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Hurricane Hype

Wed, 11/16/2011 - 10:51am
Luke Simpson, Editor

As Tropical Storm Irene crossed into Canadian airspace, simultaneous back slapping and criticism broke out along the East Coast in response to officials’ handling of the event. Back slapping for the widespread warnings and evacuations that took place, and criticism from some who believe the event was overhyped.

An article in The Wash-ington Post gives a good summary of what the storm did and didn’t do, and recounts the language used by media outlets in the lead-up to Irene’s arrival. When you look at the path and sheer size of the storm as it passed over the Caribbean, it’s hard to argue that the warnings were not justified.

Meteorologists are now very good at predicting the paths of hurricanes and tropical storms, and in the case of Irene, they pretty much nailed it. The strength of a hurricane, on the other hand, is harder to predict.

Everyone in this industry knows that you need to plan for a worst-case scenario. The fact that Irene was a weakening Category 1 hurricane when it reached North Carolina was a gift.

And let’s not pretend that we got off the hook here. With the death count from Irene now at 40, and the worst flooding in living memory across many densely populated areas, Irene was a tragedy that should motivate communities and government officials to consider new ways to combat damage and casualties from large storms.

I recently wrote about the work being done by the Insurance Bureau of Canada to combat the increased storm activity resulting from climate change. Community-based initiatives, such as providing free water tanks to households to slow the rate at which water enters the sewer system, are proving to be simple, yet effective ways of mitigating flood damage.

Getting back to the media’s handling of the event, you can’t really blame them for latching onto Irene. True, it’s good for ratings, but a lot of stations are very serious about their role as the main source of information for the public during these events, and would rather be overly cautious than left feeling responsible for not adequately warning people.

That said, the public has a habit of ignoring the media after it repeatedly cries “wolf.” For example, the hail size criteria for severe thunderstorm warnings was recently changed by the National Weather Service from penny- to quarter-sized, in part because the frequent warnings were desensitizing the public.

There’s a fine line between keeping the public informed and keeping their interest.

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