About this series: In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Beaufort County on Oct. 8, 2016, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette asked local leaders and others to weigh in on what went well and what could have gone better. Lessons emerged that may better prepare us for when the next disaster hits.
Beaufort County residents looking for clear information in the days after Hurricane Matthew often found themselves at a dead end of unverified rumors or contradicting statements from local leaders.
There were failures to deliver some crucial information to the public in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
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Layers of government directly contradicted each other. Rumors misled evacuees on conditions waiting at home. And social media, never before a factor in a natural disaster in the county, ushered in the instantaneous spread of information at a rate that blindsided some local officials.
Local leaders say that, in the future, they can better coordinate messages and account for the way social media has changed communication.
Many of the most glaring communication issues during Matthew emerged in the immediate aftermath of the storm, as residents attempted to get clear answers on re-entry orders.
Most notably, an announcement that the evacuation order in the county was lifted created widespread confusion.
Gov. Nikki Haley issued an order lifting the evacuation for Beaufort and Jasper counties at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9, the day after the storm. The order was publicly announced in a post on the S.C. Emergency Management Division’s Facebook page about an hour later.
“You may now return to Beaufort and Jasper counties,” the post read.
There was no mention in the order or the post that, at the time, the county had a plan to screen all residents through two re-entry shelters before they would be allowed to go home or that the barrier islands, including the most populated municipality in the county, Hilton Head Island, remained completely closed to the public.
It would be another 45 hours until Hilton Head would actually reopen.
The state Emergency Management Division’s post was shared more than 1,500 times.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, who oversees county emergency management, claims he was blindsided by the state’s announcement.
“Facebook blew up at that point,” Tanner told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “Everybody was looking at that website going, ‘All right, Beaufort County is open; Jasper County is open. Let’s go home!’ And we’re thinking, ‘Here they come.’ ”
Tanner said he told the state they could lift the evacuation with the caveat that it be clear that returning residents would be screened at the two shelters and that the barrier islands were closed.
A member of the state Emergency Management Division was present at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, and division representatives were part of regular updates on county conditions that made it clear that the islands were inaccessible, Tanner said.
Multiple S.C. EMD officials claim, however, that Beaufort County emergency officials requested a full lift of the evacuation order and did not include exceptions for the islands or the screening plan, department spokesman Derrec Becker said.
At about 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 9, less than three hours after the order was lifted, both the sheriff’s office and Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett published Facebook posts in response to the announcement communicating that the barrier islands were still closed.
The state emergency management division also clarified on Facebook at the county’s request that, although the governor can lift an evacuation order, local officials still manage re-entry policies.
But it was too late. Many residents, apparently not knowing barricades to the islands were still in place, tried to return home, only to be turned away at police checkpoints, leaving them to scramble for last-minute accommodations.
In a news conference on Monday, Oct. 10, the day after the conflicting messages were posted, Haley defended the state’s response.
“We followed what Beaufort County wanted to do,” she said in response to a reporter’s question. “I know that they had their hiccups, and I know that they’re dealing with that. I also know they’re dealing with thousands of trees down and lots of issues.”
Haley also criticized the county’s plan to use shelters to filter returning evacuees.
“I don’t think that actually worked very well,” she said, adding that local officials had “readjusted, and from everything that I know, it’s moving more smoothly.”
Tanner said those statements were misleading.
“It didn’t happen that way,” Tanner said. “It may be a breakdown between the governor’s office and S.C. EMD, but we relayed our facts to them multiple times before the announcement, and I guess that information got lost somewhere.”
In addition to conflicting messages with the state, some local officials sent contradictory or confusing messages.
On Hilton Head Mayor Bennett’s public Facebook page, for example, the mayor posted promises of more detailed information that never came in several instances.
In a post announcing Hilton Head re-entry plans, Bennett wrote: “The Town of Hilton Head Island will post a comprehensive re-entry notice, which will provide detail as to any POAs that are not permitting access to their residents.”
No list materialized the next day, however. Bennett instead posted information only on Sea Pines and the Hilton Head Motorcoach Resort and directed residents to each neighborhood for more information, leaving many in the dark about whether they would be able to return home.
The status of all island communities was collected by the town, but in the midst of everything else town leaders had to manage, the release never got put together, said Town Manager Steve Riley.
Confusion over re-entry messages from Bennett and the sheriff’s office was also an issue.
“I cannot include the finalized re-entry instructions from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office,” the mayor wrote in a Facebook message on Oct. 10, the day before the Hilton Head re-entry. “However, they will be forthcoming directly from Sheriff Tanner. I can confirm that the majority of our residents and businesses will be welcomed home tomorrow, and our BCSO will work diligently to make the access effective.”
Bennett also posted on Facebook: “(Sheriff’s office) agencies will be in charge of all of the logistics associated with our re-entry to the island. Once finalized and approved, they will be directly communicating these logistics via e-mail, websites and social media.”
About 9 a.m. the next day on Oct. 11, however, the sheriff’s office posted this message on its Facebook page about the island’s re-entry: “Hilton Head Island is still not accessible to residents and the decision to allow general re-entry is in the hands of town government.”
That message created frustration for some residents. Facebook comments from locals included:
“The mayor last night wrote ‘finalized reentry instructions’ will be ‘forthcoming directly from the sheriff.’ Now you say the decision is in the hands of the town.”
“You say HHI not accessible but yet tell us it is up to the town government, and Mayor Bennett said it is up to you guys. ... Who is responsible and when can we get back to the island???”
In comments on its Facebook page, the sheriff’s office clarified: “We are working with town officials to ensure a safe return for residents. As soon as a general re-entry is decided, we will post that information here.”
The mayor attempted to clarify the situation at about noon that day in a Facebook post that began: “Effective at 3 p.m. today, the public will be granted access to begin re-entry to Hilton Head Island.”
There also was information posted by the sheriff’s office regarding business passes allowing re-entry of professionals onto Hilton Head Island that morning, but general information on re-entry procedures was never released on social media by the sheriff’s office.
“We got the information out as soon as it was available that day,” sheriff’s office spokesman Bob Bromage told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “But there was a lot of information coming at us at that point.”
Unprepared for social media
A large part of the communication issue during Matthew was linked to social media.
The ability of every individual to post information that could be shared with thousands of strangers quickly spread misinformation.
For example, posts, mostly on Facebook, claimed that law enforcement would force people to evacuate before the hurricane. Other pages shared unprofessional opinions that the storm was bound to miss the county. After the hurricane, many posts falsely claimed that the bridge to Hilton Head Island failed inspection or reported widespread looting throughout the county. Others said police were allowing people to return home long before that was true.
Several local leaders admit they were not prepared for impact social media would have on the flow of information in a disaster.
It had never been a factor in past storms. The last mandatory evacuation in the county was in 1999, long before social networks began to dominate communication.
In Beaufort County’s disaster response plan, there is no mention of social media, but there are instead provisions for releasing information through a hotline, news releases and signs on the highways.
That is something that needs to change, said Tanner, who oversees the county Emergency Management Division.
“We weren’t prepared for social media, that is a fact.” Tanner said. “It created a lot of misinformation. Everybody was getting their own message through their own social media outlet or Facebook page. There was a loss in translation. How we fix that, we don’t know, but we’re going to plan for it.”
Beaufort City Manager Bill Prokop shared similar views.
“It blindsided us,” Prokop said. “We are more used to sending out things like newsletters and didn’t really have a big knowledge of social media before this.”
Prokop said the town’s following on social media exploded during the storm, with the city and police Facebook pages adding thousands of followers.
“I think we learned that we can use it for a lot of things going forward,” Prokop said. “But it’s now something we can’t ignore.”
Hilton Head Island Town Manager Steve Riley said social media allowed the town and Bennett to get out a lot of valuable information quickly, but he added that, in the future, he would assign more people to focus on social networks to release official information and respond to rumors.
The Bluffton Police Department decided to directly respond to social media rumors after Hurricane Matthew, posting on its Facebook page to correct misinformation, including reports of looting and rumors that the bridge to Hilton Head had failed inspection.
But it wasn’t just rumors that created problems. Even seemingly accurate social media posts by returning evacuees were, at times, not helpful, local leaders said.
For example, stories of people returning home before the county reopened and managing to get past re-entry barricades encouraged more people to violate the ongoing evacuation orders, officials said. Photos of clear roads and little damage created the false impression that the situation was less severe in other areas.
“In this storm, I could have shown you some places that looked perfect, no damage at all,” Riley said. “But that wasn’t an accurate picture of the island.”
Those messages put additional pressure on leaders to open areas for re-entry before they were ready, local leaders said.
“People can see a photo of their house and see that it’s clear,” said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. “So it’s hard to explain to those people why they can’t go home, and I understand their frustration.”
Tanner said he hopes the county will do better in the future to combat the problem by putting out visuals and more information about conditions after disasters to discourage others from filling in voids of information on social media.
“We need people to see the big picture,” Tanner said. “So if that means putting out photos of every neighborhood we can, then we will to that. ... If that will keep people away for another day while we’re dealing with the damage, it’s worth it.”