New York area Irene coverage: tempest in a teacup

August 30th, 2011

Hurricane Isabel, wikimedia commons

I’m writing this on an iPad with the power still off at my home in Riverside, CT.  This is the third day without power, phone and Internet.  We came within inches of a flooded basement, had three feet of water in the driveway, and there are still lots of tree limbs on the lawn.  But that’s it for damage.

Yet my adult daughter and my wife, who were glued to the TV leading up to the storm, had pictured us all standing on the roof of our house surrounded by forty feet of water waiting for a helicopter to airlift us to safety.  The Weather Channel reports were the most histrionic.  One actually said that Irene would be “the worst storm we will see in our lifetime.”

I never thought for a moment that our lives would be at risk. I was rightly concerned about our basement, since we live right on Long Island Sound.  Three more inches of rain and it would probably still be full of water.  But I knew that Irene was no Katrina, and that all that would end up happening was a few days without power.

Why was I not as worried?  Because I paid attention to the right sources.  I have some weather equipment at my house, and I am a relentless tinkerer, so I was able to calculate almost exactly how deep the water was going to be, and I wasn’t far off.

I also knew that when it comes to weather news, go local, and the hype to news ratio tips in your favor.  The best station in our area was the hyper-local service offered by our Cablevision provider.  They got it almost right.

The radio weather people were also quite good.  They seemed much more informed and accurate than the doom crying Weather Channel meteorologists.  WCBS made it clear that this was going to be nothing like Katrina.  1010WINS did an equally good job.

Conversely, the local government seemed to join in the overreacting by telling people in Connecticut to evacuate when they probably did not need to.  I was worried that mass evacuation could have risked more lives than it saved.  Millions of uprooted people are a lot more dangerous than a few uprooted trees.

A nice, smart New Zealand reporter named John Campbell, showed up at my front door with a cameraman.  They had been watching CNN, nine thousand miles away, and based on what they were hearing they were convinced that American life would forever be changed by Irene.  They had been following the storm’s progress since landfall in the Carolinas.  I was almost sorry to tell them that there wasn’t much to see where I lived.  Then they asked me about media hype, an appropriate question indeed.

Christchurch, New Zealand, was devastated in February and again in June of this year by earthquakes, and will never be the same.  I have been to Christchurch.  It’s beautiful and has long been one of my favorite places on Earth.  When was the last time you heard a story about them?

So what happened?

Irene coverage was too close to the epicenter of American media, and not close enough to the facts.