Our Type of Hype: Better an Overblown Irene Than Another Katrina

Posted by Cord Jefferson

hurricane irene from space
Hurricane Irene is over, and it wasn't nearly as bad as had been expected. Thirty-five people have now been confirmed dead, and flooding in Vermont and New York continues to hinder communities, but, for the most part, the carnage wasn't what we'd imagined it would be. If you're in one of the cities hardest hit, you might very well be grateful things weren't worse. Not Howard Kurtz, though. The D.C.-based political pundit was irritated enough by the Irene "hype" that he wrote a whole column about it for the Daily Beast.

"Someone has to say it," he wrote. "Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations, going wall to wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest possible ranking."

Kurtz would later hedge his bets by tweeting that it is "of course better to be over-prepared for a hurricane" and that Irene was an "important story." But his anger over the 24-hour news cycle's "scaremongering" stood.

We're not the type to remain reverent to institutions for no reason. The media often behaves in reprehensible ways, and it should be punished when it does that. Unfortunately for Kurtz, like the very same prognosticators he's pooh-pooing after the fact, this time he's just wrong.

Nate Silver has put together a nice takedown of Kurtz and his followers' logic for The New York Times today. Noting that Irene was only the 10th most-reported hurricane since 1980, Silver then points out that this weekend's storm was the 8th most economically destructive in 30 years and the 4th deadliest. If the havoc a storm creates should be comparable to how it's covered, it stands to reason that maybe Irene was underreported. Either way, one wonders how many more people might have died had Irene not been so "overhyped." 

Another rather sad finding courtesy of Silver is that Hurricane Katrina, by far America's deadliest and costliest storm, only received enough coverage before it happened to be the 14th most reported hurricane of the last 30 years. In retrospect, we know that the vigilance given to that New Orleans tragedy six years ago wasn't anywhere near what it should have been, and more than 1,500 people paid for that with their lives. If there is a lesson in their deaths with relation to news coverage, it's one that we've known since man first encountered rain: the weather is unpredictable. But when people's lives are at risk, it's better to be overcautious than underprepared. And when the storm passes, we can all go back to talking about Beyonce's baby as if nothing happened.

photo via (cc) Flickr user NASA Goddard Photos and Videos