Early this Friday morning, Hurricane Earl was moving past the North Carolina Outer Banks. Much like folks across the Nation (but also because of my weather background), I was fixated by the storm’s awesome beauty through satellite imagery and its awesome power via its winds and waves. The storm did have the potential to be a major disaster.
But, unlike the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and some other surprises in our Nation’s hurricane history, technology, governmental coordination efforts, a really savvy forecast staff at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the media people knew about the storm early and knew what to do. For the most part, people from the Carolina’s to New England and into eastern Canada have done what they needed to do. Still some were still out surfing late Thursday, even as the storm approached Cape Hatteras.
It didn’t hurt that Earl weakened a bit as it moved across slightly cooler sea surface waters, drier air aloft started entraining into the storm’s circulation, upper level winds did a bit of shearing across the storm’s canopy and the storm began its jog to north-northeast right on schedule!
And while many in the media helped the cause by providing solid weather and related information, I am afraid that far too many TV meteorologists and reporters literally “lost it” with the potential of a mega-disaster that could affect the East Coast. And when the report came out that some thirty million people might be affected by tropical force winds or greater, I knew the floodgates of media frenzy would be unleashed. My worst fears were conservative!
First, every TV station sent out numerous crews to cover the impending disaster. The Weather Channel (TWC) even posted four crews with multiple meteorologists sprinkled from Hatteras to New England. “Wall to wall” and “floor to ceiling” coverage began and continued unabated.
Given the infamous “cone of uncertainty,” TV reporters, but especially meteorologists on The Weather Channel, couldn’t wait to give the “WHAT IF IT TAKES A PATH CLOSEST TO THE COAST…IT COULD BE THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT” scenario. The capitalization should be read with the fever pitch of someone screaming with a volume of at least 100 decibels!
Come on, media, you got it right. There are some 30 million people living in the I-95 corridor. But not all of these would experience tropical storm winds. Even the worst projections (path closest to the coast) would have had the weaker side of the storm grazing the coast. Frictional forces in the highly developed, treed northeast would further curtail the wind effects.
Still, that didn’t stop TWC meteorologists from noting winds were approaching hurricane force (74 miles an hour or greater) on the Carolina Outer Banks. But the reported winds were gusts, not sustained winds. The official definition of winds by the National Weather Service and the American Meteorological Society keys on sustained winds. Well, reported, sustained winds, even on the Outer Banks, were just barely above tropical storm force (39 miles per hours).
Therefore, it is finally official. I’m now proclaiming TWC as the Sky is Falling, Chicken Little, Channel!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have worked in weather and emergency preparedness for far too many years. And, I believe strongly that an ounce of prevention is worth tons of cure. But there’s preparing and being told to prepare and then there’s unbridled overemotional reporting. I swear, far too many of those reporting from the front lines had expressions that rivaled those of soap opera stars just at the cliffhanger moment.
Then there was the supposed “Cantore Effect.” TWC noted that Jim was going to be at Cape Hatteras and where Jim goes, people needed to take immediate action and evacuate. Yet, Cantore stays, waddles through ankle deep water and proclaims that every tiny detail spells D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R!
Thank goodness Jessica Fletcher (of “Murder She Wrote” fame) wasn’t in town!
Meanwhile, TWC loudly proclaims that it’s the “Hurricane Authority.” Yet, when asked by NBC news anchors (and even other TWC meteorologists) about the storm, the hurricane experts kept noting that the storm was unpredictable and that they couldn’t tell which side of the track would be the correct one.
The U.S. East Coast did dodge a bullet. The storm could have been much worse. But marketing doom and gloom and not getting it only sets the stage for disbelief and inaction when the next storm arrives. Crying wolf may get the immediate ratings, but the next time, the media might be interviewing the relatives of people who refused to respond because of a poorly scripted historical experience.
No, what we need is a return to the days of Joe Friday (“Dragnet” fame). All he asked for was, “The facts, ma’am…just the facts.”
So, aside from some flooding, minor power outages and some shortened vacations, it’s safe to say that Earl was a great vehicle for testing a somewhat rusty hurricane system along the northeast and mid-Atlantic coasts. It showed, also, that the Federal government and FEMA could provide a proactive response to a potential disaster. But Earl, you are not a Katrina or a Camille and TWC meteorologists (and other meteorologists and reporters) you are not a John Kennedy.
© 2010, H. Michael Mogil