Wednesday, September 21, 2005

CNN and Katrina Disbelief

I was watching CNN (NewsNight with Aaron Brown) last night and the story of the moment was how New Orleans had been declared "basically dry" months ahead of initial estimates. The story has now made it to the web, available here. Most of the time was spent with Brown trying to wrap his mind around how the initial estimates could have been so wrong. He seemed genuinely shocked that things had turned out different than first expected.

I continue to be generally shocked with the naivete of the reactions to the Katrina disaster. Thankfully, we as a country have very little experience of dealing with a category 5 hurricane striking a city built below sea level. All the experts in the world can use all of the latest models to try to predict just how the interaction of a hurricane and the costal land mass will unfold and their predictions would still be subject to huge margins of error. Therefore, one should not be surprised that the pumping was thought to take months and ended up taking just several weeks. One should not be surprised that the death toll was originally estimate to be over 10,000 and, at the moment, is currently near 1,000. Order of magnitude errors are to be expected in a situation (again thankfully) so untested as what happened to the gulf coast.

I will put aside my usual skepticism and not belabor the fact that the initial estimates (months instead of weeks, ten thousand instead of one thousand) all made the situation seem even more horrific than it already is. I can't imagine the need to exaggerate the level of devastation to attract more viewers when most of the country was already riveted to the story, but I suppose it is possible.

But everyone, the media and viewers alike, would do well to remember just how hard is to "get it right" a priori with events of this magnitude. And while initial estimates are hopefully the best educated opinion, one should always remain skeptical of their true accuracy.

No comments: