Editorial: Leadership During A Hurricane

By / Editorials / Thursday, 27 September 2018 03:07

Managing Editor

Many people view the elected office of Mayor as akin to a Captain of a ship. If the ship is going down, the Captain either solves the problem, goes down with it, or is the last one off when they are certain no crew or passengers are left behind.

Carolina Beach Mayor Joe Benson evacuated just before Hurricane Florence made its way to the North Carolina Coast.

Following the storm, many people took to Facebook to voice both criticism and support for Benson.

Council members Leann Pierce and JoDan Garza remained in Carolina Beach during Florence as did the Kure Beach Town Council.

Carolina Beach Councilmen Steve Shuttleworth and Tom Bridges evacuated. However, Shuttleworth returned to the Island shortly after the storm.

Benson began fielding criticism on Facebook following the storm. People began voicing their concerns that he was the only known Mayor of Carolina Beach to ever evacuate for a Hurricane.

Citizens expect a Mayor to lead by example in day to day affairs of the Town. When it comes to potential disasters like Florence, citizens expect a Mayor to take the lead, the reins, and direct the course of management during such an event either directly or by being on hand to delegate and help guide the decisions of the Council, the Town Manager and staff as well as provide a unified message to the media.

Citizens vote for "Mayor" because they are selecting someone in a higher visibility leadership position than that of a "Council member". Not to lessen the position of a council member, but let's face it, the office of Mayor is positioned above all others with a primary goal of leadership, being the face of the Town and - in this case - the Captain that steps to the front of the ship, grips the ropes, and guides everyone to safety.

In this particular case, citizens have questioned Mayor Benson as to why he evacuated and his responses were at times polite and in some cases, seemed frustrated with their criticism.

Mayor Benson offered some insight into his decision to evacuate. He recently retired from the Air Force and referenced his time in the military. He answered a request for comment stating, "Willard, yes, I’ve seen the stuff on FB [Facebook]. For the most part, I’ve kept off. What I did notice, I reached out to folks and suggested we talk over the phone and avoided the FB drama. I had some good conversations along the way. That said, it’s not in my DNA to “run”, as was suggested. I’ve always led from the front. But here’s the rub - it was job as a commander and the risks were understood. I was supposed to be harm’s way. It wasn’t some whimsical notion of bravery. I was trained for it. At any rate, I saw the high likelihood (hard to argue) of a CAT 3 or 4 as being catastrophic, a killer storm. I had been messaging my intent to leave on Thursday all along. It was my hope that leading by example would convince those on the fence to choose wisely. My political instincts are apparently not very good. Many thought I chose wisely; many disagreed. To those who suggest that I was leading “from the rear”, they’re entitled to their opinion and I respect that."

I asked former Mayor Joel Macon on Monday September 24th, if he had ever left the Island during a hurricane. Joel served as building inspector for Carolina Beach in the 1980's and has lived here his entire life. He served on Council for many years and then was elected as Mayor.

Macon said he has never evacuated for a storm either as building inspector or an elected official.

While chatting with Macon, he said he couldn't remember a time when any Mayor had evacuated dating back decades ago when  Neil Pharr - owner of a drug store - was Mayor of the Town. Former Mayor's Hubert Vincent, Tony Loretti, Ray Rothrock (numerous terms), Dennis Barbour, Joel Macon, Dan Wilcox, and other Mayors never evacuated for hurricanes and severe tropical storms.

The office of "Mayor" is elected by the people as a position of leadership. Citizens vote for that office based on their perception of the leadership skills they perceive during campaign season. A candidate advertises their leadership skills during election season and voters cast ballots based on  what they've heard/learned from candidates.

In this case, hurricanes were not a major topic during the last municipal election, but perhaps storm management and leadership was an unspoken and understood duty.

Bottom line: A Mayor should hunker down with the police, fire and Town staff and ride out the storm in order to the be the first on the ground in Town following such an event. While the police, fire and other Town departments are dealing with patrolling the streets, possibly fighting fires and responding to life saving events, and the Operations Department is responding to sewer overflows and other issues, the Mayor should be out in front speaking to property owners, the media and communicating a unified message to the populous.

If the Mayor is absent, then Town staff has to take on that duty and that detracts from their the efficiency of carrying out other duties.

A captain can't manage a ship in distress via a cell phone. They have to be on the deck.

Among other duties, the Mayor or Mayor Pro-Tem is responsible for policy guidance and key decisions relating to response and recovery efforts and provides policy guidance to the Emergency Operations Center Director during the emergency response for situations that have not previously been addressed in emergency response plans.
Elected officials are responsible for the protection of the lives and property of the citizens. They exercise primary supervision and control over the four phases (prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery) of emergency management activities within the Town.

Benson has stated that Town Manager Michael Cramer, "Strongly suggested that we on Council evacuate. I followed my own order to do so and am in Greensboro."

Council should have a talk with the Town Manager about this situation and discuss it during a public Town Council meeting.

Town Manager Michael Cramer is required to stay unless all Town personnel are evacuated in an absolute worst case scenario such as a Category Five hurricane, in which case they would likely head north of Snow's Cut Bridge and return following the storm.

Citizens place their faith in their elected leaders and Town personnel that they were elected to lead in both times of calm and in times of disasters such as hurricanes. Before, during and after the event.


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