Hurricane Irene: Why hurricane hyperbole never goes out of style

Where should the media draw the line between reasonable warnings and fear-mongering? A few mistakes and a partially missed prognosis aren't necessarily proof that the media blew the story.

By , Staff writer

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    Mahattan is enveloped in dark clouds as hurricane Irene approaches New York on Saturday evening.
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On one 24-hour news channel, a correspondent described the calm before hurricane Irene as the calm before a B-movie zombie attack. One anchor proclaimed the storm to be “as big as Europe.” Elsewhere, the hurricane was touted as the storm of a lifetime.

Storm hype is of course nothing new, neither is saying overwrought things when trying to fill up hours of airtime.

But as the hurricane approached, the fever pitch of the Irene coverage took on a life of its own, with government officials leading a chorus of caution even as closer watchers of the weather, especially on the ground in North Carolina, grew increasingly convinced that Irene would not strengthen, but steadily weaken instead into something closer to a massive tropical storm.

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On one network, "they are desperately trying to [show] a nail, a shingle, anything. It's getting embarrassing,” one Internet commenter said as Irene's core made landfall with 74 mile-per-hour ground speed readings in many locations near its eye – right on the line between a tropical storm and a hurricane. Days earlier, forecasters believed a catastrophic Category 4 storm was a distinct possibility.

The fact is, hurricane Irene's massive, lumbering pace, heavy storm surge and driving rains is still spelling major trouble across mid-Atlantic states and into New England, downing power lines and threatening the New York City subway system, which the city closed, along with the rest of its mass transit system, for the first time in its history upon Irene's approach.

But the difference between damage predictions and the actual impact of Irene as it made landfall in eastern North Carolina was duly noted by some Americans, who felt the government and the media missed the call.

“Weather channel is calling Irene 'storm of a lifetime'?” one person tweeted. “Did they already forget about Andrew, Rita, Katrina, Hugo, Floyd?”

But many such assessments followed governmental warnings as well as the storm's size, unusual path and potential bull's eye on New York City.

Only a day earlier, President Obama urged Americans to follow the advice of the Second Fleet, which moved an aircraft carrier out of the storm's path. Moreover, Craig Fugate, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned Americans against following wind speed categorizations of the storm too closely, since destructive, even deadly, floods and major power outages from the storm's formidable rain and surge remain a possibility.

If authorities struggle with getting the balance of forecast and warnings right, a few mistakes and over-representations from the media are understandable, says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communication at American University.

“There's really nothing negative about the media erring on the side of public safety,” he says, “But on the other hand, the media love these sort of dramatic, exciting stories, they love the visuals of reporters sitting out there rain-drenched with wind blowing through his or her hair – it's excellent visuals, and it's a visual medium.”

And the stakes are, in fact, sky high: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to move over 300,000 people away from low lying areas in the city. Entire areas of the New Jersey coast are devoid of people. At the same time, the eye-popping predictions – including a $35 billion estimated price tag for the storm's damage – have been built on the assumption that the storm would come ashore as a Category 1 hurricane rather than a tropical storm, a distinction that's likely to be debated in the aftermath.

“The reduction in storm intensity likely confirms that this storm is not going to be as monstrous as it has been publicly forecast to be,” wrote Dr. Simon Atkins, the CEO of Advanced Forecasting Corporation, on Friday afternoon.

So what happened? Given concerns about the safety of tens of millions of people along America's most populated coastline, goes one theory, some forecasters may ultimately have heeded forecasting assumptions and official concern about the storm strengthening over the reality on the ground.

“They may have held onto that moment a bit long,” says Mike Biggerstaff, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman.

“The public needs to understand that sometimes they want scientists to give them such accurate information and with incredible confidence, and one of the things science needs to do is say, 'This is our best prediction, but also here is the uncertainty associated with it’," he adds. "That way people can make their own decision on what they want to do with that uncertainty in a threat like this. At the same time, it's always better to be safe than sorry in a major severe event like the landfall of a hurricane.”

Hurricane prep: Are you smarter than a storm tracker? Take our quiz

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