Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane hype and the rule of threes

It's better to plan for a disaster that does not happen, than not plan for a disaster that does.

But  does that mean it's good for cable news channels to spend 24 hours a day talking up a level 1 hurricane as a monster killer storm that could wipe out major cities on the East Coast? 

No one wants to repeat the horrendous mistakes that turned Katrina into an historic mess.

And, if you're the owner of a house that got swept away, or the relative or spouse of a person who was killed or injured, then Irene was a killer monster storm.  However, it was nowhere near as nasty as the National Hurricane Center or the Weather Channel led viewers to believe.

Coverage splits into three phases: First, evacuate, prepare, stock supplies, board your windows, and make ready for a disaster. Television is good at that. The next phase is reporting was actually happened -- or in the case of Irene -- what did not happen. The third stage is either "Armageddon" or "We missed the bullet."

New York city was not inundated. Storm surges, created by low pressure and strong winds, were not as high as predicted. The number of storm deaths was relatively low (except if you are the lost one's brother, sister, or spouse, in which case Irene was as a bad as it could be).

Hundreds of thousands along the eastern seaboard lost electricity. In Connecticut alone, about 700,000 spent hours or days without electricity, which is no treat, to be sure. 

Could Morris Cove in New Haven been flooded? Absolutely. By tropical storm Irene? Not likely.

 But police driving around and using public address systems warning people to leave or face potential catastrophe was enough to convince my family to impose on a brother-in-law in East Hartford overnight.

His power went out. At our vacant home, electricity was off for about an hour and then restored. Trees did not topple on our street, although one cracked and fell on a lawn. 

So, it turned out we would have been fine if we'd ignored the unenforced "mandatory"

Other people along the coast were not as lucky. Beach houses were damaged and washed away. However, if you want to see major damage, Google the hurricanes of 1954 and 1955.

Which brings us to coverage phase three: Back-pedaling, or "We missed the bullet." WMB is a handy journalistic device because you get a story either way. Either a groan or a "Phew!"

What would have been helpful was a balanced, level-headed explanation of the storm. We know that hurricanes lose force in cooler northern waters. We know that hurricanes get tapped out when they travel over land. 

None of the news people or meteorologists seemed to wonder about what that might mean for Connecticut. New York City was the big story, and not much happened there. Phew.

The next time hurricane warnings are issued, will people  around here pay attention? Probably not as much as they should. That's the downside of the hype. 

I'm not a meteorologist, but I doubted that Irene's predicted level of  destruction was likely. If we have the misfortune of a category 4 or 5  hurricane heading straight for Connecticut I will expect major damage, regardless of what the televised people say. I will be getting away from Long Island Sound long before the police arrive.

Next time a hurricane approaches, how about a realistic discussion of the worst, best and most likely possibilities of damage. 

That's doable. 

 Fewer reporters standing in the rain, and more independent meteorologists in the studios.

No comments:

Post a Comment