Last Words on Hurricane Irene’s “Over-Hype” – It’s Time To Move On

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On Monday I weighed in about supporting the Hurricane Irene preparedness measures put into place by New York City and Mayor Bloomberg. Though my position hasn’t been attacked, you don’t have to look far to find plenty of articles complaining about the over-hype of the media coverage and the “over-the-top” actions by Bloomberg and his crew. Howard Kurtz wrote an article that’s drawn quite a bit of attention, so too has Charlie Spiering, though Charlie mostly just posits the question to his readers, “Was the hurricane hype overblown?” Then there’s the poll on TVNewser asking the same question. Though the number of poll voters is hidden, the majority of voters (39%) agree that, “Yes, the media coverage was over-the-top and only driven by a desire for ratings.”

Personally, I’d like to eliminate the news reporter-risking-life-and-limb-in-the-winds-of-the-hurricane style of hurricane coverage. There’s only one reason for that — ratings. Brad Phillips of the Daily ‘Dog agrees (his piece also includes a great clip of The Weather Channel’s Julie Martin getting up close and personal with a parked SUV, courtesy of 2008’s Hurricane Dolly).  Indeed, sometimes reporters have to put themselves in harm’s way to cover a story (war and riots come to mind), but is this really necessary for a hurricane? My days as a television meteorologist, thankfully, never came to that, though I’m sure — given enough time — it would have.

CNN reporter Rob Marciano takes shelter from the wind while passersby wonder what the big deal is. Screengrab: YouTube

But the question remains: What is too much? “Too much hype” and “too much preparedness”  are subjective terms certainly, but when it comes to hurricanes there is no easy answer, while the actual definitions may change with every storm. The lowest common denominator however, is the accuracy of the hurricane forecast itself. A hurricane forecast is not black and white, nor is it so many zeroes and ones packaged in a tidy, functional and award-winning box from Apple.

Even the best hurricane forecast contains uncertainty and built-in unreliability. In fact, every hurricane forecast from our ImpactWeather TropicsWatch team includes a forecast confidence remark. Even as late as Saturday night, the confidence in the overall Irene forecast was only “above average.”

An unknown reporter is swept off her feet while reporting from the surf. Screengrab: YouTube

For me, this drives to the heart of the question. Putting aside, for now, reporters standing in hurricane winds or in the midst of flooded roadways, how much can the general population rely on a forecast to do exactly what we (the meteorologists) say it will do?

Again, looking at the ImpactWeather Irene forecasts, as late as Sunday morning (Intermediate Advisory 29a, issued 8/28/11 at 12:58 AM Eastern) classified Irene as a hurricane with 80 mph winds, located 50 miles south of Cape May, New Jersey. The forecast at that time maintained its then-current intensity over the next 6-8 hours as it reached NYC. At 3:21 AM, Advisory 30 continued the hurricane-strength forecast, yet with a mention of weakening. Not until 8:18 AM (Intermediate Advisory 30a) did we note that Irene was no longer a hurricane as we located its position “over New York City.”

It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and say, “We did all of that (evacuations, preparedness, etc.) for a measly tropical storm with winds barely over 60 mph?” The fact remains that hurricanes, no matter how much we want them to, do not behave exactly as predicted. Could Irene’s decrease in wind speed be predicted? Yes and no. Yes, it was considered. No because there was just too much uncertainty in how much, when and where. Ask any meteorologist and persistence remains one of the best forecast tools: the forecast will remain the same until something (the great unknown!) changes it.

I mentioned earlier that even as late as Saturday night the overall forecast confidence was only above average. That rating was due to the continued uncertainty of how Irene’s close proximity to the coast would effect its intensity. Additionally, only a slight increase of wind speed would have dramatically changed the damage potential of Irene — adding just 15 mph to the lowest Cat 1 hurricane wind of 75 mph would have the potential to nearly triple the damage. Meteorologically, 15 mph isn’t much but it could’ve completely changed the Monday morning headlines.

So how can we know, when a storm is still days away, that the preparedness and media coverage is justified? We can’t. We have to rely on the meteorology — so much more advanced than just a few years ago, but still not perfect — and we have to rely on our public officials to properly prepare us for the coming storm. Your local officials have the most up-to-date and accurate information possible. I think it’s also up to each of us to realize what’s going on when a reporter is trying to one-up the other stations by braving the wind and storm by risking his or her own safety at the expense of common sense.

Damages in Vermont are still being tallied, but already storm damage estimates are placing Hurricane Irene in the top 10 of all-time costliest storms. Photo: CNN via Yahoo

It should be noted, by the way, your local preparedness, emergency and elected officials are not relying on the information provided by the reporter in the wind or the reporter in the water. At a minimum, they’re relying on information provided by the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, while many rely on the enhanced weather information provided by weather forecasting and business continuity companies like ImpactWeather.


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