Did We Overreact to Hurricane Irene?


At The Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz castigates local and national media for overhyping Hurricane Irene:

Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. […]

Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly—say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya—was to risk driving viewers elsewhere. Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines even as it became apparent that the storm wasn’t as powerful as advertised.

It’s useful to imagine the version of this column Earth-two Howard Kurtz wrote (assuming we lived in this alternate universe) after Irene picked up speed and moisture on Saturday, morphed into a Category 2 hurricane – with sustained winds of 100 miles per hour -- and struck New York City with a direct hit, killing hundreds of people who were unable to evacuate, and causing $27 billion in economic damage.

In this world, Howard Kurtz was outraged by the complacency of local and national news organizations, who stressed the rarity of serious hurricanes on the North Atlantic seaboard and downplayed the potential threat of Irene. “If only the media had met hurricane-force winds with hurricane-force warnings,” wrote Earth-Two Kurtz, “then we would have been spared lost lives and terrible damage.”

You get the point. Hurricanes are unpredictable creatures -- strong storms can diminish to the point of harmlessness, while seemingly weak ones can become dangerous in a matter of hours. Given the high chance that Irene could have been far worst than it was, local and national media were doing their job by covering hurricane developments and urging caution at every opportunity.

The same goes for government officials, and in particular, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Chrisie. It’s only because of luck that we can describe their evacuation orders and moves to prevent mass drownings as overreactions. Had the Northeast been hit with the force of a category 1 (or 2) hurricane, those precautions would have saved lives, and we would have been thankful for them.

As it stands, even with ample preparation, Hurricane Irene wasn’t without its toll: 24 deaths, 2.4 million people evacuated, 4 million people without electricity, and billions of dollars in damage. When someone says that we “overreacted,” remember: It could have been a lot worse.

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