Hurricane Reality

Even as flooding and power outages still affect millions, many say that Hurricane Irene was overhyped by the media. Some, like Howard Kurtz, focus on the minimal damage to New York City, as if this were a superhero movie where bad things strike Manhattan first (“A Hurricane of Hype,” The Daily Beast, August 28).

But was the impending storm overhyped? That’s a little hard to judge.

Sure, it was difficult to find reliable information under the flashy disaster graphics. Sure, as the storm’s strength decreased, headlines of death and destruction increased. Yes, storm coverage got economic troubles out of the headlines for a while. Yes, politicians did their political thing, presenting themselves as strong leaders against a threat. And sure, I laughed about people who were more concerned than I was.

Yet, though Irene was nothing close to as catastrophic as other disasters, it did turn out to be very disruptive and destructive, and could have been worse. Vermont saw some of its worst flooding in recent history, with towns completely cut off by floodwaters that swept houses from their foundations. New Jersey and New York state have been hit hard by flooding, and Connecticut is facing floodwaters. Homes have been destroyed in North Carolina. Billions of dollars of damage are estimated. Three days after the disaster, railroad tracks are underwater, millions are still without electricity, many homes have been badly flooded, and yes, people have died.

An approaching hurricane is relevant news, certainly of more immediate importance for people in the storm’s path than other events taking place in the world. If it encourages people to examine their preparations and stay off the roadways, there are worse ways to sell news. Making reasonable preparations for worse conditions than expected is not a bad thing — if anything you have extra stuff on hand and have experience that could be useful in a real disaster.

Unfortunately, before the hurricane fades out of the news, questions should be asked.

How can preparedness on a community level be improved? Part of the answer lies in the practice of mutual aid — things like sharing electric generators and supplies and watching out for each other’s safety and possessions. But mutual aid, like the best preparedness methods, is not something that is only of use in a disaster but can improve the quality of day-to-day life by promoting beneficial social relations.

Perhaps when so many lack electricity it would be useful to consider the costs and benefits of electricity generation based on technologies designed to only be profitable on a massive centralized scale.

In urban and suburban areas, where much flooding in New Jersey took place, it should be asked when interfering with the natural drainage of land starts to violate the property rights of those who will have to deal with more runoff. And how have governments encouraged development in flood-prone areas?

For the necessary rebuilding efforts, are there cooperative methods that empower individuals while strengthening community? And how do we respond to government and corporate-driven actions in recovering areas?

There are probably already commentaries claiming that the disaster shows how important government action is. Certainly, the individuals helping stranded people can be commended by those of us who think the institutions they labor under are not optimal. But there really is no reason why government services would work better than non-government services. Both are run by people, and governments cut costs and react to the influence of money too.

Mutual and cooperative approaches encourage the people involved to focus on satisfying members, not bosses or politicians, in their day-to-day operations. They are funded by popular demands, not politics. And people are willing to consider risks and preparedness when making decisions, as the widespread purchase of insurance policies beyond legal requirements demonstrates.

There is also the fact that many people distrust government, which is not unreasonable as government is an institution primarily based on exerting power, and it didn’t exactly make a good showing during Katrina. A lack of trust can cause communication failures during emergencies. Better relationships can be built using voluntary organization that encourages people affected by decisions to be involved in making them.

Hurricane Irene was a true disaster — not as bad as it could have been but still bad. It is not improper to ask questions that don’t hamper relief operations, because when they’re current, questions will receive the most attention and the best consideration to improve things for next time. Brushing the damage aside won’t help anyone. Things could always be worse and people will always want to hear about possible disasters striking them.

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