There’s a lot of debate this day after the storm about whether the media and governments went overboard on Irene…as if we didn’t have a hurricane the size of Europe bearing down on 60 million inhabitants of the eastern seaboard.
Weather science has come a long way and no one can argue that the tracking of Irene was anything but amazingly precise. What the advance forecasts misjudged was the wind intensity of the storm. Some 72-96 hours ahead of the turn toward the U.S. mainland, forecasters thought they might have a category-4 storm on their hands. In reality, though still at hurricane strength when making landfall in New Jersey, Irene was “only” a category-1 and down to a strong tropical storm by the time it hit Coney Island in New York City.
Meteorologists fully understand that they overestimated the wind speed forecasts and will surely be reworking their models for future hurricanes. From the layman’s eye, what appears to be missing in the analysis is the effect on storms once they start getting broken up as they pass over land. That’s a tricky thing to try to project when a hurricane is hugging a coast-line and as this one, actually had three different landfalls; North Carolina, New Jersey and New York. It’s almost as if the wind-speed analysis of Irene’s potential discounted the energy it would lose as it made its way up the coast through the combination of cooler ocean waters and the land masses it went over.
New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie and the folks at the National Hurricane Center are certain that the overwhelming and, in some ways, unprecedented government response to Irene- saved lives. Little solace to the
24 37 people whose families are attending funerals today but only God knows what the total death toll might have been had there not been mandatory evacuations, transit system shutdowns and dire warnings from Presidents, Governors and Mayors.
Yes, the Weather Channel, Accu-Weather, and local and national media brought out all the bells and whistles, super-duper graphics packages, doubled-up staffs and dramatic language through the course of coverage. Of course there was some hype. For people in the weather and news businesses this was the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Academy awards rolled into one.
People like Daily Beast Washington Bureau Chief, Howard Kurtz, got all bent out of shape over the marketing and the splash. Kurtz was angered by the earthquake media coverage too. Surely by now, though, we’ve grown to accept that news coverage in the 24-hour, web and cable-driven news business is filled with hype and spin and marketing. Hopefully, we’re adult enough to take some of this with a grain of salt.
But you know what? A friggin’ 5.8 earthquake that rattles nerves from Georgia to Maine is a big deal and 3,000 people didn’t have to die to make it a newsworthy event in a part of the country where quakes are rare. A gigantic hurricane aimed at the most populous region of the nation is as newsworthy as newsworthy gets. Decry the surrounding hype and the breathless reporting as much as you want- it doesn’t change the fact that both these events really were big, major news.
I don’t understand the meme that’s been building in the right-wing world as exemplified by the Drudge Report which is usually the trend leader in conservative talking points. Drudge has spent the better part of the last 3 days complaining about the hype over Irene, downplaying its seriousness and went as far as to link to a web site that questioned the integrity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while claiming Irene was not really a hurricane and was making landfall with 33 mph winds, data that was disingenuously cherry-picked to the level of absurdity and demonstrably false.
But what motivates this cynicism? I suspect it comes down to the role of government. Disasters are one of those areas in which governments play key roles and exercise tremendous power. The bigger the disaster, the more people depend on government to warn them, take care of them and then fix whatever is broken in the aftermath. Downplaying the size of a coming disaster deemphasizes the role of government and opens the possibilities of claiming government overreaction and intrusion into our lives.
Grateful for the Overreaction
In the end, if Irene wasn’t all she was hyped to be, she still caused enormous damage and inconvenience, and in some cases, death. If all the media hype and governmental seriousness that was attached to Irene helped keep people alive- then good. I’ll take the hype and make fun of it when it’s silly. The worst of it for me was that I now have 48 containers of bottled water and a half-dozen cans of tuna fish I would not otherwise have purchased.
And God help us when the time comes that the media and government under-hype a potential disaster. That’s called getting caught off-guard and usually results in catastrophe. We should be grateful to have avoided that this week whether it was the ground trembling beneath our feet or less-then-expected winds rattling our windows.