Weather Media and Homeland Security: Selling Preparedness in a Volatile World
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Marita Sturken teaches in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. She is the author of Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering and a forthcoming book entitled Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism in American Culture.

Hurricane Katrina exposed social inequities within the United States in stunning relief. As such, it is quite typical of weather disasters which, with rare exceptions, impact the poor in significantly higher numbers, though rarely is this exposure so dramatic and so widely disseminated. As an event that has rendered visible the failed infrastructure of U.S. disaster preparedness, Katrina has also revealed the relationship of disaster preparedness (or rather unpreparedness) and the current lack of U.S. preparedness for further terrorist attacks. Thus, in this event, we can see the ways that weather preparedness and terrorism preparedness deploy a similar set of narratives about technology, prediction, family, and government protection.

Katrina was not only a weather event, it was a weather media event, and this has an impact on the kinds of discourses that emerged in the media and in the political arena in its wake. Weather media effectively merges conventions of news and meteorology. One of the stories always told in weather media is that technology will provide better control over the weather, which manifests in the fact that weather reporting is now primarily based on viewing weather from satellites. Thus, the image of a storm such as Katrina was initially consumed by media viewers primarily as a satellite image of an impressively large swirl of clouds as seen from a satellite orbiting the earth—weather seen from above rather than felt from below.1 So habituated are we to this convention, that we very rarely consider how unusual this view is, and how it creates a point-of-view that is specifically non-human (and depopulated, unlike the experience of a hurricane on the ground). In addition to this dependence on satellite imagery, weather media is increasingly one of dazzling computer visualization with such devices as Doppler Radar, which are used to convey the sense that weather-tracking technologies can actually help to control the weather itself. This emphasis on technology tends to screen out the most significant weather events that do not play well on television. Heat and drought, arguably some of the most devastating weather problems worldwide, tend to get underplayed in weather coverage precisely because they don’t make for good TV and are not easily seen in satellite photos. The effects of global warming, while they may remain in the news if they continue to produce spectacular storms, are not a part of the narrative of weather media.

Other conventions of weather media mediate technophilia with the reassuring presence of reporters: any weather story will include the image of numerous reporters standing in foul-weather gear while being buffeted by winds and rain, fulfilling their role as stand-ins for viewers. These reporters, and their anchor counterparts, narrate a storm in ways that are intended to create companionship with the viewer, reiterating: “we will be there with you.” Such conventions are now quite recognizable to viewers, as they provide comedy fodder for shows such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show which endlessly parodies the hapless reporter-in-the-rain. As Katrina morphed from a weather media event to an event of human disaster, many reporters who found themselves confusingly and angrily in the midst of the chaos changed roles, torn between reporting and aiding in rescue efforts. Some became themselves the focus of the story they were telling, filming themselves rescuing people and constructing stories of their own heroism (which were mocked in turn by The Daily Show).

The reporter-in-weather is a fixture of weather reporting, but the essence of weather media is its embrace of technology, and this is key to the preoccupation in the weather industries with prediction. Thus, the media coverage of disasters such as hurricanes, which arrive with warning (unlike earthquakes and tsunamis), tells a story of prediction as a form of control—we can predict the path of the storm, such stories go, we can chart its path, by implication, we are ready for its impact. Today, large sums of money are invested in weather prediction, and the use of computers to chart weather patterns has created an increasingly mathematical model of weather forecasting.2 The need for weather prediction comes not only from industries like farming, fishing, and construction, but also from the military, and the science of meteorology has been heavily influenced by the needs of the military and the space industry. Andrew Ross notes that the legitimation of meteorology as science corresponded with the beginning of the aeronautical industry, and “The new meteorology proved a vital military asset during the Great War.” 3 In addition, continuous satellite-generated weather forecasts created a consumer market for satellite surveillance services that would otherwise be completely funded by government and military agencies.4 In this light, weather prediction technology is not only inextricably tied to military needs, but serves to underwrite them as well.

However, prediction is limited in its impact. While weather prediction is now considered to be about 85 percent accurate, this does not mean that meteorologists can predict where a storm will hit. John Seabrook notes that the intense round-the-clock coverage of the approach of Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 did little to help prepare for the storm; indeed, it may have had adverse effects on preparation. He writes, “The National Weather Service’s Floyd forecast provoked the largest evacuation in American history, and it turned out that very few of the people who left their homes needed to go…it was the farmers inland who were wiped out by the flooding that followed the storm, and most people weren’t prepared for that.” 5 Similarly, the unprecedented evacuation of the Texas coast from Galveston to Houston in anticipation of Hurricane Rita, which caused massive traffic jams and resulted in several tragic accidents, including the death of over twenty elderly people in a bus accident, turned out to be unnecessary. In New Orleans, where the path of Hurricane Katrina veered east before it hit the city, early weather media stories reported that the city had been lucky in evading a direct hit. That there was a high likelihood that the levees wouldn’t hold, and that Lake Pontchartrain would empty into the city, was not a part of the prediction story.

One of the primary messages of prediction is the selling of preparedness. Thus, the technologically enhanced discourse of prediction conveys the sense that weather media viewers can be prepared, that they have the individual agency to be prepared for weather disasters. This elides, most obviously, the degree to which people throughout the world are differently impacted by weather because of class and economic differences. The prediction of a potential hurricane hit on New Orleans is useless to the residents of that city’s Ninth Ward if they have no transportation, no money, and a local government unable and unwilling to provide them with emergency transportation, just as the long range information that impending monsoons will be extreme can do little to save the lives of those in India and Bangladesh whose villages will be destroyed. Weather prediction is in fact a very limited kind of knowledge that promises protection and reassurance yet which bears no relationship to the social infrastructures that would ensure preparedness. Indeed, it could be argued that prediction not only has little impact on people’s daily lives but serves to screen out the politics of disaster.

That the story of weather today is a story of technology was affirmed by the public relations scramble of the Bush Administration handlers when Hurricane Rita began to close in on the Texas Gulf Coast. Desperate to show that he was “in charge” in some way after his feeble response to Katrina had become the worst public relations disaster of his presidency, and shamed by reporters’ questions about whether he would “get in the way” if he pursued his plan to go to Texas during the storm, President Bush flew to the Northern Command Center in Colorado Springs with his entourage of reporters to watch the storm’s approach and the evacuation coordination on the high-tech equipment there.6 Promising to help oversee the “interface” of the military with local and state government, yet exposed by reporters who were more interested in talking about the trip as a form of PR damage control, Bush was further dwarfed by the technology itself, which clearly needed no supervision from him.

In the post-9/11 United States, discourses of weather prediction and preparedness are haunted by a kind of shadow discourse about technologies of prediction and preparedness for terrorist attack. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the failure of FEMA and state and local governments to react effectively produced outrage and shock. If we can’t deal effectively with a storm we knew was coming, such narratives went, then how will we respond in the case of a terrorist attack that can’t be tracked by satellite images? That FEMA has become an even more ineffectual agency since it was folded into the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) was powerfully clear, not only because it was a quintessential example of Bush Administration cronyism, but also because such bureaucratic reshufflings had led to an exodus of qualified employees and a more cumbersome and rule-bound organization. As stories have circulated in the aftermath of Katrina of how FEMA regulations prevented people from being rescued, people from acting effectively to aid evacuations, and doctors from helping the sick, the “promise” of homeland security was exposed in all its failure. The shadow story of Katrina is the fear it has produced at the nation’s state of unpreparedness for terrorist attack.

Thus, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has revealed not only the appallingly ineffectualness of FEMA, but the misguided project of the DHS as well. One of the jobs of the DHS is to talk to citizens about being prepared for various terrorist incidents. Its color-coded system of threat advisory is a form of prediction, one that is supposedly intended to reassure citizens that the government is more prepared, even though terrorist incidents are by definition unpredictable. The DHS thus sells the idea that the government is successful in creating a state of readiness for potential attack and that citizens as individuals can be prepared for terrorism. It does this on its web site and in several public service campaigns. For instance, in collaboration with the Ad Council, the DHS produced a public service ad campaign based on the notion that the defending unit of American society is the nuclear family. The campaign focuses on the idea that American families need to prepare with emergency plans: “If there’s an emergency, does your family have a plan?” In the print campaign, family members pose together before the camera, each with a list of instructions printed next to them. One father’s list reads “Fill up gas tank, drive home, pack minivan with emergency kit” and one young girl’s assignment is to “Wait for Mommy at school” while the family dog is told to “Grab chew toy, hop in back of minivan.” While the campaign aims at inclusiveness by including an African American family, its construction of the American family is revealing. These are middle-class suburban families, families who have two children and a dog, two-income families who drive minivans. This is, quite obviously, the only citizen family that the government can imagine.

That a similar attitude pervaded in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina hardly needs stating at this point. The construction of poor black families into “those who chose not to evacuate” pervaded in the first days of the disaster, without any understanding of how few resources these citizens had, many of whom had rarely ever left the city during their lives. In addition, the fear of loss of what little property they did have, uninsured and unprotected as it was from the water and from looters, was a key factor in the decision of those who did remain. It is a privilege, of course, to be able to survive losing one’s worldly possessions. One cannot recognize in the happy and prepared families of the DHS campaign the families that emerged from New Orleans, stranded citizens begging to be rescued on rooftops and drowning in their attics, wheeling their few remaining possessions down flooded streets in shopping carts.

The fictional DHS prepared family with a plan is also deeply unrepresentative of the people who are most likely to be impacted by terrorist attack. Given that the risk of attack is significantly higher in cities such as New York, the suburban construction of the DHS campaign is stunning. Indeed, it would seem to indicate that the campaign is aimed more at reassuring suburban voters than in educating people about how to prepare for terrorist incidents. In a city such as New York, where the vast majority of residents ride subways and buses, where huge numbers of people do not live in traditional nuclear families or with families at all, these ads would have no meaning.

Government campaigns that sell the idea of individual preparedness operate to reassure citizens that the government is doing everything it can to keep the country safe. Thus, the emphasis in the DHS campaigns on how individuals should respond to a crisis elides the fact that individuals and families can do little to affect the most important security decisions of the country, such as the securing of borders and cargo. The campaigns take place in what is largely understood to be a security vacuum on the part of the U.S. government, with DHS threat advisories mere political ploys and DHS funding distributed like political pork to government cronies. The disaster of Katrina has dramatically exposed the way that resources have been drained away from the “homeland” by the war in Iraq. The homeland, we learned from Katrina, is primarily at risk not from the weather or from foreign terrorists, but from its own failed infrastructure and its callous disregard for the rights of all citizens to the most basic of human needs.


1 As Jody Berland puts it, we now view the skies looking down rather than looking up. See Jody Berland, “Mapping Space: Imaging Technologies and the Planetary Body,” in Technoscience and Cyberculture, eds. Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Martinsons, and Michael Menser (New York: Routledge, 1996), 124.

2 In 1997, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established an International Research Institute, now housed at Columbia University, with $18 million to provide early warnings of climate variations such as El Niño that influence drought, floods, and other destructive weather patterns through the use of Cray supercomputers. The Institute’s mission states that “By making early warning forecasts available to those affected by drastic changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, these scientists are aiming to improve the relationship between humans and the natural environment. An International Research Institute represents the dedication of the scientific community to build upon and utilize the technology available to improve the quality of life for societies worldwide.”

3 Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, Technology in the Age of Limits (London: Verso, 1991), 228.

4 Berland, “Mapping Space,” 135.

5 John Seabrook, “Selling the Weather,” The New Yorker (April 3, 2000), 46.

6 David E. Sanger, “Bush’s Crisis Itinerary at Mercy of Weather, Even Nice Weather,” The New York Times, September 24, 2005, A1; and David E. Sanger, “In This Storm, White House Tries to Take New Tack,” The New York Times, September 25, 2005.