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.)
President Obama declared a State of Emergency for New York State on Friday, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a historic shutdown of the city’s entire public transit system. What was more shocking when I finally got home was the fact that little of the coverage reported what was actually happening with the storm—probability charts, track, strength, etc. All of this is easily accessible on the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) website, so I went and looked. The 2pm NHC update for the killer “menace” that was “careening” and “slamming” up the East Coast: sometime on Friday—for a nebulous meteorological reason no one could explain—it started weakening.
This was nearly two days before the storm hit, yet news of the aberration in Irene’s strength never made it into the media—nor did the fact that the weakening eerily resembled the devolution of Hurricane Gloria, which also didn’t live up to forecasters’ predictions. The headlines across the nation Friday night: New York City to mandatorily evacuate 370,000, for the first time in history.
Let’s be clear here, the media has an ethical obligation to warn us in the event of a natural disaster. Reporting the truth of a dire situation is part of the job. Yet the line between truth and frenzy has grown thinner over the years—as an increased number media outlets compete for dwindling advertising dollars. The fact is, drama sells. The sad truth about the America’s news in the Digital Age: it is going insane.
It takes a few storms to make a perfect storm. For Irene, there were four.
1) New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—a man openly obsessed with image and legacy—was paranoid of repeating the botch job he did on Snowmageddon last winter.
2) Hurricane Katrina still looms large in the U.S., with local governments terrified of repeating Ray Nagin’s mistakes in New Orleans.
3) Hurricanes that don’t manifest make money—in sales of plywood, duct tape, food, water, batteries, and gasoline. Which is to say, that Obama’s declaration of a State of Emergency for half the East Coast (what about Pennsylvania?) may well have marked the beginning of his second stimulus package.
4) Lastly, which comes from my aunt Virginia who’s house I was in: “In a time of war and unrest, people just want to come together around something.”
Patrick Michaels, in a piece for Forbes.com titled Get Real: Hurricane Irene Should Be Renamed “Hurricane Hype,” was one of the first to call out the media and local governments on Saturday:
Up until now (Friday evening) Irene has been very similar to 1985 hurricane Gloria, though a bit weaker. But the level of hype—because of its projected path near all of the I-95 major cities—is similar to that of 26 years ago.
When Gloria didn’t kill enough people to suit CBS’s Dan Rather—a serial hurricane hyper who made his career on 1961 Hurricane Carla—he yelled at poor [NHC Director] Neil Frank on live TV.
What had happened is that the night before landfall, Gloria took a sudden 40-mile jog to the east. The cyclone slid harmlessly east of the big cities, showing her weaker western side instead of the destructive northeast corner.
Irene has put on a remarkably similar show. Within the limits of forecasting error, Irene’s projected path makes it was impossible to rule out a major disaster. But, as a dangerous Category 3 storm within two days of land, something similar to what happened to Gloria occurred. Instead of going slightly off course, the power of her winds dropped markedly, at least as measured by hurricane hunter aircraft. Because it is prudent to not respond to every little tropical cyclone twitch (such as Gloria’s jog or Thursday’s wind drop), the Thursday evening forecast was virtually unchanged, the Internet went thermonuclear, and the Weather Channel’s advertising rates skyrocketed. From that point on, it became all Irene, all the time. With this level of noise, the political process has to respond with full mobilization. Hype begets hype.
The problem with predicting the storm of the century is that when it doesn’t manifest you are left with millions of readers and viewers looking for…signs of the storm of century. And if you don’t provide them, people will turn the channel or click the mouse to find an outlet that does. So to satisfy audiences and keep ratings up, local and national news channels marched cub reporters and camera crews to the most dangerous hurricane-y looking breakwaters and seawalls they could find. Dressed in colorful ponchos and leaning into the wind and rain, they reported on “feeder bands” and “inner eyewalls” of what was quickly becoming a non-hurricane.
The reports ranged from exaggeration to straight-up misinformation. Few outlets reported the weakening trend, or the fact that Friday and Saturday morning’s projections put the chance of hurricane-strength winds in New York City at just 10%. Almost every time a local NBC 4 or Fox 5 television reporter commented on the “desolation” or “barren” atmosphere in an evacuated area like Battery Park or the Rockaways, a jogger or group of partiers would amble through the camera’s field—and the reporter would scramble to explain why they were there. The most entertaining being Weather Channel reporter Eric Fisher, who was mooned in the middle of his report.
As the storm was downgraded from Category 3 to 2 to 1, reporters changed tack and said that ratings were irrelevant. On Friday night, The New York Times reported Irene’s top winds were 90 mph when the NHC was reporting 85 mph. “Tropical storm” doesn’t have the same punch that “hurricane” does, and reporters started using the term “near-hurricane” winds instead. (After saying that 80-percent of public housing in mandatory evacuation zones had been cleared, Bloomberg meekly admitted that only 1,400 people had checked into the city’s vast hurricane shelters.)
As predicted, the storm slowed further over land and even further over colder water. Irene’s top winds were 75 mph as it approached New York City, 1mph away from being downgraded to tropical a tropical storm. (It’s hard to imagine the NHC’s “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft wouldn’t round up this number.) The new headline in the Times: “As Hurricane Hits, Fears of Storm Surge” (wordplay noted), with a side article on Bloomberg’s possible motivations for over-preparing for this storm.
Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast:
Not everyone was willing to accept this turn of events. When the Weather Channel’s Brian Norcross told MSNBC that forecasters had been expecting the first hurricane to make landfall in New York City since 1893—“and it didn’t happen”—anchor Alex Witt was openly skeptical.
“Really, Brian?” she asked. Hadn’t Irene technically still been a hurricane when it came ashore in New York an hour earlier? “Can’t we still go with that?”
No, Norcross said.
At one point or another almost every major news channel sent a reporter to New Jersey’s Long Beach to cover the destruction Irene was wreaking. Al Roker actually tied himself to a bench on the seawall on NBC’s Today Show Sunday morning to…well…no one really knew what he was doing. A statistic he neglected to tell the public: Long Beach is a barrier island three feet above sea level that has a history of flooding.
At 8pm the night before, Fox 5 reporter Tucker Barnes got the scoop of the night from the Ocean City, Maryland, boardwalk—when he found a sheet of sea foam spraying over a 50-foot section of the seawall. “What is that?!” the anchor exclaimed. “Feathers?!” Barnes replied, “It tastes bad!” MyFoxNY later reported that the green “sea foam” drenching Barnes was, “Probably the remnants of raw sewage,” adding, “The foam is often a toxic mix of pollution and cyanobacteria.”
Local officials got caught up in the fray too. Cops surged through Hampton Bays and much of Long Island, forcing people to evacuate and closing roads. Firemen in Quogue, one town away from where I rode out the storm, reportedly forced people who wouldn’t leave their homes to write their social security numbers on their arms. The scene smacked of Katrina, and in an interview with NHC Director, Bill Read, NPR’s Robert Siegel asked for a comparison of the two cyclones. Read’s reply: Besides their diameter, nothing.
One of the stranger side effects of storm coverage is the sudden and total cooperation between the often contentious media and state government. Bloomberg and New Jersey mayor Chris Christie were held up as heroes and nonstop workers, breaking their backs around the clock to keep the coast safe. For the first time in history, it seemed, the two parties objects were in alignment. Which, seeing as they were feeding off one another and calling for the end of the world as we know it, Kurtz wrote, was exactly what happened:
The symbiotic relationship between television and local officials played a huge role. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who was all over television on Sunday morning, had drawn saturation coverage with his blunt warnings to “get the hell off the beach.” New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who ordered evacuations of low-lying areas, has been a constant presence. President Obama and FEMA officials made sure to generate their share of news as well.
These officials have a responsibility to plan for worst-case scenarios, of course, but something more blatantly political is at work. Mayors and governors need to be seen as on top of the crisis, which means being visible on the tube. No one wants to be the next Ray Nagin or Heckuva Job Brownie, looking disorganized after Katrina. A badly handled snowstorm has contributed to more than one mayor’s defeat.
The blizzard of press conferences, in turn, enable the networks to keep their "Breaking News" banners up and furnished a sense of drama for a story that otherwise consisted of reporters on streets where the hurricane was expected to strike and weather experts with their maps in climate-controlled studios.
Again, the point here is not that the news should have downplayed Irene. It was a big storm. It was very dangerous. Reporters simply should have been accurate early on and covered Irene’s most unique and dangerous characteristic—the massive rain bands extending 300 miles out from the eye. It was the rain that caused the most damage and loss of life in the end. Any reporter who'd caught that story, and predicted what it might mean for New England, would be off the boardwalk beat forever and headed for the anchor chair.
As everyone sobers up from the weekend and tries to figure out what just happened, most are resorting to axiom, better safe than sorry. What they are forgetting is the fact that news and government agencies either coerced or forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes, onto the roads, into danger, into hardware stores and generally out of their minds with an inaccurate portrayal of a giant storm. On Monday, the Times even had the gall to place the blame on “experts,” saying they misjudged the strength of the hurricane.
What reporters are not talking about this morning is the slow and steady manipulation and magnification of numbers and forecasts that led to the frenzy. And the most dangerous aspect of the charade, that Michaels cites in his piece:
As I complete this, there’s another tropical depression out in the Atlantic, and a couple more on the way in the very near future. Suppose one of these takes a similar path, except that it improbably threads the needle of the Mid-Atlantic Bight and makes landfall immediately to the west of New York City as a Category 3 storm. How many people will the hyping of Irene have killed?
And that is the story of the Hurricane…