As the powerful hurricane lurked roughly 100 miles from West Palm Beach, battering the Bahamas with record-setting rage, county officials went quiet.

As Hurricane Dorian switched course yet again on Sunday, Palm Beach County officials ordered the evacuation of barrier islands and mobile homes, opened up shelters and ordered bridges over the Intracoastal Waterway to be put on lockdown.


Then, as the powerful hurricane lurked roughly 100 miles from West Palm Beach, battering the Bahamas with record-setting rage, county officials went quiet.


For nearly two days, those in charge of keeping the county’s roughly 1.5 million residents safe held no press conferences, preferring to instead issue about a dozen statements on social media to explain the dangers posed by the storm that unleashed unthinkable 220 mph wind gusts.


Hurricane Dorian: Palm Beach County lifts evacuation orders


Oddly, county officials now say, they stopped talking because it started appearing likely that the Category 5 storm, which for days was aimed at either West Palm Beach or Jupiter, was likely to miss the county entirely.


“While we were pretty confident we were not going to be in the cone of concern and it was going to hook north, we didn’t want to overestimate that potential and have residents celebrating and taking off their shutters and forget there was a monster storm 100 miles off our coast,” said County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, who was part of a team of county leaders that attended daily telephone briefings with national meteorologists.


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“I think the thought was that as we were moving out of the cone of concern we wanted to reduce the bulletins going out,” said Weinroth explaining why press conferences ceased on Monday — more than 24 hours before the county issued an all-clear.


County Administrator Verdenia Baker said there was no effort to mislead residents about the storm’s likely path or to keep them in the dark. Calling it the most erratic storm she has experienced since she began overseeing the county’s emergency response in 2004, Baker said she wanted residents to remain vigilant.


“If we call (a press conference) every day, they start to tune out and when they tune out, they’re not there,” Baker said. “We have to be able to provide information that is as reliable as possible. It’s our job to educate the public, keep them informed and not panicked.”


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Experts in how to keep people informed during emergencies said the county broke many important rules.


While West Palm Beach and Martin County officials held daily press conferences and actively used social media as Dorian moved closer to shore, Palm Beach County leaders responded to the shifting cone by entering a cone of silence.


“Best practices is to over-communicate,” said James Toscano, a former communications director for public agencies in Virginia who specializes in the use of social media. “In the absence of information and updates people will assume you’re not in control of the situation or you don’t know what’s going on.”


Lisa De La Rionda, director of public affairs for the county, said the decision not to hold a media briefing Monday was an effort to keep reporters safe. Also, she said, there was little new information to impart.


“As we meet collectively, I can say that in an abundance of caution, I don’t feel as though calling in 40 or 50 media outlets to come here when I don't really have anything new to say [is productive],” she said. “I can continue to say all the precautionary information through the same existing communications channels that I filter through [reporters] every day.”


In addition, specialists in emergency management communications said communicating directly with residents both through traditional news conferences and social media is important during the run-up to and in the aftermath of disasters.


Press briefings are important, particularly in places like Palm Beach County where nearly a fourth of its residents are over the age of 65, said Kelli Burns, an associate professor in the school of mass communications at the University of South Florida.


While most people own cell phones, studies have shown that only 53 percent of those over the age of 65 own smart phones that can link them to social media, Toscano said.


Likewise, while Facebook seems ubiquitous, a 2018 Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of people between the ages of 50 and 64 use it and the percentage drops to 32 percent for those over the age of 65, Burns said.


“The question becomes: How do you reach the people who aren’t on social media?” Burns said.


The answer is by communicating with them on the media they use during emergencies: TV news. And, she said, that means holding press conferences.


If officials were truly worried about keeping reporters off the roads on Monday, when the National Hurricane Center was predicting the stalled storm was at least 10 hours away from possibly hitting the county’s coast, there were alternatives, Burns said.


They could have used Facebook or Twitter to stream statements about the storm as they did with the real press briefings that they held for four days running before canceling them on Monday. Reporters and the public could have watched remotely and local TV stations could have broadcast the pseudo-press conferences, she said.


“Press briefings are important to keep up until the hurricane hits even if the information that comes out is not new information,” Burns said. “It’s important to keep in touch with your constituents.”


Further, she said, the county’s social media presence could have been more robust.


Baker said the county posted 72 messages on Twitter, 55 on its Facebook page and 39 on its Instagram account during Hurricane Dorian’s seven-day slog toward the coast. In addition, it sent out press releases and answered nearly 9,000 phone calls from anxious residents.


While coordinating the opening of 11 shelters, including ones that accepted pets and served people with medical needs, it also shared information with city officials who posted updates on their own social media sites, Baker said.


But the county didn’t regularly retweet or repost items from cities, or even from county commissioners’ social media accounts. Burns said she saw information on Jupiter’s Facebook page that was useful and could have been shared with all county residents.


The county has an opportunity to be a one-stop shop, she said. People shouldn’t be forced to go to multiple sites in search of information, Burns said.


Lori Brainard, associate professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University, said she didn’t review the county’s social media activity. But Brainard, who specializes in internet communication, said people come to the county for information they can’t get anywhere else so it should offer specifics about what’s happening in the area.


On Monday, the county posted general information from the hurricane center explaining the difference between a storm surge watch and a warning. It came after the hurricane center issued a storm surge warning from Lantana north to the Brevard County line.


It would have been more helpful to tell residents which areas in the county are most prone to storm surge and flooding and what steps to take if and when waters rise, Brainard said.


West Palm Beach, for instance, posted pictures of flooding at intersections along Flagler Drive and warned residents to stay away.


“What I have noticed is that public agencies tend to assume all information is good,” Brainard said. “So, they don’t make a distinction between what is interesting and what is informative.”


On Monday, after announcing that no press conferences would be held as Dorian approached, the county posted the storm surge information, along with an appeal to surfers to stay away from the ocean and a link to a WPTV-Channel 5 story about a catfish swimming on a flooded road in Boynton Beach.


It also sent out a link to a press release that listed areas that had been ordered to evacuate and shelter locations, including what people should bring. It included a compilation of various public agencies that would remain closed, including schools, county offices and the Palm Beach International Airport, and area hospitals that were on lockdown.


On Tuesday, as Dorian started lumbering north, the county posted or reposted more than a dozen messages. It reminded people that the county was still not out of harm’s way and that garbage pickup would resume Wednesday.


Late in the afternoon, the county issued an all-clear. It then issued multiple alerts about the planned reopening of Publix stores, the airport, schools and other government agencies.


For some, the information was enough.


“I must say, I am very impress (sic) how all the men and women in the county worked together as a team and having a game plan to initiate a safety protocol to inform and put in place under pressure to make sure everyone is safe,” one woman posted on the county’s Facebook page. “Proud to be a Palm Beach County resident.”


Still, the woman was one of about 60 people who posted comments or questions on the county’s page. That, both Brainard and Toscano said, signals a problem — low engagement.


Both said social media has proven to be a critical tool for communities to use when recovering from natural disasters or social unrest. But, they said, people have to be accustomed to going to governments’ social media sites for information.


While the county serves as the local government for about 600,000 people who live in the unincorporated area, only 11,000 people follow it on Facebook. By comparison, West Palm Beach, with a population of 100,000, has 35,500 Facebook followers. Nearly 46,000 people follow the city of Boca Raton, which has roughly 84,000 residents.


People have to be engaged before the storm, both Toscano and Brainard said. The beauty of social media is that it is interactive. It’s a way for governments to have two-way conversations with residents, they said.


“Smart agencies are using social media engagement to gain intelligence about where to deploy resources in the aftermath of a hurricane,” Toscano said.


“Social media it not just a way to push information, it’s a way to gather information,” Brainard agreed.


Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said the county’s use of social media could have been better. Both she and Baker said county officials will talk about things they did well and could have done better to improve communication the next time a hurricane threatens.


“You learn every time you go through a storm or activation,” McKinlay said.


Weinroth said people will always second-guess decision-makers. He said he heard complaints that the county waited too long to issue an evacuation order.


It was issued on Sunday, after the hurricane center upgraded the threat facing the county, moving it from a tropical storm warning to a hurricane watch. Later in the day, the Jupiter area was placed under a hurricane warning. The elevated threat made it necessary to evacuate vulnerable areas and open shelters, Weinroth said.


“We’re never going to get this 100 percent right but if we’re going to make a mistake it’s better to be over-cautious,” Weinroth said.


Baker said her decisions are always guided by weather experts and her focus will always be on keeping residents safe. “My action definitely depends on the data I’m receiving,” she said.


Staff writer Hannah Morse contributed to this story.


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