Was Irene Overhyped?

Now that the storm has passed, the media is being accused of over-hyping Hurricane Irene.

Within hours after Hurricane Irene had blown past the New York/New Jersey area, people were already starting to make light of a weekend’s worth of media coverage, both nationwide and locally in effected areas, that some say overhyped the story. Howard Kurtz leads the way this morning in his Daily Beast column:

Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations, going wall to wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest possible ranking. “Cable news is scaring the crap out of me, and I WORK in cable news,” Bloomberg correspondent Lizzie O’Leary tweeted.

I say this with all due respect to the millions who were left without power, to those communities facing flooding problems, and of course to the families of the 11 people (at last count) who lost their lives in storm-related accidents.

And I take nothing away from the journalists who worked around the clock, many braving the elements, to cover a hurricane that was sweeping its way from North Carolina to New England.

But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings. 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.

Kurtz goes on to note that the fact that the storm was baring down on the media capital of the world was likely one of the major reasons that it received the attention it did, and that a similar storm headed for, say, Pensacola would not have gotten the same amount of attention. Of course, there area  few points worth mentioning there. Pensacola and the Gulf Coast are used to hurricanes. When residents there hear that a storm is coming, they know what to do. More importantly, the buildings in a place like Florida are built to withstand a Category 1 or 2 hurricane and are surrounded by trees that can withstand strong winds. The same isn’t necessarily true of the Northeast. Places like New Jersey and New York rarely see the full force of a hurricane. The last time in my memory that such a storm came anywhere close to that area was Gloria in 1985, which cut across the center of Long Island, causing major damage and knocking out power for many residents for weeks thanks to all of the fallen trees and power lines. Put simply, a hurricane in the Northeast, is not the same thing as a hurricane in the south.

Kurtz’s hindsight doesn’t take into account one important thing, the fact the people in the path of the storm may have actually appreciated the coverage. If The Weather Channel’s ratings spike for the weekend are any indication, this certainly seems to be the case. If the storm was being “overhyped” then why were people watching?

More important to note, though, is the fact that Irene’s weakening as it approached the Mid-Atlantic didn’t become apparent until very late in the day on Saturday. By that point, most of the emergency notices, evacuations, and warnings (such as Chris Christie’s comment that surfers in Asbury Park should “Get the hell of the beach”) had already been made. It would have been both impractical and stupid for political leaders and emergency services to wait until that point to decide whether or not Irene was a real threat. This was a storm on track for one of the most heavily populated areas in the United States; waiting until the last minute to warn them would have been Katrina-sized idiocy. For that reason, I’m somewhat reluctant to criticize the pre-storm coverage of Irene. Yes, in restrospect it looks like it was much ado about nothing, but we had no way of knowing that 48 or 72 hours ago, and that’s when the people living on the coast needed to make decisions, and when public officials needed to do things like decide to shut down the New York subway system in order to protect the equipment from possible flooding.

Things did get pretty ridiculous once the storm passed, however. All three cable networks had brought in their big guns for the weekend and, with Irene long gone and fortunately little damage left in her path, they needed to find something to do with them. So, we got much of the coverage that Kurtz bemoans and very little of what actually was happening, such as the massive flooding hitting Central New York and Vermont in the wake of the storm.

There was plenty of stupid about the way the media covered Irene. The obligatory scenes of reporters standing on the beach as the surf pounded are the summer version of the “reporter in the middle of a blizzard” shots that we’ll see about five months from now, and they’re just as utterly pointless. However, as far as warning people of the danger of what was still one of the strongest tropical storms to hit the northeast in generations, it strikes me that Katrina has taught us to err on the side of too much information rather than too little.

FILED UNDER: Media, Natural Disasters
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Rob in CT says:

    Well, I missed all that silliness after the storm, because I’ve got no power. We lost it at 11:20am yesterday. The office has power (obviously), but still nothing at home and likely nothing for a while. CL&P is saying this is the worst they’ve ever seen, and I don’t exactly live in an important area. There is upside to the boonies, and there is downside.

  2. john personna says:

    Two things, first Joe Scarborough had a good point that “hey, this is what you do with hurricanes, you take them seriously every time, because you never know.”

    The second point is that this meme is dead, the flooding now being reported nullifies it.

    (I do try to remind myself that just because we have fast news, it doesn’t mean we have fast and complete news. Sometimes the full story emerges at less than internet speed. That’s what’s happening here with the full damage reports.)

  3. just me says:

    I don’t know about overhyped-in the sense that Irene was dangerous and deadly and the flooding here isn’t done yet and is pretty bad in some areas with dams breached and the like.

    Overhyped in the sense of reporters standing around with bated breath to report on the disaster like vultures flying around carrion, then it was overhyped. I think reporters almost see to be hoping for the absolute worst result possible so they have something exciting and interesting to report on.

  4. john personna says:

    @just me:

    Overhyped in the sense of reporters standing around with bated breath to report on the disaster like vultures flying around carrion, then it was overhyped. I think reporters almost see to be hoping for the absolute worst result possible so they have something exciting and interesting to report on.

    Shrug. Local TV breaks out the “big storm playbook.” Never ascribe to malice what might be mere laziness.

  5. Jay Tea says:

    I live in New Hampshire, right on the Vermont border, and we got some hefty flooding. Not as bad as in Vermont, but significant enough to mention.

    J.

  6. john personna says:

    (I’m also pretty sure local TV management must have fun deciding who to send out in the slicker and safety glasses.)

  7. Moosebreath says:

    Was Irene overhyped? Not by comparison to any of dozens of stories that the media fixates upon. It’s what they do, and at least Irene was a signifcant threat (as opposed to the Caylee Anthony murder trial, for instance).

  8. JKB says:

    Overhyped by the media, yes and they missed the real story. Which as some have pointed out is the massive flooding inland due to the tropical rains. The Gulf Coast is used to getting 3″ of rain in an hour, and is set up to drain it off rapidly, not so much in the northern latitudes.

    One thing I was concerned about even as the surface winds declined to a bare Cat 1 was the repeated observation in the forecast discussions that the vertical gradient for the winds was severe and just 30 stories up the winds could be 10% higher and 100 stories up, much more. That is a bit of a unique threat to NYC. We may still hear reports of such damage. And, of course, this declining storm did overtop the sea wall so just a bit more energy and storm surge flooding could have been significant.

  9. Trent says:

    Aren’t we smart enough to know that this is how our media works?

    The other end of the spectrum is to ignore the media, stick your wet finger in the wind and make your own assessment of how bad it’s going to be, then take your chances. Either way, don’t whine about the repercussions (or rejoice in the lack thereof).

    Or take the media with a grain of salt but err on the side of being safe. How hard was it to filter an extra gallon of water, locate the flashlights and candles and and fill two buckets of water in the bathtub. Tune into the news once every couple of hours to get an update and then go about your business.

    Do I complain that the news was 24/7 about this event, no. It made it convenient to know it would be there when I tuned in every couple of hours. Do I laugh at the newscasters standing in the rain? No, they have a job to do and do it as they feel is the best way to convey their message. I don’t appreciate people who are not in my profession, judging the way I do my job. Why should I not follow the golden rule? The information is free (well relatively) and we should always value information and advice based on what we paid for it.

    Therefore it is I who appreciate your spending your time to read my comment as opposed to many of the posters in the internet comment world who feel it is the reader who should feel blessed and lucky that they shared their opinion with you today. Couldn’t the world use a little more “comment sense” these days?

  10. John Burgess says:

    ‘Over-hyped’ is a word that comes out mostly in retrospect, when the worst-predicted didn’t happen. You don’t hear people who had their homes or businesses washed away using the term.

  11. jukeboxgrad says:

    doug:

    a hurricane in the Northeast, is not the same thing as a hurricane in the south.

    You mentioned some good reasons why, but I think you’re missing the most important reason why: population density. See here:

    The County of New York [i.e., Manhattan] is the most densely populated county in the United States, and one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with a 2008 population of 1,634,795[2] living in a land area of 22.96 square miles (59.47 km²), or 71,201 residents per square mile (27,485/km²).

    The population density of Manhattan is six times greater than, say, Miami. The ratio is 17:1 when comparing Manhattan to the city of Atlanta. This density is a major reason that Manhattan is an attractive target for terrorists, and it’s a major reason to have a heightened concern about a natural disaster.

    This is why I think Kurtz’s comparison with Ft. Lauderdale is quite silly. Whether you look at population or density, there’s just no comparison. Manhattan has 10 times the population of Ft. Lauderdale.

    The areas around Manhattan also have very high population density, but the density is most extreme in Manhattan, so that target alone is enough to explain the heightened concern.

  12. Anonne says:

    Overhyped? Only in the sense that you have journalists standing out in the rain to show it to you. But no, it had to be taken seriously. The people who lost homes and businesses, and the 2500 folks in Cape Hatteras who are trapped on their island because the highway was destroyed and can only get out by ferry or by air (they needed to take it more seriously) probably don’t think it was overhyped. The wind damage may not have been as great as expected, but the flooding is worse than expected. Hurricanes need to be taken seriously every time. Even a category 1 storm can uproot trees and cause a lot of damage.

    And as a note, the last time I remember a big storm heading up the East Coast, it was Floyd, about 10 or so years ago, wreaking havoc from Florida to Maine and Nova Scotia.

  13. Wayne says:

    A crisis is always bigger when it hits you. I don’t recall the wall to wall coverage of the Mississippi valley flooding. When power goes out in rural states, it gets a fraction if any coverage as compared to when it happens to NY or California. Most people understand it is the way things are. No big deal but it still gives some a chuckle when what happens to us happens to others and they get shrill about it.

  14. mantis says:

    When power goes out in rural states, it gets a fraction if any coverage as compared to when it happens to NY or California.

    For three reasons. Those areas have far more people, these kinds of events tend to cost much more money in those areas, and national media types are typically located in NY, LA, or DC.

  15. Daniel Dressler says:

    @Trent:

    It’s a lesson in Media Hype and should be an embarrassment to the liberal media, lol. The fact that the hype question has come up speaks for itself. What a sham for general news reporting, its a work in fiction !! I was cracking up listening to Obama! Question: Had his administration already reserved the air time and then when it was downgraded to a tropical storm he just had to pretend like it was a national disaster? I mean , I voted for this guy, but he came off as an idiot, lol — too funny

  16. Wayne says:

    @Manits
    As I said a crisis is always bigger when it hits you. Thus to the media a crisis that hit them is bigger crisis compare to a similar one that hits somewhere else.

    What is considered the Southern States contain a third of the U.S. population. The Mississippi Valley contains a significant population. Regardless it is the same to a person whose home area is flooded whether he is one in 10 thousand or one in a million.

    There nothing wrong with pointing out how someone handles it. Yes there were many shrill media types but you have some of the common man handling it very differently. I saw some rafting down Main Street or out surfing. Of course many were slamming them for doing so. Turn around is fair play.

  17. Noneya Bees says:

    I think it was a little overhyped, but I also think that the reports saved lives. We can not predict mother nature and what is going to happen, otherwise we would get it right 100% of the time. I think people should be thankful that we lived to see another day and can start rebuilding and repairing. Those of you that are not appreciative of the efforts made by the meteorologists and others that potentially put their lives at risk to bring live coverage, should stay at home and ride out the storm next time. Hopefully, you won’t need emergency or non emergency assistance from the very people who tried to save you from this disaster in your city. I am thankful for the weather being reported and that I am able to get to a safer location with time to get as far away from the bad weather as possible.