A Storm of Historic Disproportion

The Liberal Ironist has a contrarian view of Hurricane Irene, the much-anticipated “Big One” that turned out to be less-damaging than Hurricane Gloria, which made landfall on Long Island in late-September 1985.

Have you heard of Hurricane Gloria?  If you aren’t from Long Island, New York, there is a good chance you haven’t–and this now inescapably colors my view of Hurricane Irene.  Just a few days after public alarm over a magnitude-5.8 earthquake outside of Richmond, Virginia–noteworthy in fact for its novelty rather than the danger it posed–President Obama warned us that Hurricane Irene was “a storm of historic proportions.”

The proportions by which Hurricane Irene is truly historic are in the scale of the preparations undertaken in its advance, and in the overestimation of the force with which it would hit New York City.  Hurricane Irene is likely to survive in our popular culture as an obscure reference to mass delusion rather than as the 100-year storm–though the full scale of the damage to Long Island hasn’t been assessed yet.  Some of the preparations, inconvenient though they were, were simply the dictates of prudence.  Many elected and appointed officials, business operators and private citizens simply took the appropriate precautions in order to protect lives and material assets; some of these preparatory steps–President Obama ending his Martha’s Vineyard vacation a day early to come back to Washington being a good example–seem to have been motivated more by fear of public judgment than by he urgency of his presence.  Though questions about such motivations clearly irritated him, a sense of having been burned by a sluggish City response to last December’s blizzard probably led New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg to go into full crisis mode at the news of a hurricane, eager to demonstrate his seriousness and his ability to lead.

2 articles on this subject warrant reading in this order–“Hurricane Lost Steam as Experts Misjudged Structure and Next Move” from Monday’s New York Times and “Politicians Pushed to Stay Out in Front of Events” from Monday’s Wall Street Journal.  Together they paint a depressing picture of an indeterminate science where catalytic and repressive features are both incompletely-theorized and unaccountable in practice, and in which dramatic events are a consequence of contingencies on different fronts.  But the very drama of the results is enough to produce a popular expectation that these developments can be adequately foreseen and mitigated by our leaders, especially by the President.  This causes politicians to dramatize situations the public finds frustrating with lots of dark imagery and then to contrast that with promises they cannot keep unless they’ve already made the impending situation look quite bad.  (OK, this time I’m talking about meteorology, not economics or political science.)

In this situation the Liberal Ironist is brought back to the Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s very illiberal and un-ironic way of making sense of all the cant and injustices he saw in politics in his day: All human beings are shackled to the floor of a cave, staring at its back wall; behind them and further towards the cave’s mouth a few comparatively-free but rather un-ambitious people stand, with a bright fire burning behind them.  They hold aloft statues hewn to resemble “real things,” projecting shadowy images against the back wall of the cave, and sometimes they speak or project sounds to pass for the utterances or noises of those shadows on the wall: So do the powers that be, whether of politics or culture, keep the mass of people entranced by what they believe or want others to believe are “real things.”  The “real things” of which these shadows can be but a crude reproduction are to be found outside the proverbial cave altogether, under the all-revealing light of the Sun.

For readers who lack experience with the history of philosophy, yes, the Wachowski brothers derived the idea for The Matrix by literalizing a metaphor from a 2,400-year-old book.  The objection I’m raising is against the bit parts we tend to play in this comedy.

Maybe the Liberal Ironist is overreacting to this overreaction.  Hurricane Katrina–at peak strength a category 5 hurricane–was the real deal, resulting in 1,400 deaths and an American city inundated and forever changed by the loss of scores of thousands of its inhabitants, and over $100 billion in property damage.  The sheer scope of the human cost in New Orleans–and the institutional failure of the State and Federal response to it–was indeed not merely a major story, and a cultural event.

The sound and fury surrounding Hurricane Irene ultimately signified nothing–which also makes it a cultural event, in the Liberal Ironist’s view.  The philosophy that “The buck stops here”–with the President–has gone too far and essentially created a ritual of panic-mobilization.

President Obama’s handling of the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform is partly where these expectations–and some due comparisons to the current non-episode–come from.  Vapid talking heads on CNN–a key offender whenever it’s time to stir-up indignation during a lull in the news cycle–would point to misstatements by President Obama or appointed officials heading the Federal relief effort as evidence that the President, or the Federal Government, or someone, wasn’t doing enough to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  1st of all, it was silly for so many to blame the President for the slow pace of the operation to cap the leak; he wasn’t really in possession of a superior means to cap the spill than BP.  2nd (and I suppose more-provocatively), there isn’t much point in issuing charges against BP for the slow pace of the capping operation, either, since they were desperate to stop the damned oil leak so that the public relations nightmare would end.  Of course, if you wanted to issue charges against BP for its operation of the rig or against the Minerals Management Service for its cozy relationship with energy companies drilling for oil in unstable environments, be my guest–but that is a part of my point here.  Holding those who expose the public to a certain level of risk makes more sense than blaming those responsible for emergency response when the scope of the disaster exceeds the material means available to contain it.

If it sounds like the aim of this entry is simply to proclaim President Obama a victim of this cultural shift, then I’ve gone off-point–though not off-topic.  The point is that, as the Wall Street Journal article on the subject observed, a number of their leaders essentially used what proved to be a minor storm as an opportunity to demonstrate that they won’t miss an opportunity.  This was not a partisan phenomenon: Republican-turned-independent New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg sustained the hype surrounding Hurricane Irene, as did Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue.  All were concerned about seeming to fiddle while Rome burned, so they…inserted themselves into what turned out to be a non-situation.

Better safe than sorry?  Absolutely–and mandatory evacuations are not a joke.  Some of the unprecedented 370,000 New Yorkers and 400,000 Long Islanders ordered evacuated in advance of the storm, for example, won’t have homes to go back to.  But New Yorkers will be sorry today–not because of the “disaster storm surge” depicted in spectacular graphics on CNN but because the New York City Subway, its entire rolling stock withdrawn into yards or to high-and-dry spots in the tunnels, won’t be fully-operational for this morning’s commute.

Sometimes there’s no choice between preparation and catastrophe but between differing types of inconvenience to be experienced at different times.  And the expense of preparations for this hurricane stand as a testament to our capacity for self-injury through expectations of risk-reduction imposed on our political class.  They aren’t precisely victims; they’ve been foisted into the role of Medieval doctors applying leeches.  If you want someone to blame, the Liberal Ironist would like to offer the television media.


4 thoughts on “A Storm of Historic Disproportion

  1. Leigh

    First, I’m glad the were prepared. Second, obama probably just wanted to have power and get out of the path of the hurricane. Third, Bloomberg got in big trouble with NYC residents over his response to the blizzard. Fourth, a giant tree was uprooted across the street and fell into a power line which saved it from demolishing the neighbor’s house. Better safe than sorry!

    1. liberalironist Post author

      All of those are fair and valid points, Leigh–and I think I already admitted the first 3. I meant to make a “recessive point” here, something I want people to bear in mind while they breathe a sigh of relief, pat themselves on the back for orderly (and widely-vindicated) evacuations, and express their gratitude to public officials for the headaches and tragedies averted. That recessive point is that, after a decade distinguished by the novelty of many catastrophic and revolutionary events–and the politicians who were challenged or even condemned for failing to prepare for (or at least adapt to) them, here a number of elected executives tried to anticipate the Next Big Thing, and in the end they parroted and reinforced CNN’s brand of hype.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Well, Force = Mass x Acceleration. I leave it to the statistics whiz at FiveThirtyEight.com to calculate just what the impact of that acceleration is. But on Long Island at least, the wind coming off the Ocean from the hurricane’s inbound eastern flank may have reached category-2 speeds. While the barometric pressure in its eye and the storm’s overall impact seem to make it a clear category-1 hurricane, its capacity to strike with such force on Long Island while simultaneously downgrading with unexpected speed reminds us that hurricanes are large, dynamic and contingent structures (that being the story behind Irene’s rapid decline overall) that may not always neatly fit into classification.

      Strangely, the same thing happened when Hurricane Gloria hit Long Island in 1985, an event that invites inevitable comparisons with the recent storm. Gloria’s eye made landfall over Lindenhurst, at almost exactly the same location and north-by-northeasterly trajectory (erroneously) projected for Irene. It was a category-1 storm remembered on Long Island primarily for its devastating wind, which exceeded sustained speeds a category-1 hurricane is generally considered capable of.


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