It is too soon to tally the toll of the ongoing storms. As of this writing, Monterey County has been, by some key measures, quite lucky – there are no reported deaths, and two reported injuries – although some of the impacts will not come into full relief until weeks or months from now. My colleagues at the Weekly have been reporting on the range of consequences to individuals, communities, the local economy and the environment, and you can read some of their stories in this issue (starting on p. 10), and much more at mcweekly.com, where we are doing our best to keep up with ever-evolving information.
When difficult weather conditions hit Monterey County in January, county leadership was ready with a drumbeat of public safety messaging. They seemed to me, at the time, to be overly cautious – they held repeat press conferences cautioning about the potential for road closures and that we might experience a “Monterey Peninsula Island” effect.
While the immediacy ebbed and flowed with the floodwaters and hydrological predictions on inherently unpredictable rivers, the message was consistent: Take the storm seriously, obey all evacuation orders and road closures, and be prepared. The gist, the logic goes, is that it’s best to overreact rather than to under-prepare.
This is the guiding logic of emergency planners, and it is nothing new. But unlike the January storms, things in March have felt more haphazard. The county convened a press conference on Saturday, March 11, to release information about the levee breach and flooding in Pajaro. On Sunday at 2pm, they convened again. I asked about the potential for flooding and an island effect – after all, predictions for river levels were higher than what we saw in January – and was told, in essence, not to worry. “We are preparing for that possibility, but we are not anticipating that happening,” County Communications Director Nick Pasculli said. “We are watching that very closely. We are prepared.”
But the public had not been advised to prepare. And given Pasculli’s report, it didn’t sound like we should be – while the potential was there, we could expect plenty of notice.
Instead, at 8:14pm that night, the county sent out a press release titled, “Salinas River crest may cause significant flooding west of Salinas: Residents urged to prepare for possible cut-off between Highway 68, Salinas.”
The announcement read, “The forecasted impacts have evolved over the last 24 hours.” But the change in tone came after just five hours.
I asked about this seeming change in tone – from overprepared to urgent and reactive – at a press conference the next day.
“We are measuring our messaging this time,” Pasculli said. “We were fine-tuning it.”
I had to be persuaded in January that overprepared was the right approach, and I was at first reluctant to overhype risk, but I came around – it seemed the responsible thing to do.
I know weather is unpredictable, but somewhere along the way it seems county leadership decided to shift gears. Maybe they did so in closed-door meetings. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors met on March 12 and 13, in a closed-session meeting to talk about the unfolding disaster. Most government meetings are conducted in public, with a few reasons for exemption – in this case, a section of government code referring to “matters posing a threat to the security.”
Of course, the impacts of the storm are a threat to public infrastructure and security. But when I asked David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, about this provision, he seemed surprised. The reasoning for the provision is for government agencies to meet in private in order to avoid sharing potential vulnerabilities that a terrorist or a hacker might exploit – situations like a bomb threat would clearly apply. “I don’t think ‘threat to security’ should include a natural disaster,” Loy says. “The weather is not looking for security loopholes. It is not an actor like a potential terrorist.”
It’s something we can and should talk about in as clear and comprehensive terms as possible – and in the open. Circumstances were different (and luckier) in January, but so was communication around preparedness. It will take both good luck and good communication to get out of this OK.
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