Irene Was What It Was

When my son and I were checking news online to see updates on the hurricane last weekend we had a hard time figuring out what was really going on. We saw:

  • Siding being ripped off buildings.
  • Scientists complaining that the whole thing was “a perfect storm of hype.”
  • Rising casualty reports.
  • Skeptical headlines linking video of passersby dancing and grinning during news reports.

I had to go to Facebook to figure it out. My friends on the East Coast were describing life without power, thanking God they were safe, and counting the downed limbs in their yards.

A major storm had hit the East Coast; thankfully it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. So why did so many people want Hurricane Irene either to be the storm of the century or the gaffe of the century? I think three modern tendencies account for it.

1. The hunger for drama. In 2011 we can celebrate 20 years since the Gulf War first made 24/7 news a major force and 15 years since Monica Lewinsky made the Drudge Report a must-read. It seems the public’s appetite for sensationalism has grown with each new media journalists add to their toolkit. Now, our media has a “sensationalize or perish” mentality that makes an L.A. traffic story become “carmageddon” Casey Anthony’s day in court “the trial of the century” and a creeper Congressman’s perv pictures “Weinergate.”

Irene couldn’t just be a bad storm: She had to deliver either epic destruction or epic hype.

2. Ideological Worldview. Other cultures have used economic class, trade, or religion as the prism through which they saw the world. We use political power. That means that when disasters strike, it is important to Republicans that Obama “heard about the earthquake on the golf course,” and to Democrats that he “took charge at the hurricane command center.”

Thus, Irene had to mean something politically: She either had to be Obama’s Katrina or his desperate attempt to divert attention from the economy.

3. The culture of deconstructionism. Turbo-charging all of this is the absurd place we have reached in the culture of relativism: A place where reality is beside the point. “At the heart of liberty,” the Supreme Court famously decided in Planned Parenthood v Casey, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Irene had to mean something. And we each got to supply the meaning.

I think all of this is why the phrase “It is what it is” has become so popular. It is a wholly unnecessary phrase, the definition of tautology. But it is absolutely necessary in our day, because we need an extra step to reference reality. We use it to call us to our senses amid the expectations, misconceptions and misunderstandings muddling our minds. A project that wasn’t done on time is just a screw-up, not something personal; the football game that ended badly was simply a series of bad plays, not a sign of incompetence; the relationship which is workable but not wonderful is just the way things are: It is what it is.

And St. Thomas Aquinas would approve, says G.K. Chesterton.

“The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs,” he wrote. “Eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.”

No, Irene was not an epic unprecedented storm. But when a storm kills people and leaves millions without power, calling it “The Perfect Storm of Hype” comes across as lacking both information and tact.

Irene was what it was. Let us pray for those who lost loved ones and be grateful the damage wasn’t worse.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.



  • enness

    Well stated.

    I think the opinion on hype levels depends on who you ask, since the effect was not uniform everywhere. And if people have decided after the fact that this was no big deal (my guess is that includes a few of the dead – you have to figure some of them went out too early, went into unsafe areas, etc.), well, everybody knows that hindsight is 20/20 so why should anyone take it seriously?

  • Roger

    Unfortunately, there seemed to be excessive hype over Hurricane Irene and luckily, Hurricane Irene was not a disaster of epic proportions. After Hurricane Katrina, you cannot be careful enough. You cannot imagine the extent of the destruction. I think back now and I cannot believe that there were no squirrels, no crickets, no birds, no frogs, no mosquitos–they were all dead. There was no electricity for weeks. Indeed, there were no lines, no poles, and no transformers left.

    Personally, Katrina taught me the impotence of humankind. Despite the best intentions, humans could do nothing to stop the force and destruction of Katrina. You could only do the best you could to heed the warnings and get out of the way of the storm.

    Katrina emphasized the power of prayer. Sadly lacking from the run-up to Irene was the lack of any mention of prayer. Every prayer for the faithful in Louisiana during hurricane season contains a prayer for the intercessions of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Individually, prayer seeking deliverance from the forces of nature is an important part of many person’s private prayers.

    I thought that I had been grateful for God’s gifts to my family, my friends and me. It is amazing how much more we appreciate God’s gifts when we also see how little power we humans have to battle the forces of nature and how God can take away those gifts he has given us in a flash.

  • Eddie Mulholland

    The sad paradox of relativism is that, often as a consequence of denying God’s existence, it assigns to man the divine intellect, all-powerful and creative. God can think things into existence. We can’t. The phrase “it is what it is” underlines this, because it often means “things aren’t as I’d wish them to be.”
    The reason why we have to prepare for hurricanes, and the reason why it is even rational to overprepare, is because we cannot control them. We cannot think or wish them down to tropical storms or to mere blustery days.
    “It is what it is” underlines the essential compactness of being, each thing’s exclusion of what it is not, without which thought itself would be impossible. The Casey decision, quoted by Hoopes, enshrines within our nation’s law a principle that contradicts the fundamental law of thought itself…

  • patrice

    I grew up on the coast of North Carolina and can tell you this isn’t a new phenomena. Before the 24 hour news channels, it was a the regular television networks, before them it was the newspapers. They all made much-to-do about nothing. I remember watching television one time during a hurricane while me and my friends were having a drink on the front porch and the weather man was about five blocks away pretending to be blown away.

    • Tom Hoopes

      Video carries its own truth. We had a rainstorm that wasn’t too bad for late July in Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up. But someone had built a house in a flash flood zone, and someone had video of it washing away … so our storm got on the Today show.

      • patrice

        Sorry to hear about someone’s house washing away! Hope everyone was safe!



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