Irene Review Sparks Information Center Concept

OCEAN CITY – Representatives of the business community, the town, and the state met on Tuesday afternoon to lay some concerns to rest related to the evacuation of Ocean City during Hurricane Irene.

“Ocean City did make the right decision based on the information that they had at the time,” Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director Richard Muth said. “The quality of leaders is the ability to make decisions that are sometimes not popular.”

Muth said there are several factors to take into consideration in making a decision to evacuate a city. For instance, the limited routes in having people exit the Eastern Shore.

“The Bay Bridge itself would shut down at 45 mph sustained winds and those are early tropical storm winds that are nowhere near hurricane force winds,” he said. “Those winds were actually here 24 hours before the storm even approached.”

The timing of an evacuation is critical and multiple evacuations at one time are avoided, such as how the low lying areas of Worcester and Queen Anne’s counties were being evacuated while Ocean City was faced with their own decision.

“Based on the forecast … it was a real threat to the coastline of Maryland, Ocean City specifically,” Muth said. “We did take it very serious.”

Another difficult decision that had to be made was if and when to evacuate foreign students. Muth said it is a 72-hour process and there were 3,500 students to be moved.

“If you did not do that, there would have been 3,500 students that the town of Ocean City had to decide what to do with since they had nowhere to go and no transportation,” he said.

Muth addressed the concern Ocean City business and property owners had in evacuating ahead of the curve and prior to more southern areas specifically.

“When we look at emergencies that are going to impact the State of Maryland, we do a lot of communication with our contiguous states and even some further out states but the decision at the end of the day is based on our own challenges and our own logistical and tactical needs that we have,” Muth said.  “The governor [Martin O’Malley] will be the first to tell you that if a decision has to be made its going to be made and not wait for somebody else to make it first, i.e. another state.”

Muth said other states followed in Maryland’s footsteps as to the decision to evacuate, and that there was communication with Delaware and Virginia in letting them know Maryland was on the move.

The Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA) met last week to discuss its concerns regarding the evacuation of Ocean City for Hurricane Irene and this week came before the Mayor and City Council to discuss those concerns.

“Unfortunately, the perception that got out into the public was that we were trying to do things behind closed doors, and that we were questioning your call of the evacuation,” OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones said on Tuesday afternoon. “That could not be any further from the truth.”

Jones said that the initial press release distributed commanding the evacuation of Ocean City was vague and led to confusion, and the Emergency Management phone number provided gave conflicting messages. She suggested a more collaborative and detailed evacuation plan in the future.

“The vagueness of the release caused many owners to call the emergency management phone number listed on the release.  … when our members called emergency management hotline, they were given conflicting messages as to the evacuation timeline,” Jones said. “Some were told get visitors out by midnight, others were told check out time on Friday was fine as long as everyone was out by 5 p.m. The release also stated that ‘all incoming traffic will be limited to emergency personnel, no other vehicles will be permitted entry to island, expect by approved authority.’ This left owners questioning how would they get employees in on Friday to help them board up.”

In response, Ocean City Communications Manager Donna Abbott recommended establishing a Joint Information Center (JIC) in moving forward.

“This would be when multiple organizations come together and implement a communications plan,” she said. “This would be anything that would be coordinated through this JIC … all public information be it to our citizens, our businesses, or the news media.”

Abbott asked that Ocean City’s stakeholders participate in JIC in order for everyone to come together to form a clearing house of information, especially to avoid rumors.

Training would be provided by the town to partners who are interested. Muth has indicated that the state would participate in that training to establish a JIC and run joint exercises.

“I think we should take Mr. Muth up on his offer and let’s do that and get everybody together,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.