In 1954, E.B. White wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a hurricane hitting his part of Maine. The moment it left Boston, he notes in “The Eye of Edna,” the radio voices declared the violent storm over — even as it continued barreling toward the coast of Maine. When the wind “began to tear everything to pieces, what we got on the radio was a man doing a whistling act and somebody playing the glockenspiel.”
However, nearly 46 million people followed that coverage. And White quotes a weather bureau official saying, “Never before has a hurricane had that large an audience.”
This is definitely a different time, and the natural disaster that befell Joplin, Mo., was far more horrific than Hurricane Edna. The monster twister took well over 100 lives in what's become an especially deadly tornado season in the South and Midwest.
Still, it was quite amazing that billions of people could observe a disaster happening in a small city on Missouri's border with Oklahoma and Kansas. The website of the Italian daily “Corriere della Sera,” for example, featured a video labeled “Joplin devastata,” offering a front-row seat to the terror of a menacing funnel alongside the astonished shouts of tornado chasers.
That's what's really different now. Not only does more of the world see what goes on outside the big media markets, but they can experience what others are going through in real time. That's because so many of us now have cells phones with cameras.
One of the most memorable visuals from the Joplin catastrophe showed only murk. It was video taken in a dark room where people taking cover could be heard screaming as the approaching whirlwind let out the characteristic freight-train roar.
In March, travelers looking out the windows of Japan's Sendai Airport terminal captured staggering cell-phone movies of the tsunami's stately march onshore. We could all see what they saw — a huge wave picking up cars and floating them inland.
You play that “footage” again and again — not only for the unworldly sight, but to share the emotions of those watching a freakish tragedy unfold. You hear their faint gasps evolve into loud moans.
The global village is also more engaged in the aftermath of these calamities. We get to see how those affected cope in the face of ruin. The Japanese displayed their famous discipline, credited with saving lives.
But the equal praise is due the tornado and flood victims in the American South and Midwest. There, tears were mostly reserved for loss of life, not of property, which in many cases, was total. We saw a selfless culture of damaged people helping other damaged people. For example, we followed Joplin Fire Chief Mitch Randles as he methodically looked for trapped survivors on the day his own home was demolished.
We heard ordinary Americans speak calmly of their gratitude at having survived despite the awesome destruction reminiscent of the worst war zones. So much was gone that some locals could not be sure where they actually were.
Days before, we saw folks in Louisiana's Cajun country stoically wait for the waters to overtake their farmland, homes and businesses — and by human design. The authorities had opened the Morganza Spillway to save the downstream Mississippi cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The rural people said they understood this had to be done.
Gone are the extreme weather events that, Edna-style, are ignored once beyond the sight of big-city broadcasters. Now every hamlet and farmhouse can become a major media center when something extraordinary happens. Now all the world can have an inkling of what it's like to be in the eye of the storm.