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John C. Mutter Preconditions of Disaster Premonitions of Tragedy DISASTERS ARE NOT EVENTS; THEY ARE PROCESSES. TRUE, NEWS MEDIA inevitably focuses our attentions on the disaster singularity because it makes such compelling coverage. In the era of reality TV it is about as good as it gets. Buildings are torn apart as we watch, people are seen in abject distress; there are miraculous escapes and heroic rescues and, as the cameras follow rescue workers into the rubble ofbuildings or search houses as flood waters recede, we m ight even see an actual corpse. The only thing to compare is w ar reporting. W atching disaster coverage live on television is som ething akin to necro-voyeurism. But like wars and other forms of deadly conflict, disasters are anything but the singulari­ ties portrayed in news coverage. They have long portentous rehears­ als and extended coda, little of which makes for entertainm ent like graphic scenes of destruction. In this essay I w ant to highlight the social conditions th at lead to disaster, drawing on global and local lessons from natural disasters and deadly conflicts. DISASTER AS PROCESS, DISASTER AS (M EDIA) EVENT Disaster coverage depends very m uch on who is affected and where they live or have lived. Almost regardless of death toll, disasters in rem ote parts of the world hold media attention for only a short time unless, like the Indian Ocean tsunam i in 2004 they affect tourist resorts. Then we can hear reports from returning survivors, people just like us, imagine ourselves there, and w onder if we too m ight have escaped, and had our own stories to tell. It was the tourists who had the video social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 691 cameras and provided the only images of the tsunam i’s frightening arrival, giving rise to the initial illusion th at the tsunam i had struck only tourist resorts. To be fair, coverage of the 2004 tsunam i was exten­ sive and lasted m any days to weeks after the event itself (depending on the news outlet) and continues from tim e to tim e even now w ith follow-up stories, especially on anniversary dates. No doubt this was because of the incom prehensible enorm ity of the event—alm ost an entire hem isphere—and because it was so utterly unique and phenom ­ enal in almost everyone’s experience. (No one in coastal Sri Lanka had any memory of a previous tsunami). In general, though disasters are far m ore devastating in hum an term s for the people w ho are not like us and live in rem ote countries (and do not have camcorders), they receive far less media attention than those nearby, especially those that directly im pact the United States, even if the num ber of fatalities is small, as they usually are. As Gibbon noted, “Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery.” The tragedy of a natural disaster is rehearsed over decades, w ith the cathartic event itself putting on garish display just how defenseless and susceptible some people are to harm. Live television coverage has, at least, given a hum an face to disasters, so we no longer merely hear estimates of property losses from insurance company spokesmen and see newspaper pictures of collapsed buildings; we also witness in a near firsthand way the plight of those caught up in the shock and chaos of disaster events and the efforts of those who try to respond. Images of disasters are at first shocking, then uncom fortably revealing. It m ust surely have struck m ost of us th at survivors of Hurricane Katrina, so graphically docum ented in news coverage and later in Spike Lee’s docu­ m entary When the Levees Broke, did not fit exactly w ith the m edia’s typi­ cal portrayal of a slice of Americana, and th at things had gone badly wrong for those people. Katrina was the first m ajor natural catastrophe in the United States in w hich the plight of so m any victims was recoded so relentlessly, in such close-up detail and so accessibly...


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