Perfect Storm of Hype: Politicians, the media and the Hurricane Irene apocalypse that never wasBy Toby Harnden
Aug. 28, 2011
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For the television reporter, clad in his red cagoule emblazoned with the CNN logo, it was a dramatic on-air moment, broadcasting live from Long Island, New York during a hurricane that also threatened Manhattan.
"We are in, right, now... the right eye wall, no doubt about that... there you see the surf," he said breathlessly. "That tells a story right there."
Stumbling and apparently buffeted by ferocious gusts, he took shelter next to a building. "This is our protection from the wind," he explained. “It's been truly remarkable to watch the power of the ocean here."
The surf may have told a story but so too did the sight behind the reporter of people chatting and ambling along the sea front and just goofing around. There was a man in a t-shirt, a woman waving her arms and then walking backwards. Then someone on a bicycle glided past.
Across the screen, the "Breaking News: Irene Batters Long Island" caption was replaced by stern advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): "Stay inside, stay safe."
The images summed up Hurricane Irene -- the media and the United States federal government trying to live up to their own doom-laden warnings and predictions while a sizeable number of ordinary Americans just carried on as normal and even made gentle fun of all the fuss.
There was almost palpable disappointment among the TV big guns rolled out for the occasion when Irene was downgraded to a mere 'tropical storm". In New York city, CNN's silver-haired Anderson Cooper, more usually seen in a tight t-shirt in a famine or war zone, was clad in what one wag dubbed "disaster casual".
He looked crestfallen fell briefly silent when a weatherwoman told him that the rain was not going to get any worse. "Wow, because this isn't so bad," he said. "It's an annoying rain but it isn't even a sideways rain."
Then came the press conferences from the politicians, with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey that his evacuation of the Jersey Shore was "a pre-emptive measure that I am confident saved lives" and there could still be damage worth “tens of billions” of dollars.
Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security chief, declared that there was ” a ways to go with Irene” but “with the evacuations and other precautions taken we have dramatically decreased the risk to life”. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York seemed thoroughly delighted with himself, as if he personally had calmed the waters and stifled the winds.