Perfect Storm of Hype: Irene apocalypse that never was
For the television reporter, clad in his red cagoule emblazoned with the CNN logo, it was a dramatic on-air moment, broadcasting live from Long Island, New York during a hurricane that also threatened Manhattan.
“We are in, right, now…the right eye wall, no doubt about that…there you see the surf,” he said breathlessly. “That tells a story right there.”
Stumbling and apparently buffeted by ferocious gusts, he took shelter next to a building. “This is our protection from the wind,” he explained. “It’s been truly remarkable to watch the power of the ocean here.”
The surf may have told a story but so too did the sight behind the reporter of people chatting and ambling along the sea front and just goofing around. There was a man in a t-shirt, a woman waving her arms and then walking backwards. Then someone on a bicycle glided past.
Across the screen, the “Breaking News: Irene Batters Long Island” caption was replaced by stern advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): “Stay inside, stay safe.”
The images summed up Hurricane Irene – the media and the United States federal government trying to live up to their own doom-laden warnings and predictions while a sizeable number of ordinary Americans just carried on as normal and even made gentle fun of all the fuss.
There was almost palpable disappointment among the TV big guns rolled out for the occasion when Irene was downgraded to a mere ‘tropical storm”. In New York city, CNN’s silver-haired Anderson Cooper, more usually seen in a tight t-shirt in a famine or war zone, was clad in what one wag dubbed “disaster casual”.
He looked crestfallen and fell briefly silent when a weatherwoman told him that the rain was not going to get any worse. “Wow, because this isn’t so bad,” he said. “It’s an annoying rain but it isn’t even a sideways rain.”
Then came the press conferences from the politicians, with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey insisting that his evacuation of the Jersey Shore was “a pre-emptive measure that I am confident saved lives” and there could still be damage worth “tens of billions” of dollars.
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security chief, declared that there was “a ways to go with Irene” but “with the evacuations and other precautions taken we have dramatically decreased the risk to life”. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York seemed thoroughly delighted with himself, as if he personally had calmed the waters and stifled the winds.
The truth is that the dire warning beforehand suited both politicians and journalists. Just as with the minor earthquake that shook the east coast last week causing no loss of life and virtually no damage, Irene became a huge story because it was where the media lived.
For politicians, Irene was a chance to either make amends or appear in control. The White House sent out 25 Irene emails to the press on Saturday alone.
There were photographs of President Barack Obama touring disaster centres and footage of him asking sombre, pertinent questions. With his poll ratings plummeting, Obama needed to project an aura of seriousness and command. He was all too aware that the political fortunes of his predecessor George W Bush never recovered after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.
The press mostly reported the message the White House had carefully crafted: “Obama takes charge” read the headline of one wire service story.
At the state level, Irene was a chance for political redemption. Christie had been lambasted around the start of the year for taking a holiday during one of the worst snow storms in New Jersey history.
Bloomberg, who ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents in low-lying areas during Irene that thousands ignored, had been widely criticised for inadequate clean-up plans during the same blizzards.
There was some loss of life during Irene, though significantly less than during dozens of other weather events across the US this year.
Preparation for the worst-case scenario makes sense and could have saved hundreds during Katrina. But the worst-case scenario was largely portrayed as inevitable. Some of the footage of television reporters putting themselves in the most extreme position possible just to get the best “stand-up” live shot was beyond parody.
First prize went to Tucker Barnes, a reporter for Fox 5, who went live from Ocean City, Maryland amid a strange, brown foamy substance. He reported that it “didn’t taste great” and had a “sandy consistency”. Apparently, it was raw sewage:
As Howard Kurtz notes, The media and politicians enjoy a symbiotic relationship during possible impending disasters. The resultant perfect storm of hype over Irene runs the risk of making Americans even more like to ignore warnings in the future.
By lunchtime on Sunday, the sun was peeking through over New York. The TV anchors were expressing their relief at the good news that the east coast had “dodged a bullet” and Irene had not been the apocalypse they had predicted.
Perhaps it would be a bit too much to hope that they and certain politicians felt a little sheepish too.