Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irene, Goodnight

The remains of a VT highway bridge.

It seems like I should have something to say about Hurricane Irene. I write about traumatic events, and this storm certainly did some serious damage to parts of the east coast and was a major nuisance to others. At least 40 people died, and many more lost their homes and businesses.

It's not really that I don't have anything to say about Irene. But all weekend and yesterday I found myself having difficulty formulating something. I think I've finally put my finger on why. Put simply, the media coverage of Irene stunk. Or, perhaps more precisely, the national media coverage -- which was the only coverage you could get if you weren't in the storm's path -- stunk. And I really don't have much to say about the storm as it was portrayed in the media.

The former Rte. 7
Here's the problem. Irene headed significantly further north than most Atlantic hurricanes. Instead of hitting the gulf coast or Florida, or even just the Carolinas, it was predicted, in addition to North Carolina, to beat up Washington, DC and New York City. These are two major, well-known, densely populated cities that don't generally get hurricanes.

This was big news, and the potential for disruption to those two cities got a ton of coverage. I found the breathless speculation that Wall Street might not open for business on Monday a little much. Yes, that would be unusual. Yes, it would be newsworthy. And if it happened, there would be much more important stories of damage and loss of life to talk about. It's a stock exchange. It's one day. Let's get a grip.

Killington Ski Resort base lodge
When the storm actually hit, it was big and important, but not necessarily in the places that news outlets were most prepared to cover. Yesterday morning's coverage on NPR at 8:00 AM (which is when I was in the car listening to it) led with a teaser quote from a woman in New Jersey saying, "The scariest part were the tornado warnings." It then went on to report that there was damage "up and down the east coast" and then cut to a live report from Keene, NY, which was absolutely devastated by flooding. The first story on "Morning Edition" was about how New York was getting back to normal and things weren't as bad as predicted. From this, one could easily get the impression that there was a flood in one town in upstate New York, "some damage" everywhere else, and the big issue was getting commuters into NYC.

Except that is not even vaguely a decent picture of where the news from Irene actually happened. The state of Vermont was massacred by this storm (Keene, NY, by the way, is fairly near the Vermont border). Vermont, since it is not on the Atlantic coast, was not nearly as over-prepared as some other places. The damage was horrific, the power was out, and no one had reporters there to report. One might expect NPR (or other outlets -- I'm just picking on them because that's where I got my news yesterday) to talk about this, even if only to say that information was sketchy. They didn't. The word "Vermont" did not make the newscast.

On the one hand, I think storm coverage is often overblown. Hurricanes happen. It's a storm, not the apocalypse, at least most of the time. But I certainly think we owe it to our friends in Vermont to have headlines that are a little more relevant than "Storm Doesn't Close Wall Street After All."


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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