On Deadline: Local question -- Was 'Hurricane Irene' news coverage overblown, so to speak? | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: Local question -- Was 'Hurricane Irene' news coverage overblown, so to speak?

Uploaded: Aug 29, 2011

After watching some days of Weather Channel and other news coverage of Hurricane Irene I found myself wondering, as a journalist, whether the newspeople along the way were doing a bit of hyperventilating in their dire predictions.

I also wanted to see some real storm damage and flooding scenes, not just windblown (or not) local reporters -- including seemingly endless shots of one intrepid journalist being sandblasted on a flat beach, hunched over, trying to talk.

"I think they're just making it all up about the damage and floods," like those who believe the moon walk never happened, I quipped to a friend midway through the coverage cycle, impatient at seeing only a wind-blasted reporter and a few shingles blown partway back on a large building.

The importance to Palo Alto and the Bay Area is that news reports that "cry wolf" deepen the level of people's skepticism about such warnings. That is especially true of longer-term warnings of potential impacts climate change: rising sea (and bay) levels and increased volatility of our traditionally benign Central California coastal weather.

"Increased volatility" means that with just a few degrees of warming of the Pacific Ocean it could cease being pacific and generate hurricane-force winds and heavy rains, in addition to increased heat and aridity in the food-producing Central Valley -- which one prediction called a Death Valley effect.

Climate change is a long way off, it seems, and we have so many immediate things about which to worry, like jobs and deadlocked state and national leadership.

Yet having lived some years in the Santa Cruz Mountains I've seen first-hand what wind gusts of 40 or 50 miles per hour can do to the trees there: large firs, bay laurel, madrone -- especially in rain-soaked earth. I've also seen many big trees fall in calm spring weather following rains, as warmth draws heavy sap up into the treetops. There's good reason many residents carry chain saws in their vehicles.

If a real blow of 80 to 100 miles or more per hour hits those mountains, think of the old game of Pick Up Sticks. Lots of firewood.

Yet both the predictions of sea-level rise and increased volatility of weather depend on acceptance of the notion of climate change -- about which there are plenty of skeptics. One friend of mine ridicules the notion. But if he's wrong and we ignore the many climate-change warnings, I once replied to a scoffing e-mail he sent, there will be catastrophic consequences. Yet if the climate-change "Chicken Littles" are wrong it will be no big deal, a passing non-news story.

I don't suppose those East Coast residents who lost homes, friends or family members feel the advance coverage was overblown.

And much of the news was based on warnings of officials and the massive forced evacuations -- a remarkable story in itself, especially in New York City. No one wanted to get caught short, as with New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina's claiming of 1,800 lives.

Few today know of the great Galveston, Texas, flood of 1900, in which between 6,000 and 12,000 people died, most from drowning and mostly attributable to lack of advance planning and inadequate warnings. We're a nation of short memories.

It's hard to say how many lives, injuries, homes and businesses were saved by the extensive preventive boarding up and evacuations, or careful "hunkering down" (a repeated phrase by the on-site journalists) by those choosing to ride out the storm. Yet I began to wish the journalists would do more hunkering than hyping.

The coverage reminded me of a classic exchange in the film, "Shipping News," some years back. A grizzled older reporter was instructing a newcomer about what news is about. He tells the newbie to give him a headline about clouds building up across a bay. "Clouds form along horizon," the newbie ventures. Nope, the veteran rejoins: "Storm threatens village."

But what if the storm doesn't arrive? Then it's, "Killer storm spares village," the veteran growls. He could be referring to Greenwich Village today, even.

And yet. ? There are renewed expressions of concern about the potential consequences of ignoring the inadequacy of our bayfront levees in the south bay, and the thousands of acres of homes and businesses that would be impacted by just an 18-inch rise in sea level within the next few decades, and a 22- to 55-inch rise by the end of the century. Coupled with land subsidence from over-pumping groundwater a half century and more ago, large areas of the south bay are at risk of serious flooding.

The San Francisco Bay Conservations and Development Commission (BCDC for short) is blunt about the threat on its website, www.bcdc.gov.ca.

"The Bay is rising and this is projected to continue," it warns. "In fact, today's flood is expected to be the future's high tide. Areas that currently flood every ten to twenty years during extreme weather and tides will begin to flood regularly. These areas are home to over 160,000 residents, critical infrastructure, diverse habitats, and valuable community resources." It then outlines its "climate change plan."

BCDC's proposal to expand its jurisdiction beyond 100 feet from the bay has elicited vigorous opposition as well as support. The debate is raging primarily in a below-the-news-radar fashion.

There's also a recent website backed by a coalition of labor and business groups pushing a levee-construction solution: www.bayrising.org.

New York City and much of the East Coast lucked out this time around. But good planning and preparations helped, along with people heeding the warnings. Will the West Coast do as well when our turn blows in?

Jay Thorwaldson is the former editor of the Weekly. He can be e-mailed at [email protected] or [email protected]