National News

It could happen tomorrow: Are we ready to communicate?

Posted September 7

— Harvey left massive damage all around Texas from the Gulf Coast and up into Central and East Texas. Each and every day new stories emerge from the affected regions about how somebody was impacted by the destruction that came in the wake of the slow moving Category 4 storm that landed near Corpus Christi and then slowly made it's way around the state in late August, leaving behind a path of destruction that Texas had never seen before.

From all around the country resources poured into the state from private groups and citizens to well organized and trained incident management teams. The response was massive and what would be the most difficult times for many, became the finest hours for others. Unsung heroes from all over came to the rescue, pulling people from their homes and saving many from what could have been an almost certain death.

Early on there were competing interests, which Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said were being patiently worked out. At one point, local officials in Harris county were urging people to stay put and not evacuate, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said that he was urging people to leave. Despite the reality that local and state officials were struggling to get on the same page, communication from officials between every level of government flowed almost perfectly.

Mayor Turner held numerous press conferences each and every day to keep the citizens informed of what was happening, how it was happening and who it was happening to. At almost every press conference, Turner was flanked by emergency managers, including police chief Art Acevado and representatives from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard and other emergency managers. Often times, they included Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who demonstrated that elected officials working hand in hand could save lives, keep citizens informed and manage resources in an almost flawless manner.

The debate over evacuations has already started. However, for many communities throughout Texas, Harvey has sparked another debate-would we be ready?

In smaller communities, emergency officials often times wear multiple hats and shoulder countless levels of responsibility in times of crisis. Their resources and staff are stretched to the max on a normal day, but when a major emergency hits the home front, resources and people are pulled and stretched even further and at some point, public information usually takes a back seat to operations. However, as Harvey has done a good job at showing us, public information saves lives.

During Harvey and it's aftermath, we saw effective communication save lives and defuse panic during Harvey. But in smaller communities, where officials rely on outdated and often times slow methods of communications, lives could be at risk and the flow of information to residents can prove deadly.

In Central Texas, social media played a major part in convincing people that there was a major fuel shortage due to Harvey-a myth that was only progressed by many media outlets and social media pages posting gas prices and locations, leading people to certainly believe that there was a crisis, despite information from officials and industry experts who insisted that if people would have just fueled normally and not hoard fuel, there would be no problems.

Instead, rumors flew on social media that caused widespread panic and confusion which lead to traffic problems, fights and disruptions-all while social media pages kept the score.

But going deeper, you have to wonder if many of our smaller communities and counties are ready for such a disaster?

Hidden deep in the books in Burnet County, Texas, Northwest of Austin, lies a budget shortfall to the tune of $800,000. Local handshakes keep that issue out of discussion or debate, leaving citizens to ponder if the same thing would happen in a time of crisis?

In places like Burnet County, elections are often decided long before election day and not because of any intentional wrong doing from any side. Trust in elected officials is something that is hardly ever questioned, at least publicly because local family relationships and handshake deals just how business gets done.

Local leaders rely on public trust and if it is ever questioned you are given a response that would only satisfy a child or ease the mind of an unsuspecting local who has accepts the idea that the less the community knows, the better off they are. When in fact, it often times seems that the prevailing opinion is that the less the community knows, the better off "WE" are.

During Harvey, we saw small towns pull together and reach out to state and national media to spread the word about the situation in their part of the world. They embraced the fact that public information and public knowledge would save lives and finally learned that saving lives was more important than preserving family legacies and friendships.

In the Texas Hill Country, there is a major problem that threatens people who live here-flooding. In a flash flood that pours down the Colorado River or rapidly fills local creeks and waterways, public information could save lives and property. In the event that an extremely major flooding event happened here, residents would be left to only trust that help would arrive and information how to prepare would passed slowly via propagandized social media outlets.

With the local television stations being so far away from many parts of the Hill Country, the only option would be to trust those in charge and just assume that they are fully protecting your interests and not just the interests of a selected few.

In a world that has changed so much over the last few years, things in rural Texas like to stay the same. Progress is slow to happen and in a time of crisis, communication is often non existent because local officials in places like Burnet County often feel that in 1960 they did not have social media or legitimate digital media, and the question looms as to why they should have it or use it now?

It is easy to see why local officials are leery of using social and digital media. Late last year a county judge was caught in the crossfire of what many consider a racially motivated comment posted from his personal account on social media. Considering the backlash from that, it would be easy to see why social and digital media would be frowned upon. However, social and digital media could save lives and create stronger and better communities if it is used for total transparency and effective communication and not to opine on sensitive issues.

Numerous counties and cities have taken to Twitter where public information officers use like the police scanners of old newrooms. Public Information Officials who work directly with the news media and know exactly what editors and producers look for post only the most important and likely covered news stories as it happens. In Burnet County, press releases are often only sent out days after a major event, leaving media only to question the facts and creating an adverse situation.

In times of crisis, public information is key to saving lives and property. If anything, Harvey reinforced that notion to citizens, local media and public safety officials. But in many places where life slowly-ever slowly progresses, the truth remains that what you don't know can hurt you. While the destruction of Harvey is fresh in the minds of the public one question looms--are we ready to communicate?

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