Issues

The Storm of the Century That Wasn’t


By Alex Biles, University of Michigan

Early this morning, as the storm system known as Irene inched its way toward the Big Apple, I sat in my New York City apartment, my eyes Elmer-glued to the tube. At first, I was keen on discovering the extent of Irene’s dousing on the Carolinas, as well as projections of its intensity and trajectory. However, as the night wore on, fueled by the rhetoric of news anchors and meteorologists—primary at the cable network level—my preoccupation with the media spectacle became driven by an unexpected factor: humor.

Every television network and many of their sister cable channels replaced regularly scheduled programming with wall-to-wall coverage of “the storm of the century.” Before going to commercial, CNN would flash the gnarliest images of the storm they could find—typically a downed tree or two and in one hilarious case, a wave that was about ten feet high and that’s erring on the side of generosity. Even more comical were the depictions of people walking around, chatting away—and “butting-in“—behind proverbial statues of reporters, completely unaffected, as said hurricane was about to make impact.

For the hour between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., I watched as a CNN anchor tried to link the automatic shutting down of a nuclear reactor in Calvert Cliffs, Maryland—a noteworthy, but completely secure situation—to the devastation in Japan earlier this year.

I watched as “Hurricane” Irene clung on to its clumsy Category 1 rep by a thread. In the hours before the storm hit New York, the winds at its center were displayed at 80 m.p.h.—almost the lowest possible wind speed to qualify for the media’s coveted hurricane status. But rather than sensibly assuaging viewers of their concerns, especially in higher elevation areas, the media fearmongering persisted, with pundits hammering away at the notion of Irene re-strengthening. This is despite a volte-face from meteorologists today who insisted that upon approaching the Outer Banks, the storm had already weakened into an extratropical cyclone, or in other words: “the everyday phenomena which drive the weather over much of the Earth, producing anything from cloudiness and mild showers to heavy gales and thuderstorms.”

No, it’s not very often that New York is threatened by this type of weather, so Barack Obama’s “historic hurricane,” was indeed that, although not in the manner he referenced. Walking through Central Park at noon for 15 minutes I noticed maybe five or six downed trees—and that’s it! The heavy wind and rain were nothing I had never seen before in Michigan. I realize that New York City didn’t exactly catch the brunt of the storm, but the perception that the media grossly over-exaggerated Irene seems to be a common thread along the same Interstate 95 corridor that it allegedly pummeled.

And like that, most humorous aspects of this display dissipated, much to my chagrin.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

On one hand, I believe public officials ranging from President Barack Obama to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were correct in ensuring that extensive measures were taken for citizen safety. Avoiding another Katrina disaster was essential, and while we will never know what would have happened if Irene hit the Outer Banks as a Category 3 storm, I mostly thought the precautionary measures put in place by local and federal officials to be adequate. “Better safe than sorry,” is their refrain, and I agree.

I certainly recognize that hurricane behavior is not exactly easy to predict. But elsewhere, I saw grandstanding left, right, up, and down. With five of the ten largest media markets in the U.S. located on the East Coast, Irene was the perfect storm (pun intended) for public officials to jockey for the title of the people’s savior. Shit, practically half of the mayors and government emergency officials east of the Mississippi received TV time, never ceasing to deviate from their seemingly scripted spiel about the hyper-extreme hazards that Irene posed—and how they prevented them. With doomsday projections made days in advance, the mainstream media was able to keep its ratings up and corporate sponsors happy—think barren shelves at Wal-Mart and the Home Depot.

God knows that disaster agencies like FEMA and the lobbies for general contractors and insurance companies are licking their lips at the prospect of descending on D.C. for expanded funding and subsidies to combat the “suddenly imminent” onslaught of hurricanes north of the Mason-Dixon (you think this stuff doesn’t happen?)

The problem here is not merely the media overreacting or politicians taking advantage of a potential crisis to bolster their reelection prospects (an increase in interest group support does not hurt). Not that this behavior is any good either. However, what’s worse is that this overreaction was not the media presenting us with a worst case scenario. It was an example of a hype machine run amok, spewing predictions that were simply not grounded in reality and taking a nation of millions along for the ride.

“The symbiotic relationship between television and local officials played a huge role,” notes Howard Kurtz, writing for The Daily Beast. He delivers the inside scoop on media behavior:

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.

With not much to report on the island of Manhattan, the cable news channels switched to places like Long Beach, Long Island, where such correspondents as NBC’s Al Roker and CNN’s John King delivered their wind-whipped reports. “It looks pretty hurricane-ish to me,” Fox anchor Shep Smith said as reporter Jonathan Hunt, British and breathless, showed a hotel parking lot under a foot and a half of water.

Long Beach, it should be noted, is a narrow barrier island three feet above sea level and prone to flooding.

Watching from D.C., Daily Telegraph editor Toby Harnden expressed frustration in his own critique of the Establishment:

The truth is that the dire warning beforehand suited both politicians and journalists. Just as with the minor earthquake that shook the east coast last week causing no loss of life and virtually no damage, Irene became a huge story because it was where the media lived. For politicians, Irene was a chance to either make amends or appear in control. The White House sent out 25 Irene emails to the press on Saturday alone.

This is not to take away the toll of the lives lost or property damage inflicted by the storm. My condolences go out to each and every person who lost anything during Irene. Even losing electricity for days at a time really sucks. But in the end, the media’s Emmy-chasing display seems rather insulting to victims of other recent natural disasters that did not receive an inkling of attention in comparison to Irene; less attractive places where the media doesn’t live. Do you remember the ravaging 2010 Tennessee floods that killed 31 people receiving anywhere close to this amount of coverage?

Just when you felt as though the government and the media—alleged beacons of trust and the arbiters of civil society—were both rotten to their respective cores, Irene comes along, dragging the latter down into a trough of its own manufactured bullshit.

And that folks, will be the legacy of the “historic” Hurricane Irene—yet another dent into the plastic armor of the nation’s Fourth Estate and the demise of trust in a system that seems broken beyond repair.

Yes, now it appears that I am the one exaggerating; And yes, I hope I am wrong.

Alex Biles is a co-founder of The New Student Union. Follow him on twitter: @newstudentunion and @alex_biles.

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The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email info@newstudentunion.com to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.

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