Tuesday, September 30, 2008

COLUMN: Hurricane

I knew it was time for the fall TV season -- I just didn't know it would turn out to be THIS exciting.

None of the networks could compete with the debut of "90210," could they? I watched that sucker and, within the first ten minutes, we'd already experienced (a) fisticuffs, (b) plagairism, (c) drug abuse, (d) teen promiscuity, and (e) at least two totally steamy love triangles. TV could get no more engaging, right?

How wrong I was. Little did I know that a network was ready to launch an even more exciting fall show -- a premiere that would take the list into letters like (f) (g) (h) and (i). It's just a shame that the network was CNN and those letters stood for Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike.

It's an inarguable fact that hurricanes suck. People have died, houses have been demolished, and the toll on families and budgets is all but immeasurable. But the only thing more despicable than the devastation on TV is, well, being able to watch the devastation on TV.

I knew Ike was going to be a doozy as soon as the NOA or the NWS or one of those fancy acronyms issued a statement to coastal Texas that said, "Anyone NOT evacuating from a low-lying area FACES CERTAIN DEATH." Now, that's a terrifying announcement -- and when you play it back, I swear you can almost hear a little noise in the background. I'm pretty sure it's the sound of Anderson Cooper drooling.

See, the networks figured out long ago that Mother Nature equals ratings gold. Scan your TV right now. Odds are good that you'll see some ice road trucking or deadliest catch fishing or, if you're especially lucky, shark week. There IS something captivating about the epic struggle of man vs. nature, especially for those of us lucky enough to live safely away from its impact. The citizens of our southern and eastern coasts may watch hurricane coverage for news and information -- but a good chunk of the country watches just to go "Whooooooa."

No one seems to know this better than my favorite Master of Disaster, CNN's Anderson Cooper. At the first sniff of bad weather, he always seems to be the first reporter on the scene, eager to stand outside in his yellow raincoat through the thick of torrential downpours and gale force wind, and I just don't get it.

Given today's scientific breakthroughs, I'm pretty sure the technology now exists to take a camera, mount it somewhere secure, point it outside, press the "ON" button, and run for your life before you're blown away to kingdom come. But no, despite the promise of CERTAIN DEATH, a hurricane just isn't a hurricane without getting to watch some reporter getting clobbered by the storm.

I got home from my weekend job at 3 a.m., just about the time Ike was making landfall in Galveston, a town known for (a) the second-best Glen Campbell song ever made and (b) its propensity to be washed away by hurricanes on a semi-regular basis. Galveston was at the heart of CERTAIN DEATH country, yet there were the reporters, hunkered down and barely able to talk over the crashing waves and gusting winds. CNN's crew was in a Galveston hotel whose owner had the good sense to evacuate while handing CNN his keys.

It was also the pitch middle of the night, so you couldn't really see anything going on. The same thing could have been accomplished standing in a TV studio with a guy off-camera going "whooooooooooosh" into a microphone. None of the reporters were really providing any news, either. They would just find new and exciting ways to say, "yes, it's really windy and rainy," while the anchors would go "maybe you should head somewhere safe" without really meaning it. I gave up and went to bed.

The next day, it took exactly 8 seconds to find Anderson Cooper in all his glory, standing in Texas floodwater up to his bellybutton and casually reporting on the Presidential race as though it were just another day at the office. The sun was out, birds were chirping, and in the background, all you could see were a myriad of places where he could have stood WITHOUT having to immerse himself in cootie-plagued bilgewater. But that would've been boring. Eventually he started interviewing people, who I'm assuming all had to wade out in protective gear just to be interviewed. It was ridiculous.

Not as ridiculous, of course, as the townsfolk who elected to stay through the storm. Call me cold-hearted if you want, but I have no sympathy for anyone perfectly capable of evacuating a town but choosing not to, like the nimrods keeping their bar open or the idiots on surfboards trying to hang ten on a natural disaster.

It's not like the old days when your first sign of a hurricane was a guy in a lighthouse with an eye to the sea going "uh oh." They were already monitoring Ike before Fay, Gustav or Hanna had struck land. For all I know, they could be tracking Hurricane Xerxes right now. There was plenty of time to hit the high road.

I saw them interview a guy who said, "This is my land, and I'm staying put." Well, Rock Island's a fine land, too -- but if someone came up to me and said, "Hey, Shane, you've got two options: you could hang out here or you could face CERTAIN DEATH," me and my cats would be on the first bus to Anywhere But Here. Don't worry, though, I'd leave Anderson my keys.

If you can, donate to the Red Cross and help Texas out. 1-800-REDCROSS.

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