How the media blew it on Hurricane Irene

I was happy to keep my parents company during Irene. But my kids certainly weren’t safer, and neither were the thousands of New Yorkers sent scurrying in thousands of different directions on the eve of a giant storm. As every child knows, high-rises made of bricks (and concrete and rebar) don’t get blown down the way houses made of wood do, especially when they’re in the woods. But what’s the wisdom of the ages when a mayor wants to erase the stain of mishandling last winter’s snowstorms by forcibly relocating people from his zone of responsibility to places that are somebody else’s zone of responsibility? Clearly what the publishing world desperately needs is a new edition of the Three Little Pigs, this one for the CYA age…

I would also bet that the overall response to Irene might have been somewhat better had it been a little less New York-centric. No state seems to have been harder hit by the hurricane than Vermont, where Gov. Peter Shumlin says the flooding is the worst in a century. Yet in the five days leading up to the storm only two stories mentioned Vermont’s potential exposure, according to a Factiva search of the country’s top 50 newspapers—and that was just in passing. Philadelphia, the hardest-hit major metropolitan area, rated 94 stories. New York got 347.

That may be understandable because New York, always self-infatuated, is the world’s media capital and hasn’t been hit by a hurricane in decades. But it also inhibited our understanding of where the real danger lurked: Not in major cities, but in remote (and poorer) communities; not in places where there are lavishly funded emergency response systems, but in places where those systems are lacking; not from storm surges, but from swollen streams; not from flying debris, but from falling trees and power lines. Maybe we vaguely expected Irene to be a real-world preview for “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” Yet over the weekend New York was the safest place to be.

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