You will have clocked that the East Coast US was hit by both an Earthquake and Hurricane in the last fortnight. You probably thought the international media made a meal with their coverage. Let me assure you, whatever undue focus these things got in Europe it was as nothing compared to the certifiable overdose by local US press.
The earthquake was, if you forgive the pun, no great shakes. Truth be told if you are going to be caught up in an earthquake then 5.8 is about the right size. Big enough that you are going to feel it, small enough that you never feel in mortal danger. I was on a sunlounger on a Cape May beach. It lasted 30 seconds and there was no doubting what it was. Just for a moment, with a flashback to the Japanese Tsunami, I had a mild anxiety that a beach would not be the smartest place to hang-out. A quick look at Twitter and the news confirmed that the epicentre was inland. Relax. Recline. Back to the book.
The earthquake headlines were a giggle. Reporters led the news with “…and look at these CCTV pictures of some tins of beans falling right off a shelf in a supermarket in West Virginia”. The footage was as unremarkable as it sounds, but the news presenters believed if you add a sensational enough narrative, or just shout, then the footage will magically become dramatic. The anchors hit a full ten on the hype scale.
Then came Irene. And they turned it up to eleven.
We were hunkering in a friend’s house just outside Philadelphia. I swear the local news ran film of a provincial official demanding that everybody “get a piece of a paper, write on it your name, your social security number and the cell phone number of a loved one. Place that piece of paper in your left shoe. That will help aid us with body identification”. Flipping heck. His next line “only do this in proper shoes, not flip flops” marginally detracted from the gravity of his statement. My friend looked at me gravely, at last he seemed to have a flicker of concern: “We should go out now and get beer and wine in. Oh, and some batteries”.
We couldn’t find batteries anywhere. It was quite something to see every bottle of water and every battery shelf in every store bare. Thankfully, both the beer and wine shops (which amazingly, by law, are separate stores in Pennsylvania) had not had a run of panic buying. We may have no light, but we had booze. Bring it on Irene.
We had a bit of wind. We had a lot of rain. I am talking cats and dogs. Rain you would have to punch your way through. The local news had every junior reporter placed in locations where if it was half as bad as forecast death would be near certain. You felt kind of sorry for them, but it did make good TV. Then they really got to me again: “Tornado Warning! We have a tornado warning!” The map they showed put the tornado likely impact on top of us. The news anchor knew the drill, full fear factor: “If you are in any of those counties, get your family away from windows, off the top floor and into the cellar. Stay there till this has passed”. Just as he said this my host came in looking panicked and announced the cellar was flooding. Shit.
The rational part of me, said this was nuts. Pure hype to keep you glued to the news. But the bit of me that loves my family told me I would rather laugh at taking over-the-top action in the morning, than regret not taking any action forever. Mattresses were moved from the top floor to a downstairs spare room. We slept in our makeshift bunker.
I got up at 5:45am at what was supposed to be the peak of the storm. In all honesty, at that point it had died right down, it was no worse than we seem to get most Monday mornings in the UK. We did laugh at ‘our over-reaction’.
When we went out the next day though, it was clear the storm really had brought some kick. Across the road a large tree had blown-over taking with it a wrought- iron gate. Had anyone been in its path they would not have stood a chance. A quick drive around the neighbourhood showed similar damage was widespread. A listen to the news and it seems that tens of people did lose their lives nationwide.
So it is quite easy for me to chuck rocks at the US news for overhyping all this. However, I consider myself pretty cynical and yet they altered my behaviour and kept me indoors out of harm’s way. Multiply that change of behaviour by millions of people and statistically at least some will be alive today who would otherwise have fallen victim. The media will think they did a great job on that calculus. The counterpoint is that bad as the storm was there was still quite a big gap between the Armageddon forecasts they pushed at us and the reality. They have a tricky balance to strike. You can only get away with a few strikes of overhyping before you get into the territory of the little boy who cried wolf. The earthquake and hurricane are strikes one and two.