Nine months after a messy re-entry following the worst hurricane to hit Beaufort County in decades, county officials lack a detailed plan on how to manage returning residents, instead touting the need to stay flexible while promising better communication.
Angry motorists got stuck behind county checkpoints as they tried to return home after the Category 2 hurricane hit on Oct. 8, escalating tensions at an already stressful time for residents. Conflicting information abounded at times, and the problems went deeper than the county and local agencies disagreeing with each other on how to handle re-entry.
By its own admission, the Sheriff’s Office was ill-prepared for a public glued to social media, and at other times, saw its on-the-fly solutions resisted and defied by leaders of Bluffton and Beaufort, who felt their residents were being kept from their homes unnecessarily.
Everyone has skin in the game... they want it to work, and they want to make sure that they have information to citizens that is absolutely dead-on.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner
In an interview last month with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, who under state regulations has the responsibility to manage countywide emergencies, said he believes the solution to last fall’s re-entry problems is simple: better communication and coordination.
“Everyone has skin in the game,” Tanner said. “And they want it to work, and they want to make sure that they have information to citizens that is absolutely dead-on.”
He dismissed the notion that a power struggle with local municipalities contributed to the re-entry woes and said his office has met with town mayors and managers, public information officers, fire chiefs and police chiefs to improve coordination in future emergencies.
Contacted recently by the newspapers, the mayors of Hilton Head, Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal all pledged their support and partnership with the sheriff’s office, and also spoke of the need for coordination.
But when asked how they would react if disagreements with the county arose in future re-entry situations, some local leaders were less willing to give specific responses to hypotheticals.
“I think it depends on what the situation is,” said Bluffton police Chief Joseph Manning. “We go to a room and make a collective decision. We’re going to come out of there with one voice, and we may not always like the decision that’s made. But unless it’s something that we look at and say, ‘Absolutely not, we can’t do it,’ we’re going to go with that decision.”
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he planned to cooperate with the county in future emergencies, though he added, “I’m always going to what’s best for my town.”
A county document provided to the newspapers under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act indicated that the sheriff’s office considered creating a written agreement with local municipalities to “follow one directive” for future re-entries, though the agreement was not put together.
Tanner and Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, who heads the Emergency Management Division in the sheriff’s office, say they don’t have a more detailed re-entry plan because law enforcement personnel and other emergency responders need flexibility to adapt to ground conditions.
“We leave things flexible, because things could change every hour,” Tanner said.
But last fall, when the public’s wrath was more raw, Tanner gave a different answer, saying said he hoped that future plans would include much more detail on how to deal with early returners.
“I want the public to be assured that we are looking at what happened, and our re-entry plan will be picked apart from A to Z,” Tanner told the newspapers in November. “We’re starting to look at what worked, what didn’t, and we’re going to make the changes that are necessary.”
Keeping re-entry plans vague could be a “polite way of saying, ‘We’re going to make this up as we go along,’” said Michael Lindell, a University of Washington professor and Texas A&M professor emeritus, who has conducted research on emergency preparedness and response for 40 years.
“Sometimes … people confuse a procedure with a rigid set of sequence of steps you’re going to follow no matter what the storm conditions are,” Lindell said. “And that’s not what I am talking about when I say you need to prepare ahead of time.”
County emergency-preparedness records recently provided to the newspapers under the state’s open-records law show that much of the effort to correct problems from last fall focuses on making sure that state, county and local municipal officials better coordinate in communicating with the public. The documents, for example, lay out plans to monitor social media and correct misinformation.
But those same records show a lack of detail when it comes to re-entry procedures. For example, a spreadsheet listing 29 post-Matthew recommendations for improvements in emergency planning listed only a few dealing specifically with re-entry, including one that noted a revision of the county’s “Re-entry SOP (Standard Operating Procedures)” is an “ongoing process.”
After Matthew hit in October, numerous problems during re-entry caused stand-still traffic as residents were held back at seven checkpoints. Utility, tree-removal and medical crews were stuck in traffic. Crowds reportedly chanted, “We want to go home,” at law enforcement.
“We almost got post-storm riots at these roadblocks,” Tanner said in an interview last fall.
It’s still not entirely clear how many people evacuated from Beaufort County, which had an estimated population of 183,149 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Then Gov.-Nikki Haley issued an evacuation order Oct. 4 for Beaufort County and several other counties, and lifted it for Beaufort and Jasper counties on Oct. 9.
Some areas of the county saw an evacuation rate of “50 percent, some areas nowhere near it, some areas more,” Tanner said. Those estimates were based on comparing traffic from before the storm hit to normal traffic counts, as well as observations from first responders after the storm blew through.
When the people of Beaufort County returned, not only were there miscommunications and disagreements among local leaders, but residents received multiple conflicting statements from the state, county and municipalities about when they could return home.
These problems were flagged in the county’s “Hurricane Matthew After-Action” report, dated Dec. 15, 2016, which read: “Although the evacuation of Beaufort County went well, the re-entry process presented a problem. This was due to miscommunication between the state, county and municipalities. This miscommunication created confusion in the general public on when they were able to return to their homes and business.”
Re-entry procedures generally don’t get as much attention as evacuation procedures, said Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University who has studied the topic for about 20 years. Evacuations typically involve more urgent life-or-death decisions, and therefore emergency management officials often spend more time in planning how to get people out of an area instead of how to get people back in.
That apparently was true for Beaufort County with Hurricane Matthew. The county hadn’t conducted a controlled re-entry since 1959. Further, the sheriff’s office took over emergency services in 2014 — meaning that Matthew was the first controlled re-entry overseen by the sheriff’s office.
The county’s Emergency Management Division is in charge when it comes to disasters such as hurricanes, according to South Carolina’s Code of State Regulations. The regulation states that “each county within this state shall develop a county emergency management plan and program,” and that municipal emergency-management plans should be “consistent with and subject to the applicable county emergency management plan.”
Here’s how the re-entry plan was supposed to work in Beaufort County, which was announced Oct. 9, the day after the storm hit: The sheriff’s office set up seven checkpoints north and south of the Broad River. State troopers at those checkpoints told returning residents whether it was safe for them to go home. In partnership with the Red Cross, the sheriff’s office also set up two shelters near those checkpoints, where residents could get food and water if they needed it.
But it didn’t work that smoothly. For starters, many residents assumed that when the governor lifted her evacuation order, they could go home immediately. The county, however, required that evacuees first go through the checkpoints, and initially barricaded the islands, preventing those residents from returning home.
There also were problems with the shelter plan. The county originally selected Whale Branch High School as a shelter, but its generator blew. So officials set up Battery Creek High School as an alternative site. The day after the storm, Tanner acknowledged more shelters might be needed to handle an influx of early returners in the future. But in an interview in June, Baxley said the shelters were never filled to capacity.
Then there was the apparent lack of cooperation by some local officials. The Bluffton Police Department, for example, announced through social media that residents west of Buckwalter Parkway could go directly home — a message published only an hour after the sheriff’s office announced its plan for filtering residents through the checkpoints.
I hope to God there is never another reason to evacuate, but I sure hope officials are taking note of how to disseminate information more clearly next time.
Commenter on Bluffton Police Department’s Facebook page
And north of the Broad River, Keyserling told his residents that they would be able to re-enter the city before the sheriff’s office gave clearance to do so.
On Hilton Head, Mayor David Bennett promised detailed information about re-entry that was never provided to most island residents. The island was eventually reopened for entry Oct. 11, three days after the storm hit.
Other problems behind the scenes caused befuddlement for residents, too.
The sheriff’s office VMWare — a software hub for emergency operations computers — had technical problems that meant emergency workers could not do basic functions such as use email, Word, Excel and print documents. That caused those working in the county’s Emergency Operations Center to “do everything by word of mouth,” according to the county’s report.
“I hope to God there is never another reason to evacuate, but I sure hope officials are taking note of how to disseminate information more clearly next time,” said one commenter on the Bluffton Police Department’s Facebook page after the storm.
Vague re-entry procedures
The county report suggested a few changes in re-entry procedures. For one, the report recommended that local police officers should be staffed with state troopers at checkpoints. During Matthew, some troopers manning checkpoints were not as familiar with the area, which contributed to the traffic backups.
But the 40-page report is largely devoid of details about how to manage returning residents, which, according to the Baxley, is intentional to allow for flexibility depending on the type of storm that hits.
“These disasters are very fluid, very variable,” said Wolshon of Louisiana State University. “And if you make a plan and advertise it to the public, the problem is that if there’s a formal plan, then you’re stuck with it.”
What’s more necessary than a specific plan, Wolshon said, is a framework from which to plan re-entry procedures.
But in Beaufort County, that basic criteria isn’t set in stone.
The sheriff’s office re-entry procedure, as of Jan. 16, 2015, states, “As soon as the area is presumed reasonably safe for reentry, the county will announce that the general population may return to the area.”
The re-entry procedure, however, does not define “reasonably safe.” The sheriff’s office contends the definition could vary from storm to storm, and that emergency officials examine several conditions on the ground, such as blocked roads, downed power lines and fallen trees, before deciding whether to allow re-entry.
There also will be no changes in how first responders evaluate future hurricane damage, according to Tanner and Baxley. According to the current plan, once winds have subsided, law enforcement officers drive throughout the county to gauge the damage through “windshield assessments.” The first responders then radio their assessments back to the emergency operations center.
The sheriff’s office could create different emergency-operations scenarios based on the severity of the hurricane, said Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M University professor who works with the university’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.
“There’s absolutely the ability to develop scenarios in terms of what type of storm it is, what type of approximate path it’s taking, what the strength of the storm is, and then be able to predict from that how bad things are going to be,” Van Zandt said.
Beaufort County does not have such potential scenarios in place for different categories of hurricanes, Baxley said, again citing the unpredictability of hurricanes.
Other decisions critical to the re-entry process are not determined until after a storm hits, according to Baxley.
Take re-entry checkpoints, for instance. The written procedure states, “As soon as feasible after the storm, Law Enforcement officials will establish roadblocks throughout the county in order to prohibit individuals from returning to the County before it is safe for public re-entry.”
But the specific number of checkpoints and shelters needed aren’t decided until after a hurricane hits, Baxley said. The re-entry standard operating procedures list seven roadblock locations, noting that these “points, and others, may be established as circumstances dictate.”
When asked by the Packet and Gazette, the sheriff’s office could not provide a range of the number of checkpoints or shelters that might be needed in the future based on the severity of the hurricane. Baxley said sites for shelters have already been identified, however, and that plans to supply them with necessary resources are in place through the Red Cross.
“If you write the plan that detailed, it may not fit the scenario,” Baxley said. “Shelters will be established as needed. Roadblocks will be established where appropriate to fit the scenario. And that’s the way the plan is written; it leaves a lot of flexibility.”
Pledge of Cooperation
Going forward, Tanner said it’s important that county and local government officials cooperate better on re-entry procedures. The sheriff’s office spreadsheet with recommendations for improvements suggested that the county work with municipalities on creating a “MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) on re-entry,” though it noted that it was “not feasible to enter into an MOU at this time.”
“There’s no need to do an MOU,” Tanner said in his interview last month. “When we met with the police chiefs, it was very clear that when we have a hurricane, the county’s in charge.”
We’re very cooperative. We’re great partners ... and we’re all on the same page.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka
Tanner said the sheriff’s office hosted three roundtable meetings in June to discuss coordination in the event of another disaster: one with town mayors and managers; another with police chiefs; and one with fire chiefs.
“The municipalities and the sheriff’s department will be working hand in hand,” said Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray, when contacted recently by the newspapers. “We’ll all be doing the same thing, saying the same thing at the same time.”
Murray’s sentiment was echoed by Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and other local leaders.
“We help each other,” Sulka said of the relationship between Bluffton and Beaufort County, despite the disagreement last fall between the town and county on the Matthew re-entry. “We’re very cooperative. We’re great partners ... and we’re all on the same page.”
Business passes and social media
One point of confusion was how people would be allowed back in with re-entry business passes. Some people wanted to re-enter with passes issued by the state, but law enforcement manning the checkpoints only accepted county business passes, which are renewed every four years.
To date, no decisions have been made on whether the re-entry business pass policy will be changed. The sheriff’s office is currently working with town officials to decide whether to keep the current policy or switch to renewing the passes annually.
When it came to social media, the county’s hurricane report stated bluntly, “The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office did not use or monitor social media effectively.”
We’ve got to create a message stream that streams factual information at every minute. … One voice, one message.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner
In other words, when rumors spread, those rumors got ahead of the sheriff’s office. Residents who saw Facebook photos of clean streets in their neighborhoods, for example, wanted to come home — even if those photos were misleading because they didn’t show the full extent of the damage, according to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Bob Bromage.
“There needs to be an awareness of how people receive and consume information, which they do now by non-traditional means, like Facebook and Twitter,” said S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
In the future, three different officers will be assigned to monitor social media around the clock to send out regular updates and debunk rumors through social media and Nixle, Bromage said. He added he also met three times since January with several local municipal public information officers to discuss their social media strategies, and a Joint Information Center will be created for future emergency situations.
It’s all part of a larger goal, says Tanner: a united front and a singular message from all agencies.
“Everyone felt the ripples of misinformation,” Tanner said. “We’ve got to create a message stream that streams factual information at every minute. … One voice, one message.”