Editorial: Good show, Islanders “” coordinated emergency management, not so much

Vineyarders were very well prepared for hurricane Earl, even though, in the deepest sense, he promised to be the worst sort of guest. The high state of readiness was owing to the practical, practiced, professionalism of police, fire, EMS, Red Cross, and other emergency personnel and first responders, on whom we know we can always depend. Also, it was owing to the great good sense of Islanders.

Despite it all, that Earl was a bluff is a blessing.

At the same time, good sense, sound judgment, coordination, and timely, useful information were all absent from the performance of most of the officials vested with responsibility for Island-wide emergency management.

As our reports this morning make clear, decisions as to driving bans, beach closures, business closures, even notices about established emergency shelters — many of which were not subject in any sense to decisions by local officials — were not coordinated between the county’s new, and promising, Code Red telephone alert system and the six town governments. Many of the town websites, and even the county site, were slow to post valuable information, slow to update the information, slow to post modifications, so confusing that visitors looking for information might not find it, and generally unhelpful. Edgartown’s site was the exception.

For instance, as we report this morning, late Tuesday, four days after the deflated Earl had passed unimpressively by, the Oak Bluffs website still warned of the approach of hurricane Earl and said Inkwell Beach was closed. There have been no updates regarding the 24-hour travel ban, put in place mostly at 2 pm Friday, albeit with differing language in various announcements. So that, whether it was a lawful official ban or a recommendation was uncertain when it was announced, and for all Oak Bluffs knew on Tuesday, it — whatever it was — was still in effect.

“I have received a number of angry emails from people complaining about the ‘road closure’ message that went out on Code Red on Thursday,” West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said in an email to The Times. “That message was the maiden voyage of the system, and technically it seems to have worked quite well — the message got out there. However, it was the wrong message, and that’s what’s disturbing.”

Disturbing indeed.

Allowing for the first time jitters for the Code Red system, it seems to have promise. It would have been perfect for the Oak Bluffs drinking water emergency or for the several surprising beach closings in August. But, its use must be judicious, specific, and focused on information as close to home as possible. After all, no Islander was unaware of the approach of the hurricane, of the possibility of a huge blow, or of the uncertainty of the hurricane’s track. Phoning everybody with generic stuff like this will drain value and galvanic force from the Code Red system, in the minds of its supposed beneficiaries.

Banning driving, when in many cases local officials had no legal authority for doing so, at 2 pm on a sunny Friday afternoon, with a storm of uncertain ferocity in the offing but, by all estimates, hours away, and when the Steamship Authority was delivering cars and drivers to the Vineyard for hours to come; and ordering businesses to close when Islanders needed or wanted to visit these businesses and could safely have done so — it’s all impulsive and short on sound judgment.

If there is to be Island-wide emergency management, it needs to be run and coordinated by leadership whose good sense, like that of our neighbors and friends, can be counted on to provide just the necessary, helpful, and timely information. Otherwise, Islanders will condescend, and ignore it.