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Katrina and Irene

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Adam Gopnik is upset that his Cape Cod vacation got interrupted by a storm that didn’t live up to the worst case scenario:

Obviously, this was a big storm with a lot of water and wind in it; if things broke the wrong way, it could do a great deal of harm to a lot of people—and, just as obviously, the politicians had made an intelligent decision not to get caught with their raincoats down this time. (See Katrina.) But the relentless note of incipient hysteria, the invitation to panic, the ungrounded scenarios—the overwhelming and underlying desire for something truly terrible to happen so that you could have something really hot to talk about—was still startling. We call disasters unimaginable, but all we do is imagine such things. “It hasn’t even started, and the city is already Atlantis,” one of the back seat riders announced.

That, you could conclude mordantly, is the real soundtrack of our time: the amplification of the self-evident toward the creation of paralyzing, preëmptive paranoia. The real purpose not to get you to do anything, but to get you so scared that all you can do is keep the television, or radio, on. This is obvious, and yet there is something truly helpful, really instructive, about experiencing it again after a month of absence and silence. Two things that ought to be apparent all the time become briefly clear to you again. First, that the media, television particularly, are amplifying devices in which tiny kernels of information become vast, terrifying structures of speculation. The news business is one in which a minimum of news is really given the business.

I don’t think the first hurricane to threaten the Northeast in 20 years and a hurricane of remarkable size, if somewhat average wind speed, is a minimum of news. While Gopnik gives lip service to the Katrina comparison, the rest of the article dismisses it to poke at the somewhat hysterical hurricane reporting coming from The Weather Channel and imitated by other networks. And that reporting, like so much cable television news these days, might be ridiculous. But a hurricane, especially one the size of Irene, has real potential to kill a lot of people. In New Orleans, we saw what happens when local, state, and federal governments don’t have it together enough to evacuate people and have a response plan in place. This weekend, everyone did their job. President Obama, governors of all the relevant states, mayors–they all deserve credit for preparing people for the storm. And The Weather Channel’s 24 hour coverage did its part too. People took this storm seriously. I’m sorry if Adam Gopnik lost a day of his beach vacation; I know how hard it is for a man of his extremely limited means to enjoy a bit of down time. If it helps protect people, it’s worth it.

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