Better safe than soggy.

Now that Irene has said good night – and as a topical storm rather than a hurricane – it’s time for everyone to attack the news media for hype and scare tactics.

I agree that the reportage was at times quite hyperbolic. Endless shots of TV newscasters standing in the wind and chanting what-if scenarios really wore me down. I’m glad that I don’t have a television at home. If I did, I’d be glued to the tube during emergencies, or even wannabe emergencies.

But here’s what I think:

  • If the storm had turned out as predicted, people would now be saying, “Wow, I guess the media wasn’t exaggerating after all. So how do I get one of those FEMA trailers?”
  • Because it didn’t turn out that way, people are upset with the media. Monday morning quarterbacking is a peculiarly American pastime.

Dire scenarios make great television. The old adage in any news medium is, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

This time, I’m OK with it. Being prepared won’t hurt you. In fact, it may one day help you.


Should I stay or should I go?

Potential disasters are like medical diagnoses: They give you the worst-case scenario so you can steel yourself for ultimate awfulness.

And if the situation turns out to be not so bad after all? Happy endings all around!

As regular readers already know, my daughter nearly died at age 19 from Guillain-Barre syndrome. When I got to the intensive care unit the neurologist asked whether our home could accommodate a wheelchair.

“It could be two years before she walks normally,” he said.

As it turned out, that didn’t happen. But I had to be prepared for this to happen.

Suppose that people in those low-lying areas were told, “Well, there might or might not be a storm surge.” Then suppose most of those people decided to stay and a storm surge did occur, resulting in multiple injuries and deaths. What do you suppose the reactions would have been?

Why weren’t we told?

Why didn’t anybody warn us?

How come they didn’t make people leave?


Nothing bad will happen

I’ll admit that the doom-and-gloom coverage made me anxious even though I was in the safest possible place. My dad has a cellar full of food and a wired-in generator. He was prepping when prepping wasn’t cool.

But all those other people? The ones with no supplies, no water, not even a flashlight? Maybe they should feel anxious.

On Saturday afternoon a Philadelphia news channel was set up in a supermarket parking lot. People ambled in for supplies as though doing their weekly shopping. One woman joked about making sure she had enough junk food to see her through the hurricane.

Maybe the up-to-the-minute coverage had let them know they still had X hours before Irene made landfall. Or maybe they just didn’t believe that anything bad would ever happen to them.

Ask the folks down in Florida what it’s like to be without power for days or weeks at a time after a hurricane. Imagine standing in line waiting for food or water. Now imagine getting to the head of the line and being told, “There’s nothing left. You’ll have to wait for another delivery.”

I urge you to take basic steps toward self-sufficiency. Do it now, before you need to be self-sufficient. My recent MSN Money column, “Survive a disaster – in your condo,” offers tips on creating a plan even on tight budgets and in tight spaces. [Edited to add: Since MSN Money changed platforms, all my old articles are no longer available. Sorry about that.]

Understand: Normally I am not a fearmonger. It’s true that the media overdid it. But certain things should scare us. Better safe than soggy.

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  1. I want to know the worst-case scenario about everything in my life. Then, I can prepare or not prepare. I don’t want to be told later, “Oh, no use worrying people because this might not have turned out this badly.”


    People who were non-chalant or joking could be trying to calm their own nerves but were preparing for the worst.

    It is my right to worry. So, hit me with the worst that could happen so that I can at least steel myself by preparing mentally. This time, it was my daughter in NYC that was my worry.

    Of course, I do prepare for emergencies and potential weather catastrophes.Of course, only the real thing will ever show how prepared or unprepared any of us really are. But, some of us will be better prepared than others.

  2. Rochelle in San Diego

    My stockpiles of food and water are very modest but I think they could sustain us in case of emergency. They have in the past.

    I have some cabinets in the garage stocked with anything we could need in case of emergency – canned goods, paper goods, water, manual can opener, transistor radio, batteries, flashlights, candles. Since I am a coupon shopper I also have a modest stockpile of less necessary items but nice to haves – soap, shampoo, etc.

    In California we’ve had some horrendous fire seasons that left us for days without power.

    My home was where my boy’s friends congregated – I had a gas stove and kept food cooking and baking in the oven all day and night so the boys were eating really well, and I was cutting my losses and betting the food in my freezer wouldn’t completely thaw out by the time the power came back on.

    There were several fire seasons that left us without power and with ash raining down on us like a doomsday scenario.

    It just takes one emergency for a person to keep in mind that the worse can, and just, might happen to you.

  3. Donna – Your link didn’t work? I think you meant this.


    A few years ago, Red Cross had a step by step shopping list broke up over a few months posted on its site. I referenced it in a newspaper article I wrote then during severe weather preparedness week; but, the piece is no longer live. The point being: buy a little bit at a time and you’ll soon have most of what you need in the house.

  4. In an ideal world, people would take mandatory evacuation and emergency preparation seriously without either being whipped to a froth by the media or blowing it off as hype. Do you remember all the “What if Katrina makes landfall at New Orleans” scenarios that got media play before, you know, Katrina hit New Orleans? People dismissed that as hype too, and then felt free to Monday-morning quarterback the people who didn’t (or couldn’t) heed the warnings. I’m with you on better safe than sorry. (And also, do people really not keep flashlights and batteries around the house normally? I don’t understand the massive runs on those.)

  5. jestjack

    In my area the folks from the media hit it spot on. We had high winds, quite a bit of rain and no bottled water left on the shelves. We were one of the few in the area who never lost power. DD2 who is away at college was right in the “thick” of this mess and has been without power for almost 48 hours. That kid is a “gamer” and seems to have embraced the situation. She has kept in touch by text…seems up beat….just a little soggy and will never look at electricity and it’s use the same way. I think the media did a good job as did the “hired help” here in MD. Our Governor came on TV many times letting everyone know what’s up. He was concise, reassuring and urged everyone to use common sense in dealing with this storm. He and his team provided the “news” good or bad. It was good to be informed on just what was going on and whar steps were being taken. It seems we could use folks like this in Washington….

  6. Carol in Philly

    I couldn’t agree with your “better safe than soggy” sentiment more, although I’d phrase it “better safe than dead”. I think the various federal, state, and local agencies did an outstanding job of preparing for what could have been a major disaster on the scale of Katrina, and I don’t think it was over-hyped at all.

    Remember, science today is much better at predicting the path of a hurricane than at predicting the intensity. When Irene hit the Bahamas, it was predicted to become a Category 3 or even 4, and that’s what we should have, and did, prepare for.

    I was extremely pleased to see that the shelters that were opened, at least locally, were “pet friendly”. I’m sure there were people who would not have evacuated if they had to leave pets behind. It’s another lesson we learned from Katrina.

  7. I went grocery shopping yesterday and all through the store I heard snippets of conversation about “how it wasn’t THAT bad!” and “why were they evacuating people for such a piddly storm?”

    I love that people around here (DC area) just like to gripe for the sake of griping. Had they not warned us of the worst case scenario and the worst case had happened and hundreds had died, they’d be trying to find someone to blame.

    I say better safe than sorry!

  8. Cynthia

    It wasn’t THAT bad! unless it is your house that is in 6 feet of water, or lying in rubble from a storm-spawned tornado or you’re on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands where the road has been cut with new inlets and it will be months or even years before it is repaired. Or perhaps it’s one of your loved ones who is among the relatively small death toll, in that case it’s the end of the world as you know it! Those who escaped unscathed should be GRATEFUL instead of complaining!

  9. How right or wrong the predictions were depends on where you live. I’m on the seacoast of NH, and we got off very easy. Western and central MA, upstate NY, VT, … not so much.


    As for the newscasters, they just did what they always do. They are merely infotainment, and their job is to sell the sponsors’ products. Fear sells better.

  10. The problem is with EVERYTHING that happens the same advice happens, the same doom and gloom happens, last year New England was told we would get a Cat 1 hurricane, when the morning that the hurricane was supposed to hit came the skies were blue and it was a BEAUTIFUL day! That sounds like a great story, except when you give unrealisticly bad predictions EVERY TIME, people just do NOT believe it anymore. I’m tired of the news crying wolf everytime something natural to the area happens and tells us to FREAK OUT! I’ve lived in New England my whole life, I’ve lived through a hurricane, and multiple tropical storms, we know what to do, telling us we don’t know how to prepare, and we’re all going to die has gotten old! I was saying the news was fear mongering before this storm hit too, because frankly it’s what they do.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Lizzy: The problem is, not everyone does know what to do. Not everyone is a native New Englander. Those who know how to prepare can simply do so — but I strongly urge you to LISTEN if told to evacuate.
      There’s a tendency among Americans to tough it out, go it alone, be the homesteader defending his territory. People interviewed at the shore were saying things like, “I’ve been through these before.” Not every storm is the same. Had flooding occurred, they might not have been able to get out.
      Tune out the chatter but listen for the warnings.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. SherryH

    I could do without the reporters clutching their hats in the face of the wind and nattering about how important it is for everyone (except for them and their camera crews, I guess) to stay indoors – but, seriously, people should take precautions and stay indoors. And still, many of my neighbors were out well before the storm was fully over, driving around presumably to see the damage, as nothing would have been open.

    Like Jackie, I remember how little worst-case planning took place before Katrina, and I recall few to no city-wide efforts to help those who could not evacuate on their own. Contrast that with NYC’s mandatory evacuations and motorboats stationed around the city in case they were needed to navigate flooded streets.

    I do roll my eyes at the hyperbole of the news reporters, but I can’t and won’t argue with the underlying fact that people – and government officials – need to prepare and plan for a realistic worst-case scenario.

  12. I’d rather be over-prepared and perhaps a little paranoid than get caught with my (proverbial) pants down every time. I have a stockpile of food (and even remembered to buy a non-electric can opener!) and other supplies that my family could live on for a few weeks. We are saving to get a generator but could get along fine without, though we’d have to have a big BBQ with everything in the freezer!

  13. The news is STILL reporting false things after the storm, saying that parts of Boston were completely wrecked which isn’t anywhere near true, yes people lost power, but the city will recover by the end of the week. So the real problem is when you cry wolf over and over, no one believes you anymore – look at Katrina. The people in New Orleans were told to evacuate 3 days earlier, but the fact that they had gotten the same warning so many times before, made them think it was ANOTHER false alarm and people died. This storm was obviously going to turn into a tropical storm before it hit this section of the country, so saying it was going to be a CAT 2 was fear mongering, and that will eventually kill people. Did you leave DC when told about Irene?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Lizzy: If some news agencies are reporting false stuff, that’s both wrong and unethical. But what you see as crying wolf over and over, I see as information that people need. Obviously it’s up to each individual to filter out the stuff that doesn’t apply — and obviously, some people will stop believing the authorities, or will never believe them in the first place.
      Right now, for example, they’re reporting on the deaths of two young men in Delaware who went out in the height of the storm. Did they not believe the warnings, or did they simply think they were tougher than the storm? We’ll never know.
      Did the Vermonters now plagued by flooding believe it would ever get that bad?
      Are the folks in Burlington County, N.J., stunned by what Rancocas Creek has done to them?
      And in fact, I chose not to go to D.C. because of the storm. I cut that part of the trip from the itinerary, just in case.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  14. Reporters in the waves of the ocean were just for sensationalism, machismo. Or, were they? “This is hard to stand up in. The wind is about to blow me away.” Could someone learn a lesson by seeing this or would some hotdog want to try the same thing?

    Just a bit of flooding somewhere is nothing to me unless it were my child who did not know not to drive there and drowned. (sarcasm)So, I am glad that warnings were issued that did not affect me or mine. What did or did not happen to me or mine is irrelevant. Someone’s child, husband, or family can die if warnings are not issued and heeded. Sometimes it takes strong warnings. Usually, it takes multiple warnings for everyone to hear or believe.

    Some people don’t listen, so the warnings must include worst possible scenarios. This is not “crying wolf” in my opinion. These storms, hurricanes or tornadoes, are violent and unpredictable. Knowing their potential is all we need to know. Nowadays, we should be glad for the long range forecasts and exact locations that can be pinpointed for us. Maybe some would prefer not to hear what was coming like people did decades ago and centuries ago.

    I did know we were going to have storms when the tornado ripped our town apart here in AL. But, the day was pretty right up until the storm hit. I came indoors ten minutes before the tornado hit. I did not listen to the radio. My friend called from 70 miles away and said the tornado was headed for my town. I laughed.

    However, I looked at the computer–nothing. I turned on the radio. When I heard the radio announcer who is four blocks from me screaming that he could see the tornado outside and he continued to scream over and over, “Take cover!”, my ears perked up. As I turned to run from the kitchen, I heard the tornado hit and then the lights went out. It hit before I could run the 30 feet to my safe place.

    I am lucky.

    I always have multiple flashlights and extra batteries in the house. Now, I have solar yard lights since that tornado. They are in the yard now. I will bring them in for night use and recharge them in the day near a window.

  15. I really think that we need a generator. I’m just wondering when the best time of the year is to get one. It’s probably not hurricane season, is it?

  16. Now A Country Mouse

    Coincidentally, six years ago today I survived the direct hit from Katrina. 32 days without electricity in 93 degree weather. Thanks to a hole in the roof, we ripped out the carpet and walked on the slab. No gas or grocery stores for 75 miles. I WAS LUCKY! The 8 family members staying with us, (we were 26 ft above sea level), lost everything. I cried the first time I went into a grocery store after the storm as I watched nicely dressed women leisurely stroll and buy gourmet coffee, fresh produce, etc. We were in an area that was “safe”, no mandatory evacuations were issued. While we were the epitome of prepared, you never know what can happen. Never take people, pets or even the accessibility of grocery stores, gas, etc. for granted.

    Here are some of my (money saving?) steps that are taken during hurricane season. Once August hits, we eat down as much food as we can from the freezer. The night before a storm hits: Take a nice warm shower, shave, wash your hair, (the works), in case you cannot bathe for a few days. Lower your a/c, freezer, and fridge the night before. If power goes out, that extra coolness will come in handy for the short-term.

  17. Now A Country Mouse

    P.S. – Donna’s point about learning to become more self sufficent is critical. We rebounded on our own. As a result of 2005, I increased my knowledge of growing our own food, learned alternative ways to keep the house cool and became more mindful to not waste our water well supply. It would be a good idea to pick up some basic first aid and CPR knowledge too just in case.

  18. It alway, alway safe than sorry because been sorry might be early meeting with one’s creator or lost of property worth million of dollars that aside the media made it sound as Irene was going to wash away everything in her path.

  19. jestjack

    I have a storm related question. What happens to all these generators? In my neck of the woods whenever there is a bad storm..blizzard…whatever…folks buy every generator they can get their hands on. I bought mine over 20 years ago and had to “tweek” it today just in case . But one would think the “thirst” for generators would be quenched at some point….

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jestjack: Beats me. It could be that more people each year are convinced to buy them, after having gone through the previous power outages?
      Or maybe they sit in garages for years until being unloaded at yard sales — until the next hurricane/snowstorm/whatever, when people are suddenly convinced that they really DO need generators.

  20. One of my mother’s favourite sayings when I was growing up was “Expect the worst and hope for the best.” Very sound advice! We don’t get hurricanes here, but we do get earthquakes. And we get some nasty fall/winter storms raging in off the Pacific.

    We ALWAYS have at least 3 months’ supplies of staples, canned food of all kinds (bought and home-canned) and non-perishables in the house. If the power goes out, the stove is gas, so we can still cook. If the gas has to be shut off, we have a wood stove in the house and a smaller one in the workshop, and plenty of firewood split & stacked … if the freezer dies, we’ll haul out the pressure canner, fire up the stove, can as much as we have jars and lids for, and jerk the meat & fish in the wood-fired smoker. Worst-case scenario, an earthquake knocks out the water mains – we’ll run a hose to the creek out back and boil all the water on the woodstove. Also, we store a portion of everything in the camper, and keep its 50-gallon water tank full.


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