Sometimes I Take a Great Notion to Jump in the River and Drown

Hurricane Irene had barely cleared New York City yesterday when the chattering classes burst forth, proclaiming loudly that we’d all been worried for nothing. The storm was overhyped. Why, there was hardly any damage to the Big Apple! This proved that the media’s concern at a severe storm that affected the entire Eastern Seaboard was completely misplaced.

Howard Kurtz led the way, complaining that the media coverage of the storm was “A Hurricane of Hype.”

It was raining in Manhattan on Sunday morning, and the dogged correspondents in their brightly colored windbreakers were getting wet.

But the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize. And at 9 a.m., you could almost hear the air come out of the media’s hot-air balloon of constant coverage when Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm.


The symbiotic relationship between television and local officials played a huge role. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who was all over television on Sunday morning, had drawn saturation coverage with his blunt warnings to “get the hell off the beach.” New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who ordered evacuations of low-lying areas, has been a constant presence. President Obama and FEMA officials made sure to generate their share of news as well.

Yep. The whole thing was just media hype. Why, New York City was still standing! This was hardly worth our time and concern.

And while it’s fun to bash Kurtz, he was hardly alone. Olbermann sidekick David Shuster tweeted approvingly about an article in the Telegraph, which called the storm “A Perfect Storm of Hype,” and lambasted people for being concerned:

Across the screen, the “Breaking News: Irene Batters Long Island” caption was replaced by stern advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “Stay inside, stay safe.”

The images summed up Hurricane Irene – the media and the United States federal government trying to live up to their own doom-laden warnings and predictions while a sizeable number of ordinary Americans just carried on as normal and even made gentle fun of all the fuss.

There was almost palpable disappointment among the TV big guns rolled out for the occasion when Irene was downgraded to a mere ‘tropical storm”. In New York city, CNN’s silver-haired Anderson Cooper, more usually seen in a tight t-shirt in a famine or war zone, was clad in what one wag dubbed “disaster casual”.

He looked crestfallen and fell briefly silent when a weatherwoman told him that the rain was not going to get any worse. “Wow, because this isn’t so bad,” he said. “It’s an annoying rain but it isn’t even a sideways rain.”

Now, it’s true, the storm did not particularly batter New York City. And I think anyone with an ounce of compassion and decency would view that as an overwhelmingly good thing. A major hurricane battering the largest city in America would be a bad thing.

But declaring immediately as Irene passed that it had done no damage, that it had been of no consequence, seemed rather haughty. After all, Irene had not merely struck New York City. It affected states as far south as North Carolina, and as far north as the Canadian border (not to mention Canada itself). And declaring this while rain was still falling on New York City seemed especially egregious; as those of us whose memories stretched back five years and 364 days could remember, the worst damage to come from a hurricane doesn’t always present itself immediately.

Well, the day after Irene passed through New York City, it’s turned out thatthe worst damage from Irene didn’t present itself immediately, and didn’t present itself through wind. It presented through torrential downpours that led to flooding, which has affected states from North Carolina to New Jersey to Vermont to — yes — New York. The devastation is truly horrific, and it will be months if not years before things are able to be put back to normal. Damage estimates range from $10 billion to $40 billion, which would put Irene anywhere from third- to twelfth-costliest Atlantic hurricane of all time. Five million people are still without power, and it’s killed at least 32 people so far.

And it would have been many, many more, but people were given adequate warning that a serious storm was coming — and people heeded that warning.

Look, can the media go overboard? Sure — they do it all the time. But Irenewas a serious, dangerous storm, and it caused severe destruction up and down the East Coast. It killed more than two dozen people, and if we hadn’t gotten lucky, things could have been even worse. If ever there was a time for the media to go overboard, this was it. If you want to attack the media for its excesses, wait for them to report on something that actually doesn’t matter to people, like the Kardashian wedding, or Sarah Palin. The media and politicians were concerned about a storm that killed dozens and did billions of dollars in damage. That’s precisely what they should be concerned about.

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12 Responses to Sometimes I Take a Great Notion to Jump in the River and Drown

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    “Get the hell off the beach” is damn good advice when a tropical storm rolls in. Frolicing in the surf can quickly end up with someone being washed a mile or two off shore with no way to rescue them when you’re facing a storm surge and 50 or 70 MPH winds. Evacuating low-lying areas was an excellent idea as well. Anyone who thinks that these were bad things to do is a fool.

    As far as how the storm actually ended up, it was pretty obvious. I’ve lived through two hurricanes where the eye passed over my house when I was a kid in the ’60’s in southeastern Massachusetts. Hurricanes’ wind speeds and energy die down fairly quickly as they pass over land, and they dump huge amounts of water. There was very little likelihood that once having passed over land (N.C. et. al.) the storm was going to hit NYC or Boston with hurricane force. And as they lose energy, all that water in the clouds gets dumped, and you get flooding. I once saw the foundation wall of a house newly built on the side of a hill collapse because of the force of the water running down it. Irene may not have had hurricane force winds once it hit north of N.C., but it carried a tremendous amount of water and that was bound to be devastating once it fell.

  2. 2
    Susan says:

    I’m just grateful it wasn’t any worse than it was, thinking about how bad it could have been.

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    True. It could have been much, much worse. I have a book about the Hurricane of ’38 (they hadn’t started naming them then) showing the damage that it caused in New England. The storm surge reached over 8 feet in Providence, Rhode Island and reconfigured Cape Cod. Much loss of life and property. This one could have been worse. If it had skipped around North Carolina and made its initial landfall in New York City you’d have seen a lot more damage.

  4. 4
    Kate says:

    Well, thank goodness NYC is still standing. Here inland in Maryland (fewer people, fewer cameras, fewer politicians: therefore nothing must have happened!) we’ve still got entire areas without power (intersections, schools, homes) as well as trees fallen across roads, onto cars, and into houses. If this is what a tropical storm gets us, I don’t want a stronger hurricane.

  5. 5
    Megalodon says:

    Sometimes I Take a Great Notion to Jump in the River and Drown

    …and every time I drive down the road I wanna jerk the wheel INTO A GODDAMNED BRIDGE ABUTMENT.

  6. 6
    Doug S. says:

    A section of my home town during the storm. I live on high ground, so all I had to deal with was a flooded basement…

  7. 7
    kellyk says:

    Yep, we’re not in NYC so it doesn’t count. Tons of flooding,people w/out power for days and days. I’m glad it wasn’t as bad as it could have been but I don’t think it was overhyped. If you expect a bit worse than you actually get, you tend to have more and better contingency planning. How exactly is that a bad thing?

  8. 8
    TrishB says:

    Thank you for this post! This morning, I sat in my cubicle in SW Ohio, and repeatedly watched a video of my old hometown history in upstate NY washing away. There’s an historic house/museum built in 1773 in Amsterdam, NY that will never be rebuilt. In a very sad way, that follows the history of the city.

    The video was shot just down from my mom’s elementary school, just up from mine, and in the youtube video, yeah, I probably know and or am related to half of the firepersons. But Wall Street might crash.

  9. 9
    Grace Annam says:

    I have not posted here in a few days, because up in my neck of the northeast, we emergency services types have been very busy. The storm went over us and washed out roads and threatened bridges, which we had to barricade (and we had the usual idiots going indignantly to the Chief because we wouldn’t let them across a structure which the Fire Department had declared unsafe, and the Chief telling them in his usual calm and polite way that we were right). We evacuated some homes which were threatened by flash flood. Then the rains stopped, and we had to go around telling everyone that the flooding was still coming anyway, and to prepare for evacuation. And then the flooding came, and we went around evacuating people who hadn’t prepared for the flooding, because after all, it wasn’t raining, and what do cops and firefighters know? And we stood by all night to keep people from trying to drive across roads which were five feet underwater. (“I just saw a car drive across!” “Sir, you did not see a car drive across. The water there is over five feet deep. How much have you had to drink?” “…Lots.” “Please step out of the car.”) And we watched dumpsters and propane tanks float by. And when the waters receded, they left behind half a foot of silt, which soon dried to a fine powder and coated anything that moved, and everything downwind of anything that moved.

    And we are continuing to direct traffic around road crews fixing wash-outs and examining cracked pavement to see if it’s hollow underneath.

    (Favorite motorist question today: I am standing by an open road clearly coned for through traffic. A driver stops the line of traffic to ask, “Can I get to [place a bit further on]?” What I wanted to reply: “No, sir, it’s closed. We’re just letting you drive through because we love to watch you turn around and drive back.”)

    (No, wait. That was second-favorite. First favorite: Driver drives into the coned-off area, past a big hole in the pavement with an excavator sitting next to it, and stops when I stand in front of him. He rolls down his window and asks, “What are you guys working on?” My actual answer: “See that big hole in the road, the one with the cones around it, the cones you just drove through? That’s what we’re working on.”)

    kellyk is right. Without our emergency planning (done by people who aren’t me, so I can’t take credit), we would have been in a much worse position, and might well have lost people. However, with our emergency planning, we had extra personnel on duty, and we stayed ahead of the emergency curve, and so what could have been a very bad emergency became merely a very expensive and annoying emergency.

    There are worse fates.

    My family, my friends, and I are all fine. So far all property damage involving people I’m close to also involves an insurance policy.

    But, yeah, all you pundits who declared Overhype the instant the eye was past your own personal extra-special unicorn self? I have some silt over here which needs shoveling. Here, you’ll want to wear this particulate mask, because Heaven only knows what got swept into that river.

    I’ll reply further on other threads as I have time, but it may be a bit.


  10. 10
    Elusis says:

    Grace – thanks for doing what you do.

  11. 11
    Grace Annam says:

    Grace – thanks for doing what you do.

    Elusis, you’re very welcome. Thank you for saying that. I’ve kept that post in my In Box for the last three months because every once in a while I stumble across it and I get to smile. That may seem ridiculously trivial, but sometimes every little bit helps.

    So thanks.


  12. 12
    Elusis says:

    I’m glad to have been of help. :)