By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
On Friday, Oct. 23, the internet was abuzz with news of Hurricane Patricia, which meteorologists have called the most powerful hurricane in history. It seemed as though everyone was talking about unprecedented strength of the category 5 hurricane, which had begun off of the southwestern coast of Mexico. People watched in fearful anticipation of a cataclysm on the level of Hurricane Sandy or even Katrina as the storm tore towards coastal cities in the states of Jalisco and Colima with winds upwards of 200 mph. However, when the hurricane hit, its impact was much less than anticipated. Wind speeds were still strong, peaking at around 165 mph, but not unprecedented. Winds died down within 24 hours, and it seemed that Mexico had escaped any major damage. Media coverage of the storm died down as quickly as the winds. Compared to the amount of coverage this short-lived yet strong hurricane received in the days leading up to it hitting land, the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia has slipped under the radar of most major news outlets. What has happened in the past two weeks following the storm, and why aren’t we hearing more about it?
The little news coverage Hurricane Patricia has received in the past two weeks portrays the storm as somewhat anticlimactic. The New York Times’ coverage of the storm’s aftermath was limited to an article titled “Hurricane Patricia Downgraded to Tropical Storm.” Meanwhile, the Weather Underground called it “the Cataclysm that wasn’t.” However, these reports have focused on major coastal resort towns, such as Puerto Vallarta, which came out of Hurricane Patricia largely undamaged. Unfortunately, many rural towns farther inland in Southwestern Mexico were not so lucky. Last week, the Mexico News Daily called Arteaga, a rural municipality in Mexican state Michoacán, a “disaster zone.” While there have been no deaths reported, property damage is extensive in this region. In the same news report, Mayor Bernardo Zepeda of Arteaga was quoted “The picture here is very sad, and the federal government’s response isn’t as expected. It is clear that Michoacán isn’t receiving the same attention as Colima or Jalisco, but we’re doing our job as best as we can, and have requested that this part of the state be declared a disaster zone.”
A large reason for the lack of news coverage on the rural impact of Hurricane Patricia is lack of communication due to infrastructure damage. Because Hurricane Patricia caused major damage to roads, telephone lines, and other means of communication, its impact on the majority of rural areas is unknown. For example, communication is yet to be established with 300 towns in the state of Michoacán, about 80% of municipalities. However, it is known that a health center was completely ripped from its foundation and that in the town of Arteaga alone hundreds of families have lost their houses and all their belongings. Therefore, we should also be examining why it is that major news outlets have extended little coverage to what we do know about damage caused in these areas.
Some ways in which we can critically think about media coverage of this disaster is by asking ourselves the following questions: How are the areas covered by news outlets economically important to major industry, particularly large American corporations and to political figures? How might damage to the the areas of Mexico covered directly or indirectly affect citizens of the United States of America? These are questions important to ask not only in light of this storm, but when following media coverage of any international disaster- natural or otherwise.
As winter approaches, Central America, and the Western United States brace themselves for the possibility more storms like Hurricane Patricia. This is because Hurricane Patricia is largely a result of rising ocean surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific Ocean due to the cyclical weather event known as El Niño (see my article in a previous issue of The Scripps Voice located at TheScrippsVoice.com for more information). Although it did not strike with the intensity expected, it opens what will most likely be a stormy, wet season for Central America and the Southwestern United States.