A Superstar Named Irene

This is not about Hurricane Irene. Having said that, I probably first heard of Irene before she had been named. This is because large plasma screen TV’s run 24 hours a day in the lobby of the building where I work, and it seems that when business is slow, the news channels focus on topics they can grow into something that sells advertizing. Un-named tropical depressions off Cape Verde are very popular.

I began hearing and reading about Irene with a name on a regular basis right after the Washington, D.C. non-event-the Great 2011 Earthquake. Most of the news stories about that great all-but-nothing-non-happening (the earthquake) stressed events and sheer terror that I neither experienced nor observed-and I was there. On Saturday, the day Irene was supposed to blow into D.C. there were several stories and write-in comments in the Post indicating that other readers were in agreement that the Post reporters might have been reporting from a different planet.

That news media disconnect from reality is not the first I’ve observed, and it probably won’t be the last.

While I normally do not watch the TV news, I did sample the Irene coverage in researching this story. There was much testimony from countless experts and talking heads about her potential “impact” on “65 million people just now coming out of a 5.8 earthquake”. Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Lots and lots of human interest stories with lots of stock footage-some of the stock footage was used and reused for unrelated stories.

There was much advice on how to prepare for the storm. “Fill zip lock bags with water and put them in your freezer.” So you’ll have ice for your margaritas? To ice down your beer? Some of it sounded useful, some of it should have been distributed months ago. Some of it years ago. Much of it sounded like so much news media terrorism and drivel. I particularly enjoyed “…during the hurricane, keep children entertained and busy.” Rush out and buy the battery powered video games advertised on this channel?

As Irene moved north I heard a lot of talk about “history.” “Yes,” I thought, “we are living in history.” Sometimes, I wonder if history will tell us that all of the seemingly other than prudent construction on the coastlines along the historic paths of hurricanes was a conspiracy guided by the weather related news media.

Residents were advised to “fill your car up with gas” and evacuate coastal areas. This is usually good advice. Late Saturday, one radio broadcaster advised someone on one of the Carolina barrier islands, “If you haven’t evacuated already, you should have. The best thing to do now is hunker down” and hope you survive. Prayer?

Irene had the potential to be deadly and she did in fact kill many. But in the limelight and hype modeled on promoting pro-wrestling and rock stars, she became a glamorous overnight celebrity destined for a wild life of “rock and roll.”

This is okay if it sells advertizing.

The day before Irene “impacted” the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge area (Alexandria, Virginia), I went for a long walk and a long drive. I saw boat owners going about the business of mooring their boats and waterfront businesses placing sandbags in front of their stores. Construction crews securing equipment and materials that could potentially fall or be blown off high-rise construction sites. I later saw the Washington Gas Company Mobile Emergency Response Center cruising the urban landscape and freight car sized dumpsters being moved into place for the subsequent clean up.

Of course, other folks were going about the more mundane daily business aspects of life: walking their dogs, pushing children in carriages, tossing a Frisbee with a child or a dog in the park. A couple of dogs had trained their owners to throw balls into the Potomac so they, the dog, could swim out and retrieve it.

Then came the stories about sold out supermarkets and higher gas prices. I personally surveyed one nearby national supermarket and one regional supermarket and sure enough, all of the emergency supplies were gone. You couldn’t find a cold six pack anywhere in Old Town. I checked one of the local Ethiopian operated gas stations and determined that this old gentleman hadn’t raised his prices but he was out of gas, too. In the words of my probably long dead freshman economics professor, consumer demand clearly indicated that he could sell everything he had at that lower price, and he did. What leaves to be established is whether or not he can replenish his supply at higher prices without busting his budget.

Congress should investigate?

Late Saturday, the day of the storm, I drove to a few sites that looked like good places for photographs. I saw more folks walking their dogs or playing “fetch.” The wind was high, the water was very rough, and the rain was coming down. I didn’t see any dogs running into the water to fetch sticks or rubber balls, but I did observe a few hundred large catfish piled in a backwater, belly up, dead and aromatic.

In the area in and around Union and King, police officers were setting out traffic controls in flooded intersections. Mail carriers were making their appointed rounds. Couples were strolling along the Riverwalk; others were sitting on the park benches, watching windblown rain and waves, and enjoying the weather. Some were bundled up against the rain and wind, some were not. All were rain drenched.

One couple, an old man and an old woman walked hand in hand along the sidewalk. He wore trousers with a rain jacket. His hands were in his pockets and he meandered from side to side on the sidewalk. She wore shorts with rubber galoshes and a hooded raincoat and seemed to be effectively preventing him from falling off the curb.

A mother was pushing a child in a carriage, her young son tagged along with the hood of his raincoat hanging down his back, his hair soaked, and his smiling wet face beaming. The baby was sticking her hand out of the carriage feeling the rain and wind.

The river had not yet flooded but some of those intersections have poor drainage and they almost always flood in heavy rain. There was at least one news crew filming in one such intersection. Later that night, I saw that report on TV and they said that the river had flooded.

When you’re operating with a deadline, mistakes happen.

At the end of my walk, the wind and rain was coming hard across the river from the northeast. One couple stands out in memory.

Two old women were standing on the quay, wearing rubber galoshes and rain drenched clothing. Slightly built and frail looking, they stood motionless, holding hands, looking straight into the wind and rain, hair flying behind them like water soaked wind whipped flags, with tiny smiles on their faces. They looked like they were enjoying feeling the sting of the windblown rain on their faces.

They looked like they were enjoying being alive.

This was a good time to end the day.

The day after Superstar waltzed through, there was indeed flooding and much damage all up and down the coast, but north of the Carolinas it was much less than the hype. New York City and Long Island got off a lot easier than the hype had projected. In the D.C. metropolitan area, Hundreds of thousands of residents were without power. This is pretty much business as usual for Pepco customers. Grand old trees blew down in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Some took power lines, roofs and cars with them. Lots of flooding in coastal Maryland and New Jersey and parts of New York and Long Island, as well as inland areas such as the Catskills and Vermont-areas that had been ignored by the media hype. There will probably be more flooding in New York as the Hudson River crests.

The New York Mayor had ordered everybody out and, to the credit of New Yorkers everywhere, they left. Sunday afternoon, after the fact, some talking heads were second-guessing him because, apparently, nobody died. One “analysis” I enjoyed was “New Yorkers tonight are questioning whether it was all necessary and if the Mayor over reacted.”

This assertion undoubtedly sold advertising, but it might have sold more if they had actually interviewed some New Yorkers.

As reasonably expected, there was lots of damage and several deaths along the southeast coast. Down in the Carolinas and along the barrier islands and the southeastern coast in general, the past 50 years have seen a lot of construction in areas where good judgment would counsel otherwise. For reasons not yet understood, Southerners as a group tend to afflicted with a disease that drives them to resist government guidance to the point of risking their lives to prove their point.

Two folks in particular stand out as poster children for this mentality. After the United States Navy, a group of sailors not known for their amateur standing, decided to pull the fleet out and head for the other side of the Atlantic, this couple decided to ride out the hurricane on a 44 – 50 foot sailboat anchored in Chesapeake Bay. Obviously, some people have more money than sense and they had to be rescued.

Maybe it’s something in the water?

Monday morning, the consensus of friends, associates, fellow bus riders, and fellow workers from the Carolina’s to the northern reaches of the New Jersey frontier, was that, for a genuine media rock star, Irene was a pretty mild experience and that the hype was considerably more exciting than the real thing.

Question: where does a government official or individual go for accurate, reliable, un-exaggerated information for weather related decisions? Answer: The National Weather Service is a good source. Of course, it isn’t as entertaining as professional wrestling or the cable news, but it’s as accurate as you’re going to get.

In the end, it could have been worse, but as a result of luck, civic planning and common sense preparation by most people, it wasn’t. I’m proud of New York and New Yorkers. And I’m proud of the local residents and government agencies in and around the D.C. area. And, I’m proud of those Southerners who swallowed their pride and heeded government warnings to evacuate the barrier islands and other coastal areas. It looks like they all did the right thing.

Moreover, I’m especially proud of those two old women holding hands on the quay, enjoying the wind and the stinging rain and life.

Reporting from Washington, D.C., Eddie C. Morton.

(There are links to my photos of the event below. Please enjoy.)

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