Hurricane OVERreaction? HOGWASH!
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
As many people as were harmed by Hurricane Irene, many - from the safety of looking back - were also disappointed that the storm didn't put on a more dramatic show. One New Yorker lamented, "LAMEST hurricane EVER." That reaction may be a bit naive, but the reaction to the storm that people and officials overreacted to Hurricane Irene is patent nonsense, and selfish nonsense at that.
It is fairly safe to say that those making this claim are not among the 7.5 million who lost power (many of whom won’t have it back for days), the tens of thousands who suffered property damage (with more to come as flooding crests over the next few days), and certainly they are not members of the 32 families grieving for lost loved ones. The critics are looking backwards invoking hindsight as wisdom and saying “we” overreacted to a storm that mostly didn’t severely impact THEM, and which did less harm that it might have in part BECAUSE of the precautions taken in many places.
Everyone is criticizing the media for hyping the storm. How incredibly trite. The media hype Britney Spear’s pregnancy status, for God’s sake! They hype everything, especially when it pertains to risk. And how simplistic it is to criticize the hype, and ignore the fact that along with the breathless alarmism came important information about an impending danger; storm track, preparation suggestions, evacuation routes. Was there hype? Sure. Did the news media also inform, and allow us to prepare for what was in fact a significant threat, and actually help a lot of people protect themselves and their property? The information they provided did far more good than their hype did any harm.
(By the way, how phony it is for the news media to engage in seemingly honorable self-criticism…”Did WE overhype the storm?”. Oh, so noble. Such self-reflection will have no impact on the news media’s coverage of the next one, nor mitigate the breathless alarmism with which they cover EVERY risk du jour. Which, by the way, is largely how I reported on risk during my career as a daily reporter, including covering hurricanes, so mea culpa.)
What’s more, how inane it is to say that it was an overreaction for people to wait in line to buy batteries and drinking water that turned out not to be needed, or to evacuate areas that in the end did not flood. Today, for some, those might seem to be overreactions, but in the face of impending danger, those were reasonable precautions. (By the way, Hurricane Irene was a good reminder that rare risks can pop up with little or no warning. Sometimes we won’t be able to prepare in advance. Remember the east coast earthquake last week!)
Further, how positively trite, and simply wrong, it is to call this ‘hysteria’ and ‘panic-buying’. Crowds and lines in stores are not ‘panic’ or ‘hysteria’. They are patience and prudent precaution. And how trite it is to charge that public officials overreacted merely to cover their own political hides. This was intelligent public safety policy. You can either be too safe or not safe enough. If you are in charge of people’s well-being, when the sun comes out after the storm, you don’t want to have been not safe enough.
And how absolutely wrong it is to say that this will lead to a ‘Cry Wolf’ reaction to the next storm. Consider that other storms in the past had been hyped by the media, and we had crowded stores to stock up on supplies, and government precautions and evacuations had been recommended, and the storms turned out to be less severe than they might have been…and still, most people took the warnings about Hurricane Irene to heart and did something to get ready. The lines at grocery and hardware stores, the demand for batteries and bottled water, the fact that millions patiently understood and accepted government orders (or suggestions) to evacuate or to shut down mass transit systems, are all signs that people quite reasonably took the danger seriously.
It is so shallow to claim hindsight as wisdom and criticize the reaction to Hurricane Irene as overreaction. And it is so selfish for those not seriously personally affected by the storm to do so. Let’s leave it this way. I wouldn’t want any of those critics in charge of protecting my health and safety when the next storm looms.
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