Irene Was Real

Some of the more baffling comments in the past few days have come from people along the eastern seaboard who claim they were ‘disappointed’ in Hurricane Irene, meaning that they expected the damage to be much worse. I will only point out that we should be thankful things were not worse rather than tempt fate with a word like disappointment. There’s a second issue: many have suggested that it’s been merely politicking, allowing mayors and governors to raise their popularity levels by hyping up the perceived threat and looking strong. They speak of the past weekend with a level of cynicism that would lead one to believe that they would only be convinced of a threat once it came to pass (and caused plenty of damage). All of this said despite the fact that flooding is still rampant in several states, and perhaps 42 people have died.

In many respects, I consider myself cynical of politicians and their motives. But not quite this cynical. The threat from Irene was real, and it’s perfectly natural, and indeed preferable, that governments and authorities over-prepare. This threat wasn’t an abstract one like terrorism, which could happen at any moment and arrive in many different shapes or forms. And when it comes to terrorism, politicians have indeed manipulated events for personal gain. To make the jump to hurricanes, however, is somewhat reckless. Hurricane Irene was not an abstraction. It was a real but unpredictable threat, meaning we did not know with certainty what the impact would precisely be, but that there would be an impact. We knew when it was coming, we knew where it was approximately hitting, and we knew to some accuracy its path. Its ultimate strength we did not know, but to assume a situation like this will turn out benign is simply dangerous, as nature’s volatile creatures can quickly become extremely destructive.

The risks were real, and politicians were right to take decisive action. Some of it was surely posturing and trying to look effective for cameras; this is what politicians do, after all. But some of it was also preparing communities for the worst possible impact. Just because the threat did not come to pass doesn’t mean we should retrospectively view all of the authorities’ actions through the most cynical of lens. Preparing cities, towns, states and regions for these kinds of natural disasters and coordinating an effective response is arguably one of the key functions of government. And we shouldn’t mind if politicians gain popularity by actually doing their jobs, whatever their motive might be.

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