There are countless news stories that people never follow up on. We assume that distant cities eventually rebuild after natural disasters, that murderers are eventually given long prison sentences, and that the Great Milwaukee Pudding Explosion eventually led to a stern look at the rampant corruption of Big Pudding. But sometimes the ignored follow-ups are worse or even weirder than the headline-grabbing stories. So let's revisit a few recent big ones.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria killed 3,059 people and caused $91 billion in damage, proving once again that it's odd to give hurricanes human names. Puerto Rico was hit the hardest, suffering 2,975 of those deaths, in what was arguably the worst disaster in the island's history. Initial coverage of the aftermath -- and of criticism leveled at the government for its slow and ineffectual response -- was constant, but as the months went by, we moved on to other stories. And now that it's been two years, they've probably got everything sorted out, right? R-right?
Well, between July 2017 and July 2018, the island's population shrunk by 129,848, which math whizzes in the audience may recognize as higher than 2,975. That's 4% of Puerto Rico's people, with emigration accounting for the majority of the drop. Florida and New York, both already home to large Puerto Rican communities, were the most common destinations. That exodus was already underway before Maria, thanks to the island's debt crisis, and the hurricane somehow didn't help.
The population does appear to have stabilized in 2019, but that's not because Puerto Rico is back to being a carefree paradise. It wasn't until that March that everyone was back on the power grid, and the reconstruction was a patchwork job that produced regular blackouts. One outage that hit 100,000 people was caused by an errant iguana. Some people have converted to solar power out of sheer distrust of government power and/or the nefarious iguana agenda, and some Puerto Ricans are also turning to local start-ups to handle insurance after 13,600 post-Maria claims were left unresolved for more than a year.
We don't want to make it sound like an apocalypse. Life goes on, and a lot of people are working hard to improve the state of affairs. But there are some people who still haven't been able to rebuild their homes, thanks to the majority of disaster relief funding continuing to be held up in Congress (a little bit of it also got embezzled, for good measure). While they can't vote in presidential elections (man, isn't it weird that America still has colonies?), maybe don't be surprised when Puerto Ricans try to make the handling of Maria an issue in 2020.
In 2016, Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich was murdered, in what was likely a botched robbery attempt. Within days he suffered the additional misfortune of becoming the basis of an ever-growing conspiracy theory that we're sure at least one caps lock wielder will rush to the comments to explain. But to briefly sum up the most common strain of nonsense, the idea is that Rich was murdered by the Clintons over his (nonexistent) role in the 2016 DNC email leak.
If you tend to consume media that isn't screamed at you, it's important to understand that this became huge. It wasn't at first, starting life as yet another "Hilary Clinton's trained weasels stole my pants!"-style ramble that only the craziest take seriously. But by mid-2017, it was being promoted by Wikileaks founder and would-be Bond villain Julian Assange, who speculated without evidence that Rich had been one of the site's sources, and by Fox News, which suggested that Rich had been killed for working with Wikileaks right up until the Rich family's lawyers introduced them to the expensive nature of reality.
But by then this was a douchebag cause celebre among the now very arrested Roger Stone, fleshmancer Steve Bannon, Alex Jones employees, the Trump subreddit, and more. Noted Fox Nazgul Sean Hannity even spent some bonus time pushing the theory while Fox was otherwise retracting its stories, saying it "might expose the single biggest fraud perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history." (Spoiler alert: It did not.)
A 2019 investigation by Yahoo News (don't laugh, they do solid journalism in between stories like "Morgan Freeman Pets Cat"), with the help of a former U.S. attorney who worked on the Rich case, traced the conspiracy-mongering all the way back to an obscure website known to be "a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda." The story was introduced by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, and from there it was spread by Russian click farms and promoted by RT and Sputnik, outlets owned by the Russian government, before finally being picked up by Fox News, whose official slogan has since become "Our Idiots Are The Most Useful!" The Pant Weasel types always had their ideas, but Russia helped catapult the story into very undeserving mainstream attention.
The assumed reasoning behind all of this sad nonsense is that Russian intelligence saw Rich as a way to distance themselves from the DNC email leak, which was part of an effort to interfere in the 2016 election that eventually saw 12 Russians indicted. But conspiracy theories are only effective if you can find people willing to spread them, and the Rich family was not shy in talking about how awful it was to see their loved one's name dragged through the mud for crass political purposes. So we guess if there's a lesson here it's that Sean Hannity sucks so, so much.
The November 2018 California Camp Fire, in addition to proving that fires can have names just as stupid as hurricanes, killed 85 people, forced the evacuation of 52,000 more, and caused $16.5 billion in damage. But as of May 2019, reconstruction efforts once again demonstrated that the resolute human spirit will always triumph because, uh, 17% of the debris had been cleared, 7,200 people were still living in FEMA trailers and relying on federal aid, and to replace the 14,000 homes that were destroyed in Paradise, all of eight building permits had been issued.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
We're not saying "Work harder, you lazy disaster relievers!" as we struggle to reach the nearest Doritos bag without having to sit up. The message here is "Holy hell does the average person massively underestimate the amount of time it takes to recover from a disaster." You can instantly throw billions of dollars at a problem, but there's nothing you can do about the sheer time needed to clean and rebuild. And so the Camp Fire (seriously, what a terrible name) has become a case study for reexamining how the country handles disasters.
Disaster relief has long been reactive. The dildo factory flooded, so let's spend money to get all those dildos off the street and back into loving homes. But should you even rebuild in high-danger areas? And if you do, how much money should be spent to mitigate future disasters instead of thinking that you'll save money by playing the odds that it just won't happen again? Because that's a gamble you're increasingly likely to lose. Climate change means a dryer and more combustible country, with roughly double the number of acres burning between 1985 and 2015 than would have been expected otherwise. Because construction is sprawling further into the wilderness, and America's stalled out on the "Hold the powerful accountable for climate change" stage of the problem-solving flow chart, rebuilding Paradise might only be setting up another disaster in a decade or two.
One potential solution is to have the government purchase high-risk property and cultivate it as open green space, essentially creating a large natural firebreak. By spending millions today, billions of dollars (and hundreds or even thousands of lives) could be saved tomorrow. But in doing so, you also have to convince people to abandon what may be a lifelong home. Because that moral dilemma does not involve Batman, we aren't qualified to answer it, but we will point out that the rebuilding efforts have been challenging. The need to relocate 20,000 people created an initial housing crunch, and now there's a mental health services shortage. People are understandably struggling to deal with the long-term consequences of seeing their lives burn down, and there simply aren't enough specialists available to help everyone. It turns out that people continue to exist even after they've left the headlines.
Zika is one of those diseases that we were all terrified was going to kill us horribly right up until it abruptly vanished from our thoughts. Surely, some smart people must have eradicated it or developed a vaccine or whatever so we could all move on to the important task of worrying about being killed horribly by Ebola. But like a terrible movie villain who springs back to life after the credits, 2018 saw 20,000 Zika cases reported in Brazil. That's better than the 200,000 reported during the peak of the outbreak, but we still have at least a few terrible sequels to deal with.
Ironically, the biggest problem in combating Zika today is getting people to pay attention. Potential victims and their doctors don't know what symptoms to look for (many cases are mild and easily survived, yet important to spot for statistical purposes), uniting multiple governments (and their funding) to combat a disease that's not headline-worthy anymore is difficult, and there's also a concern that Zika is now stigmatized as a disease suffered by overcrowded poor people.
And so there's a lot about Zika that we still don't know, like whether a victim remains infected for life, or how effective current vaccines are. In some countries, researchers aren't even certain whether Zika is currently present, and a lack of will to answer these questions means there could be a problem the next time there's a major outbreak. And no, that doesn't mean the United States is going to be swept up in an imminent super plague, but the same developing countries that people were warned about travelling to in 2016 could struggle in the future (like Angola did in their 2018 outbreak), and it would be nice if the response wasn't "Just avoid the sick poors until there's a new story" again.
In the meantime, the children born to Zika-infected mothers are growing older, and of 3,000 born in Brazil, it's estimated that "hundreds" will need lifelong care because of severe brain damage, the details of which are far too sad to get into here. Some may improve with therapy, but it will take time to tell, and it will also take money that doctors fear won't be there to help the country's poorest victims. So the headlines about panicked Westerners having to cancel their vacations were just a footnote in a story that continues to be much larger for the rest of the world.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire prompted both an outpouring of donations and an outpouring of whataboutism. But by June 2019, after all the "Shouldn't we be spending money on my pet cause?" arguing, only about 9% of the $955 million pledged to reconstruction efforts had actually shown up.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images
Small donations (in which America led the way) rolled in just fine, but the hundreds of millions promised by Kering (owners of Gucci), LVMH (owners of Louis Vuitton and Dior), L'Oreal, and others just ... never came. They benefited from flattering headlines, and they insist the money will eventually be sent once they figure out the contracts (and France's generous charity tax credits), but it was the small donations that got work done, while large donors were quibbling over what strings to attach. The French press believes that most of the pledges will eventually arrive, but some donors cancelled their offers after seeing how much had been committed. So instead of arguing what causes billionaires and giant corporations should be donating to, we should be paying attention to whether they even bother to follow through on their pledges.
Regardless, the rebuild is progressing. There's a five-year timeline for a complete reconstruction, but in June, the Church held its first mass since the fire. The requisite hardhats made the Archbishop look like a bizarre fighting game character, but it was still a symbolically important step. And to end on an upbeat note, it was also reported that the three beehives kept on the Cathedral's roof survived, meaning that roughly 180,000 bees were spared. Hey, weren't we recently reading that bees are endangered? Whatever happened to that?
For more, check out The 4 Stupidest Things The News Apparently Cares About - Does Not Compute:
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