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Measured response is key to weathering storms

When I answered the newsroom phone around 3 a.m. Thursday, it was a producer from Good Morning America in New York.

"I wanted to see if you guys were filming the surf this morning," she said, looking for video of what I'm sure she thought and hoped were 10-foot waves threatening homes along our coast. When I told her we did not have a crew at the beach two days before a storm shooting video of waves, she seemed incredulous.

"Well, we were really hoping for some video of the surf," she said. So I told her to try a station from another part of the state.

"They've been down here the last couple of days doing live shots," I told her, "scaring people who live 200 miles away."

It always amazes me how the media in places not in the direct and immediate path of a storm seem to make more of it than those of us who live in the heart of hurricane country. It's not that we don't take these storms seriously, but I think we are more measured in our coverage as journalists and our response as citizens preparing for a storm. When I worked in Kentucky in the summer of 2005, Florida was pounded by a series of hurricanes. You would have thought Kentucky was also along the coast the way my station there covered all the storms. Every night we'd lead newscasts and have phone interviews with people we knew in the path of the storm. It was a bit ridiculous for a land-locked state a thousand miles away. When Tropical Storm Ernesto hit here two years ago just three months after I left the Bluegrass, I joked that my old station in Kentucky would probably make more of the storm that stations here in Wilmington. Indeed, when I got home from my first date with the woman who is now my wife that night in August 2006, I had an e-mail from a former co-worker asking if I'd be interested in doing a phone interview for them at 11. I had to go to bed, so I passed.

I guess in a way this disproportionate and confused response makes sense. Most of along the coast have been through these storms before. We know that tropical storms are often like Hanna: They make a lot of wind and rain and move on pretty quickly. But we also know they can be like Ernesto, which left behind plenty of flooding in Pender and Columbus Counties. The point is that we have experience and perspective that other parts of the country don't. That can be dangerous, of course. Look at all the people along the Gulf Coast who refused to leave ahead of Katrina three years ago because so many other storms had missed them before. That different experience in 2005 resulted in some two-million people heeding the warnings last week and getting out before Gustav hit. 

As the reports trickle in today after Hanna, there will certainly be reports in our area and across the state of damage and flooding. We already know tens of thousands of people have been dealing with power outages. But all things considered, Hanna seems to have turned out like we thought it would. What's interesting, though, is how it will affect people as it continues up the east coast. My sister in Connecticut sent me an e-mail yesterday telling me to be safe. But I pointed out that she'll likely be dealing with Hanna, too. And I'm sure her community is far less prepared than Southeastern North Carolina. Heck, there's even the possibility of Hanna hitting Washington, DC, Philadelphia or New York City. Those are not cities built to handle tropical systems.

Of course, there's a flip side to all this. Think about how we react any time there's news of an earthquake in California. Having lived there, I can tell you that unless it's a big quake, there's little to no reaction from Californians. The biggest earthquake while I lived there was a 4.0. I didn't feel it, even though my friends and I drove near the epicenter as it happened. But if a 4.0 earthquake happened here, it'd be huge. Why? Because it's different, and we're not prepared for it. Same goes for snow. Any snow, even a fraction of an inch, in most of the South stops just about everything in its tracks. And several inches literally triggers a state of emergency. Meanwhile, if my sister's town received eight inches of snow, she'd just have to leave home a few minutes earlier to clean off her car before driving to work.

The key to dealing with any of these extremes is what I call the Four Bs: Be prepared; Be smart; Be calm; Be safe. Good luck to everyone up the coast.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo


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