After weeks of denying access to routine briefings at the state Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Irma, state emergency managers said Friday that they would return to the practice employed by previous governors and allow the media to listen to the briefings as the state prepares and recovers from Tropical Storm Nate.
Nate is forecast to become a hurricane before making landfall along the northern Gulf Coast late Saturday or early Sunday.
“We’ve taken the confidential information out of the briefings and tested the audio and it all should be working,” McKinley Lewis, spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott told the Herald/Times.
Reporters had spent hours in the state emergency operations center before, during and after Hurricane Irma but were not allowed to hear the updates from subject matter experts as they reported progress on preparation, distribution of supplies, road conditions, shelters, flooding and road closures. Instead, the governor’s office cited “security concerns” and insisted that all information be routed through them. The governor became the lone voice in speaking for state officials.
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The result were delays in answers to questions such as: How many search and rescue operations had been conducted by state teams? Which roads are closed or blocked due to flooding? Which evacuation routes are facing fuel shortages? Which assisted living facilities were evacuated because of no generators?
Previous administrations — both Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist — routinely opened the 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. hurricane briefings to the media. Last year, Scott’s staff offered media access to a couple of similar briefings after Hurricane Matthew but refused to this year.
Former DEM Secretary Bryan Koon deferred to his “public information officers,” who were getting orders from the governor’s office, when asked why he didn’t open the meetings. Lewis said the change in position by the governor’s office should be attributed to the newly appointed interim director and former DEM chief of staff, Wes Maul.
Despite the obstacles, reporters pressing their ears to the glass, were able to discern details that the governor’s office took hours to announce. One example: The state spent 18 hours warning that I-75 might have to be closed as drivers streamed back into the state after Hurricane Irma because rising waters of the Sante Fe River risked compromising an I-75 bridge. Overnight, the river crested and state highway officials concluded the interstate would not have to close.
Rather than announce that to the public, however, and potentially informing drivers that were faced with re-routing their travel, they created a slide, added it to a Powerpoint presentation and it at the 8:30 a.m. briefing to emergency managers. Because a Herald/Times reporter had her ear to the glass, she heard it and reported it.
At the annual meeting of the Florida Capital Press Club on Sept. 25, members voted to request a meeting with Scott’s press secretary and chief of staff to urge them to revise the policy. After Tia Mitchell, press club president and reporter for the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, wrote them Friday formally seeking the meeting, the governor’s office announced the change in policy.
“I think this will be easier for everyone,” said Alberto Moscoso, communications director for the Division of Emergency Management.