Hurricane Irene Disaster Management

Just Like 1908?

After Hurricane Irene, some people joked that the media sees hurricanes as a grand opportunity to dress up in the newest outdoor gear and brace against the howling wind, downed trees, and rain driving sideways (although sometimes pranksters steal the show.) Hurricanes have all the right elements for media profiteering too - drama, death, destruction and lots of "human interest". But to build drama, you need to build up the storm. On Friday night, August 25th, we linked to these four news stories in successive Tweets:

  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1903 (Published August 26, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1908 (Published August 24, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1938 (Published August 26, 2011 10:28 p.m. EDT) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1985 (Published August 26, 2011 1:23AM) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired

Not only can't forecasters predict with 100% accuracy the power or path of a storm, but certainly, as we showed, newspaper reporters can't. The media can't necessarily be faulted though, after all a hurricane is a moving target. In fact, as long as everyone tunes in, the media actually plays an helpful role public safety role, that is by creating more drama on television then any one person can witness outside, over-the-top media coverage can actually aid public safety officials.

The list of East Coast storms throughout history is extensive, but reporters plucked somewhat random mix of historical events out of the hundreds available: The so called Vagabond Hurricane of 1903, produced 65mph winds in Central Park; the deadly New England Hurricane of 1938, was a Category 3 at landfall; and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 struck as a Category 2 hurricane. It's unclear what storm in 1908 the Lehigh Valley Morning Call reporter was talking about, since none of the storms that year amounted to much, and on August 24th 2011, when the Morning Call published, most reporters were comparing Irene to Hurricane Katrina, not some random storm that blew out to sea in the Caribbean. Maybe the reporter hadn't had their morning coffee.

But there you have it, taken together, it's clear that storms can go many different ways and we don't have the technical or intuitive abilities to predict them exactly accurately, or at least to the degree that audiences seem to be demanding after the event.

That Healthy Cry, The Complainer - Alive and Well

When Irene actually hit, the hurricane created lots of flooding and destruction not to be trifled with. But as the New York Times reported after the storm, some New Yorkers were peeved at the pre-storm hype. New Yorkers expressed anger at the cops on bullhorns telling people to go inside, anger at the storm itself for not living up to its potential, and of course anger with Mayor Bloomberg. One person complained Bloomberg made people spend too much money: "The tuna fish and the other food, O.K., we're going to eat it. I don't need all this water and batteries, though."

But lets compare this outcome with the great bungling of Katrina in 2005, to see how things can easily go the other way. At least 1,836 people died in Katrina and property damage was estimated to be $81 billion 2005 USD.

FEMA took most of the fall for the Hurricane Katrina management disaster, along with FEMA administrator Michael Brown ,who appeared utterly useless despite fervent support from George W. Bush. As we wrote at the time in "FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?", FEMA had failed US citizens in multiple hurricanes during the administration of George H.W. Bush in the 1980's, and had been expertly revived and made useful during the Bill Clinton administration under the leadership of James E. Witt. Then George W. Bush decimated the revived FEMA, using it as his father had. As the House Appropriations Committee reported in 1992, FEMA had been used as a "political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm', if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment". (Washington Post July 31)

So given the recent history of Katrina, and the debacles of several state and city governments in last winter's multiple blizzards, it seems inane that so many people who lived through those disasters now fault Bloomberg as "the boy who cried wolf". But then people might complain no matter what, and given the somewhat unpredictable path of storms, I think everyone would agree that it's better to be alive complaining, than dead and swept out to sea because of lack of government warning.

Assuring Future Disasters are Worse

Of course we don't know how the government would have fared in a worse disaster. And while people complain about the lack of a bigger hurricane, FEMA is currently hindered from helping with Irene. Why? Apparently, a FEMA funding bill is being held up in the Senate while politicians with idiosyncratic proclivities indulge their hypocritical "family values" by meticulously delineating all the organizations that can't be paid with FEMA money.

To our detriment, we ignore larger issues while we complain. FEMA's role takes a role not only during and after a hurricane, but in adequately preparing people ahead of time, as we wrote in "FEMA and Disaster Preparedness". Neither FEMA nor state or local governments adequately helped prepare for Katrina, as we detailed in: "Disaster Preparedness - Can We?". Although states and cities didn't play as large a role in the the federal government failings as G.W. Bush would later say, rewriting of history, their role is important.

Of course, disaster preparedness means not only motivating citizens to buy supplies and stay inside, not only mobilizing a deft response, but shoring up infrastructure ahead of time. In the wake of Katrina, we all heard about the failure of governments to build adequate New Orlean's levees, an issue Acronym Required wrote about in "Levees - Our Blunder". However before Katrina, few people realized just how flagrantly officials ignored warnings about the weak levees. When the hurricane breached the walls, politicians acted surprised, that surprise masking the blunt unwillingness of politicians and US citizens to support and fund infrastructure.

We wrote about more widespread infrastructure failings in 2007, in "Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall". But infrastructure is easy to ignore. Just as vociferously as citizens complain about the hype preceding Hurricane Irene1, they remain stunningly silent on the lack of infrastructure preparedness. In fact there's loud clamoring to dismantle the very agencies that assure our safety. Obama has tried in some ways to address the infrastructure problem, not without criticism.

In the case of the New Orleans levees, the New Orlean's Times-Picayune reports that although $10 billion has been spent upgrading the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers is giving them a failing grade. The report says that the refurbished levees might stand a 100 year event, but a larger event will result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. This was exactly the criticism of the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.


1 Here's an interesting analysis of the hype-factor of news relating to Hurricane Irene. The author uses a quantity of publications analysis to argue is that the storm was not hyped.

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