What happens if a weather disaster strikes, and there’s no one around to tell the world about it? Does it then cease to be an official disaster?
You might get that impression if you were looking at the wreckage on the Russian Lakes trail of the Kenai Peninsula last weekend, or if you were in tiny, Tetlin, Alaska, when the locals were boating the road in August.
You can watch Roosevelt Sam’s Tetlin riverboat ride along a motor route four-feet underwater in the video here. Note the motorhome with only a tiny bit of its roof showing about a minute into the clip.
Tetlin suffered when the Tanana River jumped its bank and started flowing through some ponds near the village, said Scott Lindsey, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The flooding never made the news. Why would it? Tetlin is a self-sufficient Alaska village of 120 where people are used to dealing with whatever Mother Nature throws at them. Compared to winter temperatures that have dipped as low as 71 degrees below zero – cold enough to turn diesel fuel into jello – a little summer flooding is really nothing.
And the water never washed into town. It just left the village an island cutoff from the Alaska Highway for about three weeks. Alexander seemed largely nonplussed by the inconvenience.
“All the water is gone,” he Facebook messaged this week. “Went back into Tanana River.”
Life is like that in Alaska where so much goes on beyond the reach of reporters who love a good disaster. Disasters are dramatic. More than that, if they happen near you they are easy to cover. And for television and increasingly for online video, the “visuals,” as they say, are awesome.
Blow me over
The television reporter buffeted by high winds has become such a cliché that in the wake of Hurricane Irma Will Oremus at Slate was compelled to write an entire story headlined “In Defense of the TV Reporter Standing Outside During a Hurricane.”
Oremus goes to great lengths in discussing whether this behavior is foolishly dangerous (like someone really cares if a journalist gets killed doing this?) or vital to “scaring people to stay inside” (as if anyone listens to advice from journalists these days).
Eventually, Oremus came to this conclusion:
“In a time of fake news, when every disaster brings a fusillade of doctored and misleading viral photos, bringing viewers directly to the scene in the person of a trusted anchor has more value than ever. Deb’s story implied at one point that “the rise of social media” might render the practice unnecessary. But scrolling through Facebook or Twitter during Irma, it was almost impossible to know which images of devastation were real. Even the president’s social media director, Dan Scavino, tweeted a video that turned out not to be authentic. He shrugged off the mistake by saying that he was trying to sort through hundreds of images sent to him by members of the public.”
Ah yes, the “trusted anchor.”
Would that be Lyin’ Brian Williams now back front and center on MSNBC or sometimes factually challenged Sean Hannity over at Fox News?
Fake news! Fake news!
Fake news, made-up news, wrong news, simply inaccurate news, spun news, distorted news and less-than-accurate news of every other sort is so everywhere these days that there are actually good reasons to be skeptical about everything and everybody.
Why wouldn’t a television network put a prop behind a reporter and shoot a hurricane in a wind tunnel? It would be a lot safer right? And in a business where the lines between reality and the depiction of reality keep blurring, would it really matter?
For most people, probably not. A lot of news these days is really just entertainment.
For other people, though, facts have value. If you were, for instance, a mountain biker heading south from Anchorage for a ride on the Russian River trail last weekend, it might have been nice to know before you made the 100-mile journey south that parts of the trail were pretty much buried in blow down from a windstorm that swept the Kenai last week.
Hundreds of trees were toppled across the trail, a Forest Service employee in Seward revealed, but he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. He said any information provided the media would have to come from Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alicia King.
Maybe people who called from the non-media got more.
Anyway, King knew nothing, which is usually the way these referrals work. If a reporter gets lucky, the public information officer actually calls the person with the information, gets a summary, and calls the reporter back. All of which renders already secondhand information third hand.
And even third-hand information is better than no information.
A request to King for the name of the person staying in the Upper Russian Lake public-use cabin during the storm went nowhere. Someone discovering the route back to civilization an obstacle course of up, down, under, over and around blow down trees would surely have interesting, firsthand information to share – not to mention an interesting tale.
Alaska has a way of turning seemingly simple outings into adventures. Always go prepared, boys and girls.
King said she would see if she could find out who was renting the cabin, though she wasn’t sure where such information was kept. She promised to call back. She never did.
That’s something all too normal in Alaska where government officials engaged in public information sometimes seem to strive to see that there is as little as possible. The behavior is easy enough to understand.
Sometimes, from their point of view, the best story is probably no story. Because if there is no story, it’s almost like nothing happened.
It’s sort of the opposite of those reporters running out into the hurricane.