Allahpundit gave his thoughts on the backlash to Hurricane Irene coverage last night, from the perspective of someone who was in the path of the storm. I spent the hurricane over a thousand miles away from any of the damage, but I agree entirely with AP’s conclusion that while Irene may not have done the damage predicted before it hit the East Coast, the damage it did do justified the attention and the warnings issued. In my column for The Week, written before I read AP’s take, I argue that overprepared beats underprepared:
There is a legitimate concern about the danger of hyperbole in crisis-management situations. If every storm that approaches an American shore gets billed as another Katrina — a comparison often heard over the past week — the people who warnings are intended to help will start disregarding them. We saw the reluctance of residents in Irene’s path to follow evacuation requests; if they hear dire warnings of disasters that fail to materialize, then compliance with safety measures and evacuation orders will decrease, and put people at more risk. Hyperbolic estimates of damage and lack of essential services can also prompt unnecessary hoarding and artificial shortages of water and food that will end up making those goods both more expensive and less available even after an event-free storm.
Fortunately, the damage done by Irene came is far less than predicted — but the damage is not insignificant. Initial estimates of economic value lost have come to $7 billion, and that may go up as flooding continues in some areas. More significantly, at least 38 people died in the storm — as far south as Florida and as far west as Pennsylvania. The victims include an 89-year-old Connecticut woman who died when downed power lines set her home on fire, a New Jersey EMT who died in a Princeton flood, and a middle-aged New York man who had tried to rescue a child in a flood and got electrocuted by power lines.
Clearly, this was not a “manufactured” event. Irene may not have packed the punch that many predicted, but for those families and communities across 11 states who have to bury their dead and repair their homes, it wasn’t merely a photo opportunity. It was a real disaster, even if its scope was much more limited than initially feared.
Furthermore, we have a “dog that didn’t bark” dimension to this story. The storm was bad enough to kill dozens of people across 11 states. Without the warnings and the hyperbole, would the death toll have gone higher? None of the deaths appear to have resulted from excess zeal to seek safety or shelter. In fact, a number of them came from people who continued their recreational activities despite the storm. How many more were convinced to stay home instead?
Frankly, I’m a bit mystified about the complaints over saturation coverage. It’s not as if there weren’t other options, even for news junkies. As the storm approached, the coverage I saw reflected the loss of strength in the hurricane. It didn’t require as many breathless updates as the cable news networks provided, perhaps, but that’s a criticism that applies to cablers in general.
Much of the criticism went to the public demonstrations of leadership by executives like NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Barack Obama. After Katrina, does anyone expect politicians to play it casual when hurricanes approach American shores? Besides, as I write in my column, even if one believes that these three were grandstanding at times — for which a fair argument can be made — it’s not going to make much difference for any of them politically, even in the short run. Americans expect executives to publicly demonstrate leadership, which means that all they get is a pass from the voters, not a bump, when things go right. Only in extreme circumstances, like Rudy Giuliani in New York City on 9/11, do politicians get long-term benefit from public demonstration of crisis management. Otherwise, these situations are mostly about not doing damage, both in real terms and to political reputations.
This storm did do real damage, and killed dozens of people. We should just be happy that it didn’t turn out as bad as we’d feared.