Goodnight, Irene–Hello Lessons Learned


Full disclosure: I work for a major television network that devoted significant resources and airtime to the coverage of Hurricane – later Tropical Storm – Irene. I am very, very proud of how my network did its duty to inform, protect and comfort its viewers on-air and online – and its listeners on radio.

I am equally proud of the herculean job done by our network’s flagship station in New York, which spared no expense and which brought its sizeable meteorological expertise and reporting resources to bear on a storm that could have – could have – been every bit as catastrophic to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the country as originally was forecasted.

There is no percentage in broadcasters “over-hyping” a minor event. It reflects badly on our credibility. It overtaxes what are likely already overtaxed resources. But perhaps most critical in these tight economic times, it’s outrageously expensive.

It’s fair to say millions of dollars worth of advertising inventory was blown out. Some of it time-sensitive and unrecoverable; a lot of it subject to make-goods which will reduce the number of avails other clients can buy. As a rule, broadcasters don’t routinely kill commercials just for kicks. Nor do we kill scheduled programming – especially shows that draw big audiences — unless there’s a damn good reason to do so.

Let’s also remember why television and radio station licenses are granted in the first place. It’s not to push laundry products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals or new cars. Or even to entertain you.

It is “to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

So we’re clear: Forecasters didn’t “get it wrong.” The meteorology of the storm changed, as often is the case with hurricanes, among the most notoriously unpredictable forces in nature. And nearly every forecaster I heard and saw added a cautionary note to every prediction, that a wobble a few miles this way or that, or a change in water temperature, could change the strength and impact of the storm.

I’m one of the few in the industry who saw first-hand how New York’s hurricane planning would work years before Irene was even a twinkle on anyone’s “green screen.” As an amateur radio operator, and a volunteer with New York’s Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service in the mid-90s, I participated in a multi-day, multi-agency exercise designed to test the city’s response to an Irene-type storm.

The exercise called for bridges and tunnels to close, for power to be lost, for mass transit to shut down, for a huge storm surge to inundate lower Manhattan and the Rockaways and parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.

And the big fear was that the 250,000 people ordered to evacuate – wouldn’t. Or couldn’t.

The planning you saw Mayor Bloomberg, and emergency managers in other jurisdictions, execute during Irene was years in the making, years in the rehearsing – and thank God, it worked like a charm. Not to say there won’t be some rethinking now, based on actual experiences, but as others have already said – what if it didn’t work, and what if all the original forecasting had been right?

Here’s what would’ve happened: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people would be dead, injured – or at the very least displaced. Property damage would have been even more extensive than it was. And all the naysayers in the media and governmental pigpile now would be finger wagging about why “we weren’t warned, why we weren’t ready.”

As professional crisis managers, my colleagues and I face this dilemma every day: How much backup to buy, when to sound the alarm, when to pull the trigger and invoke a disaster plan, how much of what to deploy, when to normalize operations? 

Are we canaries in the coalmine, or just hyperventilating Chicken Littles? Probably a little of both, but vastly more of the former.

That’s the cold hard truth. And as Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep admonished in “A Few Good Men,” sometimes our audience and our critics can’t handle the truth.”

In one of the greatest speeches in cinema, Nicholson’s Jessep went on to say, “I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom…You have the luxury of not knowing what I know…. Deep down in places you don’t talk about…you WANT me on that wall. You NEED me on that wall.”

He was talking about the Marines at Guantanamo. He just as easily could have been describing the media, forecasters and emergency managers — walking the fine and often dangerous line between essential information and hype.

So at the end of the day, what have we learned?

• That Nature is predictably unpredictable; that our job is to do our best to get it right, and to be thankful on the human dimension when storms zig instead of zag.
• That our facilities and people need to be robustly prepared for ANYTHING. And that we need to build flexibility and dynamism into our response, adjusting it to circumstances, and keeping our reporting fresh, useful and timely, especially in continuous coverage situations.
• That having a plan, and invoking it when our best judgment dictates it, helps create a better plan “the next time.”
• That we need to adequately budget for disaster response.
• That we not ever lose faith in the training, experience and competence of our public and private crisis management professionals.

A life in the media has always been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition.  Personally, I like those odds. It’s the challenge that makes all of us come to work each day – knowing that even when we get it “wrong,” in many important ways, we get it absolutely “right.”

–Howard B. Price, CBCP, MBCI
Dir., Business Continuity & Crisis Management
ABC News
(212) 456-1073
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