Despite getting rave reviews for his handling of pre-landfall Hurricane Irma, some in the Capitol Press Corps remain unsatisfied with Gov. Rick Scott, accusing him of being less forthcoming than his predecessors during the worst weather threat in a generation.
As South Florida awaits the arrival of a potentially deadly Category 5 storm — and the bedlam it has already caused — one reporter feels the governor is still not doing enough, accusing Scott of holding back essential information to media, and by extension the public, during one of the most severe public threats in recent history.
In an email to Scott spokesperson McKinley Lewis — cc’d to several other reporters — Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald suggests the governor and his staff are “going backward” in providing real-time emergency information to Floridians in the path of the Category 5 storm.
Timeliness is essential since Irma is scheduled to begin passing through Florida starting sometime Saturday evening.
As Irma approaches southeast Florida and the Keys, with the storm possibly making landfall in the Miami area this weekend, a shift of only a few miles west — staying offshore even slightly — could save lives and prevent billions of dollars in damage. And a slight move to the east could bring the center of the storm straight up through Florida, with even more catastrophic results.
Klas is also questioning a lack of audio access to briefings, as well as a failure of state officials to distribute timely situation reports to the public. She says both are a distinct departure from the administrations of both former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.
In an email obtained by FloridaPolitics.com, Scott communication director John Tupps replies that it is standard practice to not invite the media to briefings on law enforcement or military actions. However, once the information is ready, the information is immediately made public.
“We do not invite the media to briefings that contain detailed movements of military units or tactical law enforcement lifesaving efforts when in progress,” Tupps said. “However, this information is immediately released once it is ready to be made available. This is standard practice – and our goal is to ensure that our military can share this information with counties officials directly.”
Tupps also pointed out that over three days, Scott has held ten media briefings across the state – including two in Tallahassee with the Klas’ own Miami Herald.
“He has answered questions from the media at each one of his press conferences – including questions from the Times/Herald Bureau,” Tupps added. “Hurricane Irma is unprecedented, and making comparisons to weather events from nearly a decade ago is irresponsible and very inaccurate … The Governor has worked nonstop to keep Floridians and our visitors fully aware of the dangerous storm – including many press releases, information handouts and social media posts.”
The text of Klas’ letter is below (h/t to Diane Roberts):
From: Mary Ellen Klas <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at 10:49 a.m.
Subject: Questions about public access to information
With the most damaging and dangerous storm rapidly approaching our shores, the ability of the media to provide assistance to help inform the public with real time and accurate information is more important than ever. It is also easier than ever with the emergence of smartphones, social media, and hardened telecommunications and satellite technology.
At the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, we have every intention of operating through the storm and providing updated and accurate information to the public on our website and Twitter feeds. We have removed our paywalls, deployed staff and resources, fortified our headquarters and are determined to do our job.
The last time Florida was tested to this degree was during the hurricane seasons of 2005 and 2006 and while it was a time with little social media presence, the internet and online news was a constant and important force.
So why would the Scott administration choose to go backward from the accessibility provided to the public and the media during the Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist administrations?
McKinley asked me to provide my questions in writing. None of these is new to you since we have presented them to McKinley and other administration PIOs over the past few days. Our goal is not to write a story but to get you to open up to a level that was once expected for Florida. I hope we can achieve that.
Meanwhile, please provide us with answers to the following by 3 p.m. today:
* Why is the media no longer given audio access to the briefings from key officials in the command center?
* Why have you rejected requests to allow the media to attend the briefings if the audio is not available?
* Why are situation reports not distributed to the public and media in real time? (Please refer to the FLSERT archives for reference of how this was handled during other natural disasters by previous administrations.)
* Why have you rejected requests to have EOC command officials brief the media about issues and updates on a daily basis as previous administrations have done?
* Current and former officials who were actively involved in previous state emergencies speculate there has been no practical change but a leadership change and a change in the philosophy and approach to openness.
Please explain what protocols and documentation of events at the EOC have changed since the Bush and Crist administrations?