About Harvey, Irma, and Bottled Water

Hurricane Irma September 9, 2017
Hurricane Irma September 9, 2017. Credit: USA Today

I have lived in the Deep South most of my life, and I know first hand how when reports of impending bad weather start, people invade the grocery stores.  It was no surprise then that in late August and early September, the threat of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused widespread panic throughout the southern half of the United States. I have no idea why, but convention has always dictated that we buy eggs, milk and bread before a storm. Seriously.  For a long as I can remember, bad weather coming meant that we needed to go out and buy the ingredients for French toast.

The mood around this year’s grocery store run seemed different to me and it got me thinking.  This time, the number one commodity in Atlanta to ride out the storms did not seem to be eggs or milk or bread. Everyone was clamoring for bottled water.  A day prior to Irma’s projected arrival into Atlanta, I saw grocery store shelves totally emptied of all of their bottled water and I heard reports of people trying to resell single bottles for as much a $10 each.

Empty bottled water shelves before Irma.
Empty bottled water shelves before Irma.

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee and now living in Atlanta meant access to drinkable water has never been an issue for me.  So this run on bottled water seemed a bit peculiar – and as a digital marketer, I could not help but wonder why. Here are a three of my guesses about what caused this year’s water frenzy:

  1. Atlanta is a very diverse city and different people bring different experiences. There are a lot of people living in Atlanta now that lived in areas hit by Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016 and even Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Clean water was one of the biggest concerns in the aftermath of these storms, so all the doom and gloom being forecasted by news outlets may have triggered some of those fears.
  2. Doomsday prepping is more popular today than ever. “Preppers” are no longer just conspiracy theorists or religious zealots preaching the end of the world.  Preppers include scientists, politicians, and even reality show stars.  This wide-ranging mix puts prepper’s opinions in the mainstream – and preppers believe in hoarding water.
  3. Fear, like happiness, is highly contagious. Even small groups of people can create panic that can spread to larger populations. Take the anxiety of past hurricane victims, sprinkle in a bit of doomsday prophecy, and wrap it in salacious headlines meant to grab your attention – and you’ve got yourself a run on water.

As I was driving around Atlanta last week in my own quest for water, I thought a lot about the contagious nature of fear.  I became acutely aware that I had become obsessed with finding bottled water mostly because bottled water was so hard to find.  My brain knew that there was really no imminent danger from me not having my pantry stocked with bottled water; but my heart was in superhero mode.  I had to find bottled water for my family and me.  I was fueled by an almost manic desire to buy a trunk full of bottles that were in actuality going to take us two months to drink.

So, I guess the lesson here is sales can be driven by emotion.  Connecting diamonds to love, beer to nostalgia, or water to fear can be very strong motivators. I ended up finding bottled water at CVS. I bought 96 bottles and I felt an immediate sense of pride and accomplishment.  Its silly, I know – but its true.

The outer bands of Hurricane Irma uneventfully blew through for my family and me and in the days that followed, life has returned back to normal.  The only thing that’s left now is to finish drinking all this damn water.

The weather is nature’s disruptor of human plans and busybodies.
― Criss Jami