Defense Media Network

Hurricane Irene

Underwhelmed but alive: Is that a problem?

With Hurricane Irene now nothing but some sputtering winds and loosely formed rain showers, we are about to endure the aftermath of whining naysayers and professional complainers. Even as the storm was beginning to pass through North Carolina and Virginia, observers began to comment that the storm was not packing the punch that it had been forecast to hold. By the time it reached New Jersey and New York City, fears of a flooded subway system and other catastrophic destruction had largely ebbed.

While Hurricane Irene caused widespread power outages, downed trees, destroyed property and more than two dozen deaths, Manhattan and Trenton did not become a flooded New Orleans or a vaporized Pass Christian, Miss. Because of those fortunate facts, the second-guessing by pundits, the television crowd, and, for that matter, regular citizens over forced evacuations and closing various transit systems has begun, with such warnings and evacuations being branded as “hype.”

It’s almost as if there was a measure of disappointment from these complaining parties that there was not some type of large body count or more catastrophic destruction. Only then would the warnings of meteorologists, public officials and emergency managers have been applauded. But I’m convinced this same set of complainers would say in those dreadful circumstances, “The offered warnings were not enough.”

This is the classic “Catch 22/no win/damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario that plagues the emergency management community. If things turn out better than forecast, you are charged and convicted of instilling unnecessary fear or “over-hyping” the situation.

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, and others will undoubtedly be charged by their critics with overhyping the threats for political purposes, much as President Barack Obama has been mocked for coming back from his vacation early to deal with Irene’s wet assault on the East Coast. It’s a no-win situation for all of them.

Truth be told, all of these officials are looking to do the right thing in issuing evacuation orders and other directions, while their respective political advisers are doing what they can to have their bosses look like a modern-day 9/11 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani speaking and posing like Churchill. While a 9/11 Giuliani may be the leadership model to which they aspire, no public official wants to look like former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin or former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and not up to the job.

The point is simply that it’s damned easy to declare a storm as “hype” if you’ve kept power throughout it, there is no debris in your yard, your life is not interrupted and there is no carnage to watch on TV. That, by every measure, is the ideal situation. But for the thousands who lost property; who will be without power for days or weeks, or the two dozen or so families who will be burying a loved one as a result of the storm? Ask them if Hurricane Irene was “hype.”

In a 24/7, armchair quarterback culture, we want to affix a label to something so we can categorize it and compare it to something else. I find it to be careless to be so cavalier in labeling Irene or any other type of emergency as “hype,” as it can encourage future reckless disregard for very real warnings about very real threats. Evacuation orders and curfews are given as a last (and very costly) resort, but they are given for very real reasons.

Somehow that story is not often told, because it’s more entertaining to televise disenchanted citizens who are annoyed they had part of their weekend ruined. Tell that to all of the emergency personnel and others who busted their humps all weekend without sleep, leaving their own families behind while trying to keep people safe, informed and protected. That “hype” is called service, and if you’re alive and well to complain about those inconveniences, it is of course your right as a First Amendment-practicing American to do so.

In truth, there can be no real accurate measure of the lives saved by people following the advice, directions, and orders of federal and state authorities. The fact is something might or might not have happened whether they were in an area that was struck by the storm or not. We will never really know, but the fortunate fact is those people who did get out of the way lived another day to go about their lives. That’s a blessing as well as a measure worth celebrating, and worthy of being hyped.

I hope someone will write about that fact.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...

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    It is obvieous as you stated IT EASY TO JUDGE AFTER THE FACT My life has been serving the community for many many tears I did not expect or get the thanks of many of the people who benifited As you stated I always put it as DOING MY JOB The same people who did not listen are the ones you see on TV been rescued and jeprodizing someone elses life That is spectacular ON TV For once I heard the warning to move as we will not be back on rescue calls The media sells paper by spectacular news The public feeds on it Just the American way I guess