Saturday, August 27, 2011

Travel Grinds to Halt in NYC

[Top map shows NJ barrier islands; bottom map via shows national airports status at 10 a.m. EDT today. Red dot means, forget about it, you're going nowhere today.]

In the New York area, travel ground to a halt today. Not just air travel, but subways and buses and trains. Even major roads are clogged with traffic from evacuated areas along the coast and inland.

At the same time, questions are being asked about the extent to which "Irene hype" has created all of this astonishing evacuation and other commotion, given the hurricane's weakening wind-strength after it affected North Carolina this morning, downgraded to Category 1. So far, the storm has created the kind of disruptions any large storm would create, including power outages in North Carolina and Virginia and local flooding in areas prone to flooding.

Basically, what we seem to have is confusion exacerbated by the media hurricane-hysterics knee-jerk focus on wind and calamity. I was just looking, for example, at some over-emoting TV reporter standing on a beach in North Carolina hyping the hurricane while, evidently unknown to him, some surfers bobbed merrily in the moderate waves behind his back. Back in the studio, the director quickly killed the shot, suggesting to me that hype was driving the agenda.

Right now we seem to be witnessing a monster rainstorm riding on what has become a weakened Category 1 hurricane. As I have been saying all week, the problems are not going to be caused so much by wind (see this article in today's Wall Street Journal on hurricane wind-scale categorization), as by water.

That's probably going to be true tonight and tomorrow, though late reports tonight are that the rain is lessening as the storm moves north.

Still, when you combine even less-than-hurricane-force winds with tremendous amounts of water and aim it all at vulnerable sections of the coast, you have real potential for disaster. However, I have to say I read with alarm online in the Times late this afternoon that New York City had "all but closed down in anticipation of what forecasters said could be violent winds with the power to drive a wall of water over the beaches in the Rockaways and between the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan." My alarm reading this, I should add, was more for the state of journalism than the city of New York.

If this storm happens to fizzle early tomorrow, there will be a Category 5 shit-storm of political recrimination in locked-down New York City. Hoo boy, will that be interesting.

But if this storm does cause major problems this weekend, my guess is it's going to be concentrated on the one spot the hurricane hysterics have been ignoring as they broadcast into the breeze: The southern half of the New Jersey coast, and especially the barrier-island seashore communities, all of which have been under evacuation orders since yesterday.

Up in New York City, the major airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport, are shut to arriving flights. Departing flights were allowed today as airlines scramble to get their planes out of the way. But this is a temporary tactic. Even if you have a way to get to Kennedy, please don't even think of trying to fly out of New York today, unless you're already at the airport with a boarding pass and access to an actual airplane.

UPDATE: The New York airports are now closed for all traffic, departing and arriving, on Sunday. And according to the mayor, Michael "Cyclone Mike" Bloomberg, it's unlikely that the New York City subways and buses will be back in operation on Monday. If so, that's going to create quite a wild scene in NYC come the start of the workweek.

The hurricane made landfall in North Carolina this morning, when it was downgraded to a Category 1 -- though the hurricane reporters, in full battle-stations mode, emphasized every strong gust. It was very clear to me that the media was very invested in covering a major hurricane.

To repeat: It isn't the wind, it's the water. And the big story isn't in North Carolina. If there is one, it's going to be in New Jersey and New York. If there is major flooding, it will come not only with the ocean and inlets, but also on the rivers and creeks amid heavy rainfall, as water also pushes in from the sea.

Hurricane reporters love wind, though.

Initial overblown (sorry!) reports of the wind's "devastation" as the hurricane "slammed" into the Outer Banks of North Carolina were that a section of a rickety old wood pier fell into the surf (again!), and the roof of a car dealership was damaged by gusts. There are also those widespread power outages. But it really has not been that much of a hurricane, as these things go.

It rained and rained, however. Rain isn't as sexy as wind, but ask Noah about how much of an impact it can have when it arrives in excessive volume.

[UPDATE: As the day wears on and the hurricane winds weaken, the media-hype language ("fury" ... "lashed" ... "raged") at least is being tempered. On the other hand, the justification-brigades are reporting for duty. For example, media are now reporting that the storm has become a "killer," because some deaths have occurred. Screaming headline currently on the Web site for the New York Daily News: "IRENE TURNS DEADLY!".

Well yes, true enough -- big storms usually cause deaths, quite routinely, in fact. In the case of this one, five deaths have been reported so far. A man was killed in North Carolina when his car skidded into a tree, and three others died when tree limbs fell on them. Also, a man died from a heart attack suffered while nailing plywood to his house -- a death that, arguably, could just as readily be blamed on hurricane-hype as on an actual hurricane


I don't mean to minimize dangers, especially with the possibility of major flooding that can occur as a persistent hurricane with weakening winds transforms itself into a very big out-of-season Nor'easter.

Particularly dangerous is that the storm is very slow-moving, meaning it will hang around for a long time in any given area, possibly dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing great volumes of water around. Also, besides flooding, it won't take much wind to blow down trees (causing power outages) on ground that is saturated from previous heavy rains this month.

Earlier today, though, I found it amusing to watch how the media hurricane-hysterics fell into the usual farcical patterns -- ominously intoning speculation from rainy beaches (the video person making sure to get drops of rain on the lens) while some credulous 27-year-old weather-desk anchor wearing the kind of startlingly bright dress that apparently are big ticket items in Atlanta malls maintains her somber mien of free-floating alarm. On the green-screen behind her, they were running stock footage of palm trees bending in some hurricane winds of yesteryear. In fact, the Weather Channel was constantly running howling hurricane video, and not informing viewers that it was stock footage from long-ago storms. This is unacceptable.

Speculation was the rule of the day.

Meanwhile, the Weather Channel, which loves to hype hurricanes as a matter of practice, had a person on the Jersey Shore, but in ... Asbury Park (mandatory citation here of Bruce Springsteen legally required any time Asbury Park is mentioned). However, Asbury Park (mandatory mention again: Bruce Springsteen) is situated on the northern coastal mainland, and is one of the least vulnerable places on the otherwise very vulnerable Jersey Shore.

As I said days ago, if you want coverage on the Jersey Shore, you wanted to have it in place south of Seaside Heights, all the way to Cape May. That's where the real vulnerability is. It's also within a virtual media black-hole due to the lack of news outlets in the area.

Meanwhile, the travel chaos spawned by astonishingly urgent hurricane-precaution measures in advance of the storm has been huge. Aside from a locked-down New York City and coastal New Jersey, evacuation orders are in effect from Virginia to Connecticut, covering an estimated three million people -- who, incidentally, could ultimately become a bloc of extremely pissed-off voters if this storm happens to fizzle out this weekend and tough questions inevitably arise about governmental overreaction and the profound civil disruptions caused by the unprecedented scale of the evacuation, shutdown and lockdown orders.

While airports in New York are closed, others in the rest of the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England were operating -- though big problems and delays are rippling through the whole national air-travel system because of the New York shutdown and cancellations.

Philadelphia has also shut down its subway system, the bright side of which being that crime rates in that city will certainly plunge this weekend.

Along the Jersey Shore, the areas most in danger are the barrier islands that have been recklessly overdeveloped since the last similar major coastal storm hit there -- in 1960. This is because barrier islands are by definition unstable spits of sand between the sea and the bays and inlets behind them. Beach erosion could be substantial.

Here is a geography/coastal-geology lesson for the media: Asbury Park is not on a barrier island. It is on the mainland, along the beach. The barrier island beach towns start at Island Beach (think Seaside Heights) and then continue southward to the Wildwoods, with the most vulnerable barrier island being skinny little Long Beach Island and its zillion-dollar homes foolishly built on shifting sand. Meanwhile, little old Cape May is sitting out there on the tip of the state between the ocean and Delaware Bay.

Up in New York City, where the authorities ordered extreme precautions that included the shutdown of the entire transit system and a mandatory-evacuation order covering areas of the city inhabited by about 350,000 residents, the long wait for calamity continued. What would Sunday bring?

Sounding just a little bit defensive to me, "Cyclone Mike" Bloomberg, the mayor, told reporters this morning: "The most dangerous thing we have to deal with is the storm surge and there is no indication that the forecast for that has changed. There is also serious risk of falling tree limbs in our parks." [The italics are mine.]


No comments: