Irene spares New York City, but was it all just hype?

As Irene barreled toward the US Eastern Seaboard on Saturday, residents braced themselves for what was billed as a potentially catastrophic event.

Numerous precautions had been taken. New York and Boston temporarily shut down their subway systems. East Coast-bound trains and plains had stopped running, and millions were asked to evacuate low-lying areas of New York City and New Jersey.

But by Sunday morning, Irene had passed over a good portion of the East Coast in a less dramatic fashion than anticipated. And as Irene was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm, some charged that the whole ordeal had been over-hyped by the newsmedia and by government officials.

Some of these allegations came from meteorologists who were playing a bit of one-upmanship with each other about who was the most accurate.

 Irene spares New York City, but was it all just hype?

Sixth Avenue near Radio City Music Hall is empty as tropical storm Irene hits in New York on Sunday. Mike Groll/AP

And some of the censure came from media critics like The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz who writes that the newsmedia fanned the flames of hysteria over what turned out to be just a really bad storm:

...[T]he 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 also argued that elected officials shamelessly fed the hype machine:

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. 

Judging from Twitter and Facebook, some residents of New York believed that they’d been suckered. By Sunday morning, some were poo-poohing the intensity of the storm, and nonchalantly discussing brunch plans. Others posted video clips of Public Enemy’s “Don’t believe the hype.”

Singer-songwriter Brad Walsh seemed to capture the mood in New York when he tweeted “Like many young women before her, Irene came to NYC hoping to be as big as she was back in Carolina, only to be ridiculed by the locals.”

Better sorry than safe?

It's a relief that most people have came out of the storm safely, and that many New Yorkers didn’t even have to interrupt their brunch plans.

But I’d venture that the storm didn’t feel over-hyped for the 18 people who, as of Sunday afternoon, had died in Irene-related accidents, or the 60-plus people who had to be rescued from flooded areas of Queens. Meanwhile, there have been reports of significant flooding in upstate New York and Vermont, and millions remain without power along the East Coast. It’s also projected that Irene will cause $3 billion in damage to public and private property.

Rather than hype, it might just be the height of myopia to claim that a potentially catastrophic natural disaster was “hyped” just because most of New York City came out relatively unscathed. Or, as blogger named Chunklet summarised on Twitter, “Only New Yorkers would be insulted that Mother Nature didn't destroy their homes and instead kept them shut in for a night.”

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An educated guess

Behind all of the grumbling over Irene hype, of course, is the fact that scientists and meteorologists are terrible at predicting hurricanes. MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel recently told the radio program "Living on Earth" that the "whole business of forecasting change in the intensity of hurricanes is not very well developed and we don’t have very much skill at all in forecasting intensity change, by which I mean that a rational person’s guess of what the intensity will do, on average, is about as good as a professional forecaster. There’s a little bit of skill in the seasonal prediction but not very much. In other words, it’s not a whole lot better than an educated guess.”

So when it looked like a slow-moving, 400-mile-wide storm was headed toward the Eastern Seaboard, local, state, and federal governments sprang into action and insisted that the public prepare themselves, especially with the fallout of Hurricane Katrina—where 2,000 lives were lost and decimated communities are still being rebuilt—fresh in their minds.

“We were unwilling to risk the life of a single New Yorker," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the Guardian in defending his decision to stop public transportation and evacuate some residents. "The bottom line is that I would make the same decisions again, without hesitation. We can't just, when a hurricane is coming, get out of the way and hope for the best."

Even as the intensity of Irene faded, federal officials continued to encourage the public to exercise caution. "We have a ways to go, but I think it is safe to say that the worst of the storm, at least up to and including New York and New Jersey, has passed," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "Our No. 1 message for individuals and families up and down the Eastern Seaboard this morning is that we're not out of the woods yet."

Gullible and dubious

The problem with the lead-up to Irene in a place like New York City was that it’s a place where hurricanes don’t often happen. So residents were at once gullible and dubious.

But ask anyone who lives in a hurricane-prone area and they'll tell you that while hurricane warnings aren't cause for panic, they should prompt the public to take sensible precautions and avoid, say,  going kayaking—as two New Yorkers did—when the storm approaches.

Those who are familiar with hurricanes also know that they are unpredictable and ever-changing storm systems. So the news of a hurricane being downgraded to a tropical storm is typically met with relief, not outrage that the newsmedia “hyped” information about the storm.

Was some of the TV coverage of Irene ridiculous and overly dramatic? Certainly. (Gawker published a hilarious montage of some of the most ludicrous storm reporting.)

But some media pundits seem to believe that overloading the public with information about a potential natural disaster is "hype." These same pundits, it seems, would rather be sorry than safe.

Watch video: Irene impact

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2011 14:39:28 IST