Media coverage of Hurricane Barry was the real disaster

There will be no media awards for Al Roker or the Washington Post in recognition of their coverage of Hurricane Barry. At least if the people living in New Orleans have a say in the matter. The weekend weather event, fortunately, was nowhere nearly as bad as was predicted in some media accounts. That’s a good thing.

The bad thing, though, is the over-hyped media coverage of Tropical Storm Barry that briefly became Hurricane Barry ( a Category 1 storm) before it returned to being a tropical storm. Barry made landfall Saturday at Intracoastal City, about 160 miles west of New Orleans. Unfortunately, to read or listen to media coverage, you would have heard calls for mass evacuation in New Orleans, well outside of where the storm hit. The word “evacuation” has its own connotations for residents on the Gulf Coast and it is not a word to be used lightly. For a television weather forecaster to suggest such an action when the local authorities are not calling for it, the situation can turn unnecessarily dangerous. Two accounts of the media coverage during the lead-up to Barry’s landfall brought home the importance of listening to local experts, not the people playing experts in the national media.

NBC’s Today show’s Al Roker told those in New Orleans to “make plans now” to evacuate. He went so far as to say if he was in New Orleans, he’d be doing that. That’s fine – it’s always good to be prepared but then he went on. He said that it’s best to always be prepared to evacuate if your location is within a potential hurricane’s “cone of uncertainty.”

It’s a bad idea for people in New Orleans to listen to Al Roker instead of the actual experts on the ground in Louisiana, and it’s an even worse idea for people like Al Roker to imply, as he did, that they have a better understanding of the situation than Mayor LaToya Cantrell or Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Right now, as Barry marches on its path toward Morgan City, the wind is beginning to pick up in New Orleans, but the only people who want us to panic seem to be those who think the main lesson of Hurricane Katrina was that the city should have evacuated more quickly.

New Orleans, of course, did not flood in 2005 because it was hit by a hurricane. It flooded because the federal government’s levee protection system failed. The catastrophic flooding began after Katrina left.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival, it was not the hurricane, it was the levees that caused the flooding. The author of the article above noted that both CBS and CNN warned that Barry could be a bigger rain event than Katrina.

This guy in Lafayette, LA got it right. As a former resident of Lafayette, I can attest to the fact that the people of Acadiana are no strangers to storm preparations. I, along with my husband and our then-toddler son rode out Hurricane Andrew in our home there, as well as lesser storms during our years there.

The Washington Post was called out for sensationalizing the storm. The City of New Orleans Twitter account offered a suggestion.

The point being made is that national reporting is not necessarily indicative of conditions on the ground. The stories are sensationalized and over-reported due to the nature of 24/7 cable television coverage. There is a lot of airtime to fill, you know. During Hurricane Andrew, for example, I remember one of my sisters who lived in a different state calling and asking why in the hell we weren’t evacuating. She was watching coverage on CNN and the long lines of traffic trying to move through Lafayette. Here’s the thing – evacuation is often more dangerous than the storm. If you don’t evacuate early enough, you will be stuck in traffic, which can turn into a life-threatening situation. The people my sister saw on CNN that day were residents of towns south of Lafayette traveling further north to get out of the way of the storm. Lafayette wasn’t under an evacuation order.

National reporting can be deceptive. Al Roker was using a heavy rainstorm’s water accumulation earlier in the week to justify his suggestion that people evacuate in New Orleans. The problem with that was that the city’s water pumps worked and the water accumulation was handled as it should have been. Roker was criticized on social media for saying Barry could be as bad as Hurricane Michael by those still recovering from that in the Florida panhandle.

As part of the Washington Post’s coverage, a tweet was posted showing two men with suitcases walking in the French Quarter. The tweet called them “anxious” residents fleeing the city. They were tourists leaving the city. There was no mass exodus.

I can tell you from personal experience that riding out a major hurricane will change your life. It still often feels like yesterday that we faced Hurricane Harvey here in Houston. We had a record rainfall of 50 inches over the course of about three days and my home became an island surrounded by flooded streets. It was 10 days before travel was mostly back to normal in my part of the city. There was nowhere for the water to go. This wasn’t the result of the rainfall, mind you. It was the result of the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to release the reservoirs on this side of town. The result of that decision was mass flooding.

I’m thankful that Hurricane Barry turned back into Tropical Storm Barry and though some serious flooding occurred, the water levels are dropping today and communities are doing the work of getting back to normal. No one in the path of a major storm benefits from incorrect media coverage meant to boost ratings. Trust me, during hurricane season people here along the Gulf coast keep an eye on local weather reports. Weathertainment isn’t helpful to those who need accurate information.