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Hype or Hurricane?

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HURRICANE IRENE NEW YORK
AP

Seventy-three years ago the Great Hurricane of 1938 (GH38) ripped through New England killing 700 people in four hours. The East Coast is now bracing for a storm that may be of equal magnitude. Yet newscasters keep talking about how "unprecedented" the coming threat may be. This is total nonsense. GH38 was a category four hurricane with gusts up to 160 miles per hour. It would take more than that to make Irene an "unprecedented" event. The damage and and loss, both human and monetary, is unlikely to rival GH38 in any way for the simple reason that the 1938 hurricane came as a surprise.

There was no round-the-clock forecast of GH38, because no one knew it was coming. It crept up the East Coast well off-shore, unseen and unpredicted. Seventy-three years ago there weren't satellite pictures and up-to-the minute reports of where the storm was headed. The Weather Bureau relied on reports from ships at sea and the transmission of news to the weather service took hours, almost days, to reach the public. When the deadly storm made landfall, shoreline residents were at home or at the beach, totally unprepared. Some foolhardy souls even went out in boats or walked on the beach. Prevailing wisdom was that hurricanes didn't come to New England. There is no chance of a tragedy of that scale today.

For three days newscasters, some in shirtsleeves on the coastline, have been predicting the storm. It's easy to understand the attraction of so much hype. It's a relief to have something to focus on besides grim job reports and the unending hunt for Muammar Gaddafi. In the last five years since I wrote The Great Hurricane: 1938, hurricane season always puts me on alert. Yet not one of the storms that has mesmerized the media has come ashore as viciously as GH38. Maybe Irene will follow its predicted course into New York City and Connecticut, and a category three or four hurricane would no doubt cause injury, perhaps death, and costly damage. But its toll won't be an unprecedented tragedy. It won't be like 1938. This time every twitch and change in air current are instantaneously broadcast to the public. The population that lies in the storm's coming path is on alert and ready. Evacuations are underway.

I experienced a hurricane in 1991 and I well remember the excitement. I was in Nantucket when one of my neighbors, a friend from New Jersey, called to tell me that she was taking her daughter into their cellar when the storm hit. She wanted me to know where they had gone if -- well -- the worst happened. I asked a friend of mine from North Carolina who had experience with hurricanes what I should do to prepare. She told me in her southern drawl that her son Bubba had gone to the liquor store to lay in some gin and she had a ham in the oven. She'd inventoried her candles and was getting ready to party when the big storm hit. I decided right then and there that when the apocalypse comes, I want to be with the southerners.

Irene may hit the south first this time, and I don't want to make light of its real risks and threat of tragedy. A hurricane can be hellish and deadly, I learned listening to survivors' stories. Its devastation came to my attention again in my upcoming biography of the Standard oil heiress, Millicent Rogers. Her family's grand estate, modeled on an Italian palazzo, was washed out by GH38.

We all watched the deadly specter of Katrina, which was well forecast.

In 1938 the scope of the disaster that hit New England was overshadowed by world events. Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia and stole the headlines. With only sketchy media coverage, the rest of the country didn't know how deadly the storm had been. It wasn't like Katrina, which every American experienced vicariously on some level. There is no chance of that with Irene. If it hits New York, the world will know. We know already. If it goes out to sea, we'll know that too. There'll be plenty of time to refocus on job reports.

Cherie Burns is the author of The Great Hurricane: 1938. Her upcoming book, Searching for Beauty--the Life of Millicent Rogers will be published September 13.