New York City Media’s Hurricane Overkill

By last Friday, New York City was in full-on hurricane panic mode. Public transportation was scheduled for a Saturday shut down, stores were selling out of batteries and flashlights, windows were being taped, sandbags stacked; three-hundred and seventy thousand people were evacuated. This was going to be bad, the local media kept telling us. Really, really bad. Even the number-crunching, data-driven Nate Silver got in on the action, posting an extensive piece on his fivethirtyeight blog that if Hurricane Irene got close enough to New York City, it could be the costliest natural disaster ever. And by Friday, it was heading straight for the Big Apple.

By midnight on Saturday, things (in the words of NBC anchor Brian Williams) were “getting a bit sporty” in NYC. Wind was gusting, rain was coming sideways. The streets were empty, save for dozens of intrepid local TV news reporters deployed throughout the city, standing ready to report on the impending damage. Which, remember, was going to be bad.

The center of Irene hit New York around 9am Sunday. Winds reached 65 mph, the strongest in 25 years. By 10 am, the worst was over. No hurricane-shattered skyscraper windows, no preemptive power outages, no real flooding to speak of. The general tone among New Yorkers Sunday morning was, “That’s it?” But to watch the local TV news on Sunday, the storm had been epic. Rather than call in their battalion of reporters stationed around the area, the NYC TV news media kept reporting. All day.

By noon, it seemed they had the story covered. There was flooding in some areas. Parts of New Jersey and Connecticut were without power. There were a few inches of standing water in lower Manhattan. (A friend who lives down there wrote that he’d just walked from Battery Park to South Street Seaport, and the only thing he’d seen was a dead rat.) And yet, the media kept reporting as if the damage was catastrophic. All three New York City network affiliates preempted their scheduled programming to bring all-day coverage of the storm’s aftermath. By mid-afternoon, reporters had resorted to pointing out sticks and trash in storm drains as evidence of debris. They didn’t stop until they broke for national news at 6:30. This struck me as absurd. Almost as absurd as Al Roker tethering himself to a bench on a pier in Long Island.


Sadly, parts of the country were devastated by Hurricane Irene. Coastal North Carolina was ravaged. There’s historic flooding going on in much of New England. Some 3 million people are without power on the East Coast. Total damage nationwide is estimated to be about $10 billion, nowhere near what people had feared, and hardly any of it in NYC. After all the flak he took about not being prepared for the blizzard last winter, Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly erred on the side of caution this time. Better safe than sorry.

But here’s where I blame the media. Rather than admitting on Sunday that the storm had simply not been so bad, the New York City media was way too eager to join in on the fray, don its rain jacket, and get its disaster yahs-yahs out. While there is clearly a danger in under-estimating the risk of events, there are also negative consequences in trumping up the damages of an event that ultimately, wasn’t all that damaging. To me, Sunday’s all-day reporting blitz was classic overkill, and ultimately undermines the local TV media’s credibility to be able to tell me when something matters, and when it doesn’t.

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  1. BSK says:

    At one point, one of the channels (I think Fox5) interviewed a guy who had refused to evacuate Battery Park City. He was out for a walk at the time. During the conversation, he said that he was a bit disappointed it wasn’t worse, because he was sort of excited at seeing what happened. The interviewer quickly jumped in and said, “Oh, it’s going to get worse!” He replied, “Probably not. The worst is over and the storm is moving on.” “NO! It’s going to get worse!” He just sort of shrugged and the interview ended. The interviewer couldn’t stand to be shown up in that way. Truly hilarious if it wasn’t such an impressive indictment of our current news media.

    I’d also argue that there are tangible consequences to overstating the damage. Suppose you were an evacuee who was relying on the news for information about whether it was safe to return. If you are hearing that the sea walls are breached and lower Manhattan is flooding, you are probably going to take a very different approach than if you saw the pictures that showed some water splashing onto the nearest walkways but never more than a few inches deep. In the lead up to the storm, there was legitimate reason to believe and report on the worst-case-scenario. But once it was apparent that that wasn’t going to be realized, they should have done what they are supposed to do: report what is happening, not what they wish was happening.

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    • Jason says:

      There was something similar in Battery Park City where people were letting their dogs swim in the rather minor flood waters, and the media was all over them like they were a bunch of animal abusers. Seriously pathetic in every way.

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  2. Mike B says:

    When did it become the job of the for profit TV news industry to not make a profit? If you want fair and balanced try PBS.

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    • charlie says:

      Actually Mike, it WAS the job of any & ALL the major networks to present any news in the interest of the public, above the interests of share-holders & ratings until Ronald Reagan reversed that long-running legislation back in the 80’s.
      Yep, Ronny Reagan said it was legally OK for CEO’s (like Rupert Murdock) or Ted Turner (to CNN) to dictate what news should be.
      And Hurricane Irene was an interesting benchmark to how the media helped the Mayor create a State of Emergency where there was only a Chance of Emergency…

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      The TV stations are there to make money to to provide an accurate account of events. Isn’t this an economics website?

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      • Joshua Northey says:


        The TV stations are there to make money NOT to provide an accurate account of events. Isn’t this an economics website?

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  3. Ryan says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Topher says:

      uhh…yeah. Thats why the name of the story is “NEW YORK CITY MEDIA’S hurricane overkill”

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  4. Walter Wimberly says:

    Welcome to what we get in Florida all the time. Living here 35+ years, I’ve seen a few hurricanes, and while they can be devastating, they are usually well over blown by the media, government officials, and more.

    The worst part is after crying wolf many times, when a real storm hits, no one listens to media and government – and then real damage and loss of life occurs.

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  5. DS says:

    I feel like the local media was following the lead of local officials. Sure some individual reporters were a little bit over the top, but for the most part the moral of this storm is, better safe than sorry. The huge amounts of damage happening in upstate New York, the Connecticut coast and as far north as Vermont, are proof that this storm packed some really big potential. Articles like this are feeding the idea that this storm was overblown and that therefore next time, people shouldn’t trust their local news. While there were real tragedies out of this storm, like the 11-year-old boy killed in his house in Virginia, the majority of the deaths from Irene were probably people who went out when they had been advised not to by the local government or local media. Idiots abounded standing and joking behind news reporters in many areas that were in the path of the storm. Luckily for those people it wasn’t as bad as was predicted in their area, but again, New York City and the surrounding area is not the end all and be all of this storm.

    I am thankful that this wasn’t as bad as it could have been for NYC and for my area in Fairfield County, and I am keeping those who were much more afffected in my thoughts and prayers.

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  6. econobiker says:

    It could have been worse even in the downgraded weather had a bunch of civilian yahoos been driving and walking around along with cheap umbrella sellers still being out on the sidewalks. People were not hurt because they were not there.

    This also shows the NYC centric media bias. If you remember in May 2010, Nashville and Middle TN were hit by a really bad stalled storm (which killed about the same amount of people as all of Irene.) This storm flooded the heck out of the region yet the national news didn’t find need to cover the flooding until several days afterward- and this will CNN/Weather Channel just 5 hours away in Atlanta.

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  7. scot phelps says:

    I’m a disaster scientist who also happens to not own a tv, so I can really see how the relentless hype from the media changes behavior-a category one hurricane is a big deal if youre on a barrier island or in a low-lying area, if not, then falling trees and power failures are your main worry, and while annoying, isn’t generally life threatening unless the tree falls on you (I’m actually trapped at home by a fallen tree on my street, although I have power, water, food, and beer).

    But as an economist, you know that each social decision has a cost, in this case, hundreds of millions of tourism dollars lost (my week at a cabin on a lake in maine was canceled, even though it is 150 miles inland) as well as lost productivity. The subway, which takes about 1,000,000 people to work each day and two of the busiest commuter railroads in the country are still mostly offline.

    So while it is easy to say “better safe than sorry”, that is also an excuse for a blatantly political overreaction based on the complete failure of New York City government during last winter’s snowstorm, where our mayor was in Bermuda and New Jersey’s governor was in Disneyland.

    I’m wondering when they’ll get it right?

    Scot Phelps

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    • Matthew Philips says:

      Just wanted to reply and say thanks for the thoughtful comment Scot.

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    • DS says:

      As a “disaster scientist”, you seem to be missing a large point about this storm. You never mentioned flooding as one of the main worries. Wind speed (where the category measurement of a storm comes from) is only part of the equation. Rain and track speed (how long the rain and winds will stay over any given area) also have a large impact on areas in the path of a tropical cyclone. Look at what happened in NJ, Upstate, NY, and VT (where flood waters were still rising or just starting to recede).

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  8. Dave Brooks says:

    Maybe I’m just being a whiny newspaper reporter, but instead of complaining about “the media” with sweeping monolithic finality, couldn’t you say “some television stations” when that’s what you mean?

    After all, don’t you think it’s stupid when people blame “the Internet” because some bloggers were morons?

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