The G Word with Adam Conover (2022) s01e02 Episode Script


Uh, let's get out of here, come on! Uh, I think maybe there's some shelter over this way? Goddammit.
Quick! Come on, come on.
Oh shit, oh shit oh Is everyone okay? Okay good.
You know what my earliest memory is as a child? It's when Hurricane Gloria hit Long Island in 1985.
Me and my parents were huddled in the basement, in a blackout, praying that we'd be safe as the hurricane passed directly over our heads.
And to this day, every time a hurricane approaches I feel just that helpless.
You know, we act like this big tough species, but Mother Nature has us beat.
She doesn't care about our plans! She can rain on our TV shoots, flood our towns, knock out our power And we have no control over any of it.
The best, the very best we can do, is to predict the weather so we can plan for it and pick up the pieces after it hits.
And those are things that none of us can do alone.
You know when you think about it, isn't that kind of the main thing a government is for? To protect us from threats that are too big to handle by ourselves? Oh fiddle! I don't need the government to predict the weather.
Old lefty here says a storm's a brewing.
You wanna squeeze her? Ah I'll take a rain check.
No, we need something a little better than that.
You know, most days I only use the weather report as an excuse to not go jogging, but, if we can't tell a hurricane is on the way, people you know, die.
Not only that, entire sectors of our society, from farming to shipping to air travel, depend on our ability to accurately predict the weather.
Air Traffic Control.
No one told us about this ice storm so we and every other plane in the region are going down, down, down.
Over! So where do weather predictions come from? Well, for most of my life I assumed the AccuWeather app on my phone, or the weatherman on TV.
This is your weatherman, Sam Storm, with today's Doppler-Hojillion forecast, and it's gonna be a wet one Linda.
I better get out my galoshes! You and your galoshes! But, haven't you ever wondered where they get their data from? Oh! You know I have always wondered that.
Sam, dear angel, where do you get all those pretty green clouds and numbers from? Or is it a secret? I can't say no to you Linda.
As you can see on the map, the federal government's National Weather Service has blanketed the country with weather observation posts, high-resolution radar, and even a smattering of sixteen satellites.
And all that government science is creating a huge mass of weather data flowing across the country.
Turning now to your local weather, we're gonna start to see that data turned into forecast by government meteorologists in your area.
Then as the day goes on, they'll push those forecasts out to the public for everyone to use and we'll see them picked up by countless organizations, agencies and media outlets like us, Linda.
Hey, is that a picture of Denzel? Just kidding? So all those weather apps, newspapers and TV weather guys like you, they really get their weather forecast from the government? That's right, Linda, I'm a stuffed shirt with a communications degree.
Get a load of that guy! Hot stuff! Wow.
So there's really one of these government meteorologists where I live? Shut the front door! That's right, Linda.
Whoop! Get out of the shot, Sam! Amazing, right? Wherever you live, there's a National Weather Service meteorologist releasing weather balloons, analyzing data and writing weather predictions for you.
And it takes thousands of them, working together across the country on a massive national science project, just to deliver that little weather alert to your phone.
It's going to rain? Oh no, we have to cancel the fun run! Sorry everyone, I was really looking forward to it too.
You know, weather prediction, like clean water, is something that none of us can live without.
That's why it's the very definition of a public good.
A vital service that the government provides for free, to the public, because they're the only ones who can.
Stay precipitated everyone! Your tax dollars at work.
But, wait 'til you get wind of this, what if I told you that someone has been trying to take that public good away from you? See, just like a bottled water company might slap their own label on tap water, private weather companies like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel, repackage that public weather data, add a sprinkle of their own data and analysis, and sell it to news outlets, apps and consumers.
Get your premium weather predictions here.
Way better than that free government junk.
Now, there's nothing wrong with a private company building its business on public data.
I mean that's literally what it's there for.
In recent years though, AccuWeather has started to view the National Weather Service as not just their supplier, but as their competition.
Huh, yeah it'd be good for business if we were the only ones who had access to that data.
So, for the last two decades, we've waged a cunning campaign to stop the weather service from communicating with the public.
In 2005, we lobbied to try to ban them from sharing routine weather predictions with anyone but commercial providers like us.
Huh? That's weird, uh, let me just call And in 2012, we actually blocked the weather service from developing, a free, public, app.
Hey, uh, you know our scientists generate the data that you use Ssh ssh ssh.
Nah ah-uh.
The National Weather Service is not allowed to advertise their amazing science, which has given us free reign to convince the public that we are the true weather gods.
Get your weather predictions from us, the only source, because even though your tax dollars have already paid for these forecasts, we prefer you to pay us again.
It's unbelievable, isn't it? AccuWeather has tried to turn this public good into private property.
Even though their entire business is built on the free data the government gives them.
Imagine a future where extreme weather warnings live behind a pay wall.
So you only find out a tornado's on the way, if you can pay.
Oh, stop imagining! In 2015, we at AccuWeather spotted a tornado headed for Moore, Oklahoma, but we only alerted our paying customers to the threat.
You know what the worst part is? All of this flew completely under our radar.
You know, last time the postal service was in trouble, I started splurging on stamps, like everybody else.
But where were we when weather was weakened? Public goods need public support, especially because, when truly extreme weather threatens, these folks risk their lives to protect us.
Hey Adam, you're ready to do this? We're getting ready to fly through the middle of a major hurricane.
Okay, why is that? Uh, we're going in to gather data to help the National Hurricane Center predict the intensity and the track of this storm so they can give the proper warnings for folks that might be in its path.
Cleared for take-off, checklist complete.
- Take-off power set.
Power checks.
- Oh shit.
Okay! Next stop hurricane Sam.
- Wake it up please.
- Yeah.
So we took off from St.
Croix and flying out here about 700 miles.
We're gonna be dropping down 10,000 feet and going through the middle of it so We're gonna fly through the middle of it? Yeah, right in the meat of it.
Yeah we That's some heavy precip.
Holy shit.
You might want to sit down with the camera.
Woah! Fuck! This right here is our dropsonde.
It's uh, you know, it's a scientific weather instrument that we use, it collects wind, uh, pressure, temperature, humidity.
It's collecting data from the hurricane and you shoot it out into the ocean.
- Out the bottom of this tube right here.
- Wow.
So actually I'm gonna have you open it up here.
So yeah, stuff that in there.
- There you go.
- Oh! There we go.
Woo! Heavy.
That was it.
- And here's the data coming in already.
- Yeah.
So that's what the the humidity, the temperature of the air, - the pressure, all that.
- Yes sir.
I always assume like, you know, you're Okay, you're watching TV and you're seeing here's where the hurricane is, that they were doing that through satellite or radar or something.
But you do This like the movie Armageddon, it's like, we gotta send a team into the storm to find the exact That's the only way we know where the storm really is.
And then when you find it, you have to drop a payload into the center of it.
- And you do that multiple times a day? - I guess so.
- When there's a hurricane? - I mean, we're not, blowing up the hurricane.
You're almost blowing up the hurricane! The aircraft is really the only way you're going to be able to get to find out the exact details of what's going on.
We're also collecting weather information all around the storm and sending that information to the Hurricane Center.
so it tells them a lot of information.
It tells them what How big is the wind field around the hurricane so they can issue warnings.
I mean, indirectly we're saving lives or helping save lives - Yeah.
- through emergency network, and hurricane forecast is putting those warnings out there.
We are deep in Sam's belly now.
Sam ain't happy we're here, let me tell ya.
Okay, we're about to break in.
And we're in the eye.
Oh my God! Oh my fucking God.
This is so beautiful, holy shit.
It's just like you're in, you're in these like You're in clouds, you're in white clouds, and then suddenly you break through and it's completely, like, clear, you can see all the way down to the ocean, it's beautiful! A lot of us live on the Gulf Coast or we have families that do, what we do directly helps them make the decisions that they need to make as the storm moves into their area.
Like, you're literally flying into one of the most powerful natural events on earth and you're getting to see it in a way that no one else on earth does, I mean, it's such a privilege to be up here.
What does it feel like to you to do this, like every day? It's a privilege to have this job.
Millions of people feel the effects of what we do in improving the forecast and it helps them to make safe and correct decisions of what to do ahead of storms.
- And so we're very lucky that - Yeah.
the job makes it easy for us to, uh, see what we do - and, and it benefits the public.
- Yeah.
Well, Mark, it has been such a privilege being up here.
- Thank you so much for having us.
- Yeah.
It's been great having you, Adam.
Okay, I'm a little nauseous.
I'm very happy to have my feet back on the ground.
Let's head to the National Hurricane Center to see what the scientists there do with the data that this plane collects.
We're actually using the data that is acquired from the aircraft to ascertain or or seek what is actually going on in the hurricane and then use that to make forecasts and more importantly communicate that information to the public.
Often, uh, our forecasts result in the evacuations of sometimes a million or more people.
Have you ever been a po in a position where you're looking at this and you're saying, I have to make a call about how bad this is, and things are gonna happen because of what I say.
Yeah, it happened, uh, just this is past hurricane season, 2020.
Our forecasters often have seconds, seconds to make a decision, generally based off experience and gut instinct and uh, working with the hurricane specialist at the time, that day, we determined that the storm was just not going to weaken.
It was gonna go right into the coast completely, uh, unabated.
That combined with the vulnerability of this area, it's very low, a flat area and what we were hearing from emergency managers at the time, that people weren't leaving, um, pushed us to do something we'd never done before which was basically put the term unsurvivable, uh, with it.
Universally the media snapped to that messaging.
- Wow! - Um And that's all you heard that day, is unsurvivable, is unsurvivable, is unsurvivable.
Um, and, we have no storm surge fatalities from this storm and a 100% evacuation compliance in the hardest-hit area.
Wow, that that's remarkable.
If just one of those individuals would have stayed, - much less dozens would have stayed, - Yeah.
they would have most likely perished.
This has been an incredible experience to go up in the goddamn plane, and then to find out about the work that you do.
Jamie, thank you so much for your time.
It was a pleasure, man.
I am literally blown away.
I mean all these courageous people working together like clockwork, just to make sure that we have the information we need to protect ourselves from hurricanes.
It's jaw-dropping! But, one thing doesn't add up.
If the government is so great at protecting us before the hurricane hits, why is it so bad at helping us afterwards? That's right, I'm talking about FEMA.
Not a name you normally hear after the words "did a great job.
" Instead, it's become the four-letter word of government agencies.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, FEMA didn't bring enough personnel, bottled water or even electrical generators.
It took 11 months for power to be restored to the island, and as a result of these failures, 4,500 people died.
Most of them, not because of the hurricane itself.
They died because after the storm, they didn't get the help they needed.
And just to remind you, Puerto Rico is part of America.
This happened to Americans.
If our government is able to fly a plane through a goddamn hurricane, why on earth can't it bring bottled water to it's own citizens? Now, it's easy enough just to say FEMA sucks and call it a day.
I wouldn't even blame you, it's really satisfying.
But don't you want to know why it sucks? I do.
And in trying to answer that question, what we found is that, more than anything, what determines whether or not a government agency succeeds is its structure and FEMA structure is, and always has been, a perfect storm of fucked up.
Before the late 70s, federal disaster relief was handled by a whole mess of different agencies that could barely work together.
Huh? Hey! Ah! Wise guy, huh? But, instead of establishing a powerful new agency from scratch, the executive order that created FEMA just smushed them all together.
Shut up everyone! You're all FEMA now.
And your job is to plan for all disasters for all Americans everywhere, so what are we working on first? Good luck! With clashing priorities and no clear agenda, FEMA struggled to become a cohesive agency and its problems were compounded by the government's arch-nemesis: red tape.
FEMA is so hogtied by bureaucratic rules, they famously couldn't even deliver aid after Hurricane Andrew until the proper paperwork was filled out.
You're drowning? Okay, I just need you to fax me a water hazards assistance request form.
I can hear you but I don't make the rules ma'am.
In fact, according to a federal law, our Emergency Management Agency can't even declare an emergency without asking permission.
That means that instead of being able to call the shots, FEMA is forced to juggle the demands of Presidents, Governors and Congress.
Yes, Governor, I I'm on it.
Ye yes sir, yes sir, right away.
Is there any chance I can get a little more money to help Puerto Ri Are you stupid, we don't have any money! FEMA has so little power, it's especially vulnerable to politics, which means who gets aid depends on who you know.
Whoa whoa whoa whoa, hold up there pal.
You got a senator or congressperson on FEMA's oversight committee? Sucks for you.
If you did, historically FEMA would hook you up with an extra 36.
5 million dollars of assistance on average.
Plus bottle service.
Water bottle service.
Once you follow the political undercurrents, you start to see why Texas, a state with two powerful senators, received massive assistance from FEMA after Hurricane Harvey.
The same year that Puerto Rico, which has no representation in Congress or the presidential election, in comparison, was left out in the cold.
Call me crazy, I don't think FEMA assistance should depend on your zipcode.
It should be a public service.
Nah! This is an exclusive club.
Which might explain why counties with a significant Black, Hispanic, or Native American population often receive less money from FEMA than white counties.
Yo, Connecticut! I'll see you at golf.
Let C-Dog through! And worst of all, chronic underfunding has prevented FEMA from planning for natural disasters that FEMA employees knew were coming.
Hurricane season is every year people, let's be ready.
In 2004, just a year before Katrina, FEMA ran a simulation called Hurricane Pam in which a hypothetical hurricane hit New Orleans.
Okay, so, what would happen if the levees break? Oh-oh.
Ma'am, our exercises show that if a hurricane were to hit New Orleans, we'd be very ill-equipped to handle it.
We need a new plan now.
Whoa! We are way too underfunded and understaffed to implement any of these reforms.
We can't afford to waste money on hypothetical hurricanes when there are WMD's in Iraq to find.
I mean, what the fuck? How many lives could have been saved if FEMA had had the resources they needed? And, even today, as climate change makes every hurricane season more destructive than the last, FEMA has faced budget shortfalls and staffing shortages further weakening an already weak agency.
It's infuriating, isn't it? And all the more so because I don't know what personally I can do about it.
Fixing big structural problems like these is incredibly hard.
It's gonna take org.
charts and budgets and endless congressional hearings where some old dude takes 30 seconds between questions to sip water from a tiny bottle and Oh God, I am bored just looking at you.
But you know, maybe there is a silver lining.
Hello? Graphics? Thank you.
Get your head out of the clouds.
Okay, you're on thin ice! Even as we're pushing for these desperately needed structural reforms, we don't have to just sit around and watch the flood waters rise.
Like every part of the government, protecting each other from the weather is a collective project that each of us can show up and contribute to.
Old righty's barking! I feel an inspiring real-life example blowing in.
Yeah, I think you might be right.
- Hi.
Hey, nice to meet you.
- Michael Brulo, nice to meet you.
Thank you for having me.
Let's go, we got rain.
So, what is Skywarn? Skywarn is a group of volunteer, uh, observers with the National Weather Service.
We are unpaid, we just observe the, uh, severe weather and report to them either by telephone or by amateur radio.
But why does the weather service need hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country? Why do they need you to drive around with a radio in your car? Yeah, so there's just one element missing and that's the eyes on the ground.
They need ground truth.
They have tools like radar and weather stations and all that, but when you're out here in southern Pennsylvania, um, a lot of times the radar can't see what we're seeing on the ground.
And most of the severe weather occurs in the first couple thousand feet of the atmosphere.
So if they're relying so much on volunteers, and hey you're a you're a weather nut, you're, you're a weather nerd, - What term do you like? - So, the official term is Weather Weenie.
- I don't really say it.
- It's a little derogatory for yourself.
I just call myself you know, a weather observer, enthusiast, whatever you wanna call it.
So you're getting in this area hail, tornados, sometimes hurricanes, - flooding, is There's a lot of flooding? - Flooding.
We get flash flooding, we get river flooding, we get every kind of flooding you can get.
Only about a foot of water's needed to wash your car off the road.
And that's not something that, like, the National Weather Service can see.
Exactly, the Skywarn community gives them the really time sensitive information they need to issue flash flood warnings.
Got it.
So we're in an area of Lancaster County, got hit really hard by some thunderstorms two days ago.
I was observing a non-severe storm turned severe and it wasn't even two minutes later that the alert came through for the warning.
Wow! So hold on, so you report, two minutes later they alert everyone in the area, this is now a severe storm so watch out.
- Exactly.
- That is so cool.
It's Seconds count when it comes to severe weather.
By the time it looks severe on radar, it may have already been causing damage and indeed it was, there were trees down and that's when they flipped the switch and said, okay, it's a severe storm, let's warn people.
The Weather Service really does provide great warnings and, uh, the reports we give help them issue these warnings.
Can we see what it's like when you give a report? So we'll talk to net control and let them know what we're seeing down here.
W3DLB, this is W3MSB calling.
W3MSB, W3DLB go ahead Mike.
Hey, good evening, Dave.
We're down here at Long's Park in Lancaster County and we are seeing over 50 mature trees either uprooted or snapped.
And tell him it's raining.
It's raining! - It is.
And it's raining right now.
- Yeah.
I will run that up to National Weather Service via chat.
W3MSB this is W3DLB Net Control.
Thanks for the report, have a good day.
I contributed! Yes you did.
Reports like these are made every day during severe weather.
What does it feel like to, like, be protecting your community so directly? It's not like you're a firefighter or something, you're just a guy in a Subaru.
A guy in a Subaru, yeah.
It, it's a good feeling.
I enjoy doing this and I enjoy helping I enjoy helping the community out you know I love the weather and to be able to not only look at the weather for myself but use what I'm seeing to help the Weather Service protect life and property - it's a great feeling.
- Wow.
Hey, would you give me a ride back to LA? Absolutely, let's go.
Thanks for the ride, Michael.
You know what I love about the weather? It unites us.
When a storm rolls in, everyone in town is thinking the same thing.
Oh, first, I gotta buy milk and toilet paper immediately! But then, I gotta go check on my neighbors.
When we work together like that, when we take collective action for the common good, there's no limit to what we can do.
And giving us a way to do that, giving us a way to come together and protect each other in the face of life's greatest disasters, on its best days, that's what a government is.
Even if it doesn't always live up to it.
Banks got bailed out! We got sold out! Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!
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