More Than a Press Release –The DPS Communications Office During Hurricane Florence

Friday, October 19, 2018 - 7:02pm
Storm Response Series: While North Carolina braced for Hurricane Florence, numerous NC Public Safety agencies joined in the storm preparations, response and recovery. Today's blog provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Communications Office's efforts. 

"I spoke to you yesterday, and you were so awesome and patient, I couldn’t imagine calling anybody else,” said the voice on the other end of the phone line.

DPS Communications Officer Sonja Bennett-Bellamy was working the phones in the Joint Information Center (JIC), answering calls from both the media and the public. This particular caller was from a local corporation that wanted to do whatever it could to help people staying in shelters before and after Hurricane Florence pummeled the state and surrounding areas.

“Yes, ma’am, I remember you! I’ll be happy to help with anything you need,” Bennett-Bellamy said. 

Communications in Hurricane Florence
1,300 Media & Citizen Calls
1,060 Tweets 
650 Facebook messages
35 News Releases
18 Press Conferences
10  Videos (English & Spanish)

She spent the next hour and a half providing the caller with detailed, updated information on shelters: their location, capacity, day-to-day activities occurring there, and more – information that was critical to the local company’s effort to assist with the response efforts in shelters.

“I saw what was happening to people all over, and how they were hurting,” Bennett-Bellamy later said of her work during Florence. “If I hadn’t been able to take that call, I would have felt badly. You can’t help but want to play a personal role when so many people are suffering.”

Answering calls like that was just one of the many jobs performed during Hurricane Florence response by members of the DPS Communications Office and public information officers from other state divisions. During times of crisis and disaster that require the activation of the State Emergency Response Team (SERT), public information officers from the partnering agencies come together to work in the JIC at NC Emergency Management headquarters in Raleigh. The communications team’s mission is to provide accurate information to the public as swiftly as possible. 

In addition to answering calls from the public and media, the team worked twelve-hour shifts around the clock, constantly pushing out information. They did this by working with the governor’s press office to coordinate daily press briefings, writing press releases and monitoring and posting social media messages. They created a web page that provided information on power outages, shelters and other life safety information. They relayed safety and storm-related information to people throughout the state and beyond. Many people from out of state called the JIC to check on loved ones or to ask about driving conditions in North Carolina. The public information officers from the N.C. Departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, and Environmental Quality who joined the team working in the JIC were able to field questions from the media and public related to their areas of expertise.

Many social media followers expressed their thanks for the helpful information shared, which was echoed by callers and in e-mails sent directly to staff. One caller into the JIC stated, “Thank you for keeping us so well informed throughout this hurricane. I am so impressed with how the communication and recovery efforts have been handled! I also love the website and am obsessed with your tweets and power outage countdown!” 

State Highway Patrol spokesmen worked tirelessly, giving many early morning interviews to the media and providing important safety messages to the public throughout the long days of the response. Lead communications team members gave numerous interviews by phone and on-camera, and facilitated many more with management. Communications videographers filmed and shared updated safety messages with the public. Team members working overnight shifts monitored social media for pleas for help and at the request of Emergency Services developed a search and rescue form to help in those efforts. They also conducted early morning interviews with media, including local stations, as well as The Weather Channel and became regulars on Red Eye Radio — an early morning radio show for truckers that airs coast to coast and reaches hundreds of stations and thousands of truck drivers.

One area that often goes unnoticed is when a Communications team member recognizes a trend possibly needing corrective measures such as volunteers who may be well meaning, but need to understand the dangers they may face when they self-deploy. They also will correct misinformation such as reports about North Carolina not evacuating prisons when the state had actually moved more than 3,000 inmates to other prisons before the storm hit. 

“They did a lot more than just write and send out press releases” Public Safety Secretary Erik A. Hooks said of Communications Office efforts. “Our communications team worked hard – sometimes on camera, but often quietly behind the scenes – to share important safety messages and to keep people safe during Hurricane Florence. Their important work contributed significantly to our efforts to ensure the safety of the public during Hurricane Florence and the toughs days that followed.”


Clyde Roper, Communications Officer