Judging Hurricane Irene and Our Hurricane-type Hysteria

by Vince

If you live on the east coast in the U.S., you most likely have heard about Hurricane Irene non-stop for the past week (at least). A few of the places you may have heard bits of news from would of been the Weather Channel (as well as other local or national news stations) as well as Facebook (as well as the World Wide Web). Both of these media outlets covered this hurricane quite extensively. The former was done by professionals while the latter was done by mostly normal joe’s. What both have in common is that they stirred up interesting reactions in all of us.

T.V., especially weather coverage, can go over board. The constant reporting and sometimes worst-case scenarios may really freak people out to the point of hysteria. Facebook seemed to have had similar effects. One friend of mine noticed an interesting trend that isn’t necessarily unique to Hurricane Irene but still interesting: while many people freaked out about Hurricane Irene, many people freaked out about people freaking out about Hurricane Irene. If you think about it, this irony surely does play out in many situations. I don’t have T.V. so I somewhat tried to avoid Facebook so that I could sit back and watch the rain come down and relax over a shut-in type weekend.

One final note: politics has to come into play somehow with this hurricane and the hysteria (doesn’t it?) Two pieces worth checking out: Rush Limbaugh’s usual comments regarding the hysteria:

It was a rainstorm and there was a lot of flooding and there were deaths associated with it,” Limbaugh said. “But they hype — folks, I’ll tell you what this was, was a lesson.

“If you pay any attention to this, they hype — the desire for chaos, I mean, literally — the media desire for chaos was a great learning tool. This is a great illustration of how all of the rest of the media in news, in sports, has templates and narratives and exaggerates beyond reality creating fear, so as to create interest.”

With at least 40 people dead (and rising) and millions in damage, the king of hype and hysteria has to chime in, doesn’t he? However, I partly am in agreement with Rush. Some members of the media, and I include Facebook in this, have a tendency to almost want drama, hype, and buckets of craziness, in not only national events but their own lives.

Second, Ezra Klein et al wonder if we didn’t hype the storm enough considering what it was capable of:

A lot of the commentary over whether the storm got too much attention has been based around the damage the storm did or did not do. NBC’s Al Roker, for instance, tweeted, “Since when is covering a storm that kills 16 people and counting, causes massive flooding and millions in damage hype?” Over at the New York Times, Nate Silver runs somenumbers and concludes that Irenes ranks as “the 8th-most destructive storm since 1980, adjusted for inflation and the growth in wealth and population.”

But the Irene hype occurred mostly before it made landfall, and so mostly before we knew how bad it really was, or wasn’t. Storms are unpredictable, both in their path and intensity, and though Irene mostly broke our way, it could easily have swung towards New York City and picked up speed before smacking into the city. If that had happened, we would be having a very different conversation right now. So the question isn’t whether the storm was overhyped given how things actually went, but whether it was overhyped given how they could have gone. I’m not enough of a meteorologist to render a verdict on that, but it’s the right question to be asking.

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