In the Eye of Hurricane Coverage, Part I

E. Stone Meredith

Americans want to be dangerously close to the storm, particularly a hurricane.   

We flock to hurricane coverage on phones, in shared spaces—via limitless sources. For example, The Weather Channel’s coverage of Hurricane Ian, which made landfall on September 28, 2022, garnered the network’s highest ratings in five years (since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017). We see this phenomenon with other natural disasters—part information, part lurid curiosity—but boundaries are really pushed in hurricane coverage. Florida is often the scene of this coverage, as it lies dangerously close to the Gulf Stream. For reporters, local knowledge is always a bonus for rattling off neighborhood names and evacuation routes.  This is the world of hurricane reporting, or, as we might call it in literary studies, the genre of hurricane reporting.

It can be argued that Ernest Hemingway’s coverage of one such storm in 1935 helped lay the groundwork for America’s insatiable interest in on-the-scene hurricane coverage. And the whole thing really started by coincidence for Hemingway. Before the storm, he was a journalist, novelist, and famed American trend setter who happened to be at home in Key West.  After, he was a hurricane survivor with a story to tell, a story told when the lived trauma was still fresh and present in his voice.

How Hemingway Defined the Genre of Hurricane Reporting

Hemingway’s influence on the genre can be traced to 1935, a time before Weather Channel memes, when Key West resident Ernest Hemingway rode out a Category 5 storm from his home on Whitehead Street. The events that followed exposed him in a way he rarely published. He composed his experience through a method requiring the reporter’s complete surrender to the human condition.  He was a regular citizen doing his regular life—and then, the hurricane came and made him submit to its will—before, during, and after.

Hemingway was a resident of America’s Southernmost Key and was directly impacted by the storm. He weathered it, then emerged to report on the storm’s horrific aftermath, both as a survivor and a reporter.  He was, at once, living the experience and working to be a vulnerable observer for his readers.

It began when Hemingway read in the newspaper about an approaching storm. He writes in the opening remarks of his article published 15 days later—full title, “Who Murdered the Vets? A First-Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane”:

“This is the way a storm comes. On Saturday evening at Key West, having finished working, you go out to the porch to have a drink and read the evening paper. The first thing you see in the paper is a storm warning. You know that work is off until it is passed and you are angry and upset because you were doing well.”

At storm’s end, he joined about 200 volunteers in rescue efforts of Key West and islands north. He found devastation and a high death toll, particularly among the nearly 700 American veterans living there to build a railroad. More than 250 of those Veterans died in the storm. Hemingway was furious they’d been left there to weather the storm, and he threw blame. He used his local knowledge to do it.

Wrote Hemingway:

“…wealthy people, yachtsman, fisherman such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months. Hurricane months are August, September and October, and in those months, you see no yachts along the Keys.”

In 2022, thousands of reporters covered Ian, with, for example, Gannett, America’s largest newspaper publisher, employing over 300 alone, many of whom were Florida residents, like Hemingway, securing their own homes as they reported the event. Many of these reporters later described the stress of objective journalism amid such a personal crisis.

Like Hemingway in 1935, the modern-day reporters continue his tradition of a) living through the storm as a citizen and b) covering the event while trying to suppress one’s natural emotions when nature takes control from one’s grip.

To be continued

E. Stone Meredith, Ph.D., teaches college-level literature, writing, and philosophy classes online and works primarily with military students and their affiliates. Her work with Hemingway focuses on connections to Florida and his journalism of the 1930s. She is the founder of Clever Chicas, a non-profit project celebrating ordinary women doing extraordinary things. 

E. Stone Meredith 02/02/2023

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