In 1997, the most severe flood Fargo, N.D., residents had ever experienced inundated three miles of farmland along the Red River, and Public Works Director of Operations Dennis Walaker was feeling the heat.
Although sandbags would ultimately save much of the city from the record crest of 39.5 feet, rumors were circulating that the 15-mgd wastewater treatment plant had exceeded capacity and that the city's water was contaminated. Walaker also faced sharp criticism from his employees, who complained about learning of the city's flood response from the local media.
Though the plant was running at capacity and an illegal discharge wasn't imminent, Walaker scrambled to separate truth from rumor during press conferences.
Seven years later and more than 900 miles to the southeast, Louisville, Ky., Public Works Director Jim Adkins found himself in a similar position when a winter storm dumped 18 inches of snow and freezing rain in 24 hours. “The storm of the century” was one of the worst emergencies the city of 539,000 had experienced.
About 170 vehicles were deployed to priority and secondary routes, dropping 13,000 tons of salt on 2,300 miles of roads around the clock. Still, the media became critical. Reporters commented on air about their own streets not being plowed and that city trucks were nowhere to be found. For five days, Adkins' efforts to oversee his department's response were interrupted by media calls. At one point he conducted 35 interviews in 12 hours.
After the storm, the department revised its communications plan for weather-related events. Now, e-mail alerts are sent to local media four times daily — before each major television newscast — highlighting the progress of response efforts.
“It transforms coverage,” says Allison Martin, a former television reporter who was hired as deputy communications director to coordinate messaging during future events. “The media calls dry up.”
SAME MESSAGE, DIFFERENT AVENUES
It's all about being proactive and communicating preparations before severe weather hits. Also, communicating directly to the media isn't the only way to manage the message.
A devastating wind storm from Hurricane Ike knocked out power to 300,000 Louisville residents for up to two weeks last September. In its wake, the city's Public Works' Planning Division created a layer for the city's GIS map that divides the city's 386 square miles into 76 equally sized sections. As soon as crews reported an area of the grid was clear of downed trees and other debris, the division updated the map, which residents can access on the city's Web site.
So when an ice storm hit four months later, the department was prepared to deal with inquiries about its cleanup efforts. More than 200 public works and private contractor employees worked 12 hours a day for up to seven consecutive days to open a dozen roads. Even so, the city's 311 call center fielded up to 60 complaints daily.
Ordinarily, the complaints would have caught the attention of local media, which in turn would have taken advantage of the “gotcha” moment in their coverage. “It's hard to explain to 700,000 people at the same time that you're doing everything you can,” says Kerri Richardson, another former television reporter who replaced Martin last year. But this time, operators referred residents and journalists to the online map.
At least one member of the media used it to generate articles about the city's recovery process.
“It drilled a couple stories about where the effort was at, especially after it became clear that there was no way the cleanup was going to be done by the Kentucky Derby on May 2,” says Dan Klepal, metro government reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal.
His stories triggered an online debate among readers about who was ultimately responsible for cleaning up: the city or residents. Public works crews were confronted with greater-than-anticipated volumes when residents began hauling debris from their yards to the curb, extending the deadline for cleanup well beyond initial estimates of a month or two. The last of the debris was hauled away at the end of May.