Preparedness

'Mea Culpa': Mat-Su Borough in Alaska Faces Criticism of Post-Quake Public Information

Responding Sunday on Facebook to criticism about the relative lack of information, Mayor Vern Halter described “a total breakdown from the standpoint of public relations and information sharing from the Borough.”

by Zaz Hollander, Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage / December 4, 2018
This aerial photo shows damage on Vine Road, south of Wasilla, Alaska, after earthquakes Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. Back-to-back earthquakes measuring 7.0 and 5.7 shattered highways and rocked buildings Friday in Anchorage and the surrounding area, sending people running into the streets and briefly triggering a tsunami warning for islands and coastal areas south of the city. AP/Marc Lester

(TNS) — The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough held a news conference about the magnitude 7.0 Point MacKenzie earthquake on Monday, four days after the shaking stopped.

Complaints about a lack of earthquake communications to the borough’s 100,000-plus residents came under fire over the weekend from some residents — including the borough’s own mayor.

Responding Sunday on Facebook to criticism about the relative lack of information, Mayor Vern Halter described “a total breakdown from the standpoint of public relations and information sharing from the Borough.”

The public relations department “was cut out of the process,” Halter said.

Addressing the situation at the borough’s first quake press conference Monday, the mayor softened his stance a little.

“I do appreciate all the work that was done,” he said, praising the quick internal actions by the borough’s Department of Emergency Services to respond to the disaster. But he said after the conference he still has concerns about the way public information was handled.

The quake’s epicenter was in Mat-Su, on Point MacKenzie across Knik Arm from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It initially knocked out power to 50,000 people here. Borough firefighters, especially in the Wasilla area, responded to dozens of calls ranging from people trapped beneath debris to water- and gas-line breaks to structure fires.

It was more than 90 minutes before the borough posted any public information. An Anchorage Daily News reporter could not reach a borough emergency official for information before that.

The borough public affairs officer, Patty Sullivan, normally handles information during disasters. But Sullivan was taken off public information duty for the earthquake, borough emergency director Otto Feather said after the press conference Monday night. He said that was borough manager John Moosey’s decision.

Feather said the disaster was managed “by a pretty solid team” of people who worked together every day.

During the press conference, Feather blamed himself for getting too complacent later Friday afternoon because of the relative lack of injury and damage and failing to give out timely information.

“I do have to do a bit of a mea culpa here,” he said. “I fell into a trap of believing life is good ... we did not communicate appropriately to the rest of the community."

The first official borough update came midmorning Friday from Erin Leaders, the borough’s community cleanup coordinator who handled public information for the borough’s recent cyberattack. The borough later disseminated a link where the public could report damage.

Leaders posted several updates over the weekend and on Monday. She said Monday that every effort was made to keep the public informed in the hours after the quake. The only updates Leaders was authorized to provide involved the condition of borough roads and infrastructure.

Sullivan during past events coordinated press conferences and regular updates on social media after major disasters such as the Sockeye Fire in 2015 and major flooding in 2012 and 2006.

The Municipality of Anchorage has held numerous press conferences since Friday. Anchorage police issued regular updates throughout the days since the quake.

———

©2018 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

Visit the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) at www.adn.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.