The Risk of Hurricane Hype

By Jay Richards Published on September 13, 2017

The onslaughts of Harvey and Irma are mostly behind us. Jose may yet bring trouble. But for now, America can turn to clean up, recovery and reflection.

Here’s a topic for reflection: the risk of hurricane hype.

Hurricanes are one of the climate’s most deadly events, so it’s easy to treat them as one-sided risks. That is, to treat them as if the risk of evacuation is smaller than the risk of staying put.

I’m tempted to make this mistake. During the buildup to monstrous Irma, I felt like Denethor when the armies of Mordor gathered outside the walls of Minas Tirith. I wanted to tell all my south Florida friends: “Flee! Flee for your lives!”

 

 

But time, money, attention-span, gas, police and national guard forces are scarce resources. And driving long hours in brutal traffic and bad weather are dangerous. As is getting stuck on the road during a hurricane. One of our Stream colleagues spent over two days just to get from Delray Beach in southeast Florida, to southern Georgia. It was a harrowing experience. And the trip back home was also dreadful.

Like it or not, there are risks in staying put, and risks in evacuating. But hurricane hype leads us to put most or all the risk on one side.

Big News

Running a cost/benefit analysis on mass evacuation doesn’t exactly attract eyeballs at 6:45 pm on a Tuesday night. That’s why TV news gives us doom, gloom and hysteria. The worse it sounds, the more viewers tune in.

The networks, the Weather Channel, FOX and CNN all sent correspondents to the very places officials were telling everyone else to flee. Why? Because we watch it. We want to see Bill Hemmer getting pummeled by wind and water right there on live TV. I track the news online rather than on TV. Still, I couldn’t resist turning on FOX News’ hurricane coverage.

Bad weather events are “cash cows” for TV news. And hurricanes offer days of 24-hour news cycles to rake in the cash. No TV talker wants to tell viewers: “This hurricane looks to be slightly above average for hurricanes over the last century that hit the coastal U.S. It could be a disaster. Then again, maybe not. Now let’s look at the risks of evacuating. …”

Politics

Then there’s the fear of government officials. Do you wanna be the guy who makes the call not to evacuate a major urban area that becomes a death zone? Remember Katrina? Every elected official in the south and southeast does. They also know that many people treat the response to hurricanes as a one-sided risk.

Climate Change

Then there’s the shameless desire of climate change chicken littles who claim this or that storm is the biggest baddest storm ever recorded by man. They told us so. Trump should have listened and signed the Paris accord. Because then … well, nothing different would have happened. But still, who can pass up a chance to blame Trump for a hurricane?

Honest experts admit uncertainty, and update as soon as they have new data. But that nuance disappears in news coverage.

By this point, anyone susceptible to climate hype already agrees. Everyone else can see that if a decade without big hurricanes that no one predicted is mere weather and not climate change, then one bad hurricane season can’t be proof of man-made climate change. That’s logic, not science. And on the science, there’s no trend toward more frequent or more powerful hurricanes. One bad season isn’t a trend.

Uncertainty

Add to this the simple fact of uncertainty. The casual TV viewer expected Miami to get historic winds and flooding. Instead Naples ended up in the bullseye, on Florida’s west coast. That’s where many Miamians had evacuated to. And rather than an historic flood surge, some places saw ocean waters recede from their coastlines.

Of course, it’s amazing that scientists can predict the path and timing of hurricanes at all! We knew for days that Irma would probably hit Florida on Sunday. Thank God and the hard work of scientists that we knew so much. Compare that to, well, every other time in history, when hurricanes just happened and killed lots of people. (That’s still the story for many poor countries in the Caribbean.) Honest experts admit uncertainty, and update as soon as they have new data. But that nuance disappears in news coverage. Especially TV news, which is all about visuals.

The Danger With Hype

So the media, government officials, pundits, and even some scientists tend to hype every hurricane. That leads some people to do things, such as evacuate, that put them in greater danger.

The long-term result of hurricane hype could be even worse. If people get the sense that the authorities are exaggerating the threat for ratings or political gain, they might ignore future warnings. And that could lead to tragedy. After all, sometimes you really should board up your windows or flee the likely path of a coming hurricane.

That’s why everyone involved should do their best to speak the truth and admit uncertainty. The long-term costs to human life far exceed the short terms benefits of hurricane hype.

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  • Charles Burge

    I remember when Andy Rooney opined that wind-chill factors are something meteorologists use to make the weather sound more interesting than it really is. I thought there was more than a kernel of truth in that, and it sounds like “hurricane hype” is just more of the same.

    I have to wonder if 24-hour news channels are in large part to blame for the growing cynicism among the American public. Everything gets sensationalized now, and viewers are rightly dubious of the news outlets’ integrity.

  • ncsugrant

    The media is expected to hype events like this. What is really troubling is how government agencies and the politicians who direct them are not held accountable at all for the just plain crazy edicts they hand down.
    It is as if the constitution and all common sense is suspended if the media scares enough people.
    Does anyone think it is remotely possible to evacuate south Florida in a week? That would be a massive undertaking which would require rail, air, and sea transport in addition to vehicle traffic, yet the public was advised to do just that
    The governor of South Carolina ordered all hospitals and nursing homes in the coastal area of the state to evacuate.
    I never heard where he expected them to go. Presumably there is a set of back up hospitals and nursing homes?

  • Billy Chickens

    We live in the middle of Florida and spent 4 days telling a friend who had evacuated from Jacksonville to our home (closer to Irma) NEVER to listen to the news during a hurricane because it was all about ratings and NOT the truth.
    I tracked IRMA’s latitude and longitude every hour on the NOAA website then plugged in the lat/long stats on a map on the internet. When I did that I could see exactly where Irma was and how fast she was moving. When the media was screaming devastation for Miami I could see Irma still on top of Cuba going nowhere at 6 mph, then eventually turning to the Keys, not Miami and up the east coast like the media said.
    When the media was howling that Irma would be DOOMSDAY for the west coast I could see that Irma had moved inland over Lehigh Acres east of Ft Myers, then up to Arcadia. When the media was hysterical that Irma was a hurricane cat 4 I could see that she was rather a cat 3 and slowing down to a 2 and would be a 1 when she reached us.
    I finally went to bed at 4:10 am and listened as Irma went past, the wind sailing through the trees and not as much rain at that time.
    One room in the house got flooded, but we never lost power. NEVER LISTEN TO THE MEDIA. I have lived through at least 15 or more hurricanes in my life and have never once evacuated. Of course we live in the middle of the state where it’s safer. If we lived on the ocean of course we’d probably just drive inland and stay in a motel.
    The moral of this comment is: always always always track the hurricane yourself so you know the truth.

    • Jay W. Richards

      Wow, thanks for this first hand account!

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