COVID-19 is a hurricane

I’ve lived in Florida most of my life, which means I’ve covered four hurricanes and “sheltered in place” for another nine. COVID-19 reminds me of them all.

The virus is just a lot slower than a hurricane (months instead of days) and wider (everyone is in its projected path, or what Florida reporters call the “lightbulb of death.”) But its effects on the American psyche are exactly the same. To wit…

  • Coronacane: College students kept partying during spring break instead of keeping their social distance. As one idiot told a reporter at my former paper, “We don’t want to have a virus stop us from having a good time.”
  • Hurricane: Surfers chase tasty waves during the deadly storm surge. It’s such a cliche that Jimmy Buffett wrote a song called, “Surfing in a Hurricane.” And yes, young people die doing it.

Since no one alive recalls the last pandemic (1918-20), I’ve relied on my hurricane experience to comprehend the current madness. Example: I didn’t predict the national hoarding of toilet paper, but it didn’t surprise me, either.

Panic buying

During the run-up to a hurricane, Floridians buy up all the bottled water they can find. That’s because we’re told to stock enough drinking water to last two weeks (just in case the storm knocks out municipal services). So two quarts a day per person, times 14 days, equals seven gallons.

But it doesn’t have to be bottled water. When I lived alone, I kept a pile of empty water jugs in the back of my closet. I filled them up with tap water whenever my house entered the lightbulb of death. Then I watched the panic-buying with a mix of mirth and disgust.

When I got married, it was different. My wife insists on buying bottled water – I think because everyone else is doing it. (Even though local newspapers report on government officials touting tap water.)

Right now, everyone is buying toilet paper, but why? If the national supply chain fails that badly, you’ll run out of food (and bottled water) long before you run out of toilet paper.

Panic reading

Mornings now have a ritual in my house. After my wife and I wake up, she announces, “Did you see new coronavirus cases have risen to insert daily number here?”

And I reply, “I don’t care.”

It’s not that I actually don’t care. I’m just pacing myself. Right now is still early for caring too much.

This is very much like my Facebook friends who post the coordinates and barometric pressure of hurricanes when they’re still swirling in the Atlantic Ocean, a week from landfall. They do this four times a day, because that’s how often the National Hurricane Center updates its numbers (at 5 and 11 am, and 5 and 11 pm).

That’s too soon to worry about the storm – which isn’t the same as being cavalier. I take all the precautions and following all the guidelines, but I don’t burn all my caring calories at once. I save them for when shit gets real.

COVID-19 cases are weeks away from peaking. To put that in hurricane terms, we’re in the lightbulb of death, but we’ve only felt the first feeder bands.

When hurricanes finally arrive over my townhouse, my wife is often asleep. She’s still worried, but she’s also exhausted. So I stay up, monitor the news, and watch for structural damage around the house – because I’ve stockpiled my caring like bottled water. I didn’t drink it all before the storm hit.

Panic reporting

Before you run out of toilet paper, reporters will run out of stories.

That happened back when I covered hurricanes. I kept asking myself: How many quotes from scared and worried citizens are enough? How many apres-storm profiles of struggling small business owners are enough?

COVID-19 is so much worse because it’s so much deadlier and so much slower. I usually scoff at the idiots who kvetch about “The constant drumbeat of media hysteria,” because most journalists are just doing their jobs, covering each routine assignment the best they can. They don’t get bonuses or promotions for “hype.”

Here’s the problem: One typical profile of a COVID-19 sufferer or a furloughed family isn’t hype. But the “constant drumbeat” of those profiles can scare the crap out of anyone. It’s certainly scared the crap out of my wife, who cares deeply about everyone’s pain she hears about. And these days, she’s hearing everything all the time.

I’m currently directing a weekly college contest for best COVID-19 coverage, because I believe journalism is at its best during a crisis. I also believe it should be equally excellent covering everything else during a crisis. If I thought I could convince other journalists to enter, I’d launch another weekly award called “Excellence in Non-Coronavirus Coverage During the Shutdown.”

Living with it forever

When I was a high school freshman in 1979, Hurricane David threatened my Florida home. It was the first hurricane in four years and only the third of the decade. Everyone freaked out. But over the next 12 years, a mere three storms hit the state. So we quickly forgot how terrible they are.

Then in the summer of 1992, Hurricane Andrew killed 44 people and caused $25 billion in damages. Over the next dozen years, nine storms hit Florida. A year after that, in 2015, four hit the state.

Since then, Floridians have lived radically different lives. In 1979, we didn’t have hurricane shutters or impact glass. We duct-taped giant Xs on our windows and believed those sticky cloth strips could survive 100-mph winds. They can’t – any more than a bandana over your face shields you from coronavirus.

After Hurricane Andrew, there were waiting lists for hurricane shutters, just like there are now for N95 masks. Before Hurricane Andrew, people never mentioned “storm surge” and “eyewall” – which reminds me of the first time I heard people casually talking about “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.”

Every summer, Florida journalists – rightly and properly – hound us about hurricane season and implore us to stock up on essentials. (There’s no such thing as too much media hype about preparing for storms or pandemics.)

So I won’t be shocked if every spring from now on, we now stock up on masks, hand sanitizer, and (for some stupid reason) toilet paper. This might be the beginning of our radically different lives.