Globe Editorial

Irene’s damage was extensive, but preparations paid off

August 30, 2011

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THE REMNANTS of Hurricane Irene that blew through Massachusetts on Sunday were still powerful enough to leave more than half a million people without power, cut phone service to thousands more, and cause many millions of dollars in property damage. A Southborough man lost his life when he touched a porch rail that had been exposed to a downed power line. Outside Massachusetts, the stories multiply: dangerously swollen rivers, historic bridges washed away, the collapse of the base lodge at the ski resort in Killington, Vt. It wasn’t a storm for the record books, but one that won’t be forgotten for a while, either.

The damage would have been much worse without the week-long warnings of weather forecasters and the quick action of officials at all levels of government. While the ultimate verdict on Irene and the subsequent cleanup won’t be reached until all customers have their power back on, it appears that emergency preparedness paid off: Public-safety workers did their jobs courageously, and power companies responded to reports of downed wires and damaged transformers as quickly as possible. TV news played a constructive role in spreading the word about potential dangers. These successes are worth remembering at a time of such widespread skepticism, when many people seem happier grousing about problems rather than looking for solutions - and when the National Weather Service itself has been demeaned as a bureaucratic frill.

For many, if not most, people in Massachusetts, Irene was a relatively minor event, and those who didn’t lose power or have trees fall on their cars will inevitably be tempted to complain of overhype. In fact, the storm turned out to be far weaker than many of the worst-case predictions earlier in the week. Hopefully, people are accustomed enough to the vicissitudes of weather forecasting to understand that no prediction is failproof, and that outlining the worst-case scenario is part of the job. To the extent that those worst-case warnings hastened preparations for Hurricane Irene and convinced more people to stay indoors, they saved lives and property.