Hurricane Sandy: The Perfect Storm in Every Way

Hurricane Sandy was more than a freak of nature — it was a pop cultural event. Concurrently, a seemingly rare natural occurrence gave rise to significant waves within popular culture, too. Hurricane Sandy made waves through conspiracy theories and questions about its moral significance andscientific implications. Social media helped many people weather the storm by allowing them to huddle together in a relatively safe virtual environment. While the the spread of false reports and unfounded rumors might have been a common occurrence, social networks were also able to stem the tide of misinformation.

The tropical cyclone may therefore be called the perfect storm, because it placed us at the intersection between the natural and social world. It’s worth noting that our frame of reference already derives from popular culture and seems to refer to a contradiction in terms. ‘Perfect storm’ appears to be a statement contradicting itself. A ‘storm’ is a violent and unpredictable disturbance in nature while ‘perfect’ refers to a complete or harmonious nature — as in something existing without defect or interruption. The seeming contradiction highlights a complimentary relation, or mutual affinity between distinct patterns of behavior. Unlike a storm in a tea cup, a perfect storm is about getting things in proportion or understanding the nature of an un/balanced relationship.

Taken together, then, a perfect storm describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. Hurricane Sandy fits the description because it became a flashpoint about our stormy relationship with the natural world. Given Hurricane Sandy’s peculiar nature — an unexpected confluence of forces and circumstances — it simultaneously placed us at the threshold of human nature.

The real peculiarity is our attempt to keep nature at bay by fortifying ourselves with self absorption and denial. Hurricane Sandy disturbed this picture by reminding us that civilization exists by natural consent, and is subject to the winds of change without notice or consultation. Indeed, our attempt to control — or separate ourselves from — the natural world invariably exposed the fault lines within human nature. Witness the way many civilized people tried to control Hurricane Sandy with faulty explanations.

Breaking Wind

While most of us have been led to believe that Hurricane Sandy was a freak of nature, some appear to know better. They were able to confuse the natural with the political, revealing their fusion paranoia. According to the culture of conspiracy that grows online, Hurricane Sandy was an engineered event literally designed to give an embattled President a divine wind (or kamikaze) during his recent bid for reelection.

Hurricane Sandy’s devastating spin was allegedly part of the election cycle — and the media’s own spin similarly reflected the Hurricane’s powerful movements. The chaos unleashed by Hurricane Sandy was therefore really about mind control and putting the wind back in Obama’s sails. The timing of the event — and the storm’s path — clearly point in this direction. Hurricane Sandy presented an “ideal opportunity for Obama to come off as a strong and decisive leader” when putting the “federal government’s emergency management apparatus into action” (Kurt Nimmo, “Divine Wind for Obama”, 26 October, 2012).

By this stage, you can probably hear yourself asking: What the fuck? While many rational people might believe that the rich and powerful can exert control over the media, they should also be hearing themselves ask: how can they control the weather, too? The conspiracy theorists claim that HAARP – The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program — makes it possible to manipulate natural forces for social control.

The ‘argument’ consists, then, in throwing caution to the wind so as to locate the source of the real power in the world: the ruling elite also presides over the forces of nature. As one researcher into the logic of conspiracy theories explains

“Conspiracism is, first and foremost, an explanation of politics. It purports to locate and identify the true loci of power and thereby illuminate previously hidden decision making. The conspirators, often referred to as a shadow government, operate a concealed political system behind the visible one, whose functionaries are either ciphers or puppets.

The appeal of conspiracism is threefold. First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what others can’t. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Finally, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions.

The issue of conspiracism versus rational criticism is a tough one… A sure sign that we have gone past the boundaries of rational criticism is the conspiracy theory that’s nonfalsifiable. Such a theory is a closed system of ideas which “explains” contradictory evidence by claiming that the conspirators themselves planted it.” (“Interview with Michael Barkun”, September 2004).

It isn’t difficult to see that the “engineered event” ‘argument’ is really a conspiracy against common sense. It takes a couple of simple truths — the timing of the Hurricane, the existence of a seemingly mysterious research program and the government’s role in emergency relief — and complicates the relation between them. These independent facts help create the illusion of a nefarious connection and attempts to argue the case for them. The force of their argument relies on so much hot air and draws its ‘power’ from an already combustible political climate (widespread mistrust in government, etc).

Nonetheless, the conspiracy ‘theory’ irrationally assumes that nature is a controlled environment and conveniently ignores documented evidence about the volatility of a frustrated and angry electorate in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.

Divine Wind

Although religious affiliation might be down in the US, millions of unaffiliated people continue to believe in God and/or typically feel a deep spiritual connection to nature. It was therefore only natural that the Atlantic Ocean’s biggest tropical storm would be felt as a divine wind across the world. Indeed, the oceanic feeling is said to be the source of all spiritual energy. It’s the feeling of being connected to something deeper and limitless.

To some extent, the story of Noah’s Arc plumbs the depths of this sensation of an indissoluble bond, as of being connected with the external world in its integral form . The Judea-Christian tradition purportedly feels a connection to the ‘limitless’ through the wrath of God. The moral of the story itself isn’t too deep: while much of the Earth was supposedly swept away in a deluge, a select few were saved and gathered together to start the rinse cycle all over again.

Hurricane Sandy inevitably bore witness to holier than thou attitudes amongst people of various religious persuasions. Oceanic feelings also rose to the surface, and a tropical cyclone was seen as either a latter day moral cleansing or message from God to clean up America’s act.

Seeking the high moral ground, many religious people uncharitably viewed the freak natural occurrence through the lens of self aggrandizing beliefs. The groundswell of bad feeling invariably revealed the limits in their own religious beliefs.

With the whole world watching, religious figures were thereby able to connect Hurricane Sandy to other ill winds blowing through American culture – such as the legalization of abortion and gay marriage and America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Some Christians literally thanked God for all the death and destruction while some Muslims encouraged others to rejoice at the harmed caused to these arrogant and tyrannical oppressors.

We don’t mean to imply that ill will was typical of ‘spiritual’ people – other religious figures cautioned against fathoming God’s intentions and called for greater humility as others stressed the importance of feeling close to God through their connection to others. It goes without saying, of course, that religious organizations were amongst the first to lend a helping hand.

In linking the natural to the moral, however, religious thinkers revealed the directions in which their moral compasses pointed. Hurricane Sandy, then, also provided a revelation of a different sort. As a 2009 study into religious belief confirms: people invariably create God (and the world) in their own image. Specifically:

“Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs.

Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder. Many religions are centered on a god (or gods) that has beliefs and intentions, with adherents encouraged to follow “God’s will” on everything from martyrdom to career planning to voting. Within these religious systems, how do people know what their god wills?

People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.”

Playing God?

As Hurricane Sandy spiraled towards America, a famous prefix got tossed around in the media and found itself caught in the oncoming storm. The term Frankenstorm became increasingly popular as Halloween also approached. The media relied on dramatic effect for an obvious reason: they helped raised the alarm by more or less screaming Look, it’s alive.. and moving straight toward us!. Hurricane Sandy was reportedly stitched together from various weather systems and threatened to be worse than the sum of its parts.

While Frankenstorm became shorthand for ‘run and hide indoors’ or ‘evacuate the building’, the media reproduced an unfortunate fear in popular culture. Frankenstein refers to the reckless scientist and not the poor ‘monster’ created during a wild storm. It is modern science that is revealed to be monstrous in Mary Shelley’s famous cautionary tale. Dr Frankenstein presumed to play God and refused to accept responsibility for his own creation — the good Doctor couldn’t even bring himself to give ‘it’ a proper name. It’s ironic, then, that the ‘monster’ has come to bear the responsibility for its creator, sewing the prefix onto the vernacular like the creature’s salvaged limbs.

The irony, of course, is that the monster storm invariably raised questions about the moral responsibility of modern civilization, anyway. Hurricane Sandy was quickly (and perhaps prematurely) linked to the long term effects of our own actions. Instead of being a deliberate act of God, many people wondered whether the Hurricane was the result of global warming. Given our apparent mastery of nature, did we (like Dr Frankenstein) somehow create this monster and unleash it upon ourselves?

It’s worth stressing that modern science played a proactive role in this natural disaster from the outset: it was able to detect, analyze, track and warn people about the oncoming storm. Scientific developments also had an active role in ‘Frankenstorm’s’ immediate aftermath. Modern technology ensured that people could maintain contact with each other and played a major part in emergency relief. Either way, Hurricane Sandy became the perfect storm for individuals to try and get their bearings within society. Since there appears to be no turning back, the question therefore becomes: does their moral compass merely point them in the direction they’re already facing?

We won’t presume to second guess scientific researchers. Suffice to say, many scientists remain uncertain as to whether the storm was caused or made worse by human-induced global warming… (because) humans are still running this experiment and we’re not quite sure how it’s going to turn out. The lack of certainty about the long term effects of global warming hasn’t prevented heated exchanges from occurring: apparently many people can still profess confidence either way.

The issue is whether it’s appropriate to attribute a specific weather event to conditions normally averaged over a long period of time and subject to geographical variables. Indeed, this is why Hurricane Sandy is (thus far) generally perceived as a rare freak natural occurrence — and why people are asking if its freakish behavior is symptomatic of conditions likely to recur on a regular basis. Although there is scientific consensus about our role in climate change, scientists are yet to determine the way these changes will trans/form weather events in the future. As this excellent overview of scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates, there are varying levels of confidence on how global warming affects the ‘weather events spectrum’ — and there is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.

To some extent, however, the issue of uncertainty is the (moral) point — scientific research is predicated on the need for questioning and/or revising its own evidence. In the philosophy of science, falsifiability or the potential to be wrong — and the uncertainty it entails – is a symptom of the very feature that makes science so reliable. This is why ‘question’ has the word ‘quest’ in front of it: the requirement is to proceed (investigate) further, and cautiously arrive at conclusions before proceeding further on.

The real question, then, is Hurricane Sandy’s decisive role in a culture war — a conflict in which climate science threatens to become collateral damage as competing interests fight to influence media coverage and policy making. On the one side, there are groups of people (scientists, journalists, environmentalists, etc) trying to raise awareness and questions about climate change. On the other side, the machines of industry employ scientists and lobbyists to throw their concerns into question within the media, legislature and regulatory agencies.

“The fossil fuel industries… have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.

They have created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy” (John Broder, “Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith”, 20 October, 2010).

Hurricane Sandy’s questionable role in popular culture invariably come downs to a conflict of values and begs the original questions: Which devastating effects can we really afford (or live with), and for how long?

Apocalypse Now

During the time #Frankenstom went from trending topic to terrible reality, another ‘perfect storm’ emerged. This critical state of affairs, however, came from within society. Such a social ‘storm’ highlights the value of sharing information and/or the importance of independently verifying information. We all witnessed the way modern technology rendered a natural disaster in real time. We might not have been witnessing the end of days (yet), but the live footage and commentary remained a complete revelation regardless.

The immediacy of the reports and images — and the instantaneous reactions to them — managed to convey the unpredictable nature of an escalating event. Social media confirmed that it has become second nature for humans to turn to technology — and each other — as the natural world comes rushing towards them. And if this (supposedly) freak event was any indication, we can expect our last moments on earth spent taking pictures. Some people will also be making up stories just to scare the crap out of us even further.

People who found themselves in the middle of an unfolding disaster instinctively became amateur reporters and news commentators. It was their access to social media that made it possible to keep each other informed and/or falsify increasingly questionable information.

“As it unfolded, a different confluence of factors — namely the simultaneous rise and ubiquity of Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, along with the endless churn of the 24-hour news cycle — combined to create another hybrid vortex in which the virtual community experienced the storm both in seclusion and all together.

Social media has altered the collective experience of every major news event, providing platforms for both insta-reactions and commentary, as well as news gathering and sharing (and with them, the potential for errors and embarrassment)… the most current and continuous stream of information flowed not from television, radio, or other forms of transitional media, but online, and in line with the long-hyped promise of citizen journalism.

Old-school media outfits like Time, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times — all relying in part on the social-media-optimized live-blog format — were forced to cull from these pools, doing their best to verify authenticity along the way. (Joe Coscarelli, “Hurricane Sandy: The Perfect Media Storm” 30 October, 2012)

We can only speculate as to why someone might want to spread false reports, unsubstantiated rumors and fake images as a crisis unfolds in real time. Suffice to say, some of the misinformation shared on online found its way into legitimate news outlets and had to be retracted. It isn’t difficult to fathom, however, why some corporations newsjacked a natural disaster: they risked losing a profit as potential customers ran for their lives.

Nonetheless, misinformation also plays a telling role in popular culture — false reports can heighten the dramatic effect or lighten the tone of real news coverage. Indeed, a falsehood must (in some way) be thought believable if it is to be mis/taken for truth. Images of sharks swimming in flooded neighborhoods or a scubadiver navigating a submerged subway system obviously speak to real fears about an uncontrollable nature. They had to have their basis in reality in order to achieve the desired effect (fear mongering, comedic potential, etc).

It was obviously essential to try and sort the real from the fake and set the record straight once and for all. Nonetheless, it’s not safe to assume that everyone will know (or appreciate) the difference. The fact that many of these fake stories went viral illustrates that fear and ignorance remain a contagion. It also over confidently assumes that the online ‘truth machine’ will always be functioning — present and accounted for — during a natural disaster. We all need to stay connected in the first place.

While it’s true that the internet’s infrastructure proved to be incredibly resilient in this instance, there were multiple outages and visible setbacks. The issue of the internet’s resilience — and its ability to verify ascertainable facts in real time — itself remains subject to falsification. It’s an open question as to which storms we can weather together indefinitely. Consequently, the problem of separating truth from fiction will remain a part of Hurricane Sandy’s cultural legacy. The scary thing is that this battle over truth reflects the bigger picture.