Assessing Irene’s impact

Some of the news coverage I’ve seen of Hurricane Irene has suggested the storm wasn’t too big a deal. “It could have been worse” seems to be one of the more common phrases used to describe the weekend.

And while there’s obviously some truth to that — there are any number of scenarios that would have proven even more devastating — it’s a mistake to think the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic somehow dodged a bullet, or that this was a dud of a storm, over-hyped by the media.

This was a real natural disaster.

The torment from Irene isn’t over as parts of the Northeast grapple Monday with dangerous flood waters, widespread power outages and stranded residents.

At least 20 deaths across eight states were blamed on Irene, which fizzled to a post-tropical cyclone and headed over eastern Canada on Monday morning.

And more than 3 million people were still without power across the Northeast early Monday.

But much of the trouble left behind centered on flooding from North Carolina through New England, with homes inundated and roads torn apart by raging floodwater.

The AP noted that Irene “never became the big-city nightmare forecasters and public officials had warned about.” That’s true. It’s led to some questions about whether officials overreacted, especially when it came to evacuation orders.

The hurricane’s path spared many large areas and it weakened in intensity at a fortuitous time. But (a) officials acted on a credible threat, which was the responsible thing to do; and (b) this doesn’t much matter to those who felt the severity of the storm, and who’ll be feeling the effects for a long while.

Preliminary estimates also point to about $7 billion in U.S. property damage, though that figure is likely to be revised more than once.

As for the governmental response, it’s a long-term process but the early reports are encouraging. Amanda Terkel noted yesterday, “Governors of both parties are praising the federal response to Hurricane Irene, giving a much-needed vote of confidence to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), for example, said FEMA has been “very responsive” and “the cooperation between New Jersey and FEMA has been great.” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said the leading federal officials “have been excellent,” adding, “This is a much better FEMA than the olden days.”

As the response to the storm continues, the fact that competent and effective officials are in key government posts will likely make a big difference.