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What Beaufort Co. residents need from local leaders during future hurricanes | Opinion

Beaufort’s emergency director makes gaffe about Hurricane Dorian at press conference

Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner holds a Sept. 4, 2019 press conference on Hurricane Dorian.
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Beaufort County Sheriff PJ Tanner holds a Sept. 4, 2019 press conference on Hurricane Dorian.

In his Friday morning public briefing on Hurricane Dorian, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner described it perfectly.

We were lucky.

The storm missed us.

Well, the hurricane part missed us, anyway.

The other storm — the one that occurs for days leading up to the possible main event — hit us pretty hard.

It always does.

The cruelty of hurricanes, as it turns out, lies not only in the destruction they cause but in the destruction they might cause.

The worrying, the wondering, the prognosticating, the preparing, the chronic Facebooking ...

I’m not saying it’s worse than downed trees or flooding or lost power, but it’s something close.

All of it wears on a person.

But again, we were lucky.

The storm missed us but, the truth is, had it hit, we would’ve gotten through it just fine, in large part because of our local leaders and first-responders, who have stepped up time and again.

Since Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and now with three more evacuations under our belts, we’ve come a long way as a community.

We all know how to do this.

Our personal preparations are more streamlined than ever.

And our local leaders appear to have ironed out most of the wrinkles experienced during what was a first for most of us — a hurricane in the digital age, when fear is contagious, rumor is readily accepted as actionable fact and the flow of information can be a churning, rocky, unnavigable rapid.

Immediately after Matthew, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county’s Emergency Management Division, focused on improving its communication, a main point of criticism at the time.

Since then, the sheriff’s office has been proactive, consistent, reliable and thorough.

And the frequency of their Nixles, near-daily public briefings streamed online and general responsiveness have been deeply appreciated.

Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka also continues to set a high bar for communication during emergencies, using Facebook Live videos to directly update residents and emailing bullet-pointed newsletters at the end of the day with summaries of what we need to know.

The Town of Hilton Head Island, city of Beaufort, town of Bluffton and Beaufort County all make good use of their Facebook pages during a storm.

They are doing it well.

Beyond that, they are seeking ways to do it better, which is admirable.

During Friday’s final Hurricane Dorian briefing at the sheriff’s office, both Sheriff Tanner and deputy town administrator Scott Marshall asked the community for suggestions on improving their communication.

Don’t mind if I do.

Hurricane Dorian was a difficult storm to predict in that we rode the line on that cone of uncertainty right up until the end.

A buoy 6 miles off the coast of Fripp Island registered a wind gust of 92 mph. The highest gust on land in Beaufort County, however, was recorded as 67 mph at the Hilton Head Airport.

Those 6 miles made a big difference, Tanner pointed out Friday.

The storm came very close.

But it did not get us.

Which is why it’s important for elected leaders and emergency management officials to be emphatic and factual in their warnings but ascetic in their hyperbole.

More than a few times, Emergency Management Division director Lt. Col. Neil Baxley, who was roundly lauded for his expertise and effort by other leaders Friday, went too far in his attempts to scare non-evacuees into compliance.

While his intent was noble, someone with a role as critical as his cannot afford to develop a “Chicken Little” repute.

And that is what will happen if he keeps it up.

Baxley’s repeated declaration that this storm would be like Matthew “but worse” and his presentation of dark-times hypotheticals — generators running out of gas; cellphone service gone; power out for “days, not hours, days”; roadways collapsing under us; catastrophic flooding; and the county getting a wallopin’ — often came off as reckless exaggeration as opposed to full disclosure about what one was risking by staying.

His bizarre insistence at the end of Wednesday’s public briefing that the sound of a nearby vacuum was Dorian’s winds already picking up might have been a joke — which would be a very generous interpretation of his quite seriously delivered statement — but no joking, please. Not from the guy who just told us the apocalypse is coming.

Baxley is strongest when he is outlining how the county plans to protect people ahead of the storm and how it will restore normalcy once the storm has passed.

If he is looking for good examples of how to maintain the right composure when briefing the public on emergencies — and he should be — he need only turn to Tanner, who maintains a steady, calming countenance, or county administrator Ashley Jacobs, who comes off as collected, capable and completely in charge.

The bigger lesson here, though, is that scare tactics just won’t work. Not in Beaufort County.

For instance, non-evacuees don’t need to hear from the county coroner, as they did in Wednesday’s briefing, that “there will be death” and that dead bodies will have to be held in your homes until the storm passes.

Good lord, man.

Ghoulish announcements don’t send people running to higher ground. They send them to the optometrist for eye roll strain.

Also not effective? Telling non-evacuees “there’s still time to leave” at the very same moment they’re being told that Hilton Head Mayor John McCann couldn’t make it to the public briefing Wednesday because of high winds on the bridges off the island.

Which is it? Stay and face the four horsemen or pile in the family van and hope you make it over Mackays Creek?

Oh! Speaking of McCann ...

The previous Hilton Head mayor was in Disney World during Matthew, but at least we got video updates from him.

After McCann jibed his way back across the bridges Wednesday morning, he should’ve been briefing Hilton Head Islanders via Facebook Live.

Residents shouldn’t have to tune in to Fox News or Anderson Cooper to hear from their elected leader about how things are going in their neck of the woods.

Local knowledge is local power.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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