- Photo by Carolyn M. Dimmick
WE CAN ALL AGREE that Hurricane Matthew could have been much worse, despite the massive damage to property and the tragic loss of one Isle of Hope resident's life when a tree crushed his house as he lay sleeping alongside his dog.
We can all agree that we should be grateful for what we do have, and for the sense of resilient community we all experienced, each in our own ways.
We can all agree that first responders — police, firefighters, utility crews, National Guard, rank and file City and County workers — all did exemplary, even heroic jobs maintaining and restoring order and services lost in Matthew’s wake.
That said: We can also agree that your local and state government — as distinguished from the highly professional first responders themselves — failed to handle their end of things in your best interest.
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.
(Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman, by far the most solidly capable local elected official throughout this ordeal, had already called for the voluntary evacuation of Tybee Island the afternoon before).
Almost immediately, County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter let it be known via social media that he disagreed strongly with Chairman Scott’s decision, and felt not only that a countywide voluntary evacuation should be called for, but that a mandatory evacuation was almost certainly going to have to happen, and that time was of the essence.
Kicklighter was vindicated the next morning, when CEMA changed the islands evacuation to mandatory, followed about 30 minutes later by the Governor’s call for mandatory evacuation of the entire County.
This would be the pattern for the next week: Local authorities would say one thing, and hours or even minutes later either contradict themselves, or the Governor’s office would contradict them, or both.
And where was Mayor Eddie DeLoach? Until right before the storm hit, he was on a trip with the Savannah Economic Development Authority to — wait for it — Ireland! Can’t make this up, folks.
The message CEMA and Chatham County government leadership — as distinguished from rank-and-file police, firemen, utility crews and other first responders, who all performed admirably — sent from the very beginning was, “We’re in charge, but we’re winging it. Trust us anyway.”
CEMA’s issues with providing useful public information were apparent from the beginning. At one point as Matthew was threatening South Florida, they tweeted that Savannah wasn’t under any Hurricane Watches or Warnings — which would have been impossible anyway, because Watches and Warnings aren’t even called until 48 and 36 hours away, respectively.
In the storm's aftermath, a technically correct but extremely vaguely worded tweet from CEMA started a panic about everyone having to boil water. (The issue really affected a small group of customers of a private company.)
The panic became so prevalent that Chatham County had to issue a press release talking about "rumors" -- which had begun with CEMA itself!
This isn’t to put all the blame on the locals. In marked and painful contrast to Gov. Haley’s five-star performance, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal was nearly a no-show for Hurricane Matthew.
I strongly suspect that Deal’s low public profile reflected a general lack of urgency. Local officials were likely operating in a vacuum. I honestly am not sure how I would have handled the same difficult situation.
But it is clear that what happened here was well beneath standards set by other emergency management agencies up and down Matthew’s path.
After the mandatory evacuation became reality and Chatham County struggled to keep up, by Thursday night the tone changed from apathetic to apocalyptic.
Alderman Van Johnson said, “This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime... Get your stuff and get out of town. Even if you survive the storm.... our utilities might be disturbed, our water system might be compromised. This could be a very different place.”
As evacuees painfully waited news of the hurricane’s impact Friday night — and saw Facebook photos of the horrific damage that Saturday morning — they were in for more surprises.
Amid the eleventh hour, lectures about how the storm was really bad after all and everyone had to get the hell out of Dodge, officials neglected to tell evacuees some very key information:
Namely, that all roads back home would be blocked by State Troopers demanding ID, and it might be many days before reentry was allowed.
CEMA denied “rumors” that evacuees would need to show a utility bill in addition to personal ID to qualify for reentry, but the “rumors” had originated right on their own website.
And thus the oldest of lessons was proven true again: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
Those who were prudent were rewarded by being told to continue being prudent and stay away from their property indefinitely, while those who disregarded the mandatory evacuation order faced no penalty other than from Mother Nature herself, and were free to protect their property and begin cleaning up immediately.
Indeed, one of the clearest messages was to potential looters: Don’t worry, we’ll keep the owners of all those empty houses away as long as we can.
The mixed messages continued. At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, CEMA said residents could re-enter at 5 p.m. but only with proper ID. But the countywide curfew began at 10 p.m., so you better be in your home and off the street in that five-hour window.
During that press conference, Chairman Scott directly contradicted what CEMA said literally moments earlier about needing ID.
Scott rambled about people being “free to go to Tybee and see the surf,” though Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman, standing right next to him, had just said he didn’t know when the bridges to Tybee would be reopened.
(Mayor Buelterman is one of the few local leaders to get an A+ grade. He and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley set the standard, with the Savannah/Chatham County School Board’s prescient early decision to cancel school all week also proving particularly wise.)
Evacuees saw the confusing reentry information on social media along with posts from local bars, coffee shops, and tourist spots saying they had power and were open for business.
You could get a daiquiri at Wet Willie’s in City Market. The contrast seemed stark.
Not to worry, because 90 minutes later CEMA contradicted itself once again, completely throwing away the reentry protocol and saying at 5 p.m. everyone — residents, tourists, whoever — was free to reenter.
The real shame of all this is the possibility that dramatically fewer people will evacuate next time due to the hard lessons learned this time around, when "mandatory" clearly meant nothing of the kind and the folks in charge flew by the seat of their pants.
The “mandatory” thing right now is to demand a full reform of CEMA, for these three reasons:
1) To get CEMA out from under the whims of grandstanding local elected officials, 2) To drastically upgrade CEMA’s public information presence, and 3) To streamline CEMA’s communication with decisionmakers at the state level.
These are your lives and your taxpayer dollars at risk, and it’s never wrong or inappropriate to demand change when needed.
Yes, things could certainly have been worse. But they could have been a hell of a lot better, too. And you deserve better.