Did the media overplay Hurricane Irene?


If you haven’t yet considered the question now being posed by many, “did the media overplay Hurricane Irene?”, just watch the above clip and your answer will have to be yes. That’s because this 4 minute, 26 second clip depicts a Fox news reporter perched on the ocean-front boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, being deluged with what he called “brown sea foam.” The inane-sounding anchors back in the studio marvel at this substance which the reporter says, at various times, “is of a sandy consistency . . . is in my face . . . it doesn’t taste great.” Of course, the foam was in fact raw sewage let loose from a nearby treatment plant by the downpours that accompanied the hurricane. If you just stumbled upon this clip out of context, you’d swear it was a Daily Show parody of local coverage of harsh weather conditions. But it is, in fact, the reality of the mainstream media.

That said, however, I still don’t feel that the media exaggerated Hurricane Irene. In the Science section of today’s New York Times, there’s actually an article that explain that even though modern hurricane forecasters can plot the track and location of a hurricane with great accuracy, they still have a very difficult time determining the storm’s intensity. Because the consequences of downplaying the seriousness of a hurricane can be fatal for many, forecasters tend to err on the side of safety and go with predictions of the most intense storm the evidence supports. It’s better to respond to the “there was too much hype” critiques than to the “why didn’t you warn us it would be this bad?” pleas.

My sympathy for the forecasters was perhaps buttressed by the fact that I spent the day of Hurricane Irene reading Sudden Sea, R.A. Scotti’s account of the Great Hurricane of 1938 that killed nearly 700 people in New England and on Long Island. Hurricane forecasting was extremely limited back then and the forecasters at what was then called the US Weather Bureau had tracked this particular hurricane as it emerged from the Caribbean and moved towards Florida. Ample warning was given and much preparation was taken but the storm veered to the north and missed Florida.

Storms following similar paths historically continued to the northeast and died deep out at sea. For that reason, the government weather forecasters gradually erased the word “hurricane” from the reports they issued for use by radio and newspapers in the following days. But a farther north than usual Bermuda High blocked the storm’s path into the Atlantic and it shot up the eastern seaboard, often traveling in excess of 60 miles per hour. Late in the afternoon of September 21, 1938, it made landfall, first on the south coast of Long Island and shortly thereafter on the exposed southern coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It struck those ocean-front communities with winds up to 180 mph and a storm surge that sometimes reached 50 feet in height. Suddenly, whole communities ceased to exist as houses and the families that occupied them were erased from the shore and swept out to sea.

Sudden Sea stitches together the stories of many of the people who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in the eye of this killer storm. The individual stories nearly defy belief and you walk away from the book with an enhanced respect for the awesome power of nature.

Sudden Sea is this month’s selection of the Pollard Memorial Library non-fiction book club which meets this coming Thursday evening at 630 in the library’s community room.

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