We're currently hosting our discussions at Café Walnut, near the corner of 7th & Walnut in Olde City, just across the street from Washington Square Park. The cafe's entrance is below street level down some stairs, which can be confusing if it's your first time. Our group meets in the large room upstairs.
Since we're using the cafe's space, they ask that each person attending the meetup at least purchase a drink or snack. Please don't bring any food or drinks from outside. If you're hungry enough to eat a meal, they have more substantial fare such as salads, soups & sandwiches which are pretty good and their prices are reasonable.
The cafe is fairly easy to get to if you're using public transit. With SEPTA, take the Market-Frankford Line & get off at the 5th Street Station (corner of 5th & Market), and walk 2 blocks south on 5th and then turn right on Walnut Street and walk 2 blocks west. With PATCO, just get off at the 9th-10th & Locust stop and walk 3 blocks east & 1 block north. For those who are driving, parking in the neighborhood can be tough to find. If you can't find a spot on the street, I'd suggest parking in the Washington Square parking deck at 249 S 6th Street which is just a half block away.
HURRICANES, HYPES & HOAXES:
ANALYZING WHY HURRICANES OFTEN BREED CONSPIRACY THEORIES, MORAL PANICS & SCANDALS
In this discussion, we'll address a variety of debates surrounding hurricanes, and we'll see how these tie in with conspiracy theories, moral panics, government scandals & policy failures.
However, one thing we won't spend much time on are the conspiracy theories about "geo-engineering", mostly because they're relegated to the fringes of society and they've already been done to death by the skeptic movement. In case you're unaware, some conspiracy theorists have alleged that the government actually creates & control hurricanes through the "High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program" (a.k.a. "HAARP") and cloud seeding via "chemtrails" dispersed by airplanes.
Brian Dunning debunked the conspiracy theory about HAARP controlling the weather on his podcast back in 2008, and Abe Streep debunked it in Popular Science the same year:
The HAARP conspiracy theories make little sense, since the high-frequency radio transmitter system only effects the ionosphere - well above any storm systems, and the power HAARP radiates is less than that of a lightning strike and is minuscule compared with the power of a hurricane.
The cloud seeding conspiracy theories have a bit more of a factual basis, in so far as the government did try seeding clouds within the eyewall of hurricanes with silver iodide in the past. However, the point of this was to *weaken* hurricanes, not strengthen them or otherwise control them. This was called "Project Stormfury" and ran from 1962 to 1983. The hypothesis was that the silver iodide would cause supercooled water in the storm to freeze, disrupting the inner structure of the hurricane. However, it was later shown that this hypothesis was incorrect - most hurricanes do not contain enough supercooled water for cloud seeding to be effective, and unseeded hurricanes often underwent the same structural changes that were expected from seeded hurricanes. Essentially, seeding a hurricane has little to no effect on a hurricane's size or strength, and it certainly didn't allow it to be steered towards or away from a particular area.
People who believe in geo-engineering conspiracy theories will often cite Operation Popeye as a documented example of a covert US military program to weaponize weather. This Vietnam-era project used cloud seeding to try to extend the monsoon season in Vietnam to keep the Ho Chi Ming Trail muddy & thus make it less navigable for the Viet Cong guerillas. Although some claimed that Operation Popeye induced from 1 to 7 inches of additional rainfall annually along the trail, no scientific data were collected to verify the claim. General William Westmoreland reportedly thought there was "no appreciable increase" in rain from the project. (And note, even if it did work, it would merely show that we can seed clouds to produce more rain - it doesn't suggest the government can control hurricanes.)
So once we've put aside the geo-engineering conspiracy theories, what are the more fruitful areas for skeptics to intervene in public debates over hurricanes? I've identified four areas that look promising: (1) the genesis of hurricanes & their connection to climate change, (2) urban planning & gov't preparation for hurricanes, (3) gov't-led rescue efforts and maintenance of law & order during hurricanes, and (4) gov't management of the recovery & rebuilding phase after hurricanes.
In the first section of this meetup, we'll look at the arguments over whether climate change is making hurricanes more frequent and/or more powerful. This debate connects with arguments about whether certain parties are misrepresenting the science in order to gain some sort of political or economic advantage. Republicans often argue that Democrats are engaging in "climate alarmism" in order to justify an expansion of government & tax hikes to fund dubious "green" ventures, whereas Democrats often argue that Republicans are engaging in "climate denial" to stave off carbon taxes & keep the Big Oil donors happy. We'll also consider how this relates to some recent complaints about reporters exaggerating the severity of hurricanes by pretending the wind is more powerful or the flooding is deeper than it actually is.
The second section of this discussion focuses on assessing government wrongdoing in cases where it appears there was poor urban design and/or inadequate preparation for hurricanes. We'll focus on the case of the levees failures that occurred in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina - some have alleged that the levees were actually bombed by the government to flood black neighborhoods, while others have argued that the levee failure was due to negligence on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers. We'll compare this to the problems with urban sprawl in Houston and the intentional flooding of cetain housing developments by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Harvey.
In the third section of this discussion, we'll look at allegations that the government failed to maintain law & order in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane and/or used excessive force & illegal tactics while doing so. We'll see how reports of looting, police brutality, abandonment or execution of prisonersandan civilian gun confiscation have emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We'll also consider how exaggerated tales of looting & police excesses have arisen after some more recent hurricanes.
In the fourth section of this discussion, we'll look at allegations that the government grossly mishandled the recovery phase after a hurricane. I initially considered focusing on Hurricane Katrina for this part as well, since although President Bush & FEMA director Michael Brown initially caught most of the blame, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin ultimately went to jail for corruption & misappropriation of funds. However, there's been so much talk rcently about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and how a lack of government aid to Puerto Rico led the death toll to climb from 64 all the way up into the 3,000-4,000 range that I figured it would be a better case study.
As with previous meetups where we addressed conspiracy theories, it's necessary for us to consider alternative hypotheses. We can probably sort theories about government wrongdoing in natural disasters into 5 general categories, the first 3 being real conspiracies and the latter 2 being situations that may look like conspiracies but are not:
(1) Active Conspiracy: those in charge either intentionally created the natural disaster or worked to make it worse for some sinister purpose.
(2) Passive Conspiracy: those in charge did not intentionally create the natural disaster, but they knew it was coming and let it happen without warning or preparing the populace for some sinister purpose.
(3) Retroactive Conspiracy: those in charge didn't create the disaster or let it happen, but there was intentional wrongdoing in the aftermath such as fraud or embezzlement of funds meant for rebuilding.
(4) Policy Failure: those in charge neither created the disaster nor let it happen nor took advantage of it afterwards, but they mishandled it for a variety of reasons ranging from prediction errors to logistical incompetence to under-funding.
(5) Pseudo-Scandal: those in charge acted responsibly, but much of the general public feels they acted irresponsibly or with malice because the news media either made factual errors or were biased in reporting.
RELEVANT MATERIAL FROM PAST MEETUPS:
Back in October of 2018, we had a meetup entitled "Do Bankers Rule the World?" and in Part 1 we discussed some conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds banking dynasty. Conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds' shady banking deals date back to the early 1800s, but they came back into the news in March of 2018 when D.C. city council member Trayon White, Sr. claimed that snowfall in March was part of a “climate control” conspiracy orchestrated by the Rothschilds. White also hinted obliquely that this was tied to DC becoming a "resilient city". As it turns out, White is affiliated with the Nation of Islam which has a history of spreads anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds & other influential Jews, so that may be where he got some of his misinformation. However, White also seems to have drawn upon the work of several conspiracy theorists who see the Rockefeller Foundation's "100 Resilient Cities" initiative as a way for outside forces to take over cities in the name of fighting climate change. Many of these conspiracy theorists also think that the E.L. Rothschild firm acquired a majority stake in Weather Central back in 2011 in order to push climate change hysteria or cover up geo-engineering activities. To learn more about this, you can check out our discussion outline & read the linked Citylab article by Brentin Mock entitled "Resilience Trutherism, Explained":
Back in April of 2018, we had a meetup on "Racial Bias in Police Use of Force" that relates to the allegations we'll address about police brutality & looting in the wake of hurricanes. In that previous meetup, we discussed how the general statistics on police use of force are sparse & inadequate, and indicate that various cities have very different types of police-minority relationships ranging from friendly to hostile. However, while there's strong evidence for racism & excessive force in some police departments, it also appears that the case for widespread racial bias in policing is routinely exaggerated by the news media because they don't control for higher crime rates in poor black neighborhoods when they report the racial disparities in arrests & police shootings.
Back in April of this year, we had a meetup on taxes and in the Intro section we discussed how government scandals relate to conspiracy theories & moral panics. "Scandals" and "conspiracy theories" typically allege similar things - i.e. that a group of political or business elites colluded to do something morally wrong and/or illegal - but "scandals" typically denote an allegation that's received a lot of mainstream media attention while "conspiracy theories" typically denote allegations confined to obscure rumor mills & the followers of eccentric political agitators. Scandals are also similar to "moral panics" in that both attract heavy & sometimes excessive news coverage (a.k.a. a "media circus") and involve lots of moral grandstanding & scapegoating by political pundits, but moral panics tend to involve elites condemning "folk devils" on the fringes of society whereas scandals are intra-elite conflicts. For politicians, the point of a scandal is not merely to push for legal action against those accused of wrongdoing. Even if no one is criminally charged, politicians often seek to convict their opponents in the "court of public opinion" and damage their political prospects in the next election, and they also seek to rally their own supporters by showcasing their leadership & advocacy skills. The political scientist Brendan Nyhan has pioneered research into scandals that highlights the extent to which they are "social constructs" created by the news media & politicians. In this meetup, we'll consider how this relates to scandals that emerge in the wake of hurricanes.
DIRECTIONS ON HOW TO PREPARE FOR OUR DISCUSSION:
The videos & articles you see linked below are intended to give you a basic overview of some of the conspiracy theories, moral panics & pseudo-scandaks that often surround natural disasters.
As usual, I certainly don't expect you to read all the articles & watch all the videos prior to attending our discussion. The easiest way to prepare for our discussion is to just watch the numbered videos linked under each section - the videos come to about about 46 minutes total. The articles marked with asterisks are just there to supply additional details. You can browse and look at whichever ones you want, but don't worry - we'll cover the stuff you missed in our discussion.
In terms of the discussion format, my general idea is that we'll address the topics in the order presented here. I've listed some questions under each topic to stimulate discussion - we'll try to answer most of them. I figure we'll spend about 30 minutes on each section.
I. UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE CONNECTING HURRICANES WITH CLIMATE CHANGE & HOW IT TIES IN WITH THE DEBATES OVER "HURRICANE HYPE" AMONG WEATHER FORECASTERS:
- HAVE HURRICANES BECOME MORE FREQUENT AND/OR MORE POWERFUL OVER THE LAST CENTURY? IF SO, IS THIS DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING?
- HAVE HURRICANES BECOME MORE COSTLY PRIMARILY BECAUSE THEY'RE MORE DESTRUCTIVE, OR IS THIS MORE DUE TO MORE EXPENSIVE BUILDINGS IN COASTAL AREAS?
- DID RUSH LIMBAUGH SAY THE NEWS MEDIA WAS HYPING THE DANGER OF HURRICANE IRMA, ONLY TO EVACUATE FROM FLORIDA DAYS LATER?
- DID MIKE SEIDEL AND/OR ANDERSON COOPER ATTEMPT TO MAKE HURRICANES CONDITIONS APPEAR WORSE THEN THEY ACTUALLY ARE?
- IS IT TRUE THAT WEATHER REPORTS HAVE BEEN EXAGGERATING THE SEVERITY OF STORMS RECENTLY? IF SO, IS THIS MORE LIKELY TO BE DUE TO A DESIRE TO GET VIEWERS TO TAKE PRECAUTIONS, COMPETITION FOR RATINGS, OR AN ATTEMPT TO HYPE CLIMATE CHANGE?
1a) Vox, "How climate change makes hurricanes worse" (video - 3:23 min.)
1b) GWPF, "Climate Hysteria vs Hurricane Resilience" (video - 8:42 min.)
1c) Washington Post, "Anderson Cooper says idea of him dramatizing hurricane is 'frankly idiotic'" (video - 1:35 min.)
* Sara Chodosh, "Charted: How hurricanes are becoming more extreme"
* Ronald Bailey, "Is Climate Change Making Hurricanes More Destructive? Not yet in the United States, new studies suggest."
* Angie Drobnic Holan, "In context: What Rush Limbaugh said about Hurricane Irma before evacuation"
* David Mikkelson, "Weather Channel Reporter [Mike Seidel] Braces in Storm That Leaves Others Unaffected"
* David Mikkelson, "Is This Anderson Cooper Standing in a Ditch While Reporting Hurricane Florence?"
II. UNDERSTANDING HURRICANES, STORM SURGES & FLOODING: HURRICANE KATRINA LEVEE FAILURES VS HURRICANE HARVEY DAM RELEASES
- IS THERE ANY EVIDENCE THAT SOMEONE BLEW UP THE LEVEES IN NEW ORLEANS DURING HURRICANE KATRINA? DID ANYONE REPORT EXPLOSIONS, OR DID THE LEVEES HAVE BIG CRATERS IN THEM?
- IS SPIKE LEE WRONG TO CITE BUSH'S CONTROVERSIAL ELECTION WIN IN 2000 & THE TUSKEGEE EXPERIMENTS AS EVIDENCE THAT THE GOV'T "COULD" PULL OFF A CONSPIRACY LIKE SABOTAGING NEW ORLEANS' LEVEES?
- IS THE COLLAPSE OF NEW ORLEANS' LEVEES BETTER EXPLAINED BY INADEQUATE DESIGN STANDARDS?
- DID THE ARMY CORPS WHO BUILT THE LEVEES ACT NEGLIGENTLY? WERE THERE PREDICTIONS OF LEVEEE FAILURE BEFOREHAND?
- WHY DID IT TAKE AUTHORITIES & THE NEWS MEDIA SEVERAL DAYS TO REALIZE NEW ORLEANS' LEVEES HAD FAILED?
- DID THE ARMY CORPS ACT IRRESPONSIBLY WHEN THEY FLOODED HOUSES IN WEST HOUSTON DURING HURRICANE HARVEY?
- DID HOUSTON'S ZONING BOARD ACT IRRESPONSIBLY BY ALLOWING DEVELOPER'S TO BUILD ON FLOOD PLAINS? ARE HOME OWNERS WHO CHOOSE TO REBUILD THERE PARTLY TO BLAME?
2a) Bill Maher w/ Spike Lee, Michel Martin & Tucker Carlson, "Did someone blow up the levees?" (video - 3:01 min.)
2b) RT w/ H.J Bosworth Jr., "‘Army Corps screwed up, blames everyone else’ – New Orleans engineer" (video - 5:40 min.)
2c) Texas Tribune, "Houston homeowners upstream and downstream of dams flooded after Harvey" (video - 2:52 min.)
* Lisa Myers, "Were the levees bombed in New Orleans? Ninth Ward residents give voice to a conspiracy theory"
* Marta Jewson & Charles Maldonado, "The Myths of Katrina: Ten years after the storm, falsehoods about warnings, violence, and recovery persist. Here’s the truth."
* Campbell Robertson & John Schwartz, "Decade After Katrina, Pointing Finger More Firmly at Army Corps"
* Jed Horne, "Five myths about Hurricane Katrina"
* Emily Moon, "Urbanization Intensified Hurricane Harvey's Flooding. What Does That Mean For Future Storms?"
* Gabrielle banks, "Harvey flood victims close case against Army Corps"
III. CONFLICTS BETWEEN POLICE & CITIZENS DURING HURRICANES, AND THE ORIGINS OF LOOTING PANICS, SUMMARY EXECUTION RUMORS & CIVILIAN DISARMAMENT FEARS:
- IS LOOTING FAIRLY RARE AFTER HURRICANES? DOES THE NEWS MEDIA EXAGGERATE ISOLATED INCIDENTS & STIR UP "LOOTING PANICS" IN THE WAKE OF HURRICANES?
- WAS THERE WIDESPREAD LOOTING AFTER HURRICANE KATRINA? DID THE NEWS MEDIA USE A DOUBLE STANDARD THAT PORTRAYED BLACK PEOPLE AS "LOOTERS" BUT WHITE PEOPLE AS "SURVIVORS"?
- DID ANYONE DURING HURRICANE KATRINA SHOOT AT RESCUE HELICOPTERS, OR WAS THIS JUST A WILD RUMOR THAT THE MEDIA REPORTED AS FACT?
- EVEN IF NEWS REPORTS OF A 7-YEAR-OLD BEING RAPED & MURDERED IN THE SUPERDOME TURNED OUT TO BE WRONG, WERE THERE MANY SEXUAL ASSAULTS IN SHELTERS IN THE WAKE OF HURRICANE KATRINA?
- WAS THERE WIDESPREAD BLACK-ON-WHITE AND/OR WHITE-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE AMONG CIVILIANS DURING HURRICANE KATRINA?
- DID POLICE ILLEGALLY SEIZE GUNS FROM LAW-ABIDING CIVILIANS DURING HURRICANE KATRINA? HAS THIS HAPPENED IN DIFFERENT CITIES DURING LATER HURRICANES?
- IS IT PLAUSIBLE THAT THE DANZIGER BRIDGE SHOOTING WAS A MISTAKE THAT THE POLICE LATER TRIED TO COVER UP, OR WAS IT A CASE OF PREMEDITATED RACIST MURDER? WERE THERE OTHER INCIDENTS OF POLICE BRUTALITY DURING HURRICANE KATRINA?
- DID NAVY SEAL SNIPER CHRIS KYLE LIE ABOUT SHOOTING LOOTERS DURING HURRICANE KATRINA?
- IS IT PLAUSIBLE THAT PRISON GUARDS COULD'VE EXECUTED 5,000 PRISONERS DURING HURRICANE KATRINA & DUMPED THEIR BODIES IN THE SWAMP, AS CYNTHIA McKINNEY ALLEGED?
- WERE PRISONERS IN ORLEANS PARISH PRISON LEFT TO DIE DURING HURRICANE KATRINA?
3a) Vox, "Treating hurricanes like war zones hurts survivors" (video - 7:24 min, start at 4:13)
3b) Fox News, "Mass Execution Of Prisoners In New Orleans?" (video - 0:53 min.)
3c) CBS, "Katrina shootings spotlights police corruption" (video - 2:22 min.)
3d) WUSA9, "Verify: Can police confiscate guns in Texas during a state of emergency?" (video - 1:33 min.)
* Matt Welch, "They Shoot Helicopters, Don't They? How journalists spread rumors during Katrina."
* Anna North, "Hurricane Katrina left survivors vulnerable to sexual assault. Here’s how to protect Irma evacuees."
* BBC, "British tourists 'flee Superdome' - A group of Britons have been escorted out of the New Orleans Superdome to ensure their safety."
A.C. Thompson, "Post-Katrina, White Vigilantes Shot African-Americans With Impunity"
* Adam Weinstein, "The NRA Twisted a Tiny Part of the Katrina Disaster to Fit Its Bigger Agenda. Only a small percentage of New Orleans's guns were collected by authorities, but that hasn't stopped the group's mythmakers."
* Dan MacGuill, "Did the Governor of the United States’ Virgin Islands Sign an Order Allowing the Seizure of Weapons During Hurricane Irma?" [Rating: True]
* Charley Lanyon, "New Orleans to Pay $13.3 Million to Settle Katrina Police-Brutality Cases"
* Jake Towne, "Cynthia McKinney and the Alleged 5,000 Dead Hurricane Katrina Inmates"
* Dan Evon, "Were Inmates Abandoned at Orleans Parish Prison During Hurricane Katrina?" [Rating: Mixture]
* Jarvis DeBerry, "The 'American Sniper's' [Chris Kyle] preposterous post-Katrina New Orleans story"
IV. ASSESSING GOV'T RESPONSE TO HURRICANE MARIA & ANALYZING THE DISPUTED DEATH TOLL:
- IS PUERTO RICO'S DEBT CRISIS MORE DUE TO U.S. FEDERAL POLICY OR PROFLIGATE SPENDING BY THE PUERTO RICAN GOV'T? HOW MUCH OF A ROLE, IF ANY, DID THE DEBT CRISIS PLAY IN HURRICANE MARIA'S DEATH TOLL?
- DID THE JONES ACT IMPOVERISH PUERTO RICO BY MAKING IMPORTS MORE EXPENSIVE? DID IT PROHIBIT FOREIGN SHIPS FROM BRINGING AID TO PUERTO RICO AFTER HURRICANE MARIA?
- WAS FEMA SLOW TO DEPLOY IN PUERTO RICO AFTER HURRICANE MARIA? IF SO, WAS IT BECAUSE THEY WERE ALSO OCCUPIED WITH THE AFTERMATH OF HURRICANE HARVEY & IRMA AND PUERTO RICO IS HARDER TO ACCESS, OR WAS IT BLATANT DISCRIMINATION?
- WHY DID THE HURRICANE MARIA DEATH TOLL RISE FROM 64 TO REPORTS RANGING FROM 1,052 TO 4,645? WHAT IS THE MOST ACCURATE ESTIMATE WE CURRENTLY HAVE, AND HOW WAS IT CALCULATED?
- HOW MANY DEATHS WERE CAUSED DIRECTLY BY HURRICANE MARIA & HOW MANY WERE CAUSED BY EXPOSURE & DISEASE DUE TO MONTHS WITHOUT ADEQUATE SHELTERS, ELECTRICITY, CLEAN WATER, ETC?
4a) Simon Whistler, "How the US ruined Puerto Rico" (video - 8:53 min.)
4b) PBS, "Families say Hurricane Maria’s death toll was preventable -- and neglect is to blame" (video - 3:56 min.)
* Ray Sanchez, "How Puerto Rico's death toll climbed from 64 to 2,975 in Hurricane Maria"
* Glenn Kessler, "Did 4,645 people die in Hurricane Maria? Nope."
* Philip Bump, "No, the handling of Hurricane Maria was not an ‘unsung success’"
* FEMA, "Myths vs. Facts: Disaster Housing Assistance Program for María Survivors"
* Laura Sullivan, "FEMA Blamed Delays In Puerto Rico On Maria; Agency Records Tell Another Story"
* Aaron Klein, "What everyone got wrong about the Jones Act, hurricane relief, and Puerto Rico"
* Laura Sullivan, "How Puerto Rico's Debt Created A Perfect Storm Before The Storm"
* Nicole Einbinder, "How the Response To Hurricane Maria Compared to Harvey and Irma"