Hurricane Irene: Did New York over-react?

Brooklyn Bridge, as Irene stormed

New Yorkers did not always start panic-buying before a category one storm. Is this new phenomenon connected with the way the media increasingly pervade and govern our lives?

The first thing I did on Monday, even before drinking coffee, was go online to check the news. I had to know how things were going in the city of my birth.

When I had gone to bed Saturday night, New York had shut down as Hurricane Irene approached, parts of it had been evacuated, the subway closed. There was panic buying in the supermarkets.

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The headlines today make it clear - people lost their lives, property was damaged, a million homes were left without power”

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I found that the New York Times had helpfully put a box on its home page listing the weather conditions in Central Park and out at the airports. The wind was blowing... wait for it... at 16mph in the park, 43mph at Kennedy airport.

Forty-three miles per hour? That's a breezy day in Britain. That's the kind of wind speed we like to go for a walk in after lunch on Boxing Day. Throw in a few needles of rain and it's mother nature's own cure for Christmas period over-indulgence.

Not for the first time I wondered aloud about the kind of group hysteria that more and more often seems to sweep parts of my native land from top to toe. From politicians and television "news" people, to ordinary folks who should know better.


The storm was just category one when New York shut down. Yet panic seemed to be everywhere!

Long Beach Park, woman walking Weather happens, and very rarely to a manmade timetable

I posted on Facebook a terse, slightly vulgar message to my East Coast friends, which ended - "My Rule of thumb: category one, wear a rain coat... Don't panic buy until it gets to category four."

Not everyone saw the humour in my comments, particularly those who live in Vermont or New Jersey, the places that bore the brunt of the rain. It was mostly my older male friends who got my joke. Maybe it's a function of age. We've seen it all before and aren't going to get too worried about a little ol' cat one thing.

A few weeks before I left New York for London in 1985, Hurricane Gloria hit town. There was a similar chorus of doom in the press, although not as much general hysteria. I remember going for a walk around my East Village block as the eye passed near by, misquoting King Lear's mad scene on the heath:

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes ... "

I love that "hurricanoes". Kept shouting the word over and over into the wind.

Anyway, an old buddy of mine from acting days in New York wisely gave up the theatre and moved to a small island off the coast of South Carolina (not so wise, perhaps) and got into sustainable farming.

Comet Kohoutek

  • First sighted in March 1973 by Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek
  • In December 1973, it was visible to the naked eye - but failed to live up to its billing in the media as "the comet of the century"
  • The founder of the Children of God movement, David Berg, saw Kohoutek as a signal of a doomsday event, that would hit the US in January 1974 - this also failed to materialise

As the storm approached he messaged that he was certain it wouldn't hit his island because he had just bought a generator. After it had passed without much ado he compared it to the furore surrounding Comet Kohoutek.

Age also teaches us that weather happens... very rarely to a man-made timetable and, as Irene demonstrated, where mankind expects it to be. The worst storm I've ever lived through was the notorious wind that blew at 134mph across southern England in 1987. Famously, BBC weatherman Michael Fish did not predict it.

Bigging up

This isn't to ignore Irene's destructiveness or her size. The headlines and dramatic photos make it clear, people lost their lives, property was damaged, a million homes were left without power.

But the destruction that took place in Philadelphia, north Jersey and Vermont notwithstanding, there was an over-reaction in advance of the event.

A perfect feedback loop was created between politicians, news media, and a general public whose behaviour is increasingly sculpted by the news media. I think there are several reasons for this.

Hurricane Irene seen from space Irene (top right) over New England

First, the lingering political aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the rare weather events that did unfold as expected. There was every reason to expect it would it be dreadful, yet so little was done to effectively prepare for it. Now politicians don't want to be behind the curve on a major disaster, so they get far out in front of it. They act as if the worst will happen, when it rarely does.

Second, people like to be frightened. That's why any decent-grossing horror movie can be turned into a franchise. Nightmare on Elm Street, 29, Scare Me Again, Freddie. Local television news has long been a source of scaremongering in America. Bigging up a category one storm into the next Katrina is good for ratings.

I think there is a third reason. American society has finally become "media-tised". By that I mean many people (by no means all) find it hard to consider something real unless they encounter it via media: TV, computer, whatever. Experience is secondary.

You may have lived through a dozen category one hurricanes in your life and know precisely what precautions to take - do we have candles in the house and c-size batteries for the flash lights in case the power goes off? Should we get those boxes of books off the basement floor in case it floods again?

Amusing Ourselves to Death

  • Published in 1985 by media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003)
  • It argues that television as a medium is the enemy of rational argument, because viewers are only passively involved
  • Postman classes television news as a form of entertainment
  • In the TV age, he says, politics becomes less about ideas than about image and presentation

Instead, you race down to Costco or the local supermarket and join the general panic. Cancel a week's worth of business meetings. Even though your experience tells you there will be heavy rain and not much more.

Anyway, a better place to follow my idea about media-tisation is in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, published back in 1985. It is a visionary work, and if Postman had lived long enough my guess is he would have written a sequel called Frightening Ourselves to Death.

Today, my end of the Facebook counter-reality is alive with jokes: "Whooooooo-eee! That was close!" and, YouTube footage of flooding and streakers running buck nekkid through the rain. Truly, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

Michael Goldfarb is a former London bureau chief for National Public Radio. He now writes from London for Globalpost and is a regular contributor to Dateline London on the BBC News Channel and BBC World News. He worked (and occasionally got paid) as an actor in New York in the 1970s and 1980s.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Certainly looked like huge panic from the TV coverage.(in the UK at least)

    I think there's too much information available nowadays and it only takes a few people to extrapolate catastrophe from it to get more and more whipped up into a frenzy of panic..

    It's the same with just about any possible disaster (however small) nowadays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    My wife and I drove into the Target in Rego Park (Queens) at 11am on Saturday to pick the obligatory gallons of water and were somewhat surprised to get a parking spot right next to the front door. Considering the place was closing at 12, there was absolutely no evidence of panic. As Bloomberg said (REPEATEDLY), better to prepare for the worst and receive the best. I'm ok with that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I don't think think any NYC'ers were panicking, nothing like they do in Godzilla the movie, or the day after tomorrow. The media on the other hand lost all sense of reality, on both sides of the Atlantic. It was completely ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I also lived through the storm 1987 when the tiled roof of my parents house was ripped off and I just lived through Hurricane Irene in Rockland County NY. They are not comparable at all. In 87 the main destructive force was wind and for a short period. This weekend it was rain - more than I have ever seen while living in Essex for 30yrs. The point here is not the wind-speed it was the floodinging

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I live on NY/NJ border and work in Manhattan. I saw no panic here despite the media hype on the TV channels. What I did see was a city administration take logical steps against a worst case surge tide of 15 feet. Perhaps Mr Goldfarb fell for the media hype his is railing against.
    The wind speeds reported in the article were due to the eye of the storm and indeed it was a beautiful for 2 hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Hi Ed, all your Editor Picks are critical of the article. I agree with the article, it was just a bit of rain. I thought NYers were hard!

    So what would a philosopher say? Has the media brought us all together in a way that makes life seem like one big outdoor festival?

    Or are we all so desperate for freedom in our straitjacketed world, we wish one of these events could really change things?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    This is a 'regression effect'. Predictions correlate imperfectly with outcomes. As a group, events that are expected to turn out worst, are somewhat better in reality (on average). Regression works both ways. There will be events just as bad as we expected certain others to be, but these will in general exceed our expectations of disaster. News is overly bad predictions, and unexpected disasters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The latest in a long string of smirking condescending articles I have read in the Telegraph, BBC, Guardian, all UK institutions about overreaction. Living in NJ, working in NY for MTA I saw no panic, rather a sober assessment of what the worst case may be and a measured response to an unpredictable element. Currently without power until Saturday but am alive and able to get to work could be worse

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It's 2 fold, the media does not want to be caught flat footed if there is a true disaster, they want to be able to say 'we told you so" but having invested so much energy in the story they don't want to let go of it. on satruday it was clear the strom was falling apart but they never said it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The answer to your question is no. Your theory appears to be that people become more reckless as they get older, rather than the standard assumption that they get more cautious. If American leaders shared your glib overconfidence, and the storm had veered to the East rather than the West, then many lives would have been lost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    This article proves that government agencies are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Would the author agree with the proverb that 'an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure'.
    At the end of it all some thirty plus people died in this storm. If it had been five hundred people the same author would have been damning governments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Thank you for this post. I grew up on the coast in NC. Talking with friends and family last week, most prepared by checking for batteries, filling up gas tanks, and buying an extra bottle of wine. Media is responsible for the panic. One NC news program interviewed a local official who stated that he had ordered extra body bags in expectatation for the floating victims who refused to evacuate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    You are wrong - the city didn't panic. Many people stocked up on food, candles and water - sensible given the unpredictability of hurricanes. It was the media that panicked, and this article is just another link in the whole media fascination with weather.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Oh come on! Anyone that is annoyed by this article is a) American and b) already have panic inducing fear and hyperbole etched into their psyche. BO said this was to be historic, it wasnt. It was merely spin to show how well they can look out for US citizens. The fact that you took precautions is fine, but this is about how the media drives the ridiculous fear and security you yanks so dearly need

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I agree in part with the author. It was definitely overhyped in NYC and it is the first time I have seen it shut down. The blizzard was far worse with respect to weather events. I think Americans can get coerced more easily by the media into feeling/acting a certain way than perhaps the Brits, who see it more as a challenge to continue to act as if nothing is going on (maybe stupid but more fun).

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Everybody, but us here in Bermuda, missed Tropical Storm Jose that pssed us at the same time. We live in a hurricane zone so we build accordingly. Why don't the US, especially in North Carolina and below, build to protect themselves from hurricanes?
    Beware of Katia, the next storm in the Atlantic...

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Panic? What panic? I saw clips of folk stocking up on food for a few days, just as you would for Christmas and Thanksgiving. I thought that very sensible given the unpredictability of hurricanes and tropical storms. Don't you think this article is overdone?
    NY is not used to this kind of test of its defences and infrastructure. Imagine if Obama had stayed on holiday and the worst had happened!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We live on L.I., and there was some skepticism at first regarding the hype about Irene. However, we would never fault our local officials for being overprepared. We didn't panic; we just made sure we had adequate supplies, and an escape plan if the situation became hairy. Mother Nature is powerful and unpredictable; It is better to respect its potential and prepare, rather than ignore the risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    This article is why I have so much difficulty explaining to people in England why a Hurricane is so dangerous.

    The "The worst storm I've ever lived through was the notorious wind that blew at 134mph across southern England in 1987" were gusts.

    Speeds quoted for the Hurrican are sustained winds. Category 1 is still 75mph sustained with gusts close to and exceeding the figure given for 1987.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Slightly irresponsible reporting.., '..breezy day we like to take a stroll in on boxing day.', I don't think so! People DID lose their lives, and if any one of those who did had been a friend or family member of the reporter's, no doubt this article would have taken a very different tone, if written at all. The headline drew interest, but the content destroyed any good faith. Try again Michael.


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