Commentary | Hurricane Irma and the Western media

Hurricane Irma was a category five tropical storm that formed on August 30 and quickly turned into a hurricane, eventually coming to an end on September 12. It originated in the eastern Atlantic, near the island nation of Cape Verde and traveled through a series of countries in the Caribbean, leaving a huge trail of devastation through the islands and into Florida.

Unbalanced coverage
Due to irresponsible reporting by the western media, there seemed to be an outright obsession with the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in the United States. There was little to no serious and sustained mention of the devastation that the hurricane wrecked on Caribbean island nations like Cuba, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, and Barbuda. In these media reports, Florida was at the heart of the analysis of the damage resulting from this storm. Those reporting demanded sympathy for the people of Florida, yet did not call for the same reaction for residents of Saint Martin, or any of the other island nations for that matter. In searching through reports on hurricane Irma by CNN, I found a total of 11 articles specifically about Irma, only five of which mentioned the island nations impacted by the storm.

Unlike the U.S., these island nations do not have the economic resources to withstand the damages caused by Irma. In Saint Martin for example, residents do not have access to food or clean water. In contrast, to this, Florida has opened 42 shelters to accommodate the 25,000 people who would be without shelter after Irma. It was obvious that countries such as Barbuda needed more than just a casual mention to garner the sympathy of western audiences. Barbuda is a country with a $1 billion economy, and by assessing the damages caused by Irma it is predicted to have a $250 million problem in rebuilding their nation. Since the hurricane, there has been no one living on the island, for the first time in 300 years. Without the help of the international economy and international media coverage, Barbuda will not be able to recover.

Unlike the U.S., these island nations do not have the economic resources to withstand the damages caused by Irma.

Yet, while powerful media outlets like CNN continue to shower praise on the network’s role in providing help to the victims of the disaster in the U.S., there was no parallel action for the people of these Caribbean nations. Couldn’t the western media have done more to ensure the prospective security of Caribbean island citizens? This should have been through adequate and real-time coverage of the hurricane, as was done for the U.S. territories impacted.

Why was there less focus on Caribbean countries? The media in the west has an ethical responsibility toward the people of Saint Barthélemy, Barbuda, and Saint Martins during natural disasters like Irma. The neglect of these countries at a time of crisis displays a lack of concern for those who live outside the United States and the prioritization of white lives over the lives of people of colour during devastating crises.

Climate racism
To be able to address these issues in the context of the disaster, we must first understand the science of hurricane formation and thus why this hurricane season seems to be the most extreme in recent memory. There are three main components to the formation of any hurricane; water measured at a temperature that exceeds 75 degrees Fahrenheit, a sustained gust of wind, and moist air. Since warmer air retains more water vapor, it leads to extreme precipitation and possible flooding in the wake of a hurricane. It can be hard to determine the degree to which climate change plays a role in an active hurricane season, but this hurricane season has certainly been characterized as anomalistic compared to previous years. One indication of this is the development of seven hurricanes from the 13 Atlantic storms named so far this year. Since climate researchers began to collect climate data in 1851, only an eighth of all recorded years produced more than seven Atlantic hurricanes. While climate change may not be entirely responsible for the formation of hurricane Irma, warmer ocean temperatures can be linked to increased hurricane strength as there is more sustained energy to fuel it.

Looking at the phenomenon of climate change in the recent past, we must note that the United States accounts for well over 15 per cent of the globe’s total input of carbon dioxide. An argument can be made that China accounts for 30 per cent, which is double that produced by the U.S., but this has been accounted for given the higher population ratio in China relative to the U.S.. Thus, to a significant extent, the U.S. is implicated in the progression of climate change, prompting the magnification of hurricanes like Irma.

Nevertheless, the impact of hurricane disasters extends to all people, and that includes the smaller island countries that release a minuscule amount of carbon into the atmosphere in comparison. 95 per cent of Barbuda’s structures were demolished by Irma, and 60 per cent of its population are currently homeless. Due in part to proximity to coastal areas, it seems likely that the global south will be the first to receive the most adverse ramifications of a changing global climate. It is evident that nations such as Saint Martin will continue to be impacted by the adverse effects of climate change in following years. However, we also know that with a gross domestic product of about 19 trillion dollars, the U.S. has the funds and resources to combat the ever growing negative effects of a warming climate. Island nations with GDPs as low as $45 million do not have such resources. If the US’s major role in the rise of climate change is to be factored in, we must consider holding it responsible for the damages caused by disasters like Irma, and that can occur through more balanced media coverage as well as direct aid provision.

The neglect of these countries  at a time of crisis displays a lack of concern for those who live outside the U.S.

The international media’s lack of interest in the destruction of these island nations points to a lack of sympathy, and consequently, this attitude is adopted by the audiences they cater to. This is especially concerning when one thinks that CNN has an avid international audience which is dependent on their news coverage. As part of a shift in western media to maintain their security, outlets like CNN continue to focus solely on what happens in the U.S., thus emphasizing the notion that issues concerning the U.S should be exclusively addressed. In doing so, the western media contributes to the formation of a society that does not accept any moral responsibility towards global citizens. Secondly, it further perpetuates the idea that the west lives at the global forefront and trivializes those who do not fall under this umbrella. Popular media has continued to fail in its duty to provide news about marginalized people, leading to an inability to provide aid to people who do not look or exist like the western majority.


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