Hurricane Gustav and the incitement to panic

Frank Furedi
Thursday, Sept 4, 2008

Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans called it ‘the storm of the century’. Was he talking about the heavy monsoon rains that have caused disastrous flooding in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India? That catastrophe has killed many people and left more than a million homeless. No – Mayor Nagin, along with the global media, was not particularly interested in the floods in Bihar. Rather, his and the media’s attention was focused on Hurricane Gustav. Because Gustav’s winds were heading in the direction of New Orleans, it was considered politic to treat it as if it were the storm of the century.

For some observers, the apocalyptic significance attached to Hurricane Gustav coupled with the relative indifference to the devastation in Bihar is proof of double standards in the Western media. It is true that Gustav turned out to be a fairly normal hurricane which caused minimal damage in the New Orleans area, while nearly three million people were displaced by the floods in Bihar. The striking contrast between the media’s treatment of these two storms suggests that stories about calamitous events have greater significance when they occur in America rather than in India.

However, the narrative of scaremongering that was attached to Hurricane Gustav was not simply a product of a mean-spirited Western obsession with ‘our own problems’ – it was also shaped by a powerful mood of cultural disorientation that afflicts Western societies today. And one troubling symptom of this affliction is a tendency to inflate the destructive potential of all kinds of natural phenomena. Increasingly, even quite normal weather forecasts can take on an increasingly menacing tone.

The way that a society perceives and responds to acts of misfortune, such as a natural disaster, can provide important insights into its values and beliefs. The response to Hurricane Gustav suggests that in the West, the threat posed by natural disasters is increasingly perceived from the standpoint of worst-case thinking. In the case of Gustav, the tendency to anticipate the worst was reinforced by memories of the US government’s inept and tragic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Unfortunately, the main lesson drawn from the humiliating failures during Katrina is that officials can avoid blame by acting according to worst-case principles. Consequently, any hurricane that heads for Louisiana is likely to be treated as yet another ‘storm of the century’. One consequence of this precautionary approach is a thoroughgoing disruption of people’s lives; millions of citizens were put under pressure to evacuate their homes as Gustav approached. And it’s worth noting that some of the lives lost in New Orleans in recent days were a result of the evacuation: four people were killed in traffic accidents; three patients died during their evacuation from hospitals and nursing homes.

Officials who oversaw the evacuation of New Orleans argue that it is better to be safe than sorry. ‘There will be some criticism’, noted Dick Gremillion, head of emergency operations in the Calcasieu Parish of Louisiana – but he added that, ‘particularly after Katrina, I don’t think anyone expects us not to do everything that we can to make sure no one is hurt’. Others claim that a lot more folks would have died if people had not been cleared out of New Orleans as Gustav approached.

Unfortunately, reality is not that simple. Taking a one-dimensional approach to threats and dangers does not give rise to an effective strategy for keeping communities safe. The tendency to scaremonger and to inflate dangers itself contributes to a heightened state of insecurity in affected communities. Once hurricanes are represented as a threat to the very existence of New Orleans, then people’s sense of existential security and ability to cope with adversity are directly undermined. ‘Survivors of Hurricane Katrina and Rita watched in horror as Hurricane Gustav threatened to wipe out their rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and along the Louisiana coast’, reported the New York Times (1). The NYT said that ‘many evacuees confessed that they would not have the strength to return home to New Orleans if Gustav proved any where near as devastating’; it quoted numerous people who felt so disoriented by this episode that they seriously considered abandoning their homes and community. Such a mood of defeatism is the inexorable consequence of the risk-averse approach taken by the authorities to Gustav.

Officialdom’s attitude to this emergency effectively invites people to feel confused and insecure. If people are told to expect a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, as they were in New Orleans, it is difficult for them to respond with resilience. Moreover, the heavy-handed, top-down, mandatory demand that residents evacuate will have reinforced people’s sense of powerlessness and insecurity. Such bureaucratic procedures actually erode a sense of community and render people passive. ‘You need to be scared’, said Nagin: ‘You need to be concerned and you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans right now.’

Such incitement to fear inevitably discourages people from relying on their own coping skills. To make matters worse, Nagin’s hysterical denunciation of looters-to-be – who were told they would be put straight in jail – threatened to turn a routine hurricane into a Hollywood disaster movie. The sense of anxiety about the potential scale of Gustav’s destruction was compounded by officialdom’s sensationalist and speculative fears about desperate criminals stalking the streets of a ravaged New Orleans.

Many observers have commended the response of the Louisiana authorities to Gustav, describing it as an exemplary form of ‘responsible behaviour’. In reality, this response is best understood as a clear example of responsibility avoidance. Everyone involved in the management of this disaster was influenced by a desire to avoid blame. Instead of carefully evaluating the risks, and formulating a strategy that cautiously evaluated all the different options, the response was to evacuate and run. Mass evacuation was promoted to create the impression of responsible behaviour; and such impression management is really about avoiding taking difficult, responsible decisions.

Unfortunately, ‘crying wolf’ has become a routine response to uncertain climatic conditions. And not just in New Orleans. In England, officials frequently react to heavy rainfall by issuing flood warnings. Moreover, floods are no longer treated as a normal part of human experience but as potential tragedies that may overwhelm local communities. In England, as in New Orleans, such alarmist reactions are motivated by a desire to avoid blame just in case a storm suddenly turns really nasty.

Policies founded on worst-case thinking can exact a heavy price. For a start they dispossess communities of their ability to manage their affairs. After a major bureaucratic exercise, such as a mass evacuation, life rarely returns to normal. It will take more than a few days before the majority of the evacuees are able to return to New Orleans. By this time they will discover that their lives have been disrupted far more by the official response to the storm than by the physical damage caused by the storm itself. History shows us that major top-down initiatives such as evacuations and quarantine measures often serve to disorganise and undermine community life, which is why such measures should be used only as last resorts by emergency planners.

The one-dimensional precautionary response of officialdom to natural disasters is underwritten by a culture that insists on dramatising every unexpected natural event. It is as if we have returned to medieval times when acts of nature were interpreted as signs that some malevolent force was at work. We no longer have prophets and seers who interpret the ‘real meaning’ of a storm or an earthquake. Instead we have experts who insist that human greed is the cause of the predicament faced by people who live in the path of hurricanes. They also claim that all these disparate natural events are the consequence of the most powerful existential threat of all: climate change. In such circumstances, the rhetoric of the ‘storm of the century’ appears as, not what it really is – a form of irresponsible scaremongering, but as a prophecy based on the wisdom of experts. And sadly, this disastrous response to a disaster diminishes our capacity to cultivate human resilience in the face of adversity.


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