A few weeks ago I showed how Democrats had become "the party of bad news" (1) and how the mainline media had enabled this by feeding the public a steady stream of bad news about the economy, business, the war, and even the weather. These are spun to paint the gloomiest possible picture and frighten the maximum number of people. Media mavens – who vote Democratic by at least a 90-10 margin – obviously hope the all-bad-news-all-the-time ploy will discourage voters, turn them against the GOP, and hand Democrats political control of the Congress for the first time since 1994.
Some of the bad-news strategy was simply opportunistic, of course, since nature was furnishing disaster without need of much spin. Last year’s "hundred-year" hurricane, Katrina, was the capstone meteorological event of a year that saw twenty-eight named Atlantic storms, of which fifteen were hurricanes. Several of these made USA landfall. Katrina broke levees around New Orleans, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and leaving thousands homeless.
The news media greatly embellished Katrina, however, by immediately blasting the Bush administration’s "slow" response to the unprecedented storm. Film-footage of people clinging to the roofs of their submerged houses accompanied scurrilous charges of racism – namely, that FEMA had deliberately dragged its feet because storm-victims were mostly poor and black. It soon became an article of media faith that George W. Bush’s government had spectacularly "bungled" the greatest natural disaster in American history. Lurid tales of rapes and murders among the throngs stranded at the New Orleans Superdome were trumpeted (sans details) by the national media as further proof of Mr. Bush’s callous disregard for Katrina’s victims.
All this hype conveniently – perhaps deliberately – obscured decades of Louisiana profligacy with federal monies intended for strengthening the New Orleans levee system. Local officials’ incompetence when the storm hit was also overlooked. Louisiana’s female governor dithered for days before requesting federal assistance, then shed tears on camera. Its female senator said she wanted to "punch" the president. And Mayor Ray Nagin cussed Mr. Bush on national TV for over-flying the disaster area instead of staging a politically advantageous (for Mr. Nagin) shirtsleeves photo-op. Mr. Nagin was the "decisive leader" who left hundreds of school buses (which might have evacuated people) parked until they were flooded and ruined. He also declined to provision the Superdome, to discourage people from taking refuge there.
Insiders later reported that such disaster plans as existed were ignored. NOPD cops decamped to Florida and Texas with their patrol cars. Stories of rampant crime at the Superdome were later debunked, but thousands of refugees were stranded at the stadium without food or water. A National Guard soldier who participated in four previous hurricane-assistance efforts testified that FEMA’s response to Katrina was actually faster than to any of the earlier hurricanes. The "slow" Katrina response was a media story meant to smear the Bush administration.
This media extravaganza was great fun – especially for Democrats who piled on with copious defamation of Republican governance and accusations of racism in the Bush cabinet. Some called on Mr. Bush to nominate a "centrist" Supreme Court justice candidate – i.e., for Justice O’Connor’s vacated seat – to mitigate the "political damage" from the Katrina fiasco. Great efforts were made to spin the "Katrina effect" out to the 2006 election, but even the media’s mighty powers of repetitious imagery failed to keep the outrage going. Attempts to "celebrate" the disaster’s anniversary, in August 2006, also flopped despite extensive coverage.
Other willing hands seized the torch, however. Some were hurricane forecasters described as a new "cottage industry" occupying the periphery of national weather-forecasting. Colorado State University, a leader of the genre, had forecast a "well above average hurricane season" of at least fifteen named storms in 2005. When ‘05 indeed developed into a major hurricane year, business and political interests with a stake in possible hurricane activity started paying major attention to CSU’s predictions. Last April, Colorado’s hurricane forecasters predicted that 2006 would see seventeen named storms, including five intense hurricanes. Philip Klotzbach, author of the CSU hurricane report, estimated the chance of a major hurricane striking the US coastline at 81%. Mr. Klotzbach also calculated the probability of a major hurricane hitting Gulf Coast oil production facilities at 47%. That report sent the media scare-machine into overdrive.
While the media shouted "doom" from the housetops, oil and natural gas futures went crazy. Crude oil hit $78.40 in July, and natural gas prices reached a record $15.78 last December. Wild predictions of $100-a-barrel oil, $5/gallon gas, and home-heating bills thrice normal levels electrified reporters. Commodity hedge funds like Amaranth Advisors LLC (Greenwich, CT) bit hard on the bullish prices. Mr. Bush’s approval ratings hit sub-basement levels. Democrats were dancing in the streets and ordering furniture for their congressional committee-chair offices. Happy days (for Democrats) would soon be here again.
But in the midst of these celebrations other experts sounded notes of caution. This was all a scare-hyped mirage, they said. Oil and natural gas prices would crash by year-end, and gasoline would dive below $2.00 a gallon. Old hands at computerized simulation models (like this writer) wondered how hurricane predictors could be so sure of their data and assumptions as to make such precise forecasts about numbers, direction and severity of storms.
Indeed, it has all finally hit the fan. Those doubts about basing major political and business decisions on computer-generated predictions of weather patterns, six months out, have been vindicated. With hurricane season all but over, only nine named storms and five hurricanes have occurred. None hit the USA, although August hurricane Ernesto briefly threatened Florida before weakening to a tropical storm. Oil has dropped to $58/barrel, and gasoline is below $2.00/gallon in some places. CSU has admitted that their 2006 forecasts were wrong. "That’s the nature of the game when it comes to forecasting," said Mr. Klotzbach. "We did the best we could with the information we had."
"Journalists" who expected to be wearing fashionable windbreakers on Gulf and East Coast beaches this year, while relaying breathless reports of advancing killer storms, have been reduced to reporting possible cloud formations in the Caribbean or off the west coast of Africa. (It has been pathetic to watch the dashed hope in their faces as each new tropical weather-depression fizzled.) Democrats eagerly anticipating Katrina II, $5 gasoline, and control of both houses of Congress have had very long faces through most of a cruel, disappointing summer.
Business, however, has experienced more than dashed hopes. Or, more precisely, its dashed hopes had big dollar-signs attached to them. The Amaranth Advisors LLC fund closed after losing $6.5 billion of its investors’ money by leaping incautiously into natural gas and oil futures. Other investment fund managers realized, too late, that they missed big gains for the year by avoiding insurance companies, which they thought would take more major storm-hits.
But consumers were the biggest losers from those predictions of named storms, hurricanes, landfalls, and degraded oil/gas production. Oil and natural gas prices stayed artificially high during 2006 on the strength of those forecasts. Insurers also hit consumers with big bills. Costs of insuring commercial property along the East Coast of the USA rose as much as 500% during the second quarter of 2006.
The Bible says the weather is under the control of the Prince of the Power of the Air – an ancient reference to the Devil. People who think they can predict and know what the weather will be should remember that the Devil is, above all, a liar. (2) This might explain why forecasters have a devil of a time getting it right.
Americans have always considered it bad form to profit from disaster. Democrats hoping that the weather will put them back in charge might keep that in mind. "My opponent held office when a major disaster occurred" is not a political program likely to inspire voter-confidence. Voters don’t like realizing that they’ve been had by false predictions of calamity.
*******(1) "The Party of Bad News" (http://www.ahherald.com/content/view/150/27/)
(2) John 8:44