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What happened??

Stephen Tuttle - May 31st, 2011
What Happened?
      You might recall back on March 11 there was an earthquake off the coast of Japan that generated at least two tsunamis.  It was kind of a big deal, the worst devastation Japan had seen since World War II.  
   We were told at the time that more than 18,000 people died and thousands were still missing.  At least one and possibly three nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns or partial meltdowns.  Deadly levels of radiation were leaking into both the groundwater and ocean.  Tens of thousands of people were evacuated.  
   We had wall-to-wall coverage of it all for about a week and then it slowly slipped into the background, another milepost on the road to perpetual superficiality.  Apparently everything is fine there, now, because the national American media haven’t been much covering the story of late.  
   So, what happened?  What was the final death toll?  How many are still missing?  What’s being done for the people in the coastal areas that were obliterated?  Are they rebuilding?  What about the nuclear power plants?  Are they still spewing radioactivity? What happened to the workers who entered the plants during the meltdowns?  
   We were interested for a few days and then we moved along to something else.  
   (For those who are still interested, the official death toll as of about a month ago was 15,149 with 8,881 still listed as missing.  Temporary housing began going up in the impacted areas about two weeks after the tsunamis hit but there are still several thousand people living in shelters.  It now appears at least three nuclear reactors, not just one, suffered some kind of meltdown and radiation is still leaking and will continue doing so for several months, and there is still a mandatory evacuation zone.  One of the workers who entered the plant as the disaster unfolded has died from radiation poisoning and several others are now ill.)
   Six weeks later, from April 25 through April 28 the worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history ripped across the South.  Altogether, 328 tornadoes rampaged in 21 different states.  The damage and death toll in Alabama alone were stunning.  We watched the videos in horror as scenes of nearly unrecognizable neighborhoods unfolded in front of the cameras.    
   What happened to all those people whose homes were destroyed?  Did FEMA show up and do a decent job?  How in the world are states already struggling with budget deficits going to help leveled communities rebuild?  
   The national media, always looking for the next Big Story in a 24-hour-a-day news environment, has moved along.
   (The official death toll, for those of you wondering, is now 344.  Alabama officials say they are facing the biggest rebuilding effort since the post-Civil War era.  FEMA was on site within 12 hours and has thus far processed more than 70,000 applications for assistance and has distributed $39 million, about two-thirds of which has gone for temporary housing.)
   Then we have the Mississippi River flooding, a slow-motion disaster several chapters long.  It inundated parts of Memphis and most of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  In order to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up sections of one upstream levee and opened the floodgates on at least two spillways. 
   That’s good news for the big cities but not so good for the smaller ones west of the river.  More than 3,000 square miles were projected to be under water, destroying or severely damaging more than 30,000 structures and displacing 25,000 people. 
   Where will those people go to live?  Is FEMA on the job?  Why don’t the levee systems ever seem to work when they’re most needed?  
   (There hasn’t been any follow-up on this story because most of the media abandoned it before it was over.  In fact, the flooding is ongoing as this is being written and, once the river relaxes it will be at least weeks and more likely months before the water recedes from the flooded areas.  FEMA is on-site and helping with temporary shelter and relocation efforts.  It appears the flooding in the bottomlands west of the river will not be quite as bad as feared but still destructive.) 
   Three catastrophic disasters, three bursts of media coverage and then three quick fades to black.   
   In the middle of these disasters, the national media gave us endless days of coverage of the wedding of William and Kate, complete with a days-to-the-wedding countdown and a thorough analysis of the damned hats the women guests were wearing.  Not to mention the serial philandering (admitted) of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the serial sexual abuse (alleged) by the former head of the International Monetary Fund.
   To be fair, the large national broadcast media do a spectacular job of almost instant reporting from the scene of a disaster.  The images they produce are compelling.  But the impact is ephemeral as they quickly dart to the next story.  
   The point here is there could be lessons learned by following these disasters for more than a day or two.  
   What is happening in Japan now, weeks after the tsunamis, is important.  The United States has nuclear power plants on both coasts on seismic fault lines at risk of both earthquakes and tsunamis.  Radiation leaks at any of them would impact millions of Americans.  How large should the evacuation zones be, how long will the area be dangerous, were people evacuated quickly enough – surely all of us could learn something from the Japanese experience if only we knew what it was. 
   Now we have the Joplin, Missouri, cataclysm; the single deadliest tornado officially on record.  The devastation is so complete as to be incomprehensible, an Apocalypse without the rapture.  
   The coverage has been comprehensive but one wonders... wait a minute... this just in...
celebrity-for-no-known-reason Bitsy Bangles has been arrested in Hollywood for jaywalking... we’re going to Los Angeles now where we’ve assembled a team of reporters to cover this important, breaking story.

 
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