I awoke Sunday morning to the sort of ethereal calm that can only follow a storm. Apart from scattered pockets of leaves and tiny branches, it was hard to tell if anything -- nevermind the outer bands of an enormous hurricane -- had passed through overnight. Washington D.C., for the second time in under a week, was thankfully spared a catastrophe. As reports pile in from the rest of the Northeast, it is evident that other areas have not been so lucky.
I am breaking with the pack of pundits who have already rushed to criticize the so-called "hype" during this past week's national and local news broadcasts. In fact -- and I am downright shocked to find myself writing this -- the media got it right.
With a death toll approaching two dozen and damage estimates measured in billions of dollars, it is safe to say that Irene deserved the copious attention it received. In an earlier era, before the advent of satellite forecasting, preparation plans and a mass media to deliver relevant information, a storm of the same width and caliber would have commanded a death toll in the thousands. Although unfortunately a boon to the detractors and critics, the evidence of learned lessons is often invisible.
The unintended consequence of Irene, however, was a washing away of much more than beach sand and low-lying vegetation. For a brief moment, we were relieved of the relentless torrent of titillating celebrity gossip, futile political bickering, depressing economic data, and cataclysmic world unrest that fuels the 24-hour news cycle. In the face of natural chaos, a surprisingly refreshing sense of unity, if not calm, emerged over the airwaves.
I'll take those gratuitous cutaway shots of storm-chasing reporters on gust-swept beaches any day over the heartless, partisan hacks that mindlessly spout away on cable news shows like mechanical lawn sprinklers. The raw power of nature is an awesome sight to behold in HD; the raw sewage of politics just stinks. Somehow, we managed to survive as a nation despite ignoring the scourge of sexting or the latest updates on J. Lo's costly divorce.
In addition to invoking an urgency for preparation, the media inadvertently provided in its extensive coverage of Irene -- and the unprecedented mid-Atlantic earthquake before that -- an invaluable dose of perspective.
From above and below, we have been reminded this past week that we are but temporary tenants of this planet, at the mercy of shifting tectonic plates and dense fluffs of moisture and moving air. The prevention of death and destruction is news-worthy; if the most heinous byproduct of our over-preparation was a temporary bump to local merchants and a few extra cases of bottled water in our closets, so be it.
As the flood waters recede and the regular news cycle resumes its deafening roar, we stand to gain from one more lesson learned: while our human-made problems and conflicts seem at times to be the most indomitable, they are the only ones we truly have the power to resolve.