Metro New Orleans didn’t see much damage from Tropical Storm (or, briefly, Hurricane) Barry, and for that we’re grateful. Some areas along Louisiana’s vanishing coastline got slammed, however, especially Terrebonne, Plaquemines and lower Jefferson parishes. For the rest of us, it was a dress rehearsal for hunkering in place or leaving town. Most of the metro area, in fact, had more water and damage from a freak rainstorm several days before Barry hit.
Local media did their job, providing information around the clock calmly and without alarmism. The national press? Not so much. They shared dire predictions and images with very little context — and in some cases, what they reported was just wrong.
Perhaps the worst of the bunch was The Weather Channel, which exaggerated isolated flooding incidents (in areas that traditionally flood) and aired scary onscreen radar graphics showing Barry making landfall. That made for great “weathertainment,” but it hardly reflected the reality. At one point, a Weather Channel correspondent was reduced to interviewing a Mandeville man carrying his dog outside to do its business because the dog didn’t want to walk in the sneaker-high “floods.” Another announced breathlessly that “graves were floating” in Jefferson Parish — mistaking above-ground tombs for floating tombstones.
The Daily Beast indulged in a bit of scaremongering when it headlined an otherwise reasonably reported story, “Barry Weakens to Tropical Storm as New Orleans Braces for Mass Floods," while The Washington Post screamed, “Anxiety Grips New Orleans as Some Residents Flee City." That was news to locals who went out on the Friday before the storm; so many people stayed home that streets and highways were remarkably clear.
The Post also wrote that Jefferson Parish was under a mandatory evacuation (it wasn’t) and used a photo of two men wheeling suitcases up Royal Street to illustrate the supposed mass exodus. (The image was actually two bartenders arriving in New Orleans for the Tales of the Cocktail convention.) The story was so inaccurate that the City Hall’s official Twitter account replied, “Your story is not factual and there are multiple inaccuracies in this reporting. Follow authorized city accounts for up-to-date information on Barry.”
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Besides giving naysayers another reason to cry “fake news” (which they did — accurately, in this case), the lurid stories had another effect: scaring the hell out of friends and family around the country who aren’t as well-versed as we are in storm-risk assessment. All they saw were alarmist headlines and scary radar images. Thankfully, we had trained local meteorologists, engineers and city officials to keep us informed.
“Weathertainment” serves no one, whether it’s those who might actually be in harm’s way or family and friends who see panicky reports and, understandably, freak out. One way to calm them down is to send them to local TV stations’ websites to see streams of what’s really happening.
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Too bad we don’t still have the late hurricane expert Nash Roberts, who spent decades at WWL-TV giving calm, accurate reports of every storm’s strength, danger and track. “When the public sees me come on, they know it’s serious,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “I’m not doing entertainment.”
It’s a shame so many others are.