By Brendan Loy
Dude… it’s PajamasMedia.com.
I apologize to my LRT readers for having so little coverage of Hurricane Irene here, while I was blogging up a storm (pun intended) over at my Pajamas Media site, Weather Nerd. Ideally, I would have done more partial cross-posting — understandably, PJM doesn’t let me do full cross-posts, since they pay me for exclusive content, but I can do partial cross-posts — but I was just so busy that I didn’t have the time. With Hurricane Katrina, I could basically take a week off of life, skip my classes, cut out sleep, and blog, blog, blog. Now I’ve got a job and three kids, so it was a little trickier.
Anyway, I haven’t yet seen PJM’s stats for Weather Nerd’s traffic, but I’m told the numbers were “phenomenal.” I’m curious if I topped my Katrina record of 34,278 visitors in a day. I know there was a major impact on my number of Twitter followers, which had sloooowly climbed to 1,600 over the course of my three years on Twitter — then skyrocketed over the weekend to more than 2,200. Here’s a look at my Twitter stats, showing my total number of followers (dark orange line) and number of tweets per day (light orange bars) over the last three months:
And to think, now all those new followers will now have to be indoctrinated into the cult of #PANIC, not to mention Karl Benson WAC jokes. :)
I also suspect that my Saturday-night tidal gauge post, which was simultaneously Instalanched and @fivethirtyeight’d, may have inadvertently contributed to the disruption of NOAA’s servers, causing all of the tidal gauges to simultaneously go offline for about an hour. I don’t know whether this is true, but the correlation was pretty strong, inspiring me to tweet: “Where were you when Brendan Loy and Nate Silver broke NOAA? #SuggestedAlanJacksonSongs”
(If it was my fault… um, sorry, NOAA!)
Obviously, outside the blogosphere and twittersphere, my coverage didn’t cause anything like the level of attention I got during Hurricane Katrina. But I did get mentioned by Reason magazine editor-in-chief Matt Welch on Fox Business News yesterday, as you can see in the video clip at the top of this post. Watch the whole thing if you dare, but be warned, it’s mostly absurd, conspiratorial, Obama-bashing, right-wing nonsense. Though Lindsey Piegza’s comments about what the media did “once we found out that the storm wasn’t as strong” are true, as I wrote over at Weather Nerd:
Was Irene overhyped? Well, yes and no. … As I wrote in my post about “misconceptions,” the mere fact that a worst-case scenario doesn’t occur is hardly proof that it should never have been considered a possibility, or that precautions taken against such a scenario were therefore unwarranted. That’s totally illogical. I’m sure NOAA officials and others would love to have access to the 20/20 Hindsight Computer Model that some commentators seem to possess, but absent that, I believe it was completely justified and necessary to evacuate the folks who were evacuated, given the uncertainties in the forecast at the time decisions had to be made (specifically with regard to the storm surge). It’s the nature of the beast, given the current limits of our forecasting ability, that most “alarms” will be “false alarms.” It’s simply impossible to know with certainty what a storm will do at the time when evacuation decisions must be made, so we have no choice but to “prepare for the worst,” knowing full well that, in most cases and in most places, the worst will not happen. Thus, the fact of a “false alarm,” without more, is not evidence of improper “hype.”
Yet overhype certainly exists, not so much in the forecasts or the precautions, but in the media coverage. “Preparation for the worst-case scenario makes sense,” writes the Telegraph’s Toby Harnden, “and could have saved hundreds during Katrina. But the worst-case scenario was largely portrayed as inevitable.” That’s a big problem in the early stages of hurricane coverage: the tendency to filter out the uncertainties, and treat the worst-case possibilities as probabilities or near-certainties. This, in turn, feeds into a cycle of self-perpetuating hype, which at some point seems to pass a “point of no return,” after which any walk-back of the doomsday talk is seen as irresponsibly advising people to “let their guard down” — not to mention hurting ratings. That helps cause what I view as the primary problem, which I’ve observed many times over the years: the MSM’s failure to adjust the tone and substance of the coverage once it has become apparent that the worst-case scenario(s), despite having previously been realistic possibilities, have now become unrealistic. In other words, they fail to dial down the hype a notch when the hype, once reasonable, is clearly no longer justified. I tweeted Friday morning about this, stating: “Media must be careful today. Fine line b/w preventing complacency & overhyping a weakened Irene (which breeds cynicism and…complacency). Ideally, you communicate that Irene is a big deal that people should take seriously, but no longer likely to be an apocalyptic hellstorm. But that’s hard to do in practice, especially when MSM weather coverage generally has two settings: 1. #Ignore. 2. #OMGApocalypticHellstorm!” …
This pattern is dangerous, because it can breed both complacency and arrogance — the latter exemplified by Anne Thompson’s comment on the NBC Nightly News that New Yorkers had gained their “swagger” back because “New York took the best that Irene could give, and made it through.” That statement might make sense, if Irene had given New York anything close to “the best [it] could give.” But Irene didn’t do that. It’s absolutely critical to understand that this was nowhere near the worst-case scenario for NYC & environs, thanks to Irene’s limited strength. That scenario will occur come to pass someday; it just wasn’t today, thank goodness. But my fear now is that, when the eventual day of reckoning comes, folks won’t take it seriously because “they said that about Irene too.” Complacency caused by media overhype can kill, just as surely as complacency caused by people “letting their guard down” due to underhype. Finding the proper balance is very tricky, and impossible to do perfectly — but the media certainly needs to do better.
By the way, on the subject of “hype,” Irene’s death toll is now 40, the fourth-worst in the U.S. since 1980, according to Nate Silver. And its economic damage could end up being between $14 billion and $26 billion, which would rank somehwere between fourth and eighth since 1980 in inflation-adjusted terms. So it’s not like this was a non-event (as folks in Vermont and the Catskills will tell you).
Anyway… on to the next worst-case scenario! Tropical Storm Katia — bearer of the name that replaced “Katrina,” which was of course retired from the rotating six-year name list — has formed off the African coast, and is expected to steadily strengthen, eventually becoming a major hurricane. Some computer models have shown an eventual threat to the U.S. East Coast (we’re talking about something in the 10 to 14 day range, maybe around the weekend of 9/11), but the latest model runs, via Ryan Maue, seem to imply recurvature out to sea:
Bottom line, it’s way, way, way too early to tell what Katia will do. But I’ll be watching. :) And I’ll just make this highly speculative, totally unfounded, irresponsible comment: if the storm that inherited Katrina’s spot on the hurricane name list hits New York and/or Washington on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I may conclude that Michele Bachmann was right. :P