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"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32
WEBCommentary Editor
Author:  Bob Webster
Bio: Bob Webster
Date:  August 29, 2011
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Topic category:  Climate/Climate Change/Weather

A Final Word on Hyping Hurricane Irene

Predictions of Irene becoming a "Category 4" hurricane are now laughable in retrospect. But what about the "Chicken Little" effect from all this over hyping?

I've documented the difference between National Weather Service (NWS) reporting station information along Hurricane Irene's path and the hype that preceded the storm in a commentary Hyping the Hurricane, Which I've updated frequently over the period August 27 to August 29.

My point was never intended to disparage meteorologists or emergency preparations, but to illustrate that our culture of sensationalism and over-hyping events has gotten out of hand and could well lead to the "Chicken Little" effect.

To illustrate, here is a paragraph from my last update of the commentary cited above:

One report for Sussex County in northwestern New Jersey quoted a meteorologist for a well-known weather service as saying, we "are expecting it to become a Category 4 hurricane, but when it gets closer to New Jersey it will most likely weaken to a Category 2 strength" (sustained winds of 96-110 mph) with "winds as high as 60 mph and rainfalls between 4 and 8 inches". Irene never reached "Category 4" strength ("sustained winds 131-155 mph")! As Monday morning began to dawn, rather than the hyped "60 mph" winds, Andover-Aeroflex Airport in southeastern Sussex County recorded maximum sustained winds of just 16 mph (about one-quarter those predicted) with gusts only to 32 mph! In other words, even gusts failed to reach minimal tropical storm level for sustained winds (39 mph).

Another example of overstating hurricane damages is the common practice of lumping in costs of lost income with actual cost of physical damages in estimating storm losses (see Billions in Damages Likely and Cost Will Be Less Than Feared).

How much of estimated storm costs include lost wages, business closures, mandatory evacuations and boarding up buildings in response to a vastly over-estimated storm impact in the many areas where the storm didn't even manage tropical storm strength despite hurricane warnings?

Just how many times can you sound the fire alarm when there is no fire and expect people to leave the building?

Consider this real experience:

While staying in a hotel in the Boston, MA, area several years ago, my wife and I were roused by the sound of fire alarms. Added urgency came with the sounds of arriving fire trucks. As bleary-eyed hastily-dressed guests trekked down stairs to the lobby area, they were assured there was no fire and it was simply a problem with the hotel's alarm system (which happened to be linked to the local fire department). Over the course of several days, these false alarms recurred with some frequency. After the first few false alarms, and despite the continued arrival of fire trucks, most hotel guests no longer responded to the alarms, simply assuming the alarms were false. But suppose there had been a real fire emergency? The lack of response to alarms when we are conditioned by false alarms is known as "the Chicken Little effect."

Now, I realize that forecasting is an inexact science and that it is always "better to be safe than sorry" when it comes to hurricanes (Katrina being an excellent case in point). Nevertheless, regular over-hyping of weather events (including strong hurricanes) may well have contributed to the very lax response to forecasts for Katrina. The "Chicken Little" effect.

Warnings that Hurricane Irene would become a Category 4 storm coupled with dire predictions that the eastern seaboard would suffer massive damage from Irene and the continued posting of "Hurricane Warnings" by the NWS on Sunday, August 28th, well after Irene's winds had diminished to the point where they were barely sufficient to warrant "Tropical Storm" warnings, all amount to over-hyping that rises to the level of "Chicken Little" warnings.

This problem isn't exclusive to hurricane warnings. The same tendency to over-hype pending northeastern snowstorms has increased dramatically in recent years. Perhaps it's the advent of all-news/all-weather cable television that is contributing to this problem. Perhaps it's the return to more snowy winters and hurricanes that could impact the populous northeast. But whatever the cause, such alarmism tends to dampen the public's response. If unabated, over-ringing alarm bells will lead to putting people in harms way when the alarm matches the danger.

Let's hope this practice of routinely over-hyping storms is curtailed so people are not conditioned to ignore alarms when the danger matches the hype.

Finally, how about in future we separate costs for actual physical damages from costs associated with preparation, evacuation and lost economic income?

Clarity and accuracy never hurt anyone.

Bob Webster
WEBCommentary (Editor, Publisher)

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Biography - Bob Webster

Bob Webster, a descendant of Daniel Webster's father and early American patriot, Ebenezer Webster, has always had a strong interest in early American history, our Constitution, U.S. politics, and law. Politically he is a constitutional republican with objectivist and libertarian roots. He has faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and reason over deception and emotion. He is a strong believer in our Constitution as written and views the abandonment of constitutional restraint by the regressive Progressive movement as a great danger to our Republic. His favorite novel is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and believes it should be required reading for every high school student so they can understand the dangers of tolerating the growth of unconstitutional crushingly powerful central government. He strongly believes, as our Constitution enshrines, that the interests of the individual should be held superior to the interests of the state.

A lifelong interest in meteorology and climatology spurred his strong interest in science. Bob earned his degree in Mathematics at Virginia Tech, graduating in 1964.


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