Still too much confusion on hurricane re-entry plan for Beaufort County

Re-entry into Beaufort County following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.
Re-entry into Beaufort County following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. File

Nine months after Hurricane Matthew hit Beaufort County, and two months into a new hurricane season, we still lack clarity on how re-entry will be improved following a future mandatory evacuation.

As the old saying goes: “Where there is a mist in the pulpit, there is fog in the pews.”

With a misty re-entry plan, the public has no hope of grasping what is expected of them and why.

We should know better after the category-2 Hurricane Matthew left much of the county — particularly the barrier islands — buried in fallen trees and without basic utility services last October.

We know there was way too much mist in the pulpit — but what have our leaders done about that? Not enough.

After Hurricane Matthew, the governor lifted the mandatory evacuation order with great fanfare, logically leading evacuees to believe they were free to go home after almost a week on the road. But they weren’t. They found roadblocks at certain entry points. Nobody — even the county leadership — knew what to expect. There were long lines and a lot of frustration that at one time resulted in people chanting at law enforcement officers trying to do their job. In some instances, mayors said one thing and the Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said another as evacuees were held away from their homes up to three days after the storm cleared. A frequent question on social media, and even among elected leaders, was: “Who is in charge here?”

Subsequent investigations by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette showed that the re-entry plan was crafted on the fly, and further complicated by power struggles and communication breakdowns.

Sadly, we don’t feel any more comfort in the plan today than we did last fall — despite a great deal of study by the sheriff’s office and others of what needs to be improved.

While one mayor says it’s crystal clear that the county is in charge, another says he will do what is best for his hometown.

And the Sheriff’s Office is loathe to set out details the public deserves, saying each storm has too many variables and if an announced plan ultimately needs to be changed, that has done more harm than good.

We side with authorities who must have greater understanding by the public that going home after a hurricane hits has to be a slow and deliberate process. We would like to help authorities drum into the public that it is totally unrealistic to think you can rush back to a barrier island two days after its streets are rendered impassible, the hospital is closed, the water and sewer systems are not fully running again and few businesses are open. All of that takes time to rectify.

We also learned from Hurricane Matthew that water and sewer utilities may well need people to stay away until their systems get back up to speed — even if they live well inland and their yards and streets are clear.

But for people to buy into re-entry restrictions — and for people to continue to evacuate when ordered to do so — they need more clarity from leadership, starting with Sheriff Tanner and the governor’s office.

We need greater assurance that the mayors and municipal administrators of Beaufort County are lock-step with re-entry procedures and those procedures need to be spelled out to the public.

It’s hard to see how municipalities can pledge allegiance to a plan whose specifics have not been publicly articulated. After all, the devil will always be in the details.

There’s more to the problem than miscommunication, and there’s more to the solution than assigning a few more people to monitor social media and provide more timely information.

More importantly, the sheriff and heads of all local governments and utilities need to demystify for the public what has changed since Hurricane Matthew.