Hurricane Irene pummeled New York City Saturday night and Sunday with nearly twenty-four hours of torrential rains and high winds. The storm left behind severe local flooding, fallen trees, and some power outages as surging seas overran beaches, sea walls and piers throughout the region. But the "city that never sleeps" dodged a bullet.
The heavy rain began in the Big Apple at about 8pm Saturday evening. Sheets of water pounded skyscrapers, townhouses and city streets. Rivers of water rushed down avenues to lower ground where it accumulated into ponds, puddles and many basements. The intense downpour obscured the "neon lights on Broadway"; its usually bustling sidewalks were virtually empty. Below the surface New York's famous subway system sat idle, having already been shut down midday Saturday.
Every local television news organization went into "wall-to-wall coverage," as did the cable news channels. Intrepid reporters chanced hurricane force winds, rain and high water to do "live shots" everywhere from Battery Park to the southern tip of New Jersey. Seeing a correspondent leaning into the wind and driving rain while reporting on the local effects of the hurricane has now become a cliché. Perhaps journalism schools should add a course, "Hurricane 101"! Many reporters filed live reports while driving through flooded streets in extra-heavy "mobile units" laden with the latest in broadcast technology.
By mid afternoon Sunday the rain had pretty much ended in New York City, but winds at 45 to 50 miles per hour persisted as the backside of the hurricane passed through. City officials tried to close Central Park, but joggers, bikers and hikers ignored warning signs posted at each entrance. Debris filled the walkways, paths and roads, but it did nothing to discourage activities. Neither did Park Rangers who had little luck in diverting traffic out of the park.
The fact is that Hurricane Irene is responsible for at least 18 deaths and billions of dollars in damage throughout the East Coast. Even with all of the scientific tools available to weathermen, hurricanes are difficult to predict with precision. For instance, in 2004 it took just three hours for Hurricane Charley to strengthened from winds of 110 mph to winds of 145 mph. Had Irene had winds of 150 mph, New York City would have been devastated and perhaps hundreds of its citizens would have been killed. So Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie did the right thing ordering evacuations from low-lying areas and shutting down mass transit. In short, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Nonetheless, some critics now say predictions were overblown, that the populace was unnecessarily threatened, that media and government officials hyped the storm. The Drudge Report carried a headline that read: "IRENE: A PERFECT STORM OF HYPE..." But many of the same people who now complain would have been the first to scream and howl if the storm had been a monster and the preparations weak. Somehow it seems that politics must enter into everything nowadays.
The full effects of Hurricane Irene have not been yet been felt in some low-lying areas prone to flooding in the Northeast, especially Vermont and Upstate New York. Nonetheless, Hurricane Irene is an important reminder just how powerful and unpredictable Mother Nature can be.