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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 08/29/2011

Hurricane Irene: Best of

Hurricane Irene worked around the clock to afflict the East coast with winds and rain. Journalists up and down the coast, too, worked around the clock to describe those winds and rains, plus their consequences. The storm didn’t quite live up to its potential, but how did the coverage fare? Herewith some thoughts on hurricane writing.

Best Comma-Gerund Sequence

Hurricanes beget a lot of cliches. There’s the weather correspondent braving the elements on live shots while scolding others to stay in; the list of precautions that everyone’s heard before; and those frothy verbs that are always used to describe landfall.

A less-remarked-upon bit of big-storm triteness relates to how journalists use punctuation to capture the sweep of the storm. Decades of practice has yielded a standard grammatical sequence. It goes like this:

[Name of storm] hit/assaulted/lashed the [North Carolina/South Carolina/Georgia/Florida] coast, [gerund such as pounding, slamming, etc.] blah blah blah about destruction and gloom.

Let’s take a look at some of the leading practitioners of the Hurricane Irene Comma-Gerund Sequence:

The Washington Post:

“The most powerful hurricane to threaten the Eastern Seaboard in almost two decades hit the Washington region Saturday, bringing heavy rains and high winds that plunged homes into darkness, turned trees into projectiles and caused at least eight deaths.”

Analysis: “Hit” and “bringing” are fine choices; strong and simple, they don’t pump excess drama into a story that has plenty on its own terms.

The New York Times:

“Announcing itself with howling winds and hammering rains, the hurricane made landfall at Cape Lookout, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, at about 7:30 a.m., ending several days of anxious anticipation and beginning who knows how many more days of response and cleanup.”

Analysis: A touch overwritten: “Anticipation” needs not the company of “anxious”; it does just fine on its own.

The Miami Herald:

“Already a killer storm, Irene sloshed through the New York metropolitan area Sunday, briefly flooding parts of the city and severing power to a million people but not provoking the doomsday urban disaster that had been feared.”

Analysis: Superb initial clause. “Sloshed” is a great choice for chief verb---not found in much of the coverage and conveys the point that Irene wasn’t as nasty as predicted. Our winner.

The New York Post:

“Packing vicious winds and torrential rain, Tropical Storm Irene unleashed its full fury today on a dark and desolate New York City -- causing flooding, downed trees and power outages.”

Analysis: Tabloidism infects punctuation here---the Post deploys a drama dash when a comma would have worked quite well.

The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Hurricane Irene barreled into the Philadelphia region and Jersey Shore late Saturday, chasing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes amid warnings that devastating floods could cripple the area for days.”

Analysis: “To barrel” has reached the point of cliche in hurricane writing. Must be evacuated from all copy before any storm makes landfall.

The Sunday Capital (Annapolis):

“The rains came with a vengeance and the winds raged as Hurricane Irene swept past Maryland overnight, knocking out power to more than 100,000 of households statewide.”

Analysis: Three verbs precede the comma, causing too much commotion, even in a sentence about commotion.

The Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, McClatchy)

“The misery known as Hurricane Irene propelled its crashing waves, muscular wind and slashing rain into one of the continent’s most densely populated regions Saturday night, targeting the Northeast after slicing through much of North Carolina.”

Analysis: Dramatic violin accompaniment available upon request.

Best Non-Comma-Gerund Construction

The Boston Herald shuns all the tradition and convention behind the comma-gerund standard, constructing this declarative lede:

Tropical Storm Irene was running out of steam after battering the Big Apple this morning — flooding parts of Queens and lower Manhattan — but the former hurricane still packed sustained gales of 60 mph as she steamed toward the Bay State at 26 mph, federal stormwatchers say.

Best Chardonnay Passage

The Boston Globe’s coverage reminded the rest of the country what’s so objectionable about people who summer on Martha’s Vineyard:

While many hunkered down, some actually enjoyed the storm. People hoping to get a look at the grandeur of Mother Nature flocked to a beach in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Most of us [who are still here] like nature in its extremes – for all its glory and terror,” said Helen Stratford, who was riding a red Raleigh Venture bicycle.“It induces a sense of rapture.”

It also induced more than 20 deaths, lady.

Best Power Outage Writing

Utilities up and down the seaboard told their customers to expect electricity interruptions courtesy of Irene. That means that scribes had plenty of time to work on their lights-out writing. Yet there’s something about power outages that resists writerly prose.

Here are some highlights.

Philadelphia Inquirer:

“About 21,000 city customers remained without power. Around the region, there were more than 800,000 customers without power, and electric companies said it could be a week or more before service is restored for everyone.”

Analysis: Good, bare-bones electricity coverage right here.

Baltimore Sun:

“The storm biggest impact was power outages, which number more than 756,000 across the state as of 3:15 p.m. Sunday.
The hardest hit local area is Baltimore County, with as many as 143,000 people without electricity.
A quarter of the customers in Baltimore City, nearly 70,000 including the mayor, also were without power Sunday afternoon, and crews in the city were fanning out to restore electric service and to remove more than 400 downed trees that were blocking 200 streets as of 9 a.m. Sunday morning.”

Analysis: More good stuff here---inclusion of the mayor signals to readers that the utility problems are an equal-opportunity affair. Bloomberg:

As of 7 a.m., 72,000 customers were without power in New York and Westchester County, according to Consolidated Edison, and “as the weather system continues to move toward New York, the number of affected customers is expected to grow.” More than 800,000 homes and businesses were blacked out on Long Island and in New Jersey, local utilities reported.

Analysis: Go ahead and try to pack more easily understood data into such a small space. Our winner in the power-writing category.

Best non-Irene Story Spotted While Researching These Awards

Fox Spotted,” by the Concord Monitor

Best Reason to Consult a Dictionary

The verb “to lash” sits in dry storage for the first eight months of the year and then gets rushed into use during hurricane season. The word’s fallow period is apparently long enough that some writers forget how to use it. From the Gainesville Times:

“While Hurricane Irene continued to lash out against the east coast Saturday, a group with the Salvation Army in Gainesville prepared to offer assistance in North Carolina.”

Best Argument for Not Getting Too Clever with Weather Writing

The Daily Beast: “The blizzard of press conferences, in turn, enable the networks to keep their ‘Breaking News’ banners up and furnished a sense of drama for a story that otherwise consisted of reporters on streets where the hurricane was expected to strike and weather experts with their maps in climate-controlled studios.”(Emphasis added to showcase cutesy, club-footed attempt at unseasonal metaphor.)

Best Iteration of the Obvious

CNN: “Some of the worst flooding since 1927 ravaged Vermont’s normally tranquil countryside, turning babbling brooks into turbulent rivers and knocking homes from their foundations.” (Emphasis added to showcase verbiage.)

By  |  10:49 AM ET, 08/29/2011

 
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