July 9, 2014

Hyde commissioners say voluntary
evacuation maybe wasn't the best action


The Hyde County Commissioners Monday night noted that their decision to order a voluntary evacuation for Hurricane Arthur on July 4 might not have been the best action.

“We need to look into the protocol,” noted Barry Swindell, board chairman, toward the end of the two-hour meeting. “We need to include the Ocracoke Control Group. Some things didn’t exactly go the way we thought.”

Prior to Arthur’s arrival, the commissioners met on July 2 in an unadvertised meeting, declared a state-of-emergency with no restrictions, and issued a voluntary evacuation of the island around noon.  According to the minutes of that meeting posted on Hyde County’s website, a telephone conference call was held among the commissioners, the county manager, the county clerk, the emergency services manager and the public information officer.

While a number of visitors took the opportunity to leave, many stayed and experienced a major storm with total loss of power from 12:30 Friday morning until Saturday night, July 5, when, after a marathon of replacing or fixing more than 40 damaged electric poles, the power came back on.

The Ocracoke Deputy Control Group didn't meet for the first time until Thursday morning, July 3, when Arthur was due to arrive that night and began scrambling to prepare in case the island lost power, was flooded, or had compromised ferry service. 

The Control Group consists of about a dozen local business owners and emergency services people. 

 “There were some decisions made, and there were some good decisions, but as time went on turned out not to be so good,” noted Commissioner Earl Pugh Jr.  “We need to get more people involved earlier. It was the board’s decision (to do a voluntary evacuation). We can learn and make better decisions.”

County Manager Bill Rich said he and Justin Gibbs, the Emergency Services director, will review the procedure and the voluntary evacuation concept in general and then will go back to the Ocracoke Control Group.

“Mandatory evacuation or nothing seems the best to me,” Rich said.  “The people over there (on Ocracoke) worked well with Tideland, the DOT and the ferry division.”

Darlene Styron Doshier, a former county commissioner, noted in the public comment period that the control group has been in place for several years. 

While she was commissioner (in 2011 and 2012), she said in an interview after the meeting, Ocracoke further refined a plan already in place to deal with hurricanes.

“We had been using it and the plan was recognized for excellence at a state emergency management conference in Charlotte a few years ago,” Stryon said.

During the public comment period, Bob Oaks, owner of Ocracoke Island Realty, echoed the sentiments of many on the island that when major storms are headed this way, mandatory evacuation is best.

“If you’re going to evacuate people, make it mandatory,” Oaks said. “Ocracoke in a hurricane is not for visitors.  Storms are unpredictable.”

Visitors don’t know the effects of tropical storms and their aftermaths, he said, and mandatory evacuation allows travelers and businesses to get their money back from insurance companies.

In the commissioners’ defense, Nathan Spencer, owner of Coastal Gas and a member of the Control Group, said in an interview that the commissioners had made the decision when Arthur was still a tropical storm and farther off the coast and supposed to skirt us.

“On Thursday, it was too late to do a mandatory evacuation,” he said.

However, on Wednesday, Dare County ordered a mandatory evacuation.  Many on Ocracoke remarked that this was the first time they could recall that Ocracoke’s evacuation order differed from Dare’s.

John Fletcher, the commissioner representing Ocracoke, noted in Monday night’s meeting that on Saturday, after the state emergency response team arrived on the island, the press was banned from the Control Group meetings and information was issued afterward via press releases.

Charles Tripp, the Area 2 coordinator of the North Carolina Emergency Task Force, had said Friday that none of these control groups across the state allow the press in their meetings and that state protocol is that all information from these meetings needs to go through a public information officer so that the public receives the same message.

“I was of the opinion that the meeting should be open,” Fletcher said.  The commissioners asked the county attorney to look into it.

In other action, the board approved 3 to 2 Fletcher’s recommendation to replace long-serving members Wayne Clark and Martha Garrish on the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board. Fletcher presented a plan for members of that board to serve three-year terms.  The new appointees are Marlene Gaskill Matthews and David Styron, who is a former county commissioner. Continuing on the board will be Trudy Austin, Frank Brown and Clayton Gaskill.

“The ones being removed were not asked to re-up,” Fletcher explained. “We asked  the Tax Board to reconsider the health center’s request and they said they weren’t going to consider the health center request.”

In the first public comment period, Garrish said that her removal from the board had to do with the Ocracoke Health Center's not having received its operating funding request of $89,000 from the Tax Board.

In May, the Tax Board declined the health center’s funding request and voted to give more money to the Hyde County EMS to provide more in the way of around-the-clock emergency care.

“This year they (the Health Center) changed their course and said they are out of the after-hours emergency care business and that’s what we had given them money for in the past,” Garrish said. “It wasn’t just me and Wayne. We voted to give the money to after-hours, 24/7 care.”

In the later public comment period, Garrish noted that the person “taking her place (Matthews) as well as her husband,” are past members of the Ocracoke Health Center board of directors. (Editor's note: While Garrish said in the meeting that Marlene Garrish Matthews was a past health center board member, the Island Free Press has learned that she was not. See comment by Randal Matthews below.)

For a number of years, the Tax Board granted the health center money to pay for after-hours care, though life-threatening emergencies always go to EMS. Cheryl Ballance, CEO of the health center, had explained at some public meetings on the island that while the health center may have provided after-hours care for minor complaints, they were never the end-point for true emergencies. They cannot afford to have health providers on call for after-hours service without a Tax Board grant.

Ballance, who attended the Monday night meeting, countered that since the health center is now a federally-qualified health center, it cannot provide emergency services.

“There’s a difference between urgent and emergencies,” she said. “It’s not in our federal plan to provide  emergency services.”

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