The storm of the century began as a half-inch blurb on the cover of last Friday’s The New York Times. The photo showed a lifeguard looking out to sea. A red flag flapped behind him, and behind that, were piles of cottony clouds with ominously dark underbellies. This was the beginning of Irene. Not the Irene that “barreled,” “blazed” and “marched along a path of destruction” up the I-95 corridor. But the media storm that both misinformed and scared the living hell out of anyone living within 800 miles of the Northeastern Seaboard.
Hurricanes don’t make landfall often along the heavily populated shores of the Northeast, but when they do they can be deadly. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 was rated a Category 4 when it hit Narragansett Bay on August 25, killing more than 46 people. The New England Hurricane of 1938 left more than 600 dead, with winds of up to 186 mph before instruments broke. Then came Hurricane Gloria in 1985, the last hurricane to hit the New York area, causing $900 million in damage and killing eight.
By Friday afternoon, every news outlet from CNN to The New York Times to NPR had characterized Irene as “the storm of the century,” “storm of a generation” and generally The End of All Good and Living Things on the East Coast of the United States. I was in a hardware store in Hampton Bays, Long Island, when I first saw the frenzy. The line was out the door. Customers cradled armfuls of batteries, gas cans, flashlights and duct tape. When the man in front of me in line paid $750 in cash for a generator, sight unseen, I realized the storm had already hit—on televisions, computer screens and newspapers around the country. (I was at the store to repair a surfboard I dinged that morning. Yes, the waves were great.)