Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Armageddon in Evangeline, or Some Place Close By

We spent much of the past weekend and Monday afternoon keeping our TV eye on Hurricane Katrina, hoping it wouldn’t wreak too much havoc on New Orleans and, closer to home, that it wouldn’t suddenly swerve and make a beeline for our mama’s house 120 miles to the west. The latter was spared, but the former, sadly, was not.

Despite the storm’s path well to the east of the Texas coast, Houston television viewers were still able to experience the familiar frisson afforded by the sight of Channel 13’s Wayne Dolcefino blowin’ in the wind, this time from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain (Dolcefino always does a good job, but it appears that nothing less than a Category 5 hurricane can generate the windpower sufficient to reposition his ever-expanding bulk). There were other small pleasures to be found: the slightly bug-eyed woman on CNN who persisted in saying kat-a-REENA during her interview with Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. David Vitter (demoted to a lowly “Rep.” on the network’s crawl), or the MSNBC weatherman who pronounced “Plaquemine” three different ways during a 30-second span. Beyond those understandable miscues were more serious breaches: the lady on the Weather Channel (we think, although we were clicking around with abandon, so it may have been CNN or MSNBC or TNT or BET) who declared that the “hurricane” looked “beautiful” at that moment---not the real hurricane charging through the Gulf on its way to dealing death and devastation, but the inflamed red pustule churning on the radar screen (calling Roland Barthes!). Then there was the correspondant on some network or another who on Sunday afternoon almost hollered at the top of her lungs that the entire city of New Orleans “very well could be under 20 or 30 feet of water at this time tomorrow!” OK, lady, but like we tell our kids---yelling doesn’t help.

After being unplugged from the coverage all day Monday, we hopped in our car and heard a reporter on NPR declare somewhat tentatively and very prematurely that New Orleans appeared to have fared well in the storm. Alas, the poor guy had his hand on only a very small, localized part of the elephant’s appendage: “I’m standing at the foot of Canal Street.” he reported, “and it’s not one,” meaning a canal (ho heh). He could’ve stopped there, but he went on to say the scene was NOT evoking that line from the classic Randy Newman song: “Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.” He said it Evange-leen, mispronouncing Newman’s own (probably intentional) mispronunciation Evange-line (it’s Evange-lun, at least in Evangeline, a parish a good two-and-a-half hour drive from New Orleans and well out of the way of the storm’s fury; but what the hell, to the parochial national media types it’s just another colorfully named locale where all these exotic, slowing-talking white and black folks insist on living).

So we figured New Orleans did indeed do OK and went on home, trying to shake from our mind Newman’s lyrics to what ought to be Louisiana’s state anthem (“They’re trying to wash us away …”), until we turned to CNN and heard a reporter named Jeanne Meserve excitedly declare that the scene looked like “Armageddon” in New Orleans’ flooded 9th Ward. “Well Jeanne,” said Wolf Blitzer, back in the studio, “you’re an experienced reporter so you should know what Armageddon looks like, if anyone does” (calling Pat Roberston!). We decided to split the difference between Armageddon and NOT a Randy Newman song, although as it turned out Meserve was much closer to the truth.

Of course, the media plays an important role in informing the public (as they are sure to remind you, at half-hour intervals), something that was acknowledged by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (who both impressed us as being level-headed and real as the hurricane approached and they grappled with extremely difficult judgment calls). But the media coverage---the quantity and the tone---sure has changed since we were a lad in the pre-cable era. Back then, when we lived about 40 or so miles from the Louisiana coast, a hurricane seemed to hit or brush close by almost every year. The storm-tracking technology was relatively primitive---we remember being cut loose from school only a few hours before a hurricane hit, maybe it was Betsy or Hilda, and joining our schoolmates in pedaling furiously home on our Schwinns in the thickest downpour we’ve ever been caught in. The local announcers usually stood in front of a map, on which a magnetic marker representing the hurricane was moved by hand (not “beautiful”). They’d take phone calls from the outlying areas---from their few reporters, or a local Civil Defense worker, or yam cultivation expert Thibodeaux---and relay the information about damage, evacuation centers, etc. They were controlled and wooden, at least compared to today’s hyperventilating self-dramatizers, but they seemed to be more aware of the public-service aspect of their jobs. Eventually, as the hurricane came ashore, the TV stations would be knocked off the air. The electricity would follow, then the local radio stations would go dead. We remember sitting in the dark and listening to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game on a clear-channel station far away while hurricane winds roared outside.

Hurricanes remind us that there are things we can’t control---thus the fear and apprehension they stoke, as well as the buzz (yeah, let’s admit it) they trigger as they approach. And even with all the modern technology and hot-cha graphics, it’s impossible for the broadcast media to get a full and true picture of what’s going on, while it’s going on. Three years ago a supposedly piddlin’ little storm named Lily bore down on the Louisiana coast, headed in the direction of our parents’ home. But it was mere Category 2, and after it hit NPR and the cable networks declared it a big nothing, a mere pffftttttt of a storm, no big deal, and we went to bed. Later that morning we were awakened by a call from our mama, who reported that Lily had raked the town unmercifully and blown a half-ton of water oak on and through the roof of our parents’ home. Much of the town was without electricity for at least four days (yeah, it was so bad that you couldn’t find a cold beer anywhere), and the damage eventually ran into the millions and millions of dollars.

So you never know.

AND WHAT WOULD MAHATMA DO? Amy Barnett, of NBC affiliate Channel 2 in Houston, had an excellent story Monday night on a Comfort Inn in Baytown that was charging hurricane refugees $200 for an $80-a-night room. Barnett confronted the scuzzy malefactor, the manager of the hotel, whose name was Ms. So-and-So Gandhi. (Yeah, you couldn’t make this stuff up.) Barnett eventually got Ms. Gandhi to lower her eyes and ’fess up that, yes, what she was doing was wrong, kinda sorta. The public humiliation at Barnett’s hands was certainly a much kinder punishment than Ms. Gandhi deserved. (Harrumph…)

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