“We were not prepared for Facebook.”
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said social media during Hurricane Matthew was both a benefit and a curse.
Tanner gave himself and his team a barely passing grade for being able to handle the after-effects of Facebook and other social media.
“I give the boots on the ground a B+ for doing the job they were doing,” Tanner said. “I give us as leaders at the sheriff’s office a D- for not having the insight and not being able to deal with social media. Social media killed us.”
Tanner was one of several local officials who spoke at the Sun City hurricane preparation conference last spring and returned for a storm wrap up hosted by the Forum Club.
“I know it’s a great communications tool with family and friends. We weren’t prepared at all. Do we use Facebook? Absolutely. Do we use all the social media tools outlets to us? We use everything we possibly can to communicate,” he said.
The sheriff’s office held press conferences whenever they had factual information, spoke on seven radio stations, and uploaded photos, videos and alerts on every available communications tool.
“What we weren’t prepared for is those who stayed behind in certain pockets,” he said. Those residents, including the Farm in Bluffton, were busy on Facebook, Tanner said, and they posted stories and photos, saying they had electricity, no debris, the sun was shining.
“All that Facebook stuff went out and everyone started sharing it and we had people who evacuated who were looking at all this ‘fake news’,” said Tanner. “They were thinking it’s great in the county and asking ‘What’s the roadblock situation? Why are they keeping us out? How come we can’t return?’ That was a very small speck of reality in the county.”
At 8:15 a.m. on Oct. 8, just hours after Matthew hit, Tanner was on the road on Hilton Head. He said that a normal 15-minute drive from the bridge to the Holiday Inn on the south end took an hour and a half in a four-wheel-drive truck, driving mostly on the wrong side of the road.
“We were hoping that this particular hurricane would treat us kind of like some in the past, where we had the inconvenience of moving out of the county and only having to stay an afternoon, maybe overnight,” he said. But that was not the case. “It was a battle zone.”
Tanner was appreciative of those who did stay behind despite the evacuation orders. On Hilton Head, residents begged him to not allow residents return too soon.
“The folks that lived in those communities were able to cut small paths through trees down major roads that were only passable by a single vehicle and you had to be very careful,” he said. “They said if people come back and they get into this particular area where the path was cut out only to a certain point, there would be a domino effect and people would be stranded.”
Interstate 95 in Jasper County remained open and people used it during the hurricane, said Russell Wells, Jasper County emergency management deputy administrator.
“At the height of the storm, we had six high-risk rescues that we had to make that exposed our personnel above what we planned to do because people claimed that they had no knowledge that there was a hurricane,” Wells said. “They drove around trees that were on the interstate and then drove into a flooded interstate.”
He also pointed out that during the evacuation period, the closest available hospital was in Orangeburg, more than 110 miles and two hours away.
“Hilton Head, Beaufort, Coastal Carolina – all shut down. The closest was Hampton and we quickly overwhelmed Hampton and then Colleton,” said Wells. “When you have to transport a patient from Beaufort or Jasper County to Orangeburg, that strips your resources. Think about how long it takes you to get to Orangeburg.”
WTOC Chief Meteorologist John Wetherbee emceed the forum and spoke about how hard local officials worked to make sure everyone knew about the dangers of a hurricane. Despite the flow of information, he said, some people didn’t get the word.
“A hurricane will happen again. It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ Wetherbee said. “Those of us who remember Hugo in ’89, Floyd in ’99, David in ’79 – in some cases it was just a glancing blow and in others total devastation.”
It didn’t take total devastation to make it difficult if not impossible for people to return to the county. Local municipalities wanted to allow their residents to return home.
“Things may be OK on Fifth Street in Bluffton or Seventh Street in Port Royal. There may not be any flooding, power lines down, tree issues. The mayor says we’d like to have our citizens come home,” Tanner said. “Well, we’ve got to get you there. In order to do that, we’ve got to move you through roads within the county that aren’t passable. If we can’t move you from point A to point B, being the municipality, then don’t be telling people you’re welcome to come home.”
Tanner emphasized how fortunate Beaufort County actually was.
“We went through a horrific storm at a very weak Category 2. You’ve seen pictures of Lady’s Island, Hilton Head, Fripp. You understand that if this had been a Category 3 or stronger that came through Beaufort County we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said the sheriff. “There would be a lot of Beaufort County that would not be here.
“All of our public information officers are working in concert with each other to make sure we are not delivering fake news, and there was a lot of fake news,” Tanner said. “We’re going to make it better. My motto is if it’s not broken, you’re not looking hard enough. Everything’s broken and what we can do, what we do best, is do better tomorrow than what we do today.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.