Goodnight, Irene

Strong winds and flooding came, not from the storm, but the media

August 27th 2011

Hurricanes can be a real problem. Insular Americans will immediately think of Katrina, and some will even believe that was the worst storm damage in recent memory. Folks in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba will all beg to differ, having recently taken damage from storms that dwarfed Katrina. And then there is China and Japan, who have their share of war stories.

It’s only a matter of time before a major hurricane hits a major American city squarely, as Katrina did New Orleans, and does at least as much, if not more damage. Not only is this statistically inevitable, but the odds of it happening in any given year increase as global warming makes the likelihood of really big storms greater.

Irene wasn’t that storm. When it first entered the areas of the Bahamas, I was watching it closely, since it was following the track that could result in a lot of grief for east Florida. In fact, in most years it would cross southern Florida and into the Gulf, or up the coast of Florida and inland at Georgia, there to die. But the same dome of high pressure that has baked the plains for the past several months also steered Irene on a different path, which Matt Drudge screamed in all-caps was “a nightmare turn.”

It became obvious that once it cleared the North Carolina projection of Cape Hatteras, it was headed into the Beltway.

By Thursday it was evident that it was going to hit Washington and New York. It was also evident that it wouldn’t be more than a Category One storm by then, and possibly might be just a tropical storm by the time it hit New York.

Category One storms, and tropical storms, can do a lot of damage, of course. Tropical storm Allison did $5 billion in damage in 2001, mostly in the form of flooding. Granted, Allison was one of the weirdest storms in history (here’s the story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropical_Storm_Allison ) but it was a good reminder that any tropical storm system can be dangerous.

So it was entirely reasonable that local authorities would lay out evacuation plans and shut down areas where it might be dangerous for people to go. And people were urged to go and stock up on provisions in case flooding or power outages made getting to the market impractical. People near rivers and streams were reminded that even before Irene, the region had had one of the wettest months in history, and the ground was saturated.

So far so good.

Then the media collectively lost control of its sphincters.

Matt Drudge was the first one I noticed. He’s usually worth checking when a hurricane is approaching American shores, since he provides links to NOAA and NWS and other valuable resources. And more importantly, he updates frequently. Anyone who knows my politics (and if you’re reading this, chances are good that you do) will realize I’m no fan of Drudge, but credit where it’s due.

But then he took a nightmare turn. Irene turned north, and Drudge plotzed.

But he wasn’t alone.

Media coverage provided an amazing variety of verbs as Irene moved up the coast. It ‘churned.’. It ‘spun.’ It ‘tore.’ It ‘advanced,’ like a army. It ‘roared.’ It may have even ‘crept.’ The closer it got to the beltway, the scarier the verbs became.

The rhetoric began to heat up. Even Obama called Irene an “historic hurricane.” Mildly unusual, yes. Historic? Hardly.

But it was enough to rachet the hysteria up a bit more. No longer just a Category Two storm, Irene was now a “historic hurricane” like Camille or Katrina or the hurricane of 1938. I even saw one article mentioning Irene in the same breath as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, a Category Five monster believed to be the most intense storm in American history, which tore up the Florida keys. Humphrey Bogart was in a good movie about that, Key Largo.

The panic was on. The cable networks went to 24/7 coverage, because there was nothing else of interest in the world. People saw that the networks were talking non-stop about Irene, concluded they must know something the rest of us didn’t, and began watching in mounting fear. It didn’t help that a video showed up on the web and went viral that showed a large wave sweeping eight idiots off a wharf.

Ohmigawd, Irene is a killer! However, all eight survived with minor injuries, and, I’m sorry to say, may eventually reproduce. So, not a killer. Like most storms, Irene came with a tendency to brush aside morons who stand in her path. Chris Christie of New Jersey came out with the most sage advice uttered during the approach of the storm: “Stay the hell away from the beach.”

Some New Yorkers followed tradition, and in a stockpiling panic, cleaned out store shelves of goods, useful or not. (And people do stockpile strange things. A few years back we got warned of a massive blizzard that fortunately turned out to be a fairly routine three-foot snow storm; but the NWS formally advised us to expect “epic” snow, and a few people panicked. Somebody cleared out the local store of Doritos, something that would not be my food of choice to see me through a blizzard). Of the 370,000 people in the evacuation zones in the city, some 300,000 did actually leave. Most of them were probably well advised to. Some who didn’t live in the evacuation zones also evacuated.

As Irene passed the coastal areas of North Carolina, a lone voice expressing doubt about the fierceness of the storm was raised. One Wunderground meteorologist blogged that peak winds in his area barely made it into the tropical storm range of over 35 miles an hour, and expressed doubt that the storm, when it hit the beltway, was going to amount to much. Obviously he was a madman who was out to kill us all.

However, another blogger wrote, “Overall, this IS a historic storm, and most of New England’s historic storms have been absolutely no stronger than Irene. Remember that.” I would, if it were true. The trouble is, like a lot of meteorologists, he looked at the pressure (950mb at the center) and size (about 450 miles wide) and concluded that it should be a Cat Three storm, despite the lack of a visible eye and winds exceeding 85 miles an hour. Everything about Irene said Cat Three except that it was a Cat One storm. It’s a bit like giving the driver of a Lamborghini a speeding ticket for looking like he should be breaking the speed limit when in fact he was doing 50 in the fast lane of the freeway.

On the web, the panic bloomed. I saw one user who wondered how anyone could be sanguine about the prospect of having to evacuate nineteen million people. Others raised concerns about how the skyscrapers might fare, and one user, who really should have known better, gave me a lecture about the canyon effect the tall buildings would have on winds. The effect is quite real, but in this instance, the concern was unfounded. Not only were the skyscrapers designed to withstand hurricane winds, but the canyon effect was taken into account. If New York ever gets hit by a Cat Five (and yes, it can happen—has happened in the past, in fact) then there is cause for concern. A storm with 170 mile an hour winds would exert nearly six times as much force on a building as Irene was predicted to do, and the “canyon effect” could be up to 24 times as high. That would probably exceed the design limits of most structures.

The same applies to forests, by the way. A lot of forest industries used to replant logged over areas symmetrically, with the trees in neat rows like suburban houses. But they discovered that if a wind-driven fire came in from a direction that coincided with the direction of those rows, the wind would funnel through, and all hell would break loose. Now they stagger the trees, to avoid the canyon effect.

What struck me was the anger those of us who said that Irene was not going to be a Katrina, and was not going to destroy New York City encountered, both before and after. People are so used to falling into media-induced panics that they actually think there’s something wrong with anyone who doesn’t panic alongside them. One person, somewhat illogically, snarled that with all the fussing I make about climate change resulting in bigger hurricanes, I should be happy to make Irene out to be far more dangerous than it actually was. Unfortunately, I’m sure that the opportunity to identify extraordinarily intense hurricanes will exist, and in the fairly near future.

Irene is up getting New Brunswick wet now, and those in the wake of the storm are looking around. There’s damage, of course. Some areas did flood, but not the vast tracts that some had forecast. Fifteen people are dead, and of the sixty-five million people in the path of the storm, some three million lost power. Manhattan was virtually unscathed. It could have been worse, much worse.

But the media frenzy did as much damage, and revealed fundamental flaws, not in the American infrastructure and support system, but in the American psyche. The storm, even at its most threatening, didn’t deserve the saturation coverage and hot air it got. The actual storm was dwarfed by the media storm.

George Will, in a unexpected gust of sanity, said on TV, “…journalism […] shouldn’t subtract from the nation’s understanding, and it certainly shouldn’t contribute to the manufactured, synthetic hysteria that is so much a part of modern life. And I think we may have done so with regard to this ‘tropical storm,’ as it now seems to be.”

One poor bastard working for Fox News was splashed by a rogue wave as he provided beach coverage of the storm, and was covered in a green-brown foam that he said “didn’t taste very good.” It was raw sewage, so no, I don’t imagine it was very tasty.

He personally may not have deserved that, but as an example of the media in general, it was a stunningly apt example of the nature of the coverage of Irene.

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