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Hurricane Irene: Did Government And Media Hype The Fear?

Submitted by on August 31, 2011 – 9:07 am8 Comments

As we’ve noted already, Hurricane Irene (eventually Tropical Storm Irene) was nowhere near as bad as was feared, especially in New York City. With the worst never coming, people have started to ask: Was this all a product of media and government hysteria?

Howard Kurtz, the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, wrote a scathing critique of the media’s coverage, calling it “a tsunami of hype…driven in large measure by ratings.” He also accused politicians of caring more about their visibility than their accuracy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s unprecedented total shutdown of the transit system has drawn special attention.  Riders seem unsympathetic as the system booted back up on Monday, with one Manhattan resident (though probably not the only one) calling Bloomberg “the boy who cried wolf.”

So was Irene hyped for television ratings and approval polls? Probably. But only as much as anything else.

The threat was very real. Yes, the system was only a tropical storm by the time it made landfall in New York City, but there was no way of knowing that when it was a massive Category 3 hurricane barreling up the coast.

And don’t underestimate the importance of the words “made landfall in New York City.” Most storms get pulled out over Long Island instead, and even those have produced 100mph winds in Manhattan. The last hurricane to actually hit NYC was in the year 1893. To put things in perspective: in 1893, the city had 30% its current population, and the tallest building was one-fourth the height of the Empire State Building. The impact of a powerful storm on the city today would have a much greater potential for disaster.

A reporter even crunched the numbers about how often hurricanes were mentioned in the news while they were active, and Irene comes in at an unremarkable tenth among tropical cyclones since 1980. All things considered, the media didn’t go so crazy over Irene.

Finally, it’s important to remember that this was still a serious storm, leaving millions without power, many homeless, and taking the lives of 35 people and counting. North Carolina was hit with the full force of a Category 3 hurricane; and Vermont is seeing some of the worst flooding in its history, with similar situations all over New England and the mid-Atlantic. In light of homes being washed off their foundations and people being swept from their cars, a little over-preparation seems a small price to pay for our safety.

Billy and Erin Stinson of Nags Head, NC, sit where their home (a historic landmark) used to be.

Columbia, NC

Downton Brattleboro, Vermont

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