THE FASCINATION OF WATCHING BAD THINGS HAPPEN
I remember being in a small boat packed with probably too many people, as we moved slowly through the river water. It could have been an average daily friend trip riding the river and getting off and on and as we saw fit. But this was different. We were on a boat, riding the flooded Meramec River during the Great Flood of 1993 trying to find my friend’s house. It started as slowly seeing the top of stop signs feet below us, and then the random chimney poking up through the water. Long before we had Google and GPS and easy ways to track exact locations, we couldn’t find his home, but we did know it was under there somewhere.
The news said the floodwater was within arms’ reach of the flood wall at the St. Louis Arch. Always needing to fact-check things, my friends and I set out to test this. It was true and my fingers dipped into the dirty water of the Might Mississippi I could even feel her strong current at my fingertips.
How odd it was to drive around town and see National Guard in areas, as an 18-year-old, I considered my playground. I brought them water. Might have pointed out I was single and good wife material, but hey – can’t punish a woman for trying, right?
Perhaps all the moments that lead this one, peeking my head out a window in 4th grade during a tornado warning, making my mom drive by the house in a wealthy part of town that was blown up for insurance money, and swimming at Creve Coeur Country Club staring at the power lines that lead to killing two lifeguards as they tried to untangle a flag pole with a pool cleaner and fell in 1985.
One of the victims of that horrible incident was a guy I knew as Greg. I was 10-years-old and I lived at the pool in the summer months. I had just gone through the “Olympics” at my elementary school and I had won a bunch of ribbons.
“Greg, want to see my ribbons I won?”, I asked hopefully.
“Your wibbons?”, he laughed back to me and took a look at the stash.
That’s the last memory I have of him.
The day they died I wasn’t at the pool. It was a rare occurrence. It was a Saturday and my best friend, Suzie, and I had organized a neighborhood “fair” of silly little games and dumb prizes we had made up to give to people. We even had our own entertainment in the form of a musical we made up. My desire for fame protected me from watching the horror unfold at the country club that day. I remember angrily writing in my diary how mad I was that he was gone.
As I grew older, I had to learn more about this. I research the investigation, the aftermath, the lawsuits, all of it.
Even the namesake of my hometown suburb, Creve Coeur, fascinated me. It means “Broken Heart” in French. As legend has it, a young Native American woman fell in love with a fur trader, but he didn’t love her back. She was wrecked at this news, and jumped off a cliff into a nearby lake, which then – again, according to legend – formed into the shape of a half heart.
You be the judge.
But I spent many teenage days and nights cruising Creve Coeur Lake, always taking a moment of reflection and silence for the poor women who suffered nothing more than unrequited love and wondered what other secrets those still waters held.
I guess I’ve always been a journalist, whether it was by calling, curiosity, or concern for my friend.
As I began my career in news, we literally watch bad things happen and report on them. I remember in the hours and days after 9/11, I couldn’t sleep and worked until the point of forced sleep via exhaustion. As people kept trying to tell me to get some sleep, all I could say was “I can’t do anything to help those people. But I can be here and inform my community. I can do that. And they deserve me to do that. Those people who died wished their biggest problem was that they were very, very tired.”
We held a donation drive outside our station on September 14, 2001, and while I was ordered to go home to sleep as the drive kicked off (I had worked overnight), a homeless person put $20 in my bucket and say “God Bless You” and my cup runneth over with hope and I kept going, even after the News Director arrived and said “Didn’t I send you home to sleep?” and a colleague said “Don’t get her started on the homeless person and the donation. She’ll start crying again.”
One of my favorite movies is “Only the Brave” which documents the full, true story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, their rise to Hot Shot Level, and terrible demise at the hands of a monster fire that was initially thought to be mopped up that same day.
I’ve thought of those men more times as I lay in bed at night, wondering what went wrong, where the confusion happened, why they had to die, and how awful for the one guy who did and the demons he lives with.
I’ve lived in wildfire areas for much of my adult life, and I think it’s hands down the scariest weather there is. The unpredictability, its reliance on weather to hurt or heal, the evacuations that happen in minutes of notice.
Another great watch is “Rebuilding Paradise”, documenting the 2018 fire and the community’s heart and soul efforting to build it back. Watching the current California fires, I think back to scenes of that movie and my soul hurts.
As I covered this year’s Dixie fire from afar, I thought of these people, and the new faces unwillingly being cast in this year’s disaster movie-in-the-making.
And where one tragedy brings a lack of water, others are flooded with way too much water mixed with winds.
We all are watching right now as Hurricane Ida churns toward New Orleans, and those old enough can’t get the images of Katrina afterward. At least with Katrina, we didn’t know what to expect afterward, but we are now stunningly aware of what can go wrong.
At one point I started reading a book “The Pets of Katrina” and I actually got physically ill and was reduced to tears by page 5 and couldn’t continue. I knew this was a book with an ending I didn’t want to know. It might be the only time I’ve ever wanted LESS information about something that emotionally impacted me.
I lived through Irma near the point of impact, and I can’t tell you the emotional toll it took before the first raindrop fell.
People on top floors of buildings who didn’t evacuate for one reason or another asking if they were going to die. People who couldn’t get into shelters. People who couldn’t get wood to cover their homes. People who had no options for their pets. They wanted me to have answers I couldn’t give them. If I had my way, we would have taken them all into the TV station to ride out the storm.
I would wake up at 2 am, go to any 24-hour gas station I could find, and ask “Where’s the gas?” I found a “source” (the guy who worked the counter as a gasless gas station and was bored out of his mind) who made it his mission to find out “where the gas was” for me and raced to the location to fill up – daily and gave the tip to every person I could find or knew needed gas. I went to every 24-hour Walmart I could find to look for water deliveries. (I was convinced “selling water” was going to be my side hustle in the aftermath.)
**HURRICANE HACK: You will never, ever have enough food for a hurricane. I ate through my stash in 3 days. Over buy. Especially if you are an emotional eater.
I filled up my bathtub with water, every cup I owned, every sink, every single item that could hold clean water was used to stock up on bathing water – just in case.
In 2013-ish, we sandbagged our station in Reno waiting to see where the rain level met high snowpack and prepared for the river to flood and risked watching the entire downtown area flood. We dodged a bullet (and a few boulders and massive trees).
Living in wildfire country, you can have the most blissful Saturday ruined by seeing a plume of smoke over the horizon. Controlled Burn? Lightning Fire? Near Homes? You wonder all these things as you rush to the station to get more information, prepared to spend the night if necessary.
**Journalist Hack: Just have a bag packed with a change of clothes for two days at all times. You’ll thank me for this later. You never know when hell is going to reign over and the last thing you want to worry about is “what will I wear?”. Grab wipes if your station doesn’t have a shower.
Wildfires have ruined my ability to enjoy a good campfire or fireplace when winter starts. All I smell is destruction and devastation.
In the aftermath of wildfires, there is a “time limit” before anything can be done on those lands. If memory serves, Federal Lands where wildfires happen can’t be touched for 7 years due to “letting nature takes its healing course.” So, I would hike through canyons of lush trees, only to find acres of what looked like matchsticks coming from the ground. Once regal trees surviving centuries of weather whittled down to a pointed stick, like pointing a finger at God for this monstrosity.
In Huntsville, we had an ice storm that trapped us at the station. And by trapped I mean we couldn’t go anywhere. The ice was 3 inches thick, power lines were down everywhere, and we were on a large hill and all roads were closed.
After the storm, we dodged ice missiles falling from the tower and lost two cars and 4 windshields from the falling ice.
At one point, bored out of my mind, I decided I was going to walk down the road to get a video of the power lines down ¼ of a mile away.
Two hours later I returned, and the staff said, “Did you get good stuff?” and I said “I made it to the edge of the parking lot and fell 3 times and came back. It took me THAT long to walk on this ice.” My leg muscles didn’t appreciate the impromptu workout either as they ached for days.
I did manage to break up some of the ice so people could eventually leave the station when the roads were clear.
In Tucson, I watched dust storms approach. (Yes, it’s a Haboob – and one of my favorite meteorological terms.) Fascinating, I thought as I stood outside. I regretted that decision as I sneezed mud for 3 days after that.
In Las Vegas, as they were building the massive City Center project, we heard the scanners call out “An 8-ton wall fell on a worker. All units respond.” I’ll never forget the producer who said, “Was the person hurt?” We all stared at the person before I said, “In bigger news, worker survived 8-ton wall falling on them.” That’s when I learned, after doing some digging, big projects like that estimate the life loss possible with it. I cannot imagine a death toll being in my yearly budget.
Now as I nestle in for a day of watching Hurricane Ida coverage, I follow my favorite storm chaser (you can follow iCyclone too!) and keep the news on constantly.
Some people can’t handle watching it that much, and that’s okay. I have a hunger and need to be involved in news as it happens (To quote Peggy Phillip, an amazing journalist in her own right whenever a siren went by “News Is Happening!”), and I cannot sit on the sidelines when there is something I can do, even if it is just sharing information.
There is even a word for our fascination with “bad”. It’s called Doomscrolling.
Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.
Then research says this leads to people having a “Negativity Bias”. This is when bad things impact you more than good things, even when they are of the same scope. It leads to anxiety. It leads to negative feelings and perceptions of everything else we touch in a day.
To learn more about the science of where our minds meet our gut and the heart wants a day, follow Graeme Newell and his blog. He’s got a wonderful plethora of information that makes you think.
We talk about this a lot in my current company – that we can’t just talk about events, we have to talk about impact. We have to dig more into the Why and the How, and not just on the Who, What, When, Where.
The How and Why are much harder. You are digging, sometimes with tired hands and sore fingers, and learning on the fly how to digest that information to not only learn it for yourself but be able to explain it to others in a compelling way.
Take, for example, the movie and book “Too Big To Fail”. Even with what I’m sure is some “Hollywood Sparkle”, it’s the most realistic understanding of what happened when our economy was dangling off a cliff. I was a manager during that crisis and still had to ask a lot of questions, and even then the movie explained a lot more to me than my own research did and lead me to do MORE research.
After 9/11, I wanted to learn more about the Taliban. I have historically been bad at geography so I studied on my own time.
**Geography Hack: I like mnemonic devices to help me learn, and I saw that all countries that border Afghanistan end in “AN”, making it easier to remember. Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.
Just a few days ago, I watched a documentary on Hurricane Katrina “Refuge of Last Resort”. Its images brought back all kinds of feels and video that hasn’t been released before showed a whole new side of the storm (make sure to stick around through the “We went to Walmart” and how a basic trip we all take was life or death.)
Now I watch as another storm, as massive in some ways and worse in others, is poised to hit. By the time you actually read this, it might have already stung.
I am called to be part of history, even if it’s standing on the sidelines hundreds of miles away. I want to be a communicator in this world. I seek the truth and report it. I call “bullshit” when it needs to be called and I’m not afraid to ask tough, uncomfortable questions.
I want to make sure that when you Doomscroll, you are at least getting the best “bad news” that can be reported. I like to be the center of the storm, taking you places you’d never get to see.
The most amazing part of all this is? Inside all these “bad stories” and “doomscrolling” you are going to find some of the best human interest, positive, uplifting, heartwarming stories you could ever imagine.
I truly believe we are at our best when the worst is in front of or over us. Just remember that the next time you are watching “bad news”. There’s so much good in the cracks and crevices. Are you looking there? Or just getting lost in tragedy?