Did Irene fizzle?

Daily Beast media columnist Howard Kurtz leads the charge against how the media covered Hurricane Irene:

. . . the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize. And at 9 a.m., you could almost hear the air come out of the media’s hot-air balloon of constant coverage when Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm.

After acknowledging that a lot of people lost power (five million) and there have been some deaths (40), Kurtz continues:

. . . the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings. Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly—say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya—was to risk driving viewers elsewhere. Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines even as it became apparent that the storm wasn’t as powerful as advertised.

The fact that New York, home to the nation’s top news outlets, was directly in the storm’s path clearly fed this story-on-steroids. Does anyone seriously believe the hurricane would have drawn the same level of coverage if it had been bearing down on, say, Ft. Lauderdale?

Armed with facts, Nate Silver blogging for The New York Times, says coverage was fairly typical for a landfalling hurricane. He assembles a statistic (the “News Unit”), which tracks mentions of hurricanes in news stories. Irene was No. 10 all time:

As a measure, it’s a bit flawed – it’s not standardized for the number of publications in the region the storm is projected to hit. But that bias would skew to show overcoverage of Irene which hit three of the nation’s largest media markets.

But Silver’s methodology seems to undercount TV coverage of the storms, which is what Kurtz is upset about.

Kurtz is right about the storm, I think, but he’s wrong about the coverage.

Irene did not pack the punch forecast. It brought sheets of rain, but it lacked the windspeed to do the damage forecast. Cat modeler AIR Worldwide points out the windspeeds that the National Hurricane Center measured didn’t match what was measured on the ground:

. . . while the NHC was reporting sustained winds of 85 miles an hour in North Carolina on Saturday, onshore instruments (anemometers) were reporting sustained winds only in the 50- to 60-mile-an-hour range. A similar disparity was observed along the length of the East Coast.

I’ll vouch for that. At my home (Montclair, NJ), sustained winds were forecast to peak at 55-75 mph – the cusp of Cat 1. They actually peaked at 23 mph, with gusts to 45.

We were supposed to receive sustained winds above 40 miles an hour for more than 10 hours. We never received winds that speed.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, winds were supposed to be blowing 20 mph+. The air barely stirred. I remember thinking, “Where is the wind?”

Well, the wind didn’t show up – even as meteorologists said it was happening.

Here’s a screen grab from the NWS site for Central Park on Sunday as the eye of the hurricane passed OVER Central Park. It’s from the three day history of zip code 10005 at this general address.

Wind speeds are in the third column. The eye of the storm passed over New York beginning at 9 a.m. Moments before (8:51), winds were blowing from the northeast at 18, with gusts to 25.

An hour later, 8:51, the eye of the storm had passed over. Winds came from the southwest, the opposite direction of an hour earlier. (Wind direction shifts when a hurricane passes.)

And those winds were blowing at 9 mph.

Why the disparity? I don’t know. I doubt the National Weather Service knows, either. Hurricanes are complex, just like any other 800-mile wide object that moves.

We’ve learned a lot in recent years.

We knew four days in advance that Irene would strike the Northeast. In 1992, Miamians had 36 hours notice before Andrew struck. Sixty extra hours of warning – that’s a lot of progress in 20 years.

But there’s still a lot to learn. And clearly, we have to learn why wind speeds in the air diverged so much from what was on the ground.

Had the wind blown as hard as predicted, damages would have soared. Strong, sustained winds blowing over saturated land would have toppled tens of thousands of trees onto power lines and into homes. Millions would have been without power, most for more than a week.

As it is, AIR estimates insured losses between $3B and $6B. The storm as forecast would probably have sent losses past $10 billion.

It’s pretty clear the media reported the storm they had been led to believe would hit. They can’t be blamed that it didn’t.



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