DAVID FARMER

Don’t buy the hype on hype

Posted Aug. 31, 2011, at 5:08 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 01, 2011, at 5:25 a.m.

By now, the full scale recriminations have likely started about the “ hype” associated with Hurricane and then Tropical Storm Irene.

Even before the storm started moving inland in North Carolina — causing billions of dollars of damage up and down the East Coast and taking several lives — there were bold prognosticators putting on a tough face.

The eye rolling was so loud you could hear it.

And after the storm hit New York, which had evacuated many of its low-lying areas, and didn’t cause the widespread and catastrophic damage many had feared, instead of collective relief, the actions of government officials and the media began to take a beating.

It’s easy to understand why. After all, you have CNN’s Anderson Cooper standing in New York, reporting on a storm that really wasn’t.

And the breathless coverage from correspondents, wading knee deep into the surf to show TV watchers the surf seemed more parody than news — a reality show for a late August, rerun weekend.

But I think the folks who are lining up to criticize the media and the government, especially the governors from New Jersey, New York and right up to our own Gov. LePage, are wrong.

I was not privy to the assessments coming from the scientists and weather forecasters. Nor did I hear the briefings from the National Guard, the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services. Not for this storm.

But I have heard them before.

You must take the dire warnings seriously. And you must prepare for the worst case.

The simple truth is that a miscalculation — a hope for the best approach — can put lives and the economy at stake.

Does it seem like an overreaction that New York evacuated hospitals? Perhaps in hindsight it might, but remember what happened with Katrina, when the sick were trapped — and died — because they weren’t moved?

In April 2007, Maine was hit by the Patriot’s Day Storm, a late season nor’easter that resembled a tropical storm, with strong wind and heavy rains.

When the storm hit, it hit hard, causing millions of dollars of damage and putting lives at risk.

Despite incredible damage and flooding, Maine managed the storm with a coordinated response by local, state and federal officials.

I spent several days at the Maine Emergency Management Agency as its team of highly trained professionals managed logistical nightmares, moving manpower and supplies to the parts of the state where it was needed most.

And the entire state could see the dedication and professionalism of local emergency management professionals as they responded to the storm and managed to protect human life.

Taking the storm seriously and being prepared helped to mitigate the damage.

When folks criticize Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Andrew Cuomo or even Gov. Paul LePage for their reactions to the storm, they do it because they’ve never been forced to make a decision on whether to order an evacuation or face the potential of being responsible — at least in part — for someone else’s death.

Likewise, there will be folks who are critical of LePage for taking a helicopter to Western Maine to review damage caused by the storm. The criticism is misplaced and wrongheaded.

During a time of emergency, it’s important that governors lead from the front, see what has happened and deliver a message that they will be there to help with the recovery.

It’s appropriate and it’s a good use of government resources. LePage was right to go.

As for the media, as a group they will take a heavy share of criticism for hyping the storm, for blowing it out of proportion. But I’m even willing to give that a pass.

Imagine this: In our information obsessed world of news, it’s difficult to break. News stories are often played beyond their significance. When something that’s really big comes along – like a storm that threatens some of the most densely populated parts of our country – there’s no real choice but to go big with the coverage.

Plus, they all know enough to give the people what they want.

I’m thankful that we’re talking about the hype of the storm. It’s a million times better than talking about the death toll and the devastation.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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