090717 Hurricane Irma: Lesson from last storm has town expanding social media reach
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Pawleys police are regular Twitter users.

Hurricane Irma: Lesson from last storm has town expanding social media reach

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Along with checking the forecast and ordering a U-Haul to evacuate Town Hall, the Pawleys Island administrator brushed up on his social media skills this week as Hurricane Irma made its way across the Atlantic as a Category 5 storm.

“One thing we will do differently is the message we convey over social media,” Administrator Ryan Fabbri said. “If we have to close the causeways, we’re going to be crystal clear about the method of getting back on.”

The island was closed to residents and property owners for 36 hours after Hurricane Matthew passed over the Waccamaw Neck last October. Town officials wanted to give emergency workers time to clear hazards such as downed power lines and leaking propane tanks.

Whether Irma, which the National Weather Service expects to bring at least tropical storm conditions to the state early next week, or another storm, the town will improve its communications with owners and residents, Fabbri said. “We kind of got caught off guard last year. We underestimated the importance of that,” he said.

Calls to Town Hall about Hurricane Irma increased on Wednesday after Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency. Although the National Hurricane Center said there was still disagreement among forecasters about the track of the storm, the declaration initiates a coordinated response from state agencies.

In Georgetown County, the emergency operations center was not activated, but it began sharing Facebook posts with storm-related information.

One topic was sandbags. None were available yet through the county.

Pawleys Island Police also addressed the issue on Twitter, pointing out in a post that it is illegal to dig up sand from the beach to fill sandbags.

The police department Twitter account is the town’s oldest and most popular. There is also a Facebook account for the town, which repeats posts on Twitter, and an Instagram account. The posts also show up on the town’s website.

One lesson the town learned from Hurricane Matthew was that if it doesn’t provide information there are plenty of people who are willing to fill the void.

“The biggest issue is that rumors start to surface,” Fabbri said. “If hundreds of people are saying it, it becomes the truth.” Even if it isn’t true.

The first topic Georgetown County addressed in a Facebook interview with its emergency management director Sam Hodge, was when the Waccamaw River bridge will close. There is no official closing of the bridges, but it is a perennial question. On Pawleys Island, many of the requests the town got for information after Matthew were about specific houses. “People have to temper their expectations a little bit,” Fabbri said. “We were trying to get the town back up and running so people could come back in.”

The uncertain path of Irma creates an additional challenge, but the town learned from Matthew what kind of help it can expect from other agencies. Fabbri said that will make it easier for him to get information out to the public. “We’ll be more transparent about what’s going on and what the timeline’s going to be.”

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