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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Turn Disaster Coverage Elsewhere and You May Be Surprised at What You See

We, the viewers, are tuning in to see the remarkable, this much is true. But is that what we need to see? Is this view of the disaster helping communities better manage the devastation?

There is no doubt about it: Ida is one of the most damaging hurricanes in a generation. Year after year, however, the same stories play out on our national media. Following a major storm, we all see the devastation experienced by the impacted communities. Homes are lost, hospitals are damaged, and the outlook can seem very uncertain. Our news media has an obligation to share those stories, as they paint a clear picture of the devastation that impacted residents are facing. Yet, many in the media choose to take it further, pointing their cameras at the dangerous, the sensational, and the heroic.

We, the viewers, are tuning in to see the remarkable, this much is true. But is that what we need to see? Is this view of the disaster helping communities better manage the devastation? Does it consider those revisiting the trauma of their own experiences? Is it helping me, the viewer, learn to be safe in my next emergency?

Of course, the answer is no. Whether it’s for ratings or because there was no better spot to place the camera tripod, our news media chooses imagery that plays up the tragedy, doing very little to celebrate and encourage the collective resilience that communities deserve in these times of difficulty. Some may say “that’s the way it’s always been done,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. Much like the media’s newfound effort to avoid the names of violent perpetrators, we need a similar push to change the images of disaster to more constructive themes.

With this in mind, I offer the following thoughts to the intrepid reporters pulling on their waders and hopping into SUVs ahead of the next hurricane:

Instead of standing in floodwater, stay on dry land. Floodwaters contain all sorts of horrible things, from dead animals to dangerous chemicals. And they often hide other hazards like downed power lines, broken glass, and exposed manholes. Reporters should model safe behavior so that the “folks watching at home” don’t attempt the same unsafe stunts.

Instead of climbing the rubble pile, show safer schools. In the United States, we have the technology, capacity, and public interest to build the safest schools in the world. Jurisdictions across the country are spending millions to build schools out of flood plains, install saferooms, and retrofit buildings to withstand earthquakes. According to FEMA, investments like the ones made in Murray, Utah, are paying off.[1] Reporters should contrast the stark destruction with images of what is possible when communities invest in safety.

Instead of disaster feeding sites, show neighborhood diners serving regulars. Small business owners are some of the most resourceful people in society. A frequent scene at many disaster sites is a pop-up restaurant, food truck, or mom-and-pop deli. Stop in just hours after the storm and you’ll see owners doing a healthy, honest business serving locals and responders alike. These spots have earned our business through hard work and determination. They are also key economic drivers that keep communities afloat through the hardest times. So, don’t point cameras at the disaster feeding sites and risk the dignity of survivors. Show us the resilience inherent in every community-based business.

Instead of harrowing vehicle rescues, show people directing others to safer routes. Mr. Rogers told us to look for the helpers in scary situations, and he wasn’t wrong. When the skies turn gray, it’s first responders who have a terrible day. They are trained to rescue the hapless driver attempting to cross a flooded roadway. First responders regularly give their own lives when attempting a swift-water rescue, such as in 2011[2], 2015[3], 2016[4], and 2018[5]. Let’s get the cameras out of the faces of heroes, and instead implore viewers to simply find another route around flooded roadways. That message may save the lives of drivers and responders alike.

Instead of the damaged bell tower, show the pastor leading service in the parking lot. It’s true that devastation and disasters go hand in hand. But so do acts of determination and devotion. By widening the aperture beyond the rubble pile, we find scenes that demonstrate the enduring power of community. People come together in times of crises, even if only to console each other and plan for a brighter day. As a nation, we can mourn the loss while also celebrating the resilience in each and every one of us.

We are a resilient people. Together, we are well-equipped to address the challenges that come from a truly devastating storm like Ida. And with help from the media, we can learn from the devastation while also keeping constructive and uplifting images in the frame. If we chart this new course together, we can build safer and stronger communities ready to meet the hazards they face.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

[1] https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20200922/las-modernizaciones-antisismicas-dieron-resultado-para-las-escuelas-de, September 21, 2020
[2] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201009.html
[3] https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/ff_fat15.pdf
[4] https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/ff_fat16.pdf
[5] https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/firefighter_fatalities_2018.pdf
Matt Lyttle
Matt Lyttle
Matt Lyttle is a Director of the National Security Segment at Guidehouse. He supports federal clients in strategy, transformation, and communications projects. Before joining Guidehouse, he was Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) staff, where he developed legislation on disaster resilience and emergency management. Matt has held several positions within FEMA’s National Preparedness Directorate, including as the Acting Deputy Director of Individual and Community Preparedness. In those roles, he designed and launched several FEMA programs aimed at building Private Sector preparedness, such as FEMA’s Ready Business program and Organizations Preparing for Emergency Needs (OPEN). Matt has deployed to multiple disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, as a FEMA Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison and Private Sector Liaison. Matt is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in Nicaragua and witnessing long-term effects of insufficient hazard mitigation throughout his service. He continues to build resilience in Latin America by introducing community preparedness initiatives to Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico. He is a Security Fellow in the Truman National Security Project focusing on the intersection of climate change and national security. Matt lives in Fairfax County, Virginia where he volunteers on local land use and planning task forces.

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