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CITY TALK: New report finds flaws, successes in hurricane response

Last week, the Chatham Emergency Management Association release a 34-page report examining the local response to Hurricane Matthew.

Reporter Mary Landers provided some excellent coverage of the report in last week’s newspaper. I encourage readers to take a look at that article (http://savannahnow.com/hurricane-guide/news/2017-04-11/hurricane-matthew-report-prompts-new-evacuation-rules-chatham#) and of course at the full report itself (https://www.scribd.com/document/344911934/After-Action-Report-DR-4284-Hurricane-Matthew-FINAL#from_embed).

I commend CEMA and agency director Dennis Jones for taking a comprehensive look at so many different aspects of the hurricane response and for taking actions that should allow us to handle future emergencies more effectively. In the immediate aftermath of Matthew, I wrote a column that was quite critical of the government response generally, both by local and state officials, so I was curious to see the points of emphasis in the “After Action Report” released last week.

In my comments after the storm, I focused especially on the communication problems, and this report acknowledges some areas that need to be improved.

For example, the report correctly notes that the evacuation terminology, including the use of term “mandatory evacuation,” was sometimes confusing.

“Better communication of the terminology pre-event should occur to ensure clear communication,” the report says.

Area residents were also generally confused about the physical area covered by the evacuation orders, so the report calls for “using a geographic boundary that most people, even tourists, recognize.”

The report also notes that we need “a single, unified voice during press conferences” and that CEMA needs to “ensure all jurisdictions have representation.”

Those improvements to communications sound like positive steps, but I was also struck before, during and after the storm by CEMA’s apparent struggles with social media. Last week’s report claims that the “County’s presence on social media” was a strength, but merely being present on social media is not enough.

CEMA relied heavily on Twitter to disseminate information about Hurricane Matthew, with tweets cross-posted to Facebook. That was problematic for a variety of reasons.

For starters, as a former Savannah Morning News reporter once said to me, Savannah really isn’t a “Twitter town.” Many residents have Twitter accounts, of course, but in terms of community conversation and engagement, this is a “Facebook town.”

By its very nature, Twitter encourages short bursts of information, with little room for elaboration. The character limit on each Tweet largely precludes nuance, elaboration or adequate attention to tone.

So at the height of the storm, when area stakeholders needed information rapidly, Twitter might have been an appropriate starting point, but the general public wanted more detailed information and explanations via social media both before and after the hurricane.

Of course, the communication problems can’t be blamed entirely on the medium. In the aftermath of the hurricane, we saw various government entities issuing statements that directly contradicted each other. Let’s hope that the report’s recommendations will get our local bureaucracies on the same page the next time a hurricane comes rumbling toward us.

It’s worth remembering that Hurricane Matthew could have been much, much worse.

According to the National Weather Service in Charleston, the storm surge at Fort Pulaski peaked at 7.69 feet. In other words, the surge of water was more than 7 feet above the predicted tide. In some areas, the surge was probably even higher.

If the hurricane had moved closer to us or if the peak of the surge had coincided with high tide, we could have had much worse flooding, with a much higher chance of loss of life.

CEMA’s report addresses the need for regular “education of pertinent evacuation plans and procedures for Chatham County,” but I hope that local officials will try to educate residents about other hurricane-related issues, especially ones related to the dangers of storm surge.

Sure, citizens are responsible for themselves and their own decisions, but I was alarmed in the lead-up to Matthew by how many residents didn’t even know the elevation or flooding risk of their own homes.

With a better understanding of surge risks, we might make smarter decisions as a community in terms of long-term development. As we plan new residential areas and transportation routes, we need to be acutely aware of the plausible worst case hurricane scenarios.

Let’s hope that decades pass before we are threatened by another dangerous hurricane. And let’s also hope that CEMA’s recent report spurs some changes in how we prepare for the next big one.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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