded on rooftops. All those towns wiped off the map. It's sad. I'm not happy that any of this happened. It really "puts things in perspective," as they say in the world of sports. And yet, there's a voice in the back of my head somewhere—a mic in its hand—saying: "Brace for the worst now. Brace for the worst." I can't stop watching because, deep down, I'm waiting for something to happen. Which, deep down, means I want it to. And I won't stop watching till something does happen, or until—like Natalee Holloway, the Columbia crash, and a billion other news stories before it—I'm confident nothing will. I'm not saying it's right, but it is what it is—and I suspect I'm not alone here.

Deep down, there's a small part of all of us that wants New Orleans to be lost.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. He can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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