In Earl’s aftermath, a storm of controversy

Hurricane Earl, downgraded to a tropical storm Friday night, passed east of Nantucket and into the North Atlantic. Although Earl caused no damage on Martha’s Vineyard, he left a storm of controversy and confusion in his wake.

Beginning Thursday and continuing through Friday, Island residents received mixed messages from public announcements and on town websites.

West Tisbury issued a travel advisory. Tisbury referenced a “suggested driving ban for 24 hours.” Edgartown requested that non-emergency vehicles stay off the road. And Oak Bluffs declared most roads would be closed. Aquinnah and Chilmark announced no restrictions.

A county-wide public announcement pronounced that all roads and businesses should close at 2 pm and remain closed for 24 hours after the storm.

In Edgartown, businesses were advised to close at 2 pm. That request was later pushed ahead to 8 pm. In Oak Bluffs businesses were told to close at 2 pm, an order enforced by police acting at the direction of selectmen and the town’s emergency management director.

In the hours leading up to Earl’s expected arrival, Island public safety officials referred to the authority vested in them by the declaration of a state of emergency as the legal basis for some of these restrictions. They did not completely understand what authority such a declaration provides.

And when the direction and the potency of the storm changed, there was little or no coordination among the towns.

Early decisions

The first reference to road and business closures surfaced on Wednesday afternoon when Oak Bluffs’ emergency management director Peter Martell met with town officials, including selectmen and police. Mr. Martell, owner of the Wesley House Hotel, was adamant about the need to close roads and businesses.

“We’re going to order the roads and businesses closed,” Mr. Martell told The Times following the briefing. “The only enforcement, unfortunately, is we’ve got to arrest people. Who’s got time? Hopefully 95 percent of the Island will believe us and stay off the roads.”

At 11 am Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for the coast of Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The warning was a significant escalation from the hurricane watch issued 18 hours earlier.

About one hour later, all town emergency management directors assembled at the Dukes County administration building near the airport. Also at the meeting were several Island selectmen, police officers, and shelters organizers.

The meeting included a briefing by National Weather Service forecaster Bob Thompson. He said he was growing more confident of the forecast storm track as the storm advanced toward New England. While noting the storm was beginning to weaken as expected, he warned that Earl continued to be a powerful storm and said everyone should be prepared for hurricane force winds.

Following that briefing, the town directors agreed to open shelters at noon on Friday in a coordinated effort to avoid a wave of people traveling to the first shelter that opened.

To close or not

Early in the discussion Thursday, there was no general agreement on when each town would declare a local state of emergency. Tisbury emergency management director Richard Townes said Tisbury had already made the decision to declare a state of emergency at 2 pm Thursday. Mr. Martell said Oak Bluffs planned to declare it at 4 pm.

The language of the message that would be sent using the new Code Red telephone alert system was also a point of discussion. A draft Code Red message circulated by Mr. Martell said that roads and businesses would be closed at noon, Friday.

Not all directors agreed with the language, in part because they questioned the authority of the towns to impose a driving ban and order businesses to close.

Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said his town would only advise drivers to stay off the roads. John Christensen of West Tisbury said, rather than say roads were closed, the message should say roads may be impassable.

Ultimately, they agreed on a message announcing all roads and businesses should be closed at 2 pm.

The authority to issue that declaration was also a topic of discussion.

“We don’t have the authority to do it, except possibly in a state of emergency, but that’s always up in the air, the legality of it,” Mr. Carroll said.

Mr. Martell said each town has to make its own decisions.

“I’m closing roads,” Mr. Martell said. “I’ve got no choice. All roads and businesses will be ordered to close Friday at noon.”

“You’re going to close roads at noon, but then shelters are open at noon?” Dukes County communications center director Maj. Susan Schofield said. “That’s going to confuse people.”

“I thought we weren’t really allowed to close roads unless there is a declared state of emergency,” Mr. Carroll said.

“We’re lying,” Mr. Martell said.

By consensus, the directors agreed to send one Code Red message out county-wide, and then individual towns would send out their own messages, as they felt necessary, after that. Maj. Schofield read the message draft and then made some changes suggested by various directors. There was general agreement among the directors on the text of the message.

The Code Red message that went out Island-wide at 3:45 pm Thursday said “All roads and businesses should close at 2 pm on Friday and remain closed for 24 hours after the storm.”

Emergency management directors did not meet again as a group, after their Thursday afternoon briefing.

Limited authority

An examination of relevant state laws by The Times finds that a declaration of a local state of emergency is a financial mechanism, that allows towns to make emergency purchases without going through the time-consuming normal business procedures of bidding and procurement. It also allows them to seek reimbursement for emergency expenses from state and federal governments.

The authority to declare a local state of emergency rests with the chairman of the local board of selectmen, with advice from the emergency management director. A local state of emergency carries no authority for town government to close roads or businesses. That authority rests with the governor, according to state law.

In conversations with The Times, police officials in several Island towns said it was their understanding they did not have the authority to enforce road closures, and several said they never intended to order people off the roads.

“I, as police chief, was not going to tell anybody to get off the road at 2 pm, until I’d been handed an order by the governor,” Chilmark chief Brian Cioffi told selectmen during a review of the town’s emergency response Tuesday night. He said he was out with his own family during the afternoon. “At no point was I in fear that my family was in jeopardy.”

In Edgartown, police viewed the road announcement as an advisory. As it became apparent the storm was not as strong as first forecast, a Code Red message sent only to Edgartown residents said that the travel advisory would not go into effect until 8 pm.

“We felt comfortable changing the advisory to 8 pm,” Edgartown chief Tony Bettencourt said. “All Edgartown businesses closed by 8 pm on their own, and traffic was minimal. Had we got the brunt of the storm, thanks to town businesses and residents, I think it would have made our jobs much easier.”

Money storm

The county announcement of a business and road closure played out differently across the Island. In some cases, the decision to close a business was made voluntarily.

Jim Cleary, general manager of the Harborview Hotel and Kelley House in Edgartown, said that based on weather predictions at the time, the company made the decision Thursday afternoon to evacuate both properties for Friday night. “That was done for the safety and security of our guests, as well as our associates,” Mr. Cleary told The Times.

Because most guests departed by Friday, only four people took advantage of the shelter at the Edgartown School.

Following Edgartown’s decision to push back the voluntary closure from 2 pm to 8 pm, the Wharf Pub in Edgartown did a brisk business until 7 pm when the restaurant closed. The Stop and Shop also remained opened until about 8 pm. Cumberland Farms in Tisbury was open at 9:30 pm.

Among the Island towns, Oak Bluffs businesses bore the brunt of the economic hit associated with the declaration of road and business closures, on the first day of the long end-of-summer holiday weekend.

“We took an enormous hit,” Offshore Ale owner Phil McAndrews said. “We pretty much lost the day, and had to get everything in storage. I’ll tell you right now we’re down $10,000 from that day. That’s a hard number to make up. It was such an enormous reaction for something that was still in question. What was predicted 72 hours before the event is pretty much what happened.”

Businessman Mark Wallace, who owns Jim’s Package Store, a gas station, auto rental business, and the Ocean Club restaurant, said police came to the package store and told employees to close.

“It was real clear, there wasn’t any gray area,” Mr. Wallace said. “People weren’t getting tickets for driving on the roads, but businesses were closed. It was real clear that wasn’t necessary, but they couldn’t get out of their own way to deal with that. If they could send out those automatic phone calls, why didn’t they do it closer to the time, or call it off?”

In the end, Mr. Wallace said he was happy the storm didn’t hit the Island. “I’m just happy we were able to open for business the next day.”

Oak Bluffs police made the rounds of local businesses and told employees they had to close. “We told people if they don’t shut down, you’re going to be in front of the board of selectmen answering why you didn’t shut down,” Lt. Tim Williamson said. He said police followed the directions set by the chairman of the board of selectmen and the emergency management director.

Duncan Ross, chairman of the selectmen, spent much of the afternoon at the Oak Bluffs fire station, where the command center had been established. When he heard that the Lookout Restaurant and Deon’s did not shut down at 2 pm, he took action. “We sent the police down, the police came back and said they were having difficulty getting the message across. The sergeant requested I go down, so I did, and they closed their doors. I don’t really blame people that were still open, they were confused.”

Mr. Ross said it was his understanding that a local declaration of emergency gave him the authority, as the chief executive officer of the town, to order roads and businesses closed.

Mike Santoro, co-owner of the Lookout restaurant, said he never defied the order but was a victim of the confusion. Mr. Santoro told The Times that he never received the Code Red message or any message referring to a 2 pm closure until he learned that Edgartown had moved the time back to 8 pm. “I just assumed it was the same in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Santoro said.

When a police officer arrived at his busy restaurant, he stopped letting people in, closed the kitchen, and made plans to close, he said. “We had a good crowd, I mean people wanted to eat,” he said.

A short time later, a police officer returned and told Mr. Santoro everyone had to leave. He packed diner’s food in “to go” boxes and closed. “At that point I didn’t question it at all,” Mr. Santoro said. “It was what it was.”

Lessons learned

Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton said in the future he would advocate a more regional approach to Code Red messages.

“The same storm that hits Edgartown is going to hit us,” Mr. Dutton said. “In these situations, where it’s an Island-wide event, it’s got to be an Island-wide approach. The Code Red messages did confuse people. We can deconstruct that and make it better. Ultimately the Island was very well prepared; certainly I saw our town was very well prepared.”

Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner was critical of the Island-wide Code Red message and the road and business closure announcements. “Even on Nantucket, which was closer to the storm, they didn’t close roads, they didn’t go overboard,” Mr. Fenner said during Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting. “I kind of feel making a decision 24 to 36 hours before a hurricane to close the roads and stick to it, I think that’s wrong.”

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Martell said disaster preparation decisions were made by consensus of all emergency management directors, with the best available information at the time. He said he expected to be second-guessed. “A lot of people who are complaining weren’t there in hurricane Bob,” Mr. Martell said. “My biggest problem is some of these critics have never seen a hurricane. I have. They’ve got to realize they’re very, very dangerous.”