State, local response to Hurricane Matthew plagued by indecision, poor communication, conflicting messages

Now that most of the Savannah area is headed back to normalcy, we have some time to assess the handling of the storm by local and state officials. The results are not pretty.

I’ve written about the poor preparation for the storm in my City Talk column today in the Savannah Morning News, and I’m assuming the newspaper will have much more coverage about the problematic governance response in the coming days.

An excerpt from my column:

On Thursday morning, the Chatham Emergency Management Agency was still publishing a map that labeled Skidaway and other low-lying areas as “Additional Potential Low Lying Areas.” Potential?

Gov. Nathan Deal’s declaration of a mandatory evacuation of everyone east of I-95 brought some clarity to official government policy, but there were areas farther west that were at much greater risk than the neighborhoods closer to the city’s core.

I suppose some would simply blame communication problems, but it seems like the issues ran much deeper. I’m left with the feeling that many appointed and elected officials simply did not understand the plausible worst-case scenarios when a strong Category 2 hurricane was bearing down upon us.

Here’s a snippet of what Connect Savannah editor Jim Morekis says in his column this week, headlined “Disastrous leadership?”:

The core issue with local government and emergency management wasn’t poor intentions or poor resources, it was nearly catastrophically poor coordination and communication, from the top in Atlanta and in Savannah, along with a nearly fatal dose of indecisiveness.

It seems so long ago now, but it began with the first Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) press conference last Wednesday, an embarrassingly amateurish, almost lackadaisical affair which did nothing to help public confidence at a crucial time.

While Gov. Nikki Haley and other South Carolina officials already had their emergency management plan in gear with a mandatory evacuation underway, Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott said he saw no reason to call for an evacuation of all of Chatham County, and only that the islands were under a voluntary evacuation for the next morning.

That Wednesday afternoon press conference was actually even worse than Morekis details. County officials called for the evacuation of only a few of the islands, not all of them, despite the fact that all faced similar risks of catastrophic damage, especially from the storm surge.

Monday morning quarterbacking? Or, even worse, Wednesday morning quarterbacking? Not at all. Many people in the community, including me in a series of posts on my Savannah Unplugged Facebook page and personal Facebook timeline (which is entirely public), were criticizing official decisions in real time.

Simply put, way too many residents of low-lying areas stayed in town, and government officials did not do the most obvious things necessary to encourage more people to get out. Ultimately, most of those residents got lucky — there was only one fatality in Chatham County as far as I know — but if the 7.7 foot storm surge measured about 4 a.m. had occurred a couple of hours earlier at high tide or if Matthew had moved closer to the coast and maintained more of its strength, we might have had widespread fatalities.

On Sunday, after evacuees had been told they might have to wait several days to re-enter Chatham County, county officials and the Chatham Emergency Management Association suddenly approved re-entry for 5 p.m. Almost immediately, the Facebook page for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield told followers to ignore CEMA’s announcement because Governor Deal had not yet said that residents could return. That post was deleted after Deal confirmed that re-entry was allowed, but given the state-vs-local tussle over evacuation before the storm, many Savannah residents assumed that we were witnessing a petty power struggle between the governor’s office and county leaders.

Yesterday, even as some parts of town — including the Historic District — were swiftly returning to normal, CEMA announced the continuation of a 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. countywide curfew until Saturday morning. The city of Pooler had already preempted the previous curfew with different hours and rules — maybe everything is cooler in Pooler? The cities of Savannah and Tybee Island haven’t even bothered to share that crucial information on their own social media, possibly because they assume that county officials will be forced to walk back that decision.

Conditions on the ground do not warrant that type of curfew, certainly not countywide. Georgia Power appears possibly on track to have power restored to 90 percent of customers by tonight (Wednesday). As I write this, Georgia Power’s outage map shows about 35,000 affected customers on the coast, but the number was over 55,000 late Tuesday afternoon. As of Monday afternoon, Georgia Power had already restored power to over 200,000 customers. (I never lost power at my house, believe it or not.)

Absolutely, there are some people who will be dealing with the effects of Hurricane Matthew for a long, long time. Also, we’ve got the usual scammers and gougers, although I’ve seen nothing to confirm the rumors of “looters on the prowl.” Some people are tired and frightened, a few roads might still be closed, and there are some folks who can’t return to their homes. We’ve lost some beautiful trees, even though a visitor a couple of weeks from now might not even notice anything amiss. Most if not all schools and colleges have cancelled classes for the week. (UPDATE: Also some ongoing issues at the port.)

But the majority of Savannah, including our vibrant service and tourism industry, is ready to get back to work.

UPDATE: CURFEW IN SAVANNAH HAS BEEN LIFTED ENTIRELY.

I’ll share here a few iPhone pics I took on Saturday along the Bull Street corridor, both north and south of Forsyth Park. Some ugly damage, but you can also see so many trees — including the ancient Candler Oak — that came through the storm unscathed.

14581300_1363238793757929_614441162640989359_n

14519886_1363238780424597_2910754906336758155_n

14581303_1363238623757946_3337053833129038789_n

14522868_1363238533757955_2098898895583671219_n

14572223_1363238500424625_5037607742372843474_n

14601027_1363238440424631_3148457946206217678_n

3
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
2 Comment threads
1 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
3 Comment authors
billdawersEllynnGregs Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Gregs
Gregs

I am from Savannah and most of my family remains in the low country, so I watched this with interest. I agree that local officials were grossly incompetent in keeping the public informed about the plans and preparations for Matthew. I get that the Coastal Empire doesn’t get hit very often but contingency plans should have been developed long ago and simply dusted off for implementation.

I wonder how prepared they are in the event of a terrorist attack of any kind?

Ellynn
Ellynn

Here’s the problem in a nut shell – Too many people trying to make too many decisions they are not trained to make all while letting other’s run amuck. Everyone had to say something at every news conference and some of it counteracted what someone else said. We do not need the County commissioner, 3-4 mayors, a handful of city alderman, a pair of stone face dueling district commissioners, a county manger, two sets of EMA heads, the city police chief, the sheriff, the head of storm water, the head of park and trees, Rep. Carter, not to mention the… Read more »