Hurricane Irene: Evacuation and Communication

OK. Let the second-guessing begin. If it were your call, would you have ordered people in the path of Hurricane Irene to evacuate? Would you have closed the beaches — and brought public transportation to a standstill?

I would have. That’s the life lesson from Katrina: better to do something rather than nothing. And when you are talking about evaluating risk, the something that you do might not always be perfect.

Here’s an interesting perspective from the New York Daily News, “Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘sky-is-falling’ act makes him hero of Hurricane Irene“:

Note to pols: Too much is better than not enough.

Or as mom always said, better safe than sorry.

Those words of wisdom are political winners.

Sure, Irene wasn’t quite as advertised. Plenty of New Yorkers grumbled that mandatory evacuations and constant warnings were an extreme overreaction, but history will remember Hurricane Irene as a victory for Mayor Bloomberg.

He was the one who evacuated low-lying parts of the city, who was on TV seemingly at every moment warning, cautioning and coaching New Yorkers on how to deal with what was touted as a killer hurricane.

The foresight and hustle won kudos – some begrudgingly.

In sharp contrast to the bruising Bloomberg took as the city struggled to dig out from the debilitating post-Christmas blizzard, Hizzoner was lavished with praise yesterday from even his toughest critics.

“I’m not a critic today. I’m a fan,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Brooklyn), who last spring conducted what some called the “Mother of all Hearings” into the city’s disastrous blizzard response.

“I’m sorta disappointed. I emailed some of my colleagues today and said, ‘Damn! I missed my opportunity to have the Mother of All Hearings, Part II.'”

And then we get to the national news media — especially cable TV — which appears to enjoy covering hurricanes more than any other story. Did the media make too much of Irene?  Here’s an interesting take from Sebastian Smith, “Did hurricane of hype engulf New York?“:

NEW YORK — Hurricane Irene may have been a category one storm, but some wondered if hot air from the media and politicians wasn’t what really blew off the scale.

New York is the biggest US city, media capital, financial powerhouse and one of the most photogenic places on Earth — Hollywood’s favorite backdrop for disaster movies.

So, given the chance to report on a rare storm at their doorstep, TV networks headquartered in Manhattan did not disappoint.

Beautifully coiffed and tanned weathermen competed to paint more terrifying scenarios.

Even before Irene was anywhere near New York, one big network aired a colorful report about a possible urban apocalypse, with JFK airport under 20 feet of water, Wall Street submerged, and the subway system “knocked out.”

During the actual storm some TV reporters — and stars like CNN’s Anderson Cooper — took the tone to yet another level.

Dripping wet, wind scraping at their microphones, the reporters stood resolutely in the familiar pose of hurricane journalists — water everywhere and bodies bent to the gale.

Never mind that during one network’s report, ordinary people could be seen calmly walking around while the correspondent seemingly battled to stay upright. Or that sometimes the extent of flooding shown in New York seemed to have been exaggerated through clever camera angles.

Then there was the indomitable reporter who did an entire stand-up while being lathered in a brown, foamy and very smelly substance that sounded suspiciously like sewage overflow.

“Conditions continue to deteriorate in a big way,” he declared, as he started to disappear under the mystery foam in front of a beach. “Doesn’t smell great.”

As Irene faded from hurricane to plain windy day, the wall-to-wall coverage might have seemed overcooked. Maybe not.

Journalists were following what politicians told them and politicians said they were following what the National Hurricane Center and other weather experts told them.

President Barack Obama, fighting for reelection next year, quickly showed he was in charge.

Breaking off a Martha’s Vineyard vacation with conference calls and emergency meetings, Obama at least ensured he didn’t repeat George W. Bush’s mistake in 2005 of seemingly not paying enough attention to the truly deadly Hurricane Katrina.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seen by some as a dark horse contender for Republican presidential candidate, confronted Irene in his own particular media savvy way.

Not only did he order one million people out of their homes, he loudly told everyone to “get the hell off the beach.” They did, fleeing in droves — and Christie’s authority was boosted.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — still stung by criticism that the city failed miserably in a huge snow storm last winter — shut down New York before so much as a rain drop fell.

In an unprecedented order he told 370,000 people in Brooklyn and other outlying neighborhoods they had to evacuate. Then he closed the entire Subway, train and bus system, turning the city into a ghost town.

When Irene shuffled off Sunday, having caused minimal damage in New York, but leaving the transport system facing days of chaos, Bloomberg said he’d been proved right.

“The bottom line is that I would make the same decisions again, without hesitation. We can’t just, when a hurricane is coming, get out of the way and hope for the best,” he said.

Although New York City escaped mostly unscathed, the storm did claim 18 lives and inflict billions of dollars of damage along the US east coast.

Still, even that toll is unlikely to persuade critics that the hype matched reality.

“Cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon,” Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast website said. “National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations… with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a category one hurricane, the lowest possible ranking.”

For elected officials, better to be safe than sorry.

For news directors, it’s a big, important story. But the sky isn’t always falling.

Just sayin’.

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