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No-Win Politics of Natural Disasters

One hesitates to make light of a natural disaster that has thus far killed 10 people, left more than a million without power and phone service, and has yet to play out. Yet, it’s fair to say that Hurricane Irene has been much, much less severe than heralded. The evacuations in New York and New Jersey, in particular, look silly given that it looks to be not much more than a late summer thunderstorm.

We can make fun of the Weather Channel, which has pimped this as “the storm of a lifetime for many of you” when there have been perhaps a dozen worse storms in the last twenty years. And the coverage on both CNN and Fox News yesterday became unbearable after a few minutes. We don’t need live coverage of idiot “reporters” standing around outside waiting for a hurricane to hit; we need facts about where the storm is, where it’s likely to go, and what the most recent projections are. Natural disaster porn is apparently riveting television for some, even if the incentives point to hype rather than sober reporting.

There’s simply no winning for politicians.

President Obama acquitted himself nicely, keeping it low key but cutting his vacation short and hanging out at the National Response Coordination Center to appear in charge. He learned the lessons of Katrina quite well and did his damnedest to appear to be in command and concerned. There wasn’t a hell of a lot he could do, of course, but looking concerned while not projecting panic goes a long way.

Governors and mayors have to make decisions about evacuation in time to actually affect an evacuation safely. The safe course is to take the worst projections, add 50 percent, and act accordingly. Nine times out of ten, though, people will be pissed that they were forced to evacuate unnecessarily. The other time, though, countless lives will be saved.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m relieved that Irene didn’t live up to its advance billing.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Oh, no doubt. But we’re then left with the Boy Who Cried Wolf phenomenon, in which evacuation orders get taken less seriously–until after the next Katrina. It’s just no-win.

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  3. Xrlq says:

    I disagree that it’s a no-win. No politician will pay any political price for having taken Irene too seriously. People may be a little annoyed now, but everyone will catch their breath long before the next election. And unless the next impending Katrina slash Irene comes in a matter of weeks, everyone will have had time to put things in perspective and understand the next round of warnings that say “Hey, this MAY be just another Irene, but it may be another Katrina, and by the time we know it’s going to too late to get out, so get out now.”

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  4. PD Shaw says:

    The safe course is to take the worst projections, add 50 percent, and act accordingly. Nine times out of ten, though, people will be pissed that they were forced to evacuate unnecessarily

    No, nine times out of ten, the people will crack the code and ignore government histrionics. I stayed in New Orleans for Hurricane Andrew, like 90% of people ordered to evacuate. What authorities worked on after that was how to educate the public, not propagandize them.

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  5. john personna says:

    10 deaths are sad, but I wonder if it is below the good-weather number.

    (I’ve been told for instance that bright sunny days have the highest driving fatalities, as everyone drives fast and pays less attention.)

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: That’s an interesting question that I don’t know the answer to. Which “weather-related” deaths would have occurred, anyway? And, more importantly, how many people who would otherwise have been killed were saved by virtue of staying off the roads and otherwise heeding precautions?

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  7. Herb says:

    Great point about the idiot reporters. The news channels seem to think we want to see these poor saps squinting into the camera through a blur of rain. Where ever did they get that impression?

    Bloomberg over-reacted though. Better safe than sorry, but he shut NYC down. Good thing it’s the weekend…

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  8. john personna says:

    @Herb:

    Great point about the idiot reporters. The news channels seem to think we want to see these poor saps squinting into the camera through a blur of rain. Where ever did they get that impression?

    Sometimes it is funny. Last night I saw a guy in a yellow slicker and safety glasses who looked pretty pissed to be there.

    Has it become a conventional art-form?

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    Wait. . . Joyner is still alive?

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  10. Muffler says:

    It’s easy to be an armchair critic. Irene could have gone in several ways depending on factors that cannot be controlled. The response by the government today appears to be heavier than necessary, but under other possible scenarios it could have been accurate. So people who want perfection of prediction with action are living in a fantasy world. All and all the number of deaths seems low compared to the average for any major hurricane. I think the level of communication and guidance helped to keep people informed and safe.

    So the east coast will be back at work tomorrow and not evacuating to Texas.

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  11. Comanche Voter says:

    Best TV of the whole deal was watching Fox News run an old clip of Geraldo Rivera covering a hurricane in Galveston–and getting knocked on his ass biy a wave.

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  12. Yeah, although I imagine that if the local authorities would have messed it up and 100 people would have died, it would have been a huge scandal that would have had the liberal media making movies! (sarcasm)

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  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @Muffler: They did exactly what they should have done – plan for the worse and hope for the best. We got something in between.

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  14. rodney dill says:

    Wait. . . Joyner is still alive?

    I hope Irene didn’t hit him too hard. I have a daughter that lives in the same general part of the country he does.

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  15. MM says:

    @A Conservative Teacher: The important thing is that you managed to feel victimized regardless.

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