About that flood

If there’s one thing a natural disaster can teach us, it’s that the news media cares very little about presenting a true and complete story to a public that’s dependent on it to do so.

When Mother Nature kicks up her heels, it’s difficult to keep a level head. We often learn the truth long after the fact. For example, the National Hurricane Center said on Dec. 21 that Katrina was actually a Category 3 storm, not the previously reported 4. In the heat of the moment, the imagination takes hold and reporters, like everyone else, get excited. That’s one important reason news gets sensationalized, and disasters appear worse than they really are.

On the other hand, government officials tend to minimize potentials for disaster, as this excerpt from the city of Reno’s media release on Friday afternoon illustrates: “MAJOR FLOOD NOT ANTICIPATED; CITY HAS SANDBAGS, SAND AVAILABLE. … Although the National Weather Service is not predicting significant flooding in the City of Reno, sandbags and sand are being made available for residents to prepare for any potential localized small stream and drainage flooding, according to [emergency coordinator] Marty Scheuerman. … ‘There are no predictions of any significant flooding along the Truckee or Walker rivers,’ Scheuerman said.”

Television news, though, tends to over-dramatize what is offered to the public. In this instance, on-camera reporters stood over the Truckee’s raging waters or in some flooded fields in Sparks making claims like, “This flood has a lot in common with the flood of 1997.”

It’s difficult to imagine how a flood that government officials are estimating will cost some $15 million to clean up has much in common with a flood that lasted for days, uprooted thousands, destroyed homes, and cost more than $650 million to clean up.

Even after the fact, we media folks get simple facts wrong. For example, in the Jan. 2 Reno Gazette-Journal’s story, “More flooding possible,” the plight of Mary and Fran Oppio was glossed over with a throwaway description and quote: “Saturday was the third time in their 30 years at the corner of McCarran Boulevard and Glendale Avenue that their business had flooded. But they simply clean up, never contemplating moving to another location. ‘This is kind of like our home,’ Fran Oppio said. ‘You can’t move out of your house.’ “

The fact is, the Oppios were devastated, and the 65-year-old business may have to close its doors (see 15 Minutes, page 35). Outsiders can speculate as to the reason the report so wholly missed the story, but the most likely explanation is that disaster stories, which by their nature are fluid, must be written on the run.

There’s at least one other aspect to the problem in Reno, too—media entities, television particularly, make too little effort to hang on to good reporters, who then move on to the next market. Reno becomes a revolving door, and many of this year’s reporters don’t know what the ‘97 flood was really like.

If anything can be learned by the New Year’s Eve Flood, it’s that the “facts” about disasters take longer to clean up than the disasters themselves.