The True Meaning of the Shutstorm

 /  Nov. 13, 2013, 7:30 a.m.

Chicago Statehouse

For the first half of October, the news in the United States was fairly easy to follow. At any given moment, a news channel was airing a video of a politician explaining the reasoning—some might say the madness—behind the government shutdown, warning of impending doom, or placing the blame on other members of Congress. Sure, this cycle was occasionally interrupted by updates of determined veterans visiting a closed memorial or the devastation surrounding the shutdown’s effect on the National Zoo's Panda Cam. But for the most part, the media’s message remained the same: The government is shutdown; the country is in danger; stay tuned for potential breaking news.

Two days into Washington’s self-imposed disaster, another part of the country was facing a real one. On October 3, an unseasonably early blizzard hit western South Dakota and proceeded to pound the state for two days. The premature storm inconvenienced many but the full devastation was felt by the ranching industry, one of the largest industries in South Dakota. Cattle, still grazing in their summer pastures as usual in October, had not yet built up their winter coats. As the freezing rain, snow, and 60 mph winds came, the cattle had nowhere to go and no defense against the storm. As the blizzard raged on, tens of thousands of cattle suffered from hypothermia, suffocated in snowdrifts, and froze to death.

Currently, conservative estimates put losses between ten and twenty thousand cattle, with that number expected to rise as the snow melts and ranchers begin to assess their herds. The loss of such an enormous number of cattle and calves has cost individual ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars and produced losses for South Dakota’s economy estimated near $100 million. The national economic impact of the devastation has yet to be calculated, as the government agencies responsible for such matters were partially or totally shutdown. However, the loss is expected to drive up beef prices throughout the country.

Due to the shutdown, assistance for ranchers has been hard to come by. The previous Farm Bill expired on September 30, leaving federal assistance programs for ranchers dismantled. Additionally, the shutdown closed the USDA Farm Service offices where ranchers file claims. In a time of crisis for her state, United States Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD) spoke on the floor of the House to advocate for federal assistance for South Dakota ranchers affected by the storm. However, Noem had a tough time selling additional governmental spending to her party. As a member of the group of House Republicans who refused to fund the government unless the Affordable Care Act was defunded or delayed, Noem herself has a history of voting against government spending. Just last November, Noem voted against federal assistance for residents of New York and New Jersey who suffered after Superstorm Sandy. Now, with the federal government reopen, Noem will try to secure assistance for suffering ranchers in her own state.

While the government shutdown left DC and the country in an incredibly unstable and disastrous state, the blizzard did much more harm to the state of South Dakota. However, from watching national media coverage, one would never know the extent to which the state suffered. South Dakota’s blizzard intersects with a whole host of other topics, from global warming to food prices to disaster relief. But for the nation to care about these topics, the national media must report them and pursue them. As governmental instability becomes the norm in the US, the media might want to reconsider its crisis obsession if there is any hope of focusing on other issues as they affect the American public.

Mara Heneghan


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