Story by Maj. Jamie Delk
In late September 2015, Hurricane Joaquin was churning in the Atlantic, far off the coast of South Carolina. On September 30th, while this hurricane was still in the Bahamas, weather forecasters in the Carolinas were meeting to discuss a weather system that was projected to drop unprecedented amounts of rain that could worsen if the hurricane moved north. To ensure the first responders and citizens were ready, S.C. Governor Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency on October 1, 2015 and directed citizens to get ready.
Communicating effectively during an emergency is one of the most important elements of a disaster response. The South Carolina National Guard public affairs office exercised crisis communications from the onset of the flood response to the last day S.C. National Guard resources were needed, over 30 days later, working with media representatives and posting images and information on a variety of social media platforms. In July 2016, they were presented with a plaque from the National Guard Bureau, having placed first in the 2015 Media Contest for Outstanding Communications Campaign for their efforts.
“The public affairs team actively engaged posting as soon as the Governor declared a state of emergency, sharing preparation information and weather warnings from the S.C. Emergency Management Division,” said Lt. Col. Cindi King, director of public affairs, S.C. National Guard. “We work and train closely with our partnered public information officers.”
“It’s vital for all organizations to be sharing the same messages,” said Derrec Becker, public information director, S.C. Emergency Management Division. “Information about evacuations, road closures, and other lifesaving information is critical during a disaster.”
According to King, in today’s information environment with so many platforms in place, the role of public affairs is vital to keep messaging consistent and constant.
“We must be accessible. We work for the people and we work for the governor,” said King. “Real-time updates on social media is one of the easiest way to maintain continuous flow of information to the public and media, maintain transparency, and provides a mechanism for citizens to provide feedback or ask questions.”
King said the public was using social media to let first responders know what they needed and shared their own images and information about conditions and significant events when the flood waters began impacting state-wide. The S.C. National Guard had public affairs Soldiers and Airmen throughout the response, in the air on helicopters, on high water vehicles in flooded communities, and on river boats during evacuations, sharing video and images with media that they otherwise might not be able to get.
“We integrated public affairs into the Joint Operations Center,” said Capt. Michelle Roberts, intelligence operations, S.C. National Guard. “They sat right in front of us so we could easily reach out and back and forth and know when infrastructure was being affected or if citizens were sharing information that no one was tracking yet, as well as get images from the Guard’s current operations.”
King said social media is the voice of the public and with so many organizations working together during a major crisis, things can get complicated quickly. Being able to share information with other sections in the JOC, such as the intelligence operations, and SCEMD, assisted them greatly in providing leadership awareness of what was happening in the communities and the true impacts of the flood.
“Public affairs captures the vibe of the community,” said Roberts. “They can tell you what is going on in the community. We’re busy monitoring intel – they were able to tell us what is happening.”
King said her team was honored to receive the recognition during the National Guard Bureau Media Contest, and grateful they were able to make a difference in supporting their hometowns during the flood. She added this major event and response validated the importance of their training and mission in public affairs.
“My parents who are both handicapped live right in the worst parts of the flood waters and close to one of the dams that failed in Forest Acres,” said King. “When I talked to my Mom and she said they were getting updates constantly on the T.V. and radio, and even were checked on by their local police, I knew the systems were working.”
“I depend on our public affairs to keep that constant connection to our citizens and our communities,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, Jr., the adjutant general for South Carolina. “Never was that more important than during the flooding last October. A key to the success of the response efforts was the messaging. From the Governor down to our citizens, getting warnings and lifesaving information out quickly and correctly made a big difference in evacuation and keeping so many citizens off the roads and safe,”
“We depend on radio and television to get information out, and now we message, tweet, post, Instagram, and Snapchat to interact using the information,” said King. “It’s a new generation.”