The Media Today

The derecho, the hurricane, the fires, climate change, racism, and the pandemic

August 27, 2020

On August 10, a derecho smacked into Iowa with the force of a Category Two hurricane, wrecking buildings and crops. As Lyz Lenz, an Iowa-based writer for CJR and others, wrote afterward for the Washington Post, national media barely covered the impact. “Conservatives’ consternation over the new Cardi B single has gotten more attention than the Iowans left without power or food for what may be weeks,” she wrote. “And all this, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc throughout the state.” Yesterday, Lenz returned to the theme of overlapping crises in her regular column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette: in the absence of concerted government assistance following the derecho, Iowans have had to help each other, which has, in turn, increased the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the state. “Neighbors were helping neighbors up close and unmasked—breathing heavily, wiping sweat as we cut down trees and handed out food,” she wrote. “It’s hard to think about social distancing when lifting a giant oak off your roof, but COVID hasn’t gone away just because we want to come together.” Lenz noted, too, that both the storm and the pandemic have hit communities of color hardest.

On August 15, a “lightning siege” in California set swathes of the state ablaze. The fires have since burned through more than a million acres, killing at least seven people; earlier this week, two of the fires became the second- and third-biggest in California’s modern history, trailing only the Mendocino Complex fire, in 2018. Local outlets have covered the fires aggressively; national outlets have covered them, too, though on the whole, they haven’t really found a sustained grip in the news cycle. (As of this morning, the fires were either invisible or hard to spot on the homepages of many major outlets, several of which led, instead, with banner headlines parroting lines from the Republican convention.) As with the derecho, the pandemic has made responding to the fires harder. Displaced locals have slept in tents and cars to avoid friends’ places and crowded shelters, and a respiratory illness and relentless smoke make for a noxious combination. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday reports, the firefighters tackling the blazes aren’t easily able to socially distance or wear masks. Typically, California relies on prison labor to fight fires. This year, virus outbreaks have kept many inmates away from the frontlines.

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Overnight, Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a Category-Four storm, with wind speeds topping 150 miles per hour. Ahead of time, the National Hurricane Center warned of an “unsurvivable” storm surge, and residents along the Louisiana and Texas coastlines have been ordered to evacuate. Officials in both states are trying to house evacuees in hotel rooms instead of in large communal shelters—an effort to slow viral spread that, according to the Texas Tribune, has already hit logistical hurdles. Communities of color in low-lying places like Port Arthur, Texas, were bracing to be hit especially hard by the storm. The economic fallout of COVID-19, of course, has broadened the burden of such pressures.

Taken together, these weather events represent a cascade of mutually-compounding crises: natural disasters, made worse (in the case of the fires, certainly, and possibly in the case of the hurricane, too) by climate change and harder to combat by the pandemic, in ways that have disproportionately impacted Black and other people of color due to the pervasive, intertwined legacies of racism and poverty.

The news media finds such complexity disorienting at the best of times, which these are not: 2020 has spat out an ever-accelerating fusillade of bleak news, while simultaneously depleting newsroom resources and consigning many journalists to their couches. Reporters, especially on the local level, have worked tirelessly to situate the recent disasters in this broader context, even as they themselves have had to deal with evacuation orders, power outages, and exhaustion. Others appear to have thrown up their hands and decided that it’s easier to cover the conventions instead.

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We all want 2020 to end already. In the meantime, we should try and treat the slew of disaster stories not as separate balls to be juggled—an impossible task to perform without dropping one or two—but as a connected lattice, through which we can pull and combine multiple urgent threads at once. Hurricane Laura is an opportunity to vividly illustrate what systemic racism looks like in practice. The fires in California are an opportunity to put the climate crisis back on the radar of news consumers in a year that has, sadly, seen it superseded as a top priority, as well as an opening to assess the ramifications of mass incarceration. The derecho is an opportunity to cover agricultural issues and food security. All three stories could refocus attention on the ongoing local effects of the pandemic. None of these opportunities is welcome, of course. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them.

In communicating these connections to news consumers, it’s essential that we acknowledge that these converging crises don’t just represent a confluence of misfortune; their devastating impact is a legacy, too, of chronic mismanagement, underinvestment, and government neglect. Those failures persist in an ecosystem that includes the news media; it’s our job, after all, to shine a light on them. After the derecho, Zack Kucharski, the executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, told Lenz that he normally doesn’t care when the national press neglects Iowa, but this time, it’s “concerning, especially because there seems to be a correlation between attention and recovery dollars.” Local outlets like the Gazette, Kucharski added, can’t cry for help all on their own. “We’re still focused on being able to get out of our homes,” he said.

Below, more on overlapping crises:

  • The fires, I: In both 2018 and 2019, I wrote in this newsletter that much coverage of wildfires in California failed to link the facts on the ground to the climate crisis. The same has been true this year. “At this point, this is nothing less than media malpractice,” Covering Climate Now, a project led by CJR and The Nation, concluded yesterday in its weekly newsletter. “The effect of such climate silence is to imply that the wildfires are random—a stroke of bad luck, perhaps, in an already woefully unlucky year. But we know better than this. We know that we humans are causing disasters like this.”
  • The fires, II: For CJR’s Spring 2020 magazine on the climate crisis, Lauren Markham profiled Lizzie Johnson, a fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Chronicle has always covered wildfires, but California’s current reality has forced a more consistent beat,” Markham writes. “Local reporters like Johnson are on the front lines during fire disasters and relief efforts. Proximity allows them to respond more immediately, to be on the ground longer, and to cover fire-related issues in the interim.”
  • The fires, III: Recently, a photo by the AP’s Noah Berger, showing flames licking around a sign advising public-health precautions when visiting a senior center in Napa County, went viral as a perfect visual encapsulation of 2020. Now Jack Healy, of the Times, tells the story of the community behind the photo. “2020 can go to hell,” Judi Vollmer, who lost her trailer home to the flames and whose father recently tested positive for COVID-19, told Healy. “This has been the worst year of my life.”
  • The derecho: Jordan Gale compiled a photo essay, for The Guardian, documenting the aftermath of the derecho and its impact on Iowa’s farmers. “Nearly 35 percent of the state’s corn has been destroyed by the storm’s straight-line winds,” Gale writes. “As farmers continue to assess the damages more than two weeks later, it is becoming clearer that the storm has left a giant hole in 2020’s harvest season.”
  • The hurricanes: The Weather Channel has updates on the path of Hurricane Laura, as does the Advocate, in Louisiana. The storm made landfall two days shy of the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Earlier this year, The Atlantic released Floodlines, a narrative podcast series, hosted by Vann R. Newkirk, II, revisiting Katrina and assessing its legacy. Among other things, Newkirk critiques contemporaneous media coverage of the disaster. The whole series is well worth spending time with.

Other notable stories:

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Update: This post has been updated to remove a misleading reference to New Orleans.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.