Whatever the weather, the US cries wolf

World View: Hysterical reporting puts Americans in danger – as does the lack of an east-west mountain range

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The United States has a failing that has an immense impact on the lives of Americans, but there is nothing they can do to change it. The fault is geological, not political or social, and would take hundreds of millions of years of drastic tectonic readjustment to put right.

The problem is that the country's mountain ranges run north-south. What the US needs is an east-west mountain chain, an American version of the Alps or the Hindu Kush. Hurricane Sandy, affected by the more than usually warm air in the western Atlantic, might not have been stopped by this. But, more generally, it is the absence of an east-west mountain range that exposes the US to the hazardous weather which does so much damage.

I have usually found that the most accurate information about any actual or potential disaster comes not from the media, but from insurance companies. These need, and are in a position to collect for their own purposes, detailed and immediate information about the extent of their risk before, during and after some cataclysm. The lament about the unfortunate lack of east-west mountains across the US comes not from some overimaginative geologist or climatologist, but from Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance company. Just two weeks before Sandy it published a fascinating study called Severe Weather in North America, saying that the area was already being hit by extreme weather events, possibly because of global warming, and predicts that this trend will get worse.

"Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America," says Munich Re, basing its conclusions on its unrivalled database on natural catastrophes. "The weather shows a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades, compared with an increased factor of four in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, two in Europe and 1.5 in South America." It suggests that the most likely explanation for this is climate change leading to an increase in heatwaves, droughts, heavy precipitation and probably, in the long term, the intensity of tropical cyclones.

It is not that the American media does not copiously report natural disasters; if anything, it concentrates too much on them. Normal snowstorms receive the same high-decibel reportage as true cataclysms before they occur or, in some cases, do not occur. On calm days, reporters pound viewers with hysterical prophecies of some impending climatic disaster that often fails to materialise.

By repeatedly crying wolf, news channels complicate life for those in the path of a storm who really need to know what is happening. After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, people in Louisiana were berated by politicians and opinion-formers for ignoring warnings and not getting out in time before the levees broke. Not mentioned was the fact that the storm victims who failed to flee had previously been repeatedly subjected to unfulfilled apocalyptic warnings. No wonder politicians become privately cynical about such exaggerations, disastrously wrong-footing themselves as heartless and incompetent when, as with Katrina, or Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992, the forewarnings turned out for once to be all too true.

This was never going to happen with Sandy since it was heading for New York, the world's greatest media centre. This is in sharp contrast to Andrew, which made landfall south of Miami but mostly destroyed the plywood homes in towns of migrant workers such as Homestead. The media discovered that such a place existed only when it was destroyed.

Even with real disasters such as Sandy, television gives a distorted picture because the cameras focus on the most smashed-up neighbourhoods and ignore everything else. The rhetoric of disaster is so overplayed for minor events that there is nothing left for real catastrophes such as the one that hit New York and New Jersey last week.

No modern city can function long without electricity. No power means that fresh water cannot be pumped and lavatories stop working. People often buy extra food and store it in their fridges and freezers. To people accustomed to continuous electricity supply this seems prudent, but when the electricity fails it turns out to be a very bad idea. I remember the stench hanging over Baghdad after the power stations were bombed in 1991, as people took meat out of their fridges and left it to rot beside the road. The binmen never came for it because they had run out of fuel.

Reliance on a continuous supply of electricity makes people acutely vulnerable. In New York, many people no longer have landlines. In the hotel I stayed in on the Bowery in southern Manhattan in September, there were no longer any phones in the rooms. But without electric power mobiles cannot be recharged.

As with Katrina, poor people in Brooklyn and elsewhere are being criticised for not taking refuge in allocated shelters. Anybody who has seen the US government operating in similar crises will understand their reservations. As in New York today, there is normally a hi-tech headquarters, but at ground level there is not a policeman or Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) representative to be seen.

Not much seems to have changed since Hurricane Andrew 20 years ago. At the time, I wandered around Homestead looking for 300 Fema officials who were said to be in the area. I eventually found two of them, both volunteers, who were working at a table helping Mexican farm labourers fill in a five-page form requesting aid. One of them said to me in frustration: "What we really need here is an armoured car full of money to give people."

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