US & Canada

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.

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!

Image caption 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.

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.

Image caption 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?

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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