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Weather Snobbery and the Loss of Compassion in a Facebook World

So, you may have heard that the East Coast had a little weather this weekend. You also may have heard from Facebook status updates, Tumblr posts, or tweets that the storm was “overhyped,” “no big deal,” or a “disappointment.” Who knows, maybe you even said some of those things. Plenty of people did. Here’s the thing, though: for many people, Irene was a big deal. Billions of dollars in property damage. Lives lost. Hundreds of thousands of people still without power. For those people affected, hearing that the storm’s effects were a “disappointment” is infuriating at best.

Here in New England, we’ve had quite the summer, weather-wise. Tornadoes, an earthquake, and hurricanes. And each time, people have panicked, have not known what to do or how to react, and have been completely freaked out. And each time, they’ve been mocked for it. “Tornado?” the Midwesterners scoffed across my Facebook feed, “That was a strong wind. Please. We know tornadoes.” Californians laughed their asses off when the East Coast experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. It’s barely a rumble. And Floridians rolled their eyes at New Yorkers and New Englanders evacuating pre-Irene. “How pathetic. It’s not even a real hurricane. We don’t leave unless it’s a Category 4.” New Englanders are not exempt from this behavior. Entire cities in Texas shut down because of a little ice? Amateurs, we sneer. A few inches of snow fall in Northern California. Ugh, don’t these people know how to drive in snow?

Well, no. They don’t. The thing about a country as huge and diverse, climate-wise, as the U.S. is that different regions are ill-equipped for weather that they don’t normally experience. Here in New England, we have huge budgets allocated for snow removal and we all know how to drive in a few inches of snow and ice. In Florida and the Carolinas, their buildings are constructed with hurricanes in mind, and most residents have emergency supplies always at hand. In California, earthquakes dictate a large part of the building code, and when things start shaking all around you, you know why.

When a region experiences weather that they aren’t used to, however, things are very different. Their infrastructure isn’t designed to withstand certain things. Their emergency services don’t deal with the aftermath of particular kinds of storms very often. And their residents don’t really have any context for what’s happening around them (transplants excluded). So when people in office buildings in California feel the building sway and see the shelves rattle, they immediately can sort and categorize that as “earthquake.” People in Virginia and Boston? Their minds are more likely to go to “bomb” or “building collapse,” because earthquakes aren’t part of their day-to-day lives.

With Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, there was a lot of eye-rolling about “preparedness.” Basically, people are bitching that other people over-prepared for the storm. Parts of New York were evacuated. People up and down the East Coast stocked up on bottled water, canned foods, and batteries for flashlights. And because Irene took a path that was not as bad as it could have been, all of that preparedness was apparently for nothing. Except it wasn’t. Because the storm could have just as easily had every worst-case scenario come true. And then we could have been facing another Katrina. Different geography, but Manhattan is an island, people. If the bridges were compromised and the city flooded, getting people out and emergency services in wouldn’t have been all that easy. So being disappointed that the storm wasn’t a bigger deal is a little like being upset about a low death toll. And that’s not cool.

So maybe when people are in the thick of weather they aren’t used to, instead of being snide and dismissive, we can be helpful and understanding. When the tornadoes were coming through my area, I took to various social media with my freakouts, and I got advice. I had people who experience tornadoes on a regular basis telling me what was likely to happen, and what I should do. Then, and for Irene, I had people checking in with me to make sure everything was okay. During the worst of Irene, I had people expressing empathy for the fact that trees were coming down left and right all around my house and telling me to stay safe. But I also saw the mocking Tumblr posts and Facebook status updates, telling people in the area what wimps we are and how this storm was “nothing.” I’ll be sure to pass that sentiment along to the half of my state that is still without power and unlikely to get it back for another four or five days.

6 replies on “Weather Snobbery and the Loss of Compassion in a Facebook World”

Thank you!
As Irene was coming, I worried a bit for my sis in NYC, but figured it wouldn’t be that bad once it got there. And then it hit NC like a mofo. So I wasn’t sure how it’d be.
My sister told me that most folks up there didn’t know what to expect, and being from GA, we do. But she got mostly nothing.

But making comments about how everything was an overreaction when #1 – you can’t easily predict what will happen; #2 – people’s lives are at stake; and #3 – infrastructure and administration management is a huge ordeal (a la NYC) – well, I find it irresponsible, insensitive, and unreasonable.

Additionally, making these comments when you know that VT is suffering so terribly, and no one thought Irene would do such damage so far north, is inconsiderate.

Even though the earthquake was much milder than Irene, I found the jokes began to fall flat after I learned that a friend’s apartment building in DC had cracked from top to bottom.

I agree with you, and I’m glad people took the hurricane seriously and were prepared for the worst, or else it could have had a very different outcome, with more people injured or killed. But, I also feel that it goes both ways. Whenever it rains in Southern California, we got mocked for freaking out (we make fun of ourselves about it too, but we never seem to stop doing it!). Now, we never have hurricane rains (thank goodness), but our heavy rains almost always lead to mudslides, flash floods and sustained flooding. That’s when we get to hear such kind comments as “Well, that’s what you get for living in a canyon/hill/foothills/etc.” Why can’t we all just let each other deal with whatever weather situation we find ourselves in, and hope for the best for those affected?

Also, what I thought was annoying about watching the media coverage of the earthquake was that it was centered in Virginia, but I couldn’t tell you what happened there because all they talked about was NYC. For an area that doesn’t get earthquakes, I totally get why people were rattled, whether they were right at the epicenter or further up the east coast. But it felt like, as usual, it had to be all about New York (which isn’t the fault of residents, but rather the producers at CNN).

Better safe than sorry…especially when it comes to unpredictable, potentially disasterous weather! I think a lot of the people who posted negative or snarky commentary about Irene have never been on the flip side of the coin. Yes, Floridians (as an example) may be more accustomed to hurricanes and sneer at the weakness of Irene’s winds, but if a foot of snow got dropped on them, they would find themselves in the same boat their New England neighbors were in this past weekend. So I agree with Liza. You can’t judge it unless you are in it.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this! Living in NYC I’ve gotten really tired of people complaining about how Bloomberg and the rest of the city “overreacted” about Irene, and how annoying it was for them to have to disrupt their lives for it. I’m also tired of people in areas that are accustomed to different natural disaster-type scenarios criticizing the way another area handles it.

As far as New York is concerned, people would be complaining if Bloomberg hadn’t evacuated the city, or if their hadn’t been a flurry of preparations–there’s nothing that the city could have done to make people happy, it’s a no-win situation. And as you point out, it’s infuriating to hear others speak derisively about the effects of an event when they probably haven’t experienced the worst of it.

I’m glad someone addressed this (and you did it so well!), and I hope more people will say something about it in the days to come. Hopefully in the future we can do a better job of coming together and supporting each other through whatever events take place.

An issue that sticks out for me concerning Irene was the lack of practical geographical information being presented by news sources. There was no flooding in my area of NJ because we’re not close enough to any water sources. The wind was problematic, but only a little worse than what we get during the most brutal phase of winter. So the snobbery is being directed toward people like me who were told by the media to prepare for flooding that we ended up not getting because we’re not actually near water. I do think individual cities may have been a little overzealous in calling for evacuations. My mayor issued an optional evacuation even though WE WERE NEVER AT RISK FOR FLOODING and the winds were down to around 50 MPH at that point.

It’s not even just that Manhattan is an island (though that’s important). It’s that the city government covers all five boroughs. This includes Manhattan as well as miles of beaches, riverfront property, a couple of canals and creeks, however many parks with however many trees, skyscrapers, new buildings that were made for high winds and old buildings that aren’t. The transit system covers all of those different things, with trains that are above AND below ground in different locations on the same line, plus buses. So while there may have been virtually no damage in my neighborhood (in Brooklyn, near the East River but elevated off it) or my building (one of those new ones made to withstand wind), the ocean at Coney Island was elevated all the way to the boardwalk.

I really think as a general rule, if you aren’t physically IN an area you can’t make a judgment about how people who are there should be acting. If you’re in Florida or California, don’t tell people in New York how to act. It doesn’t matter how many hurricanes or earthquakes you’ve seen or how many weather maps you’re looking at, you aren’t there so you can’t make a call.

I wish we could just be grateful things weren’t worse in the places that weren’t hit hard and work to help the people who weren’t so lucky.

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