Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene thoughts

My thoughts on Hurricane Irene are limited to NYC and the NYC media and government.

The effect of Irene on NYC was anticlimatically mild after all the hype. There was a windy rainstorm on Saturday night, but certainly nothing close to a hurricane. I made it a point to walk past the mayor-ordered evacuation Zone A and out onto the end of a Hudson River pier during the windiest and hardest rain of the storm, about 1-2 am Sunday. When it was announced that Irene's eye had arrived in NYC at 9 am Sunday, the rain by that time had actually lightened to a drizzle with a mild breeze. While the wind picked up later on Sunday, though still nothing near hurricane levels, the rain stopped altogether. Sunday - the day Hurricane Irene was supposed to rampage through NYC - dawned in fact as a beautiful day in the city with blue skies, cleansed air, and a welcome brisk breeze.

The NYC media did report the facts on Irene, but they also sensationalized their coverage with the direst spin of Katrina-esque flooding and windborne destruction. Even as the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm, the media acted as though the danger remained as high as for a hurricane. Even as it became apparent on Sunday that the impact of Irene on NYC was normal for a hard rainstorm, television reporters seemed to go out of their way to seek out low-lying areas and dips that normally flood during rainstorms to serve as backdrops for their continued breathless reporting. The television news, deployed throughout the weekend in 24-hour crisis mode, seemed invested in the idea of an epic natural disaster befalling NYC, and in the absence of an actual disaster, selectively spot-lighted and exaggerated whatever photogenic storm effects they could find. Local politicians, angling for relief funds from the state and fed, dutifully played along in interviews. As it became obvious the storm danger was over, the on-scene reporters looked increasingly foolish as they exclaimed incredulously about motorists driving through waterlogged intersections, pedestrians out strolling, and even beach-goers enjoying the water.

I don't fault the media for warning New Yorkers earlier in the week. Harsh weather can become dangerous if you're caught in it unprepared. It's not a bad thing for people to be more conscientious about emergencies and generally resilient. Predicted weather can change unpredictably, for better or worse. I'm reminded of when the weather office in my last unit forecasted a typhoon (an Asian hurricane). Weather is serious business in an aviation unit, so I thought of Traci's dad (RIP), who was scheduled to drive on a long business trip. I called her to warn him, which she did, but Traci's dad ignored my warning. That predicted typhoon turned out to be a normal rainstorm, too, and I felt foolish and embarassed afterwards. It happens. Where the NYC media beclowned themselves was sticking stubbornly to their disaster reporting even as it became obvious to their audience that there was no disaster.

As for the government response, I don't understand why the subways, trains, and buses were shut down entirely and shut down so earlier (noon Saturday). Shutting down the public transportation system shuts down the city. It was an unprecedented drastic preemptive action that seemed disproportionate ahead of the event and unnecessary in hindsight. Rainstorms are not rare in NYC; I can only imagine their fear was of massive flooding of the subway system by a storm surge of corrosive seawater, not rain flooding. But even in the case of a storm surge, the MTA should have been able to run limited service with a shutdown of the entire system held back as a last resort.

My guess is that the drastic preemptive actions, including the evacuation, ordered by the city were a reaction to the criticism of the city's response to the 2010 "blizzard". Having grown up in Queens and witnessed the city's response to previous heavy snowstorms, I thought the city's response to the heavy snowstorm last winter was normal. Only the harsh media criticism and subsequent politicization were new. Predictably, the consequence of punishing a normal response is the elicitation of an abnormal response in the future.




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