In the end, it was all a little too anticlimactic. Despite the impressive turnout of Anderson Cooper at CNN, Shepard Smith at Fox News Channel, Brian Williams at NBC, Diane Sawyer at ABC and Scott Pelley at CBS, Hurricane Irene did not stick, stubbornly turning into a tropical storm before lashing New York City.
Those at the Weather Channel, who jumped on the story at the first sign of trouble in the tropics, could not hide their disappointment when the hurricane fell apart just before slamming into Manhattan — the disaster scenario they’d been hyping all week. “We’re not trying to scare you,” the Weather Channel’s Crystal Egger told viewers Friday. “We just want you to be prepared.”
As might be imagined, the doomsday forecasts riveted the city. In the days leading up to the storm, New Yorkers crammed every last bus, flight and train out of town — no buses or trains were left to any destination by midday Friday and a one-way flight to London from Newark on Friday night cost travelers as much as $10,000 a seat. (It will be interesting to see airlines’ quarterly earnings after so obviously gouging their passengers.)
Those who could not get out in time — I was one of them — holed up and hoped for the best. At the Gansevoort Park Avenue hotel in midtown, where I hunkered down with a friend, the staff rationed out one glowstick per room and assured us the building had back-up generators. A swarm of wealthy refugees from the downtown “red zone” flooded its quarters — comically, with dogs, cats and birds in tow.
Several people rented private duplex rooms, throwing lavish parties as Irene swept in. The Gansevoort closed its rooftop, but the champagne flowed freely at the Asellina bar on the first floor, even as the hotel’s employees assembled barriers around the front doors to keep the Hudson River from pouring in.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned residents the entire public-transit system would shut down by noon on Saturday, effectively trapping residents in some of the most dangerous parts of town. His overreaction was not unpredictable, given the criticism he received during New York’s slow recovery from its sixth-worst snowstorm last December.
On the eve of the storm, New York evoked scenes from Vanilla Sky, its streets desolate and empty. Armageddon never came. Frustrated, the revelers who opted to drink their way through what was billed to be an end-of-days storm took to the streets. In some cases, in the nude on live TV.
As New Yorkers nervously hovered over their TV screens, one Fox News anchor actually made the following statement: “The storm has been downgraded to a tropical storm, so unfortunately we won’t be seeing the kind of damaging effects that would have come along with the full force of a hurricane.”
Unfortunately. Instead of mass deaths and shattered skyscrapers, New York weathered several hours of pounding rain, some power outages and slight flooding.
Notably, the talking heads did not fool the New York Stock Exchange, which made clear on Friday it planned to reopen, as usual, Monday morning.
It did so, as dry streets, rising stocks and sunny skies ensued.
It all worked out well for the Weather Channel. Its ratings got a boost amid the dire portents. According to Nielsen, from Sunday through Friday it averaged 665,000 viewers, compared to 218,000 for the same period last year.