Tornado outbreak competes for Super Tuesday attention
It was a tough decision on Tuesday evening of what story to follow more closely: the presidential primaries or the unfolding tornado tragedy in the South. As of early this morning, the death toll stood at more than 50 from the abnormally violent February tornado outbreak, making it one for the record books.
As a weather blogger and a political junkie, I chose to follow both breaking news stories. What I noticed were some curious intersections between weather and politics, and between the art and science of covering a severe weather event and breaking political news.
I spent several hours channel hopping between cable news programs and The Weather Channel (TWC), trying to get a firm grasp on all of the developments. As the evening progressed it became clear that the weather storyline was intersecting with the political world, as the loss of life and property damage from Arkansas, Tennessee and surrounding states began to creep into political newscasts and candidates' speeches.
At times, TWC meteorologists and political pundits used similar language, with the key difference being that TWC was reporting on life and death matters rather than debating who has the political momentum coming out of a very confusing day of voting. Instead of political spin, they were offering up atmospheric spin of the most deadly variety.
"Memphis and Nashville, you are both in play," said TWC's Jim Cantore shortly after 9 p.m.
In many ways the weather was the more exciting, and also distressing, storyline of the day. It was certainly a more dynamic news event. TWC showed storms that were moving at 60-70 miles per hour, while the political shows portrayed campaigns that seemed to be grinding slowly past each other, delegate by delegate, like slowly shifting continental plates.
Cantore likened the tornado threat to cars passing at highway speed, illustrating the fact that people in areas under tornado warnings would have little time to react to an oncoming storm. Later, he said, "We've got a long way to go," referring to the continued threat for severe storms overnight, but sounding much like the political pundits who were saying the same thing on other channels about the presidential races.
At one point Cantore warned residents of Nashville that a tornadic storm was "coming right up the gut into the city." I'm not exactly sure what or where the "gut" of Nashville is, but I'm pretty sure residents wouldn't want a tornado anywhere near that vicinity. In fact, the radar images of that storm were downright chilling, with a strong, rotating supercell passing right over downtown.
Warning people in an urban area of an approaching, fast-moving tornado is an extremely challenging task. Almost as challenging, it would seem from last night, as getting southern evangelicals to vote for John McCain in a Republican primary.
TWC came out ahead of the cable news networks in terms of having some actual news to report for several hours on Tuesday evening, before most polls had closed. Mike Bettes reported live from hard-hit Memphis, where at one point he interviewed a man who had just survived a tornado that struck a mall south of the city by hiding in a restaurant's cooler. Bettes was as worked up as Tim Russert with a white board, and at one point accidentally seemed to say "straight-line women" rather than "straight-line winds," but he quickly corrected himself.
As the scope of the tornado damage became clear, Keith Olberman of MSNBC broke into political coverage to run down the details of the storms, declaring: "We have an unfortunate confluence of news and politics tonight." The tornado outbreak eventually made its way into the political speeches of Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Each offered their thoughts and prayers to storm victims.
"While we hope tonight is a time for us to celebrate election results, we are reminded that nothing is as important as the lives of these fellow Arkansans, and our hearts go out to their families," Huckabee said.
In the harsh daylight yesterday it became clear just how destructive the tornadoes were, with some counting their blessings at being spared and others beginning to grieve the loss of their loved ones. At the same time in the political world, the candidates set about trying to spin their wins and losses, and cobble together the pieces of a strategy to get them to the nomination.
Let's hope that the weather for the general election in the fall will be more tranquil. Then at least there will be one less channel for me to watch when the results come in.