Friday, June 21, 2013

Talking about the weather Our new entertainment

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 3:55 PM

David Hoppe
  • David Hoppe

I used to think talking about the weather was a drag. Small talk. It was how people passed the time when they couldn't think of anything more interesting to say to one another.

Lately, though, this - like the weather itself - has changed. Weather is becoming the new entertainment.

This was impressed on me May 31, the Friday night that a tornado labeled an EF5 bore down on Oklahoma City. I was channel-surfing that evening; it seemed every cable news station suspended its regular programming in order to cover live, and in real time, the storm's approach.

Suddenly, it was like we were all residents of the Oklahoma City metro area. Local place names like Crossroads Mall and Midwest City became oddly familiar. And Mike Morgan, the puffy-haired chief meteorologist for Oklahoma City's station KFOR, was our weatherman, too.

Tornadoes, of course, are horrendous things. Just 11 days before, another EF5 tornado had ripped apart the town of Moore, on Oklahoma City's southeast side. To put this in perspective, before the Moore twister hit, there had only been six EF5 tornadoes in Oklahoma since 1950. The May 31 tornado was, at one point, 2.6 miles wide, making it broader than the island of Manhattan. Its winds clocked in at 295 mph.

So the weather in Oklahoma that evening was a story. What's more, it was a story with apocalyptic implications. The storm began gathering around rush hour. Thousands of locals were stuck in traffic on open highways, a situation that was aggravated when Mike Morgan urged people who couldn't take shelter in a basement or under a desk to try and outrun the storm, if they could.

Those of us sitting safely at home, whether in Indiana or Idaho, saw lines of cars at a virtual standstill, glimmering in late afternoon sunlight, as a wall of preternaturally black thunderheads piled upon one another across the near horizon. A spokesperson for the Oklahoma state police, identified as Betty, implored everyone to pray.

This was gripping stuff, reality TV in the same league as the OJ Simpson chase, the bombing of Baghdad, or, more recently, the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. But this time, it was all about the weather.

I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of this. As the weather gets more extreme, with storms, floods and droughts of greater intensity and in unexpected places, wall-to-wall coverage is likely to become a regular part of what we consume - not just as news, but entertainment.

I wonder how long it will be before Ivy Tech adds a new major for attractive young people whose ambition is to become the next face of weather on a TV station near you.

Aristotle believed drama should inspire pity and fear in an audience. Coverage of weather events like the Oklahoma City tornadoes accomplish both. Anyone ever stalled in gridlock could empathize with the poor souls hopelessly idling in their cars. Add the element of a cataclysmic twister bearing down and, presto! you get tragedy.

Weather, it turns out, rather than a topic for idle conversation, is really the great subject of our time. In tragedy, pride invariably comes before a fall. We get this in spades thanks to our ever better weather forecasting on TV. Nowadays every station has a team of meteorologists, many of them twinklingly handsome or beautiful, armed with a dazzling array of ever more psychedelic visual effects designed to make weather prediction enthralling.

But while we are able to predict the weather with greater and greater accuracy, there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Your favorite weather boy or girl might as well come on blind and in rags like Tiresias - the old Greek prophet in the Theban plays, who foretells the doom of kings and queens.

This points to the flaw in much of our weather entertainment. While we can be told at exactly what minute a twister can be expected in our neighborhood, most of the reporting we get steers clear of placing this event in a larger context. Why, we might ask, are storms seeming more intense? Two hurricanes in New York in as many years. Two EF5 tornadoes around Oklahoma City in less than two weeks. As I write this, the largest wildfire in Colorado history is still not entirely contained.

Could the time come when Cheryl or Brad tell us not just about domes of high pressure and bulges in the jetstream, but the ways in which human behavior may have contributed to these conditions? Ah, but that would be like asking Hamlet to sign up for family therapy.

Until then, the new weather entertainment will act as a kind of vicarious rehearsal process. By watching how others are afflicted by conditions that are seemingly out of their control, we can prepare ourselves for that time when we - not them - are the featured players.

I look forward to watching more breaking news about weather events across the country. These are, after all, compelling American stories, often taking place in parts of the country I know little about. And if a tornado ever touches down while I'm driving, I'll know not to take shelter under an overpass. You'll find me in the nearest ditch.

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David Hoppe

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