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August 28, 2011 8:00 AM The wrong way to respond to a storm

By Steve Benen

Hurricane Irene obviously has the attention of millions of Americans, but some are handling the threat better than others. On the right, some of the rhetorical responses haven’t cast conservatives in the best light.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul wants to eliminate FEMA; congressional Republican leaders are reluctant to approve emergency disaster relief; and Fox News is running pieces like these, calling for the elimination of the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service.

As Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, news stations bombard our televisions with constant updates from the National Hurricane Center.

While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm, federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America’s past that have actually outlived their usefulness.

The Fox News piece touts private outlets, including AccuWeather, without alerting readers to a key detail: these private outlets rely on information they receive from the National Weather Service. Indeed, the NWS makes this information available to the private sector for free, since the NWS is a public agency and the data it compiles is public information.

The Fox News item goes on to say, in reference to the Weather Service, “It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them.”

This is not, by the way, a parody.

Glenn Beck, meanwhile, told his radio audience on Friday that Hurricane Irene “a blessing. It is God reminding you — as was the earthquake last week — it’s God reminding you you’re not in control. Things can happen.”

This divine “blessing” has already killed at least eight people.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • delNorte on August 28, 2011 8:05 AM:

    ...the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America's past that have actually outlived their usefulness.

    This sounds like a pretty good description of the Republican Party.

  • Roy on August 28, 2011 8:06 AM:

    Steve-- you mean Irene, not Katrina, right?

  • DAY on August 28, 2011 8:09 AM:

    If one were to check into FOX News a couple of times a day, one would discover a "theme". Whatever the story is, the underlying message is conservative good, liberal/government bad.
    It is not too different from attending Christian church services. Every sermon centers around some biblical scripture, and re-enforces a "message".

    Neither message relies, in any way, on logic, fact, or science.

    (NOTE: this is not meant to denigrate anyone's "faith"; a strong moral belief system can help us weather the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.)

  • c u n d gulag on August 28, 2011 8:18 AM:

    If Conservatives have their way in the future, we won't need all of this scientific clap-trap - all we'll need in the future is a "National Virgin Registry."

    It's getting rainy - sacrifice a virgin!

    It's getting droughty - sacrifice a virgin!

    It's snowing - sacrifice a virgin!

    The wind's picking up - sacrifice a virgin!

    The earth's shaking - round up as many virgins as you can find for sacrificing!

    Of course, no CHRISTIAN virgins will be use in these sacrifices.


    WTF is wrong with these "people?"

  • NDR on August 28, 2011 8:26 AM:

    The GOP used to love FEMA whenever it went into red states to write checks to poor southerners. How things have changed!

  • VAL on August 28, 2011 8:30 AM:

    Fox just doesn't want its minions getting attached to another channel, no matter what information that channel is broadcasting. It also doesn't want them watching hours of programming that deals with "climate," lest they become too interested in the topic.

  • pol, the liberal Christian on August 28, 2011 8:36 AM:

    Day, I'm going to church this morning to thank God for carrying me safely through the storm. I know, I know... people died. How do I explain that? I can't. But, then... that's faith. And if that's being gullible, so be it.

  • VAL on August 28, 2011 8:51 AM:

    Fox just doesn't want its minions getting attached to another channel, no matter what information that channel is broadcasting. It also doesn't want them watching hours of programming that deals with "climate," lest they become too interested in the topic.

  • hell's littlest angel on August 28, 2011 9:11 AM:

    There was a time when I'd have agreed with right-wingers about this. I think I was twelve.

  • Perspecticus on August 28, 2011 9:36 AM:

    I read things like this and am instantly reminded that we have something like 10,000 nuclear weapons.

  • matt w on August 28, 2011 9:46 AM:

    The Fox News folks would be well served to look at what Rick Santorum did when he was trying to push the National Weather Service aside in favor of AccuWeather (a Pennsylvania company and Santorum donor). He didn't propose to abolish the NWS; he proposed to prohibit it from publishing its data except for severe weather alerts. Why? Because he knew that AccuWeather needed the NWS data; they just didn't like it that NWS, as a public trust, was giving it away for free.

    By the way, when the Fox News clowns say the NWS handled Katrina worse than AccuWeather, the link goes to a piece by noted sock-puppeteer and data fabricator John Lott, who provides no evidence. Jim DeMint -- Jim DeMint! -- praised the NWS's performance in Katrina (follow the link in the Wikipedia article linked above).

    These clowns are from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the original employer of Jonathan Adler (formerly Juan non-Volokh) and one of the leading sources of climate change skepticism. This is what passes for intellectual firepower on the right.

  • FRP on August 28, 2011 9:47 AM:

    That is a nasty perspective .

  • berttheclock on August 28, 2011 9:59 AM:

    Matt W, great post, otherwise, known as know thy enemy.

  • mellowjohn on August 28, 2011 10:02 AM:

    well if the national hurricane center can't prevent hurricanes, what good are they?

  • SYSPROG on August 28, 2011 10:35 AM:

    pol, the liberal Christian on August 28, 2011 8:36 AM:

    Day, I'm going to church this morning to thank God for carrying me safely through the storm. I know, I know... people died. How do I explain that? I can't. But, then... that's faith. And if that's being gullible, so be it.

    POL? NOBODY denigrates your faith. But if it isn't coupled with SCIENCE then you are relying on only one side of the equation. I have been praying for the East Coast all night...while watching the weather channel.

  • Lance on August 28, 2011 10:38 AM:

    mellowjohn on August 28, 2011 10:02 AM:

    "well if the national hurricane center can't prevent hurricanes, what good are they?"

    Well, Rick Perry asked Texans to pray for rain to end his drought, and got now, so what good is he?

    The man isn't running to be President, he's running to be Pontifix Maximus.

  • Lance on August 28, 2011 10:40 AM:

    Gah! Got NONE.

  • 2Manchu on August 28, 2011 11:13 AM:

    While we're at it, why does the government need to waste money on navigation satellites?

    I get by just fine with my GPS receiver.

  • boatboy_srq on August 28, 2011 12:41 PM:

    How much of this opposition stems from opposition to public spending, how much from opposition to a perceived overpowering public sphere, how much from an anti-science bias and how much from a misunderstanding of much of the public sector itself? All of these things appear to bear on the subject.

    This is the same GOP that wants to defund the Departments of Energy and Labor, and other major federal bodies including the EPA, HUD, HHS - almost everything except the DoD and DHS (which are for them somehow magically exempt from either restriction in scope or a rational audit of their expenditures). Public spending on FEMA and the NWS falls clearly on the side of the ledger along with most other public sector spending that actually helps people, which spending has been a target of GOP budget hawks for many years.

    There may be something in the idea that getting one's "weather" from any outlet that includes "National" or "Federal" in its name is somehow not a valuable resource. We can point to the new Federalism of the TP and GOP voices for this reasoning. It is unclear whether the states or local communities should, by their logic, be responsible for their own services, but clearly the "National/Federal" monikers are a substantial part of the image issue here. The same way the "Washington doesn't understand [local area]" political discourse works, it's likely that "Washington can't provide services that will help [local area]" is driving much of this debate.

    The anti-science bias inherent in the TP, social conservatism and the modern GOP is very likely also driving this argument. Consider: "predicting" the weather takes away the mystery of Divine Providence and damages severely the perceived Power of Prayer to resolve local natural conditions; the satellites used to track meteorological phenomena are a direct consequence of Copernican heliocentric cosmology, which is still apparently an item of debate in some quarters; etc. It's difficult to argue the effectiveness of such things as the value of meteorology (in general) with a party that still prays for rain and thinks AGW is a hoax intended to make certain scientists rich and keep ordinary Murricans poor and oppressed.

    There's also something of a "magic" element in the opposition's perspective. Certain other commenters here have touched on it: how the public resources are somehow invisible even though the services and devices that utilize those public resources are at our fingertips. We watch television, for example, without thinking that the broadcast airwaves are essentially public property and that the broadcasters are only leasing them. We use our GPSs to navigate without reminding ourselves that those devices only triangulate information they receive from satellites the federal government put in orbit for this precise service. We drive our (privately owned) cars without thinking of the public nature of our roads. The disconnect between the services we use and the public nature of their origin is prevalent, and in that disconnect all manner of misconceptions can arise. Whether one attributes the benefits of these services to God, or magic, or some other externality, the lack of awareness of exactly what government is actually doing for us each and every moment all too often leads the public to associate those benefits not with successful government but with other (arguably) unrelated sources.

  • tamiasmin on August 28, 2011 12:43 PM:

    Do Beck and his followers, if he still has any, ever stop to consider that if this was really God's way of "reminding" people, then by any reasonable standard, God would be a malicious jerk?

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  • beyond left on August 29, 2011 4:18 PM:

    "Indeed, the NWS makes this information available to the private sector for free, since the NWS is a public agency and the data it compiles is public information"

    Just a quick correction. I believe that NOAA actually operates the satellites (along with a few DOD polar orbiters) and NWS analyzes and distributes the products from those observations. Private companies can use either the raw radiance data and products from NOAA or the derived products and imagery that the NWS provides.

  • Andy Axel on August 29, 2011 7:31 PM:

    From the article: "Relying on inaccurate government reports can endanger lives. Last year the Service failed to predict major flooding in Nashville because it miscalculated the rate at which water was releasing from dams there. The NWS continued to rely on bad information, even after forecasters knew the data were inaccurate. The flooding resulted in 22 deaths."

    Who controls the release of water from the dams up-river of Nashville? The Army Corps of Engineers. FYI.

    Also, people in Nashville died along flash-flooded creek beds that are absolutely uncontrolled. Among those 22 deaths were people who drove into high waters, people who were inner-tubing or kayaking. That has more to do with garden-variety ignorance of the power of floodwaters than it does with flawed NWS predictions based on inaccurate info from the Army Corps.

  • Regular DOC kind of guy on August 29, 2011 10:47 PM:

    Beyond left: "Just a quick correction. I believe that NOAA actually operates the satellites (along with a few DOD polar orbiters) and NWS analyzes and distributes the products from those observations. Private companies can use either the raw radiance data and products from NOAA or the derived products and imagery that the NWS provides."

    You're close, but not quite there ...

    Actually, NWS is an operating unit of NOAA, as is NESDIS, the National Enviornmental Satillite Data Information Service - these are two parts of the same agency. Both play a critical role in the output of weather data.

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