Hurricanes prompt a strange human response.
As the storms near land, everyone in their potential path is riveted. Fear of physical or financial harm, awe at the power of nature, curiosity about the situation's unpredictability all enter into the equation.
Then the hurricane comes and exacts its toll.
For those who escape without significant damage or disruption to everyday life, the reflex conclusion is, “Well, it wasn’t so bad after all.” The reaction becomes easier when there are no iconic images of beachside destruction, like those during Hazel and Hugo, that allow the mind to absorb the damage in the tight framing of a single view.
On Sunday morning’s national talk shows, the reaction to Hurricane Irene, which mostly spared the big East Coast cities, followed the pattern.
A couple of pundits made fun of the media hoopla. In the Coastal Plain counties of North Carolina and in the middle of New England, rivers flooded homes.
The disconnect reminded me of another storm, Hurricane Floyd.
In 1999, as Hurricane Floyd pushed north, Associated Press photographer Bob Jordan and I picked our way from Wilmington down through flooded roads in Brunswick County to collect images and stories of iconic-type damage.
Just a few hours after the storm had passed, we walked on Oak Island with then-Mayor Joan Altman, looking at about a dozen beachfront homes destroyed by the wind and waves. Where one home once stood, everything had been washed away except the foundation, a refrigerator and washing machine.
Touring the beach damage, we were unaware that people were drowning and being plucked from rooftops in inland counties 100 miles to the north.
That evening, my bosses at AP wanted me to make my way north. You couldn't get there. Bridges were washed out and roads inundated with miles of standing water.
The next day, I made my way west, through detours and flooded roads, stopping in communities like Wallace and Reigelwood to relay stories of tragedy.
It really wasn't until days later that the true extent of the damage was known, the depth of the tragedy felt.
It was too widespread to capture in a few images or tell in a few anecdotes. Only from the air could you see the extent of the destruction. From that altitude, the story was no longer personal.
When a flooding hurricane hits, it also becomes impossible for reporters to immediately reach every affected community and convey what's happened.
Hurricane Irene was no Floyd in magnitude.
The difference doesn’t matter to the folks whose homes and businesses were flooded or smashed by falling trees in communities like New Bern, Columbia, Aurora and Belhaven.
The difference doesn’t matter to the families living north of Beaufort, in isolated fishing villages like Marshallberg and Atlantic, always hammered by the storms that roar into Pamlico Sound but receiving little public attention.
In coming weeks, the rest of us should resist the tendency to believe that it wasn't so bad everywhere.