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.