Hurricane

Poor communication on evacuee re-entry plan leads to public anger

Gov. Nikki Haley conducts a 1 p.m. news conference in Columbia on Oct. 10, 2016, describing South Carolina responses to areas harmed by Hurricane Matthew. Image taken from video.
Gov. Nikki Haley conducts a 1 p.m. news conference in Columbia on Oct. 10, 2016, describing South Carolina responses to areas harmed by Hurricane Matthew. Image taken from video. S.C. Governor’s Office

When word surfaced early Sunday evening that Gov. Nikki Haley had lifted her evacuation order for Beaufort County, droves of displaced residents thought they were finally going home.

Then the harsh reality set in.

Despite the canceling of the governor’s order, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office was still enforcing its plan, announced earlier Sunday, to direct returning evacuees at checkpoints to two high schools serving the north and south sides of the county for a determination of whether their particular neighborhood was safe enough to return.

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If not deemed safe, residents couldn’t go home.

But neither the governor’s office nor the Sheriff’s Office clearly explained to the public then that the local screening process was still in effect, even though the governor’s order had been lifted.

That, in turn, caused mass confusion and anger among returning evacuees.

Haley at a news conference Monday addressed the situation in Beaufort County.

“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.”

As for the county’s plan to offer shelters to returning evacuees until it was safe for them to go home, Haley said, “I don’t think that actually worked very well,” though she added that local officials have “readjusted, and from everything that I know, it’s moving more smoothly.”

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The governor’s evacuation order for Beaufort and Jasper counties, which took effect over Oct. 5 and 6, was formally lifted at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Haley said at an earlier news conference Sunday that while she was lifting evacuation orders for Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties, her orders for Beaufort and Jasper counties would remain in effect, noting that “we are relying on the local governments and local law enforcement to tell us when they feel like it is safe.”

The later written order lifting Beaufort County’s evacuation makes no mention about the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office’s plan to direct returning evacuees to two high schools for re-entry screening, though it says generally that “nothing in this order prohibits local officials from establishing a curfew or restricting access to areas of danger.”

A news release from the governor’s office issued about 7:30 p.m. Sunday also didn’t include any details about the re-entry screening plan. Neither did a Facebook post about 8:20 p.m. from the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, which read only, “You may now return to Beaufort and Jasper Counties. Please be patient as you return to these areas.”

The state emergency management office said in an email Monday to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette that Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner requested at 6:10 p.m. Sunday that the governor’s evacuation order be lifted at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

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Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage acknowledged Monday when contacted by the newspapers that his office could have better communicated with the public Sunday night.

“We do understand the frustration of the general public and are always working to improve our communications,” he said, though he added, “The situation is very fluid. There are a lot of moving parts in this, and our priority is restoring Beaufort County.”

Bromage defended the re-entry screening plan, noting that after Hurricane Matthew had moved past the county, local officials wanted to “maintain some order to re-entry to the county.”

“There were a lot of people backed up for a considerable amount of time,” he said. “We’ve got utility crews still out there, and the traffic could pose a danger to what they’re doing.”

A Sheriff’s Office advisory issued to email subscribers at 9:12 p.m. Sunday — nearly three hours after Haley’s evacuation order for the county was lifted — said although the order had been canceled, there “are still many areas of Beaufort County deemed unsafe by local officials and will be restricted,” singling out Hilton Head, Harbor, Hunting and Fripp islands.

But as with the governor’s written order lifting the evacuation, the advisory gave no details about the re-entry screening plan. Returning evacuees vented their frustration Sunday night on social media.

Here’s a sampling of comments Sunday night from The Island Packet’s and Bluffton Police Department’s Facebook pages about the breakdown in communications:

▪  Jennifer Kelly: This is way too conflicting! I live in Rosehill and I know that I have water and power but now am being told I can’t go home.

▪  Ivy Rowland: These people are so backwards. Get together before you make an announcement.

▪  Laurel Parker Simon: 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.

▪  Leigh West Brown: Clear info is needed or mayhem will ensue.

▪  Scott Wyland: This going poorly in large part because of poor planning and next to no information dissemination.

Confusion also was evident at the local government level. In a Facebook comment Sunday afternoon, Bluffton town spokeswoman Debbie Szpanka advised town residents that when “re-entry is allowed, go to your house. You DON’T need to go to the school.”

At 9:19 a.m. Monday, the Sheriff’s Office wrote in an advisory to email subscribers that the “outer checkpoints for entry into the county have been lifted,” and that county residents “can now return to their homes,” with the exception of those living in the Hilton Head and Harbor Island areas. The advisory also said the American Red Cross would provide post-storm shelters at Bluffton High School and Battery Creek High School.

Contacted Monday morning, state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette there was a “disconnect from one piece to the next” in communication Sunday night between state and local officials, noting she received a slew of angry emails, texts and social media messages from constituents.

“I would have preferred to have seen a joint press release from the governor’s office and our Beaufort County Emergency Operations Center for clarification,” she said.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, took to Facebook on Sunday night and Monday morning to clarify the governor’s order lifting the evacuation and the re-entry screening plan by the Sheriff’s Office. He said before posting, he confirmed his information with state and county officials.

“I was more like a facilitator of information,” Davis told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

Davis said while he believes the Sheriff’s Office overall has “done a tremendous job over the last 48 hours” responding to problems caused by the hurricane, there is a “lesson to be taken away” regarding communication with the public.

“People get their information in very different ways now than they historically have,” Davis said, citing social media as an example. “With a crisis like this, it’s important to get information out accurately and quickly in as many ways possible.”

“If you don’t do that,” he added, “a lot of trust goes away.”

Projects reporter Kelly Meyerhofer and social media editor Graham Cawthon, as well as Jamie Self, a reporter for The State, contributed to this story.

Rick Brundrett: 843-706-8114, @RickBrundrett

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