Windy Newscasters

by wjw on August 29, 2011

I spent the weekend enjoying myself at Bubonicon, but every so often I’d check the news to see whether Hurricane Irene had destroyed the East Coast, as our bold media establishment had been predicting for days.

Of course the hurricane had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it made landfall in the Carolinas, and did only a modest amount of damage and produced only an insignificant death toll, which proved to be a catastrophe for the newscasters if not for the country.

Not that the newscasters didn’t do their best to pump up the volume during this non-event.  They were ready for an enormous disaster and they were going to get one if it killed them.  So there they were standing on beaches, getting pummeled by rain and winds, examining flotsam left high and dry by the surge, and (in one case) fleeing from floodwaters while screeching at the crew not to get the microphone cord in the water.

You could readily believe that the only people to behaved stupidly during the storm were news teams. Everyone else seemed responsible and cautious.

I recall one late-breaking headline to the effect that a tree had been blown down in Virginia.   (A tree fell down!  Horrors! Call the National Guard!)  The reporter examined the tree in some detail, and pointed out that when it fell (at 2am) it had landed on a parked car.

“Was anyone in the car injured?” asked the anchor hopefully.

No.  No one had been hurt.  You could hear the reporters’ frustration at the sight of no blood, no death, no significant mayhem.  No story.

While the dimwitted news teams strove to find drama amid the damp squib that was Irene,  they never mentioned the giant typhoon that’s about to crash into Taiwan.  For information on the Libyan rebellion I had to go to Al Jazeera, which (along with the Turkish Daily News) was my source for information on the ongoing Syrian insurrection.  The U.S. news somehow even managed to avoid mention of the death of al-Qaeda’s number two, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, victim of an American missile.

So far as I could tell, the television news was doing their best to manufacture a story, but were too inept to manage even that.  With this kind of effort, William Randolph Hearst could have got us a whole dang war!

He must be spinning in his grave.

UPDATE:  Looking at it from the perspective of a further 24 hours, it’s clear that the storm was more serious than initial coverage indicated, though considerably less than the apocalypse the media were hoping for.  Damage has run into billions, and the casualty lists are longer.  That things weren’t worse is down to the population, who by and large seemed to have taken the warnings seriously, took sensible precautions, and evacuated where possible.

That was the real story, and the broadcast media seem to have missed it.  While their asshat reporters posed bravely on windswept beaches and interviewed dead trees, the actual story was going on in shelters, FEMA offices, emergency planning meetings, in hospitals and ambulances, and in the homes and apartments of ordinary people.  None of that was dramatic or exciting enough for television news, though the print media (a day later) seems to have found the story.

I’m learning more from reading my friends’ blogs than I got from hours of watching CNN.  And the writing is better.

Oz August 29, 2011 at 10:29 am

Ahem. So that’s how it looked out in the desert? I’m sorry that the newscasters made it into a circus. Fewer people died because there was enough warning and they were evacuated. It was not a non-event. The east coast has been saturated with rain in August and the flooding is serious. It’s not the Mississippi, of course, but it’s still serious. 9000 flights were canceled, leaving a lot of people stranded. But people listened, for the most part. And I’m thankful it wasn’t worse than it was because NYC and New England haven’t had a direct hit in a long time. Irene was well-behaved and well-predicted by, ahem, NWS. Jason worked long shifts in the headquarters briefing FEMA and gov’t authorities. That the media makes it into a circus on every channel is a different story from whether NWS does their job well. That the media should have covered other stories is a good criticism. But this was a real hurricane with real tornadoes, not some tropical depression dressed up as one. And Jason has new gray hairs from watching it head for NYC and New England over a period of days. My own stay in Philly was cut short where I was cat-sitting for Greg and Barbara. They caught the last flight in before the airport closed so the kid and I could drive home in a way that skirted the storm. I knew (courtesy of NWS) when I needed to leave to avoid possible road closures due to those downed trees and to flooding. Millions of people lost power in the storm.

Parts of the east coast lucked out. Despite moving very slowly, the storm didn’t pick up as much moisture as they often do (ask the expert why that was, I don’t go that deep into the science, alas). What to you was a non-event was a very real event in this household. Not because Walkabout Farm was in its path (I knew we weren’t at least 5 days ahead of time) but because this is what we do around here.


Pat Mathews August 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Don’t worry about newscasters, Walter. All the TVs in the bar were tuned to sports after Friday evening anyway.

Ken Houghton August 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm

What Oz Said. It wasn’t at all a non-event (says the guy in Suburbian NJ who was without power for 17 hours despite relatively minor storm damage, and whose m-in-law still cannot go home to see whether her house is still standing), and was made much easier by the evacuations and people talking evacuation notices seriously.

We’re on our second day without water, with no end predicted. There is sewage in lower Manhattan. The best we can say is that NYC got off relatively well; see the videos–I suspect they’re on YouTube–of Kitty Hawk, NC, or Millburn, NJ (and Millburn is land-locked, no beachfront property).

Seven billion dollars worth of damage–which doesn’t count the neighbor’s car that floated away, or the two he was following that were actually floating–isn’t a non-event by any stretch. The major difference between Katrina and Irene was that people could evacuate–public transport ran late enough (better in Philly than NYC, but late enough–unlike New Orleans, where all the bus drivers and gas station owners left days before) and enough people were on safe ground that they didn’t leave the others behind.

Oh, and the EMS workers who pulled 20-hour shifts Saturday and Sunday. And were around to do so.

wjw August 29, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I didn’t mean to trivialize the danger and the damage. The broadcast media was able to do that without my help.

It’s clear that the real story was at the NWS, in the shelters and planning offices, and in the homes of ordinary people, but that wasn’t dramatic enough for television. They wanted 2012, and were determined to get it.

Shash August 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I agree that the broadcast media certainly got the wrong end of the stick and went barking after the wrong car, especially since there were so many other stories to be followed.

I like to get perspective on our stories by going to see what foriegn media have to say about it. I’ve become resistant to what our own media say as they so often twist stories up to suit their need for an audience more than their need to relate the news.

marc sobel August 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm

As I remember, it was Cat 1 when it hit NC and then went out to sea, it was downgraded to Tropical storm during the night just before it came ashore to hit NY/NJ

Never thought I’d say it. Bachmann may be right. God spared NY but clobbbered NC because of the Teh Gay ?

wjw August 30, 2011 at 1:20 am

Not an expert here, but this chap suggests that Irene wasn’t a hurricane even before it came ashore.

Oz August 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Jason says that there was a buoy report (obs) on Sat that yes, it was a hurricane based on wind speed. And he says that the measurements are made from dropsondes and then winds at the surface are inferred from that data and from flight level winds from the P-3 (NOAA hurricane hunter).

(Not to downplay what Maas reports in that link, he says. Just that Jason saw buoy reports to the contrary of what’s in his blog entry.)

Oz August 30, 2011 at 6:55 pm

PS: In discussions with Weatherdude, he says that we can predict the tracks of hurricanes really well now, but the intensity is still the tricky part of the forecast, i.e. where they would like to improve. Considering that in 1985 or so Elena was wandering all over the Gulf trying to decide where to land when I was in the FL panhandle, I’m glad we have a better handle on the tracks now. He thinks they could outpredict Elena’s path nowadays.

Foxessa August 31, 2011 at 7:13 pm

You cannot be more wrong about what Hurricane Irene accomplished and what it is still accomplishing. This was one of the ten biggest storms ever in this nation in terms of its devastation.

That NYC got off relatively lightly is wonderful. But the Atlantic coast reaches all up the Atlantic coast and into Canada, and everybody got clobbered to a degree. But inland — they’ve been devastated. At least 8 counties of New York state alone are classified today as national disaster zones. Never have so many been without power at one time, millions, in fact. I know people who have lost everything up and down the coast. I know people up and down the coast who went through some pretty harrowing hours, and have a lot of damage. And that’s just me.

Love, C.

wjw September 1, 2011 at 2:58 am

Constance, my post wasn’t about the storm, but about the media coverage, which was relentlessly trivial. When I made my initial post I only knew what they were telling me, and what they were telling me was pretty silly.

TCWriter September 1, 2011 at 4:59 am

The media has certainly missed the part of the story still playing out in places like Vermont, which saw a lot of damage (a couple towns lost bridges and are still cut off without power, water, etc. ).

My beef with east coast media is their relentlessly New York focus, a malady similar to foreign correspondents who “cover” conflicts from hotel bars.

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