If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

What happens if you have an emergency, and no one notices? Did it really happen? We’ve talked about that before, but in the context of multiple disasters happening simultaneously and the competition for the scarce resource of media coverage:

The reporter then went to Moscow, Ohio to cover another [tornado] touchdown. Even with that, the big story was out of Henryville, where the devastation was greatest. Never heard about Moscow, either, did you? According to the reporter, the media wasn’t given access until several days later.

Who told their story? Did not telling their story affect how they recovered? Did it affect the funding that came their way?

That situation makes some sense, though. When there is plenty of devastation to go around, the juiciest story usually will get the coverage. But what if you have a terrible disaster–HUGE disaster–and no one from the mass media covers it? Because it happens. And it’s happened recently:

The worst blizzard in recorded history of South Dakota just swept through the state. Tens of thousands of cattle are predicted dead and the much of the state is still without power. The Rapid City Journal reports, ”Tens of thousands of cattle lie dead across South Dakota on Monday following a blizzard that could become one of the most costly in the history of the state’s agriculture industry.”

The only reason I know this is because my parent’s ranch, the setting for Meadowlark, lies in the storm’s epicenter. Mom texted me after the storm. “No electricity. Saving power on phone. It’s really, really bad….” She turned on her phone to call me later that day. “There are no words to describe the devastation and loss. Everywhere we look there are dead cattle. I’ve never seen so many dead cattle. Nobody can remember anything like this.”

The post goes on to talk about why this was such a devastating event and why it will probably never make the national news. It didn’t damage facilities, it was far out in (what is sometimes termed by us East Coasters as) a flyover state, the human toll was basically zero and the economic effect won’t be seen for months (in the name of higher beef prices). Is there anything that would be a huge hardship to your organization or agency or county or town or state, but nobody else would understand? How would the response go? Would there be any Red Cross text message donation campaigns? Would the President grieve for your loss on evening TV? Probably not, and yet the damage could be just as great.

So, what do we do? As emergency communicators, does it makes sense to try to raise awareness of your disaster? Is that self-serving? (Probably.) Might it still help anyways? (Maybe.) How would you do it without sounding whiny? (I haven’t the foggiest idea.) In turn, I ask you. What would you do if your disaster, your community’s suffering, was completely unheard of by the larger public?


7 thoughts on “If a Tree Falls in the Forest…”

  1. We had a derecho storm here last summer and no outside of the DC area really noticed. It wasn’t a hurricane covered wall to wall by the Weather Channel. But a lot of people were affected by many of the same issues described above.

    At that point, Jim Cantore or not, we have to focus on the emergency and take care of the situation. I’d recommend this three-part recipe:

    1.) communicate and engage your community directly as we should be doing now.

    2.) if the media calls, great, especially local. If Jim Cantore or CNN calls fine, but don’t lose focus on #1 above.

    3.) the recovery lasts long after the disaster and potential media light leaves. Think Katrina, Sandy et al. Your most important stakeholders — your community — will need info so keep communicating well after the proverbial tree falls in the forest.

    In our community we focused on the derecho for days, weeks then months. Barely a whimper was heard beyond our borders, but we did our job and served our community!

    1. Do you think that more attention beyond DC would’ve been helpful, Greg? Rene makes a great point below when he mentions a case where no interest was potentially beneficial.

      That aside, I think you make a great point that never, never gets covered. How do you maintain rebuilding in the months and years after the disaster when the media spotlight has drifted away and you’re no longer getting the support you were in the immediate aftermath? There’s a great article I read recently that talked about how media attention post-disaster is actually shorter than their attention to other stories. Like locusts they swoop in and are gone.


  2. I remember several things happening while I worked at the health department and worrying that the media would come asking questions, then they didn’t. We had one of the biggest outbreaks of Legionnaires’ in state history and not one single story was written about it, even with all of us out there, taking water samples, asking questions, warning physicians to consider legionellosis when diagnosing atypical or community-acquired pneumonia.

    Then, a few months later, one person died from it in an old folks’ home, and the media lost their collective mind. They were interviewing visitors to the building, asking them if they knew about the “deadly virus” in the building. (Legionella is a bacteria.) Then the politicians got involved and had a town hall meeting — wait for it — at the very building that everyone was afraid to go into!

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    1. Would more attention have been beneficial to your studies? I know that legionella is a special case, if you go looking for it you’ll find it everywhere, but are there are cases where some more attention could’ve helped you identify cases or exposures?

      In THAT case, how do you drum up interest without resorting to “3 things you didn’t know about the virus infecting you RIGHT NOW!” tactics?


      1. Not really. We had the bases covered. Case-finding is more of a clinical thing with legionella than asking people to go to the doctor. If you have pneumonia, you’ll run to the doctor, you probably won’t stay home. When word got out about the one case at the old folks’ place, all of them all of a sudden didn’t feel well, but we didn’t find more cases that way. Many refused to go see a doctor, and, without that chest x-ray and lab test, we can’t determine if they’re a case or not.

        In essence, the media attention increased the number of false positives without much of an impact on true positives. No attention prevented noise.

  3. This story was on NPR, so it was heard by a national audience. That’s beside the point. With permission from cattle owners, I’d take photos and a movie, post it on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and send links to national media. I’m wondering if someone did that and that’s how the story ended up on NPR. They were in South Dakota talking to people who had lost cattle.

  4. The South Dakota Storm had some of the best coverage ever I’ve seen online of Animals and Disasters esp during a Snowstorm. Dozens if not hundreds of pictures of deceased Cattle, Horses, and Sheep, personal stories and recovery/disposal efforts. The only thing lacking was a specific hashtag although a couple were used and others were participating in a known online response although already active on blogs, Facebook pgs created or in place as a business and some Tweeting . Due to Neighbor Networks, use of Social Platforms and animal rights concerns/interest, it appeared people were helping each other along with local, regional, state plans in action.
    The known author/writer of that article appears to not have much of a Social Media presence (100 + followers) or involvement virtually but one look at her account tells a different “story” than the reality of one persons experience when first penned. Even though from another State she did start Tweeting about it on Oct 6th and numerous people picked up on it then RT’d the story. She then added a of “single document of the over 800 well wishes” on the 11th. Attended a “Women Writing the West” conference on the 13th and spread the message even farther which lead to further attention and relief by funding efforts. As one article stated “it was because of those social media pioneers, and the cross-cultural contacts they’ve made online and in person, that a tiny glimpse of the story finally reached major media outlets”. Yet should National News be a benchmark if anyone was paying attention if local needs were being addressed?
    Too many variables to make blanket statements about coverage and even that is dependent on the person’s own involvement virtually. The information is out there, it’s whether or not your involved enough, have a diverse established network, are participatory not just observing and have acquired enough knowledge/experience to know what and where to look for it. If a tree falls in your area and you can hear it, very doubtful no else is aware of what happened, more probable someone is not involved enough to even know who else is. The public is the resource, the question remains are you listening.

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