A colleague of mine recently reached out to me, begging me to write a column about a topic close to his heart. He presented his concerns — fears, really — in a clearly agitated state of mind and implored: "For the love of God. ... Put some sense into it, Chris!"
When a situation — any situation — has deteriorated to such a degree that someone thinks I can serve as a plausible arbiter of clearmindedness, then we do indeed have a crisis on our hands. So, with all due respect to God and Bob Breck, I'll give it a try.
It was Breck who wrote the email. The veteran meteorologist from Fox 8 News is a-dither, aroused, annoyed, fevered, ruffled and distraught. Which is saying a lot. Because, if you've ever seen his broadcasts, you know he can be an excitable chap with on-air delivery styles that range from animated to jittery — and all the whistle stops in between.
And that's on a slow news day.
So if Bob Breck thinks someone is overreacting, well, then. Well then, indeed.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I perform some contractual services for WVUE-TV, Breck's employer, but I'm not sure that's relevant to the matter at hand.)
The issue here is hurricanes. Well, sort of. It's not really the storms themselves, but the relatively new means by which we — as a nation of 24/7 news cycle, technologically-obsessed, information junkies — track, monitor, follow, fixate and otherwise preoccupy ourselves with where they are, where they're going and when they'll get there, a science as imprecise as, and (oddly, ironically) as seasonal, as figuring out what Brett Favre's plans are each fall.
And that gives me the metaphor I am looking for. Full-blown hurricanes — and even your Everyday Joe tropical storms — have morphed from flash-in-the-pan, Whoa, Nellie! meteorological phenomena that burst onto and off the scene in two or three news cycles into something resembling a professional sports season: starting somewhere in the vague Deep South, irrelevant in the opening weeks, starting slow, dragging on two weeks too long and, in the end, generally turning out to be a bust, a colossal waste of everybody's time.
Really, they should just call every storm Hurricane Brett.
"Years ago, we didn't track them for two weeks," Breck points out. Now, he says, advanced satellite tracking systems, the emotional fragility of emergency preparedness officials in the post-K era, and the compliant media conspire to "scare the bejesus out of us!" he says. "It's already difficult enough to sleep at night — fear of crime, fear of bedbugs — but now we have to fear another hurricane that 'might' hit us in two weeks? The governor is doing promos urging us to 'get a game plan!' We can't let our guard down! We're all gonna die!"
Like I said, Breck has a tendency toward excitability. And it's a shame about that bedbug thing. Little TMI there, Bobby Boy!
But he is onto something here. On the day I write this story — Sept. 15 — the home page of nola.com, The Times-Picayune website, has these three headlines, one atop the other:
"Tropical Storm Karl expected to reach Yucatan Peninsula overnight."
"Hurricane Igor, a Category 4 storm, continues to strengthen."
"Hurricane Julia intensifies to Category 2."
Says Breck: "The headline should read: Three named storms at once with zero chance of coming here."
Instead, we get these super-cool, uber-tech, satellite images shot from thousands of miles above the planet that show the merest formations of little, tiny cloud whorls, kind of like cosmic ultrasound photos of Mother Earth proudly showing off her newest spawn, conceived off the west coast of Africa, still six weeks from North America but DETERMINED TO KILL EVERYONE IN NEW ORLEANS.
But it's not just a local phenom we're talking about. As I write this, the home page for msn.com says: "Storms Look Scary ... Even From Space," accompanied by those same Mother Earth ultrasound photos. And this text:
"To keep track of these scary storms in the days ahead, click into the Weather section and check out our whiz-bang Hurricane Tracker. And for a quick primer on hurricane science, take a spin through our 'Birth of a Hurricane' interactive."
With all due respect to God and Bob Breck, what I'd like to know is: Where the hell is Nash Roberts with his Magic Markers and his wipeboard? And just what the hell does he have to say about all this?