Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Curse of the Weathermen

The story is one every Washingtonian knows: How at the turn of the 1900s, the British Foreign Office made serving in the American capital a hardship post. The city was frigid in the winter, fetid in summer, mosquito-ridden, swampy and unlivable. “Being assigned to the District of Columbia,” said one English diplomat, “is worse than serving in the Sudan.”

We do have interesting weather here. In fact, we have real seasons and summer has suddenly come upon us with a spate of storms, viragos, tornadoes, hail and thunder and lightning. Also, I should add here, weathermen.

Personally, I have nothing against weathermen though I often wonder if they consider themselves the equals of say, the crime reporters, or the guys who cover the White House and Supreme Court. Do they think of themselves as meteorological war correspondents? The ones we have, ever since the deadly tornado hit Oklahoma some weeks ago, have become very agitated. On three separate occasions in the last few days, national broadcasts have been interrupted by wild-eyed local young men with no regional accents at all, gesticulating and pacing like caged tigers in front of their weather maps. High winds, they clamor, waving a hand in the vague direction of a Virginia county I’ve never heard of before and which may not exist. Blackout!!! they scream. Get ready to be in the dark! The total, Stygian, abysmal dark!! Meanwhile, on the map, amoeba like clouds of something or other--dust? Sand?  Tiny frogs? are rushing in your direction!!! Get in your basement! Turn off your water! Your computers! Your phones!  But not your TV of course, since doing that would make the weathermen vanish a pretty much defeat the purpose of the panic broadcast.

There’s a run on bottled water, laundry detergent, and Wonder Bread. Lines form at the gas stations.  And then what happens, most of the time, is nothing. The killer storm on our doorstep dissipates. We get an inch or two of rain. The newscasters then tell us how miraculously we escaped destruction, and we all smile at the close call. Is this a great country or what?  

I don’t think there’s any doubt that weather patterns have changed, but part of the deal, I believe, is also that the media knows scare sells. Downed electrical wires, cars crushed by trees, roofless houses and demolished trailer courts are the staple of any newspaper’s local page. Two or three flattened fast-food places will make it from the local page to the front page, maybe even above the fold. On a slow news day, the weather is the last refuge of desperate editors.  

Personally, I think it’s all a plot managed by the dairy and toilet paper industry. As soon as seriously inclement weather is announced, every ounce of milk, Half and Half and non-dairy creamer vanishes from our grocery stores. I’ve seen people almost get violent over a 24-pack of Charmin’. The Scott and Cottonelle shelves empty quickly too, leaving only boxes of scented Kleenex for the truly desperate.  

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