Floridians aren’t just facing a traffic bottleneck as they attempt to return home after mandatory evacuations from the storm, they are also craving information as Gov. Rick Scott’s office tightly controls the flow of developments and delays the release of bad news.
How many search and rescue operations had been conducted by state teams? Which roads are closed or blocked due to flooding? Which gas stations received a state highway patrol escort to receive gas? Which evacuation routes are facing fuel shortages? Which assisted living facilities were evacuated because of no generators?
State officials acknowledged Monday that they track this data, but they wouldn’t make it available to the public.
State officials sent search and rescue teams in the Keys and Marco Island, and made 22 Fish and Wildlife first responders available to help assist with evacuation efforts in Jacksonville as it faces historic flooding. So where are the rescues, and how many have occurred?
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“You’ll have to ask local officials,” said Alberto Moscoco, public information director for the Department of Emergency Management. It is an answer used frequently by the governor’s team of communications managers.
For the past week, Scott has been the state’s omnipresent face before the cameras on storm preparation. His emergency operations team, working with many veteran emergency officials at the local level, escorted the state through an orderly and massive evacuation, pivoting quickly as the storm shifted to open shelters and order evacuations.
Through it all, Scott’s office kept careful control of basic information, tamped down attempts at flushing out reports about trouble spots, and pushed out the positive messages, relying mostly on Twitter and Facebook streams at a time when millions of Floridians don’t have electricity and may not have reliable access to the Internet.
His communications team blocked reporters from listening in to the twice-daily briefings in which emergency operations officials provide routine data about preparation, response, unmet needs and troubleshooting strategies. They excluded basic details from the twice-a-day reports distributed to the media about roads, evacuation routes, fuel shortages and elderly people stranded in harm’s way.
Since the governor took office in 2011, he has treated the media as an obstacle not a resource, restricting access to information to a very small circle of spokespeople as they and he rely primarily on scripted talking points. But in a statewide emergency, does this tight control over information matter?
Last week, the governor waited more than 12 hours to notify the public that driving on the shoulder was allowed on a stretch of I-75 clogged by people fleeing the storm. Scott said he didn’t need to announce it because “drivers knew.” After I-10 and I-95 were blocked because of flooding on Monday, state officials did not include this information in their reports and instead directed drivers to the FL511.com web site.
Kevin Bohacz, a Lake Worth resident who evacuated to North Carolina and is hoping to return home, wrote to the Miami Herald on Tuesday seeking information he could not get elsewhere. He expects the trip could take days but worries that “there is no reliable information about power outages along the way.”
Why isn’t there a clearinghouse for the “jigsaw puzzle “ of curfews?” he asked. He said he can’t find reliable information about closed highways and exits.
“What about water quality? What about flooded roadways? What about fuel?” Bohacz asked. “There should be a clearinghouse for all this emergency information and more. A couple of college kids powered by Red Bull could knock something together in few days if they were given access to the raw data. Why can’t our governments do better? What can’t our utilities do better?”
Previous administrations — both Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist — routinely opened the same hurricane briefings to the media. Last year, Scott’s staff offered media access to a couple of similar briefings after Hurricane Matthew.
This past week, reporters were forced to press their ears up to the window from the EOC’s media room, to try to get the information.
Scott said last week he was “working closely with Google” to update its web site on road closures, but the Florida Department of Transportation refers reporters to FL511.com, which until the Herald/Times pointed it out, did not include a list of road closures. Instead, state officials ask the public to contact local government or sort through multiple incident reports to see if the state road they want to use is closed.
“The locals are going to have the most granular information about what roads are open,” said Beth Frady, a spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol. The FDOT web site was updated to include the road closures on Tuesday.
The state coordinates search and rescue efforts with both local and federal officials and tracks the rescues, said Nick Wiley, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Commission. But the governor’s office refused to release it to the public when asked Monday and Tuesday.
By contrast, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry held a press conference with reporters early Tuesday and announced that 356 people were rescued on Monday. “And it was a sight to be seen,” he said.
Bush and Crist were frequently accompanied at news conferences by other Cabinet officials and they allowed their Department of Emergency Management directors to brief the media and do television interviews. Scott, who is expected to be a candidate for U.S. Senate next year, has been almost exclusively the person in front of the cameras.
When a reporter asked Bryan Koon, director of the Department of Emergency Management, how the storm’s shift west on Friday had changed the state’s preparations, he smiled.
He might have to “get the PIO [public information officer] to tell me if I can answer them or not,” Koon said, and then he asked what the governor had answered to a similar question.
According to PowerPoint presentations shared with the media as part of the twice-daily briefing, the governor’s communications team is charged with media monitoring and rumor control.
Scott’s communications director, John Tupps, said the briefings were not open this year because they may contain “detailed movements of military units or tactical law enforcement lifesaving efforts.”
“However, this information is immediately released once it is ready to be made available,” he said. “This is standard practice — and our goal is to ensure that our military can share this information with county officials directly.”
When asked, Tupps would not clarify how much of the information is “movements of military units or tactical law enforcement lifesaving efforts.” He also would not provide other data: availability of fuel supplies, road conditions, travel routes and recommendations regarding evacuations.
“In times of natural emergencies such as this, the media plays a critical and vital role in keeping the public informed,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an advocacy group to which the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times belong. “During past administrations, the Florida media was allowed real-time access to emergency updates and briefings. Inexplicably, the Scott administration has suppressed media access to key information as Hurricane Irma poses a serious and very dangerous threat to the state.
“This change in policy is not only incomprehensible, it’s unconscionable.”
Craig Fugate, who served as the head of Florida’s emergency management under Bush and Crist and was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Barack Obama, said using the media to help provide broad public access to timely information is essential to disaster preparation and recovery.
“Disasters are not kind to governors, and you don’t get a do-over,” Fugate told the Florida Channel last week. “It’s really about having a two-way conversation with the public and, more importantly, we need to communicate with the way people get their information. Some people will get it from print, some from traditional news, television and radio, but a lot of people are getting it from streaming and social media.
“So you cannot dictate to people who are only going to use a few things and you can’t say social media is going to reach everybody.”