Deconstructing the Hurricane Irene Hype

Let's not forget about the under-hyped Hurricane Katrina

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Irene's violent arrival on the Eastern seaboard wasn't as violent as a lot of people said it would be. And by "a lot of people" we pretty much mean the government and the media. For nearly a week before Irene made landfall off the North Carolina coast and started her slow crawl up to New England, warnings about the storm of the century dominated the airwaves and ruled the headlines. The storm struck hard over the weekend, but the skyscrapers stayed standing in New York City. Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast, for one, seems rather upset that "the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize." New Yorkers likewise whined. "With all the preparations and all the hoopla on TV, it was all for naught," a local told The New York Times. "I feel embarrassed that we made such a to-do." As we noted earlier, The Times's profile on The Weather Channel's Mike Seidel could also fuel suspicions that cable is making a meal out of overblown coverage.

But Americans elsewhere on the East Coast might disagree about the no-big-deal assessment of Irene's impact. Officials told CNN that "the storm had knocked out power to more than 4 million people and was responsible for at least 21 deaths." President Obama said "the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer." The Atlantic's In Focus blog shows images of relentless flooding, billions of dollars of damage, and survivors digging through debris in a desperate hunt to recover what they'd lost. Sure, it could've been worse, and for all we know, it would've been much worse if not for the aggressive urging from the media and the government to prepare for the worst.

"Hurricanes are unpredictable, and it’s a great relief that the prophets of doom were wrong about Hurricane Irene," Howard Kurtz concedes in his column lambasting overhyped coverage of Irene. "But don’t expect the cable networks to downgrade their coverage the next time a tropical storm gathers strength."

Save one passing mention, Kurtz also fails to compare Irene with the disaster so often mentioned in last week's coverage: Katrina. NBC's First Read blog takes the opposite approach and labels the hype "The Katrina Effect":

Every governor watched the Kathleen Blanco model and said they’re going to do the opposite of that, which is why you saw every governor and major city mayor in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast trying to show they were on top of this (didn't know you could get monogrammed fleeces, by the way!). And President Obama, of course, saw what Bush did (stayed on vacation) and wanted to do the opposite. Hence, why he cut that vacation short. Nobody wanted to become a member of the infamous Katrina "B-Team": Blanco, Bush and Brownie. So naturally, the story is shifting a tad to, "Was Irene overhyped by the government, by the media." Bottom line: see the "B-Team" roster again and realize, there's no over-hyping on these stories. 

The Economist defends the government and media response even more assertively.

An unusual, potentially disastrous event that was certain to affect millions of Americans and put billions of dollars of property at risk is just the sort of thing the media should be covering. Just because Irene wasn't the disaster that some Americans feared doesn't mean it wasn't important to cover it. … People complaining about the "hype" are missing the point. Americans should be thankful the storm wasn't a lot worse.

Capital New York's conclusion about the coverage has more to do with a lack of focus than it does an excess of hysteria. Cable news outlets had a hard time keeping their national coverage in line with the different realities local communities faced with the storm. NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan told Captial New York's Tom McGevernan that hype and hysteria wasn't really the problem. "It's such a tricky balance on these stories, because you have to have a sense of urgency on these stories," Kiernan said. "The most important thing we can do is to try as much as we can to give context to what we're saying."

For context on the media's coverage of Hurriance Irene, we can turn to The Times's data wizard Nate Silver. "Per my research, which I'll be writing up later," Silver tweeted Sunday night. "Irene received only the 13th most media coverage among Atlantic hurricanes since 1980."

Update: Silver clafied in his full blog post, "How Irene Lived Up to the Hype":

So Irene right now ranks as the 10th-deadliest storm since 1980, with some possibility of that number going higher. And it ranks as the 8th most destructive storm economically, give or take. Meanwhile, it received about the 10th-most media coverage. …

It wasn’t the worst-case scenario--either for Irene in particular or for hurricanes hitting New York in general. But I don’t see how you dismiss it as hype. If, as Mr. Kurtz says, “the prophets of doom were wrong,” I’m not looking forward to seeing what happens when they’re right.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.