Overhyped Irene makes Washington the inevitable butt of snickers

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 28, 2011

Have your fun, Gulf Coasters. Go ahead, LOL at us.

And Californians, please join in.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

It is a national pastime, apparently, to whip out our rulers and measure our natural disasters against one another in an endless, cross-country, chest-thumping smackdown.

Yes, you’re totally right, America, about Washington’s wimpiness.

We nearly crashed Twitter last week when the 5.8-magnitude earthquake knocked the political biographies off our bookshelves and tipped over our patio chairs. The horror!

As Hurricane Irene churned toward the Mid-Atlantic, we bought enough dry goods to stock a humanitarian aid airlift for an entire continent and seriously discussed who could eat whom if it went all Donner party on us.

It became a game, trying to find D batteries. CVS, Wegmans, Safeway, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Office Depot — all wiped out.

In one massive suburban grocery store Friday evening, it was impossible to find peanut butter or bread. So that’s what we plan to do if all heck breaks loose? PB&Js galore?

Of course, New Yorkers were a bit more clever and boozy about it, buying out all the ginger beer — the key ingredient in one of my favorite libations, a dark and stormy.

Bars whipped up hurricane drinks, foodies made insane frittatas and my kids wore their headlamps all night, asking: “Is the power out yet? Is the power out yet? When is the power going to go out, already?!”

Sorry, kids. Irene may be the most overhyped hurricane of our lifetime. Weather Web page hits and TV ratings went through the roof. In fact, that’s about all Irene did to roofs, at least in most places.

At dawn, we cleared away the branches and righted the garbage cans while the nation snickered.

“Dear news media: Unless you’re on the roof spelling out the word HELP in your own blood, please stop saying that Irene is ‘Our Katrina,’ ” Charlie O tweeted.

I wonder whether Charlie O saw the local Fox affiliate’s brave Tucker Barnes and his live stand-up from Ocean City, where he kept reporting despite a growing overcoat of sewage-laden sea foam. That counts as valor, doesn’t it?

Hey, while we’re at it, Mountain Time — hop right in and skewer us for our 1-to-1 snowflake-to-government shutdown day ratio.

“We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,” President Obama chided his new neighbors, after a snow globe-style flurry shut down his kids’ school shortly after the first family had moved into the White House.

A year later? Eighteen inches of fluff on the nation’s capital and the president was right there, quivering alongside us Washingtonians. “Snowmageddon,” he called it.

But watching the Navy SEALs as they closed in on Osama bin Laden? Cold as steel.

Washington may not be so good at the natural disasters, but give us a man-made crisis, and we rock.

I double-dog dare any earthquake-weary Californian — raised in a 72-and-sunny biosphere (I know, I am one) — to put on a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and tie and march up a broken Metro escalator in a 112-degree heat index to endure Day 48 of the debt ceiling standoff.

Or I ask any cabin-dwelling, cross-country-skiing parent not to flinch when your preschool hands you the terrorism evacuation plan because, after all, you are within a couple miles of some real targets.

Our local economy — from librarians to hot dog cart vendors to office workers — faces ruin each time the federal government flirts with shutting down because the congressmen that the rest of America sent here bicker like angry badgers. But our civil servants and small merchants soldier on, going to work despite the threat of financial collapse. Flinty, right?

During Irene, even State Farm couldn’t resist a smackdown, Twittering the power losses as a comparison: “According to @weatherchannel, over 4 million customers so far without power on the East coast, about 1 million more than Katrina. #Irene.”

Really, the best Washington lesson for the rest of the world when it comes to natural disasters is spin. It’s all about spin, baby.

Take Pepco’s approach to this hurricane. The utility — which may be more despised than lawyers, diet pill hucksters and journalists — tried to do advance damage control.

Pepco robo-called millions of customers in the Washington region, lowering expectations that they would have power after the storm and declaring its inevitable failure ahead of time.

Sunday morning, when power loss wasn’t widespread, people were generally elated.

In Washington, that counts in the win column.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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