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Did hurricane of hype engulf New York?

August 29, 2011

With the skyline of New York in the background, people walk during sunset at the Jersey City Waterfront Walkway along Hudson river in New Jersey August 28, 2011. – Reuters Photo

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 named 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, mostly youthful 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.”

On the Forbes website, Patrick Michaels said weather journalists and politicians were to blame together.

“With this level of noise, the political process has to respond with full mobilization,” he wrote. And persuading the public of danger next time around may be difficult – with deadly results, he warned. “How many people will the hyping of Irene have killed?” Michaels asked.

“That's how Hurricane Hype followed by Hurricane Insanity leads to hurricane death.”