Television news loves to hype a disaster. The moment there’s even a remote chance of a storm affecting some part of the country, many news departments churn out ominous blinking graphics to serve as a segue between breathless reporters repeating the same few bits of information. As a general rule, bigger storms attract bigger media circuses, and when one of these storms threatens the most densely populated part of the United States (and the home of the media itself), all bets are off.
The news coverage surrounding the approach and landfall of Hurricane Sandy, however, was one of those strange times when a major storm actually lived up to the hype, and even exceeded it.
As with most storms, the media cautiously mentioned the idea of a disaster when early runs of the models (about a week out) started to show a threat to the United States. Since even the mainstream media has learned that models rarely verify this far out, the coverage was appropriately more informational than emotional. The tone of the coverage intensified once it became apparent that one of the “worst-case scenarios” of disaster shows like It Could Happen Tomorrow might soon come true (a hurricane hitting NYC was the series’ pilot episode in 2006).
Already in breaking news mode, local and national media organizations had to shift gears from the impending presidential election to cover what had the potential to be one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. As meteorologists issued forecasts that read like warnings from a disaster preparedness drill, the media tried to strike the right tone to convey the danger of the situation while avoiding being accused of hype.
Anyone who follows the news, however, knows that the hype ship sailed years ago. One of the stereotypes surrounding TV news is that it can make a breezy day sound like a Category 5 hurricane before the first commercial break. Even small storms (which, don’t get me wrong, can be dangerous just the same) get wall-to-wall coverage. The “crying wolf” effect is a serious problem when it comes to coverage of major storms. People start to tune out when they hear how dangerous every storm is, so it can take people off guard when a storm like Sandy actually lives up to the hype, especially just a year after Hurricane Irene hit the same area but failed to meet expectations.
Hurricane Sandy quickly gained the nickname “Superstorm” Sandy in the news due to its unusual characteristics and the worst-case scenario track it took into the northeastern United States. Despite having a minimum central pressure typical of a major hurricane – a formidable 946 millibars at landfall – Sandy was only a “weak” Category 1 as it neared the New Jersey coast. But instead of having a compact sector of very intense winds, as would be expected of a major hurricane with a pressure that low, Sandy’s energy was spread over a massive area, with tropical-storm force winds extending 485 miles from the center shortly before landfall.
Reporters calling Sandy a “Category 1” may have led some viewers to underestimate the storm’s potential impact. Due to Sandy’s immense wind field and the accompanying surge, however, the Saffir-Simpson Scale rating proved very misleading. Even at “just” a Category 1, the 80-90+ MPH winds would last for an extended period of time, and would bring about a surge typically seen with much stronger storms.
Just the nature of Sandy’s structure made it hard for the news to properly communicate the danger to the public, and not all of it was the fault of the media. The National Hurricane Center was being infamously stubborn during the storm, refusing to issue hurricane warnings for New Jersey and New York City based on the technicality that Sandy would become extratropical (lose its tropical characteristics) before landfall. Sandy had all the effects of a hurricane, but because its structure wasn’t expected to fit the textbook definition of a tropical system by the time of landfall, no tropical storm or hurricane warnings were issued north of the North Carolina coast.
This disconnect created a major PR problem. Local National Weather Service offices did issue high wind warnings for areas in the track of Sandy and warned of dire consequences, but much of the public probably treated a high wind warning with less trepidation than they would a hurricane warning. The end result was quite a bit of confusion (and likely a false sense of security for some) in the days leading up to landfall.
A few months after Sandy struck, the NHC released an announcement addressing many of the issues that came up during the storm. Going forward, for public information purposes there will be virtually no difference between advisories for a landfalling hurricane versus a landfalling storm that is tropical in origin but has transitioned to an extratropical storm. In other words, if Sandy were to strike under these new rules, hurricane warnings would have been issued for the appropriate areas of the Northeast.
The concerted effort by the media to tamp down some of the hype may have actually done more harm than good. Hurricane Sandy’s impacts far exceeded what many residents of New Jersey and New York expected. Brooklyn resident Ryan Nieburg lives half a mile from the ocean, right on the border between the Zone A and Zone B evacuation zones. Zone A was evacuated in anticipation of the storm surge, but the surge in this part of Brooklyn was much deeper than predicted – even a half-mile inland the surge reached almost four feet deep. “We weren’t evacuated and they didn’t say it would reach that far inland,” Nieburg said. This is a situation that played out countless times all along the coast as many were caught off guard by just how strong the storm was.
One of the strangest dichotomies of Hurricane Sandy’s news coverage (and coverage of all major storms, in fact) is the practice of sending a reporter out into the elements with nothing but a raincoat and a protected microphone. The Tampa Bay Times ran a report the morning after Hurricane Sandy struck asking various experts why news organizations felt it necessary to have reporters stand in a storm while they tell viewers not to do the very thing they’re doing. The answer comes down to a mixture of ratings, showing viewers what they can’t see for themselves, and “show[ing] how dangerous mother nature is,” as put by Helen Swenson, the senior vice president of live programming for The Weather Channel.
Overall, the media coverage of Hurricane Sandy might have actually been too tame in appropriately conveying all the dangers to the public, but the media’s history of over-hyping previous storms may have also contributed to the feeling of “crying wolf” and a diminished appreciation for the seriousness of the situation.