As Hurricane Matthew's dark clouds appeared over the Sunshine State as a Category 4, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith assured his Florida viewers that if they were caught in the path of the storm, they and "everyone" they know, including their kids, were dead.
That was not reporting; that was inciting. And kids were victims. Smith's words followed those of Gov. Rick Scott, who told residents the hurricane "will kill" them if they didn't evacuate immediately. The words might have led to panic. They did, frankly, scare the crap out of many people. This was especially true among Florida's older residents, many of whom can't just pack up and suddenly leave.
Inciting fear can lead to reactions from residents that are disproportionate to their risk here in Florida, particularly the southeast area of the state.
That said, due to high winds, emergency responders were not dispatched during the storm to help people suffering from medical emergencies. Among those they didn't reach was a 58-year-old woman in St. Lucie County, just north of Palm Beach, who died from a heart attack. CNN reporters said that fright during the storm might have contributed to the death of the woman.
Could the fright of hearing the high winds, on top of listening to fear-mongering on television, bring on or exacerbate a heart attack? Experts say absolutely.
In regard to high winds, it is safer to stay in South Florida during a hurricane than to travel up north when a storm begins to make landfall, especially if you don't have set plans of action after an impromptu departure.
Unlike the poor infrastructure in Haiti, where more than 1,000 people died as a result of the storm, many Florida homes are designed and constructed to withstand hurricanes like Matthew, especially in counties like Broward and Miami-Dade, due to stricter building codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The death toll in Florida was low: Three people died from hurricane-related issues (such as the woman in St. Lucie County) and one directly from the storm.
Those living in mandatory evacuation zones across Florida should, of course, listen to officials and evacuate, but authorities adding a sense of panic to an already potentially life-threatening situation only makes things worse.
The point is: Hurricanes need to be taken seriously because they can definitely hurt people, but Floridians don't need to be terrified into action during a natural disaster.
Beyond the panic they could experience, after a storm hits and does minimal damage, the words from officials and reporters could lose their credibility.
There may now be Floridians who feel (even more) impervious since they survived Matthew despite being told it meant certain death. This could lead to reckless behavior in the future, which could threaten their lives if another major storm, perhaps a stronger one such as a Category 5, comes to town.
By the way, Gov. Scott: The word is could, as in "this storm could kill you"...maybe if you are caught in the storm while on the road.
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