Opinion Brief

Hurricane hype: Was Irene 'overblown'?

The media spooked Americans with dire predictions of historic destruction that the storm didn't quite deliver. Public service or unnecessary fearmongering?

Hurricane Irene — which was downgraded Sunday to Tropical Storm Irene — dumped water all along the East Coast this weekend, flooding towns, washing out roads, and blowing down trees from North Carolina's Outer Banks to Vermont's border with Canada. It was bad — at least 22 people died — but it was hardly the end-times scenario warned of on cable TV and by local and national politicians. In fact, "there seems to be a growing consensus that the storm was overblown by the media," says Charlie Spiering in The Washington Examiner. Government officials don't agree: "People say we've dodged a bullet, but we've lost lives," says FEMA chief W. Craig Fugate. Was hurricane hysteria overdone — or necessary to prevent even more damage and death?

The media is guilty of "scaremongering": "Someone has to say it: Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon," says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. And even when it became clear the "tsunami of hype" was unwarranted, ratings-hungry news outlets and photo-op-thirsty politicians still kept up their "prophets of doom" schtick. That might be good for reporters and governors, but not the rest of us who had to cower through it.
"A hurricane of hype"

Hold on. It's the griping that's overblown: "People complaining about the 'hype' are missing the point," says The Economist. A rare storm that endangers a sixth of the U.S. population and a quarter of its economic output is "just the sort of thing the media should be covering." Indeed, the extensive coverage — which helped Americans prepare for and avoid the potential danger — saved lives. Besides, the press wasn't that bad: According to statistics guru Nate Silver, 12 Atlantic hurricanes since 1980 got more coverage, including less-damaging ones like 2008's Gustav.
"The storm-clouds clear"

But the hype might cause people to ignore future threats: There are a few more tropical storms brewing in the Atlantic, and the East Coast may not get lucky twice, says Patrick Michaels at Forbes. The "nightmare scenario," in fact, is a Category 3 doozie that could slam Manhattan, catching Irene-jaded New Yorkers by surprise. The media needs to inform the public, but if it dramatically oversells the dangers, "Hurricane Hype followed by Hurricane Insanity leads to hurricane death."
"Get real: Hurricane Irene should be renamed 'Hurricane Hype'"

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