Flooding and ruined roads still plague Wayne County after Hurricane Florence, and now this past week with Tropical Storm Michael. Many people still need assistance, and we continue to follow cleanup efforts, property repair and aid getting to those the storm affected.
During Florence, Wayne County government officials opened a few shelters to residents displaced from their homes. We understand the shelters operated well and would like to congratulate the county for its program.
However, we can’t.
The only way we know the program’s outcome is because county officials told us so. The press was not allowed into the shelters. The News-Argus made many requests to get inside to report — firsthand — on the conditions of the shelters. But the county rejected each one of the newspaper’s requests for access.
Carol Bowden, the county’s public affairs director and clerk of the county board of commissioners, was the one who appeared responsible for keeping the press out of the shelters. However, it is her superiors — County Manager Craig Honeycutt, for example — who likely authorized her to make those decisions. This seems plausible as several decision makers in county government, who reporters speak with day in and out and who do not work for Bowden, deferred comment during the storm and its aftermath to her. We hope such a decision would have come from higher up.
The county denied the newspaper’s requests.
The News-Argus emailed Bowden directly on Sept. 17, and asked by what authority she and others were keeping reporters from entering the shelters.
She returned the email about 20 minutes later saying, “This is the official response from Office of Emergency Services Director Mel Powers, Jr., County Manager Craig Honeycutt, and Department of Social Services Director Tammy Schrenker: We are working diligently to protect the citizens of Wayne County through this storm and have their public safety and health as our top priority.
“As such, we have not allowed any media inside the shelters due to the State of Emergency we currently are, and have been under since before the storm began. Before the storm, we notified all media to contact our Public Affairs department for all information and to utilize our Joint Information Center. This is compliant with the national incident management system. All media, with the exception of The News-Argus, agreed and has complied. We want to work with your organization, as we would hope your number one concern is to protect the health and public safety of our community as well.”
Of course, the News-Argus’ top concern is the protection of public health and safety, especially during any crisis, such as a hurricane. We do this by taking a watchdog approach to reporting on government. Without access to the shelters, we could not provide accurate reporting. We were dependent entirely on the government reporting on itself, and we are unable to ensure that county government was living up to its charge of being good stewards of public tax dollars.
Keeping an eye on government is the News-Argus’ primary responsibility, as it is with most other news agencies. This is why we find it alarming if Bowden’s claim is accurate that “all media, with the exception of The News-Argus, agreed and has complied” with the county not providing access to the shelters.
In fact, the county’s action to keep news media out of the shelters ran the gamut from questionable to an egregious violation of the public trust.
For instance, many news organizations up and down the East Coast, and west to Charlotte and Spartanburg, South Carolina, had access to emergency shelters. Why not in Wayne County?
As to the U.S. Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System, or NIMS, as cited in Bowden’s email response, the federal government designed it as a series of recommendations on handling emergency operations. But, as Bowden’s email read, the county’s actions were “compliant” with the national incident management system. In that use, compliant means meeting federal legislation or regulations. However, NIMS is not a law but “simply provides the framework to enhance the ability of responders, including the private sector and NGOs (non-profits and volunteer groups not associated with the government), to work together more effectively.” That’s how Homeland Security defines it.
So, did Homeland Security offer a directive to keep the press out of the shelters? We do not believe it did. But it is true that the News-Argus did not comply with the county. We kept asking questions and challenging for access to the shelters. The newspaper never will abide by any arbitrary rule that prevents us from performing our watchdog duties, especially if those rules are not founded in county ordinances, or state and federal law.
We hope that when the next emergency strikes, Wayne County officials will have rethought their position and will allow better access to shelters and other information essential to the public’s health and safety.