By Brandi Makuski
Some members of the Stevens Point City Council say they believe the city should have provided better communication in the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s storm.
Storm warnings were issued for Portage Co. by the National Weather Service on the morning of July 20, but many officials across the county admit the severity of the storm, and the speed with which it hit, caught many by surprise. The storm brought just under three inches of rain and straight winds clocked at over 80 miles an hour in a short period of time, causing extensive property damage and leaving some residents without power for several days.
In the immediate wake of the storm, underpasses at Michigan Ave. and Church St. flooded and were impassable. Simultaneously, the Water St. railroad crossing was blocked by a CN train, and passage along Country Club Dr. was blocked due to down power lines. Lt. Greg Bean from the Stevens Point Police Department said he called in two off-duty officers to help barricade roadways; Assistant Fire Chief JB Moody called in four additional personnel.
Both said for a time, the only way to travel between the north and south sides of the city was via I-39.
But neither are responsible for informing the public during an emergency. Official communications from the city come from the city’s emergency manager, a hat currently worn by Mayor Mike Wiza, or the city’s Public Information Officer, a position held by City Attorney Andrew Beveridge.
The city’s Facebook page includes a post at 8:31 p.m on July 19, warning of severe thunderstorms Friday night. The next communication of any kind from the city came at 1:48 p.m. on July 22, in the form of a news release from Wiza, summarizing the storm and providing information on local businesses offering relief for those without power.
Councilwoman Cindy Nebel (District 3) didn’t feel the city’s communication was sufficient, taking the mayor to task on the popular Facebook page, “You Know You’re From Stevens Point If…”
“Why hasn’t [sic] there been any official updates from the mayor’s office about power outages?” Nebel’s July 21 post read. “Shouldn’t the alders have been contacted at least so they could provide info [sic] to their constituents?”
Nebel’s post triggered a largescale response from members of the public, some in agreement with her sentiment, others defending Wiza, and others still criticizing Nebel for making the comment at all.
The post has since been removed, but in an email to the Metro Wire, Nebel explained her motivation behind the post.
“I was just surprised that the city’s site gave no information about the power outages, only about flood warnings,” Nebel wrote. “We could not get through to WPS. When I asked why the city didn’t provide updates I was told that the head of the city’s emergency service was the mayor. It would have been helpful for the city site to also be a source of information.”
The same day, Councilwoman Tori Jennings (District 1) posted updates from WPS to her aldermanic page, adding, “My apologies that Mayor Wiza has provided no information to residents or made contingency plans at this time.”
Alderman Mike Phillips (District 10), the longest-serving member of the council, said he doesn’t believe it’s the mayor’s responsibility to update members of the council about power outages—but he isn’t happy with the lack of communication in the days following the storm.
“The mayor doesn’t control the power, nor does he have some kind of magic wand to get information we can’t get,” Phillips said by phone on Thursday. “But there’s no excuse for not communicating to the media and public—I mean, even a message of hope, something. He was elected by the entire city, he represents the entire city, and he should have communicated. That’s part of the job.”
In a July 24 interview with the Metro Wire, Wiza said if he felt there was a reason to communicate with the media and the public after the storm, he would have done so.
When asked about the city’s procedure in communicating with the media and the public during an emergency, Wiza said, “We have a public information officer, and if there’s something that needs to go out, we send it out through that [sic]. During the first 24 hours of the storm, things were happening so fast that by the time we posted anything, it would have been irrelevant anyway. So we didn’t really do anything like that.”
Wiza said Wisconsin Public Service “did a very good job” keeping the public informed via social media, as most of the “big concerns were people’s power,” he said.
“Once things calmed down, we were able to put out statements. Plover was the same way,” he said.
But the Village of Plover submitted a communitywide message via its Blackboard community messaging system at 4:45 p.m. on July 20. Following that, the Plover Public Works Department issued four follow-up messages on its Facebook page, and the Portage Co. Sheriff’s Office posted six messages July 20 and 21, with communication from Sheriff Mike Lukas, immediately following the storm, coming in the Metro Wire newsroom by phone.
When asked how the city utilized its radio station, 105.9 WSNP-LP, in the storm’s aftermath, Wiza said, “Other than the warnings that went out, there wasn’t anything that needed to go out.”
When asked why no storm-related updates came from the city during the two days following the storm, Wiza said, “I don’t know that there was anything that we had to share. I know people were looking for information, but we, of course, didn’t want to put out anything that was incorrect. Most of the city stuff, we had taken care of. But you hear a lot of things from a variety of sources; we didn’t want to be part of that problem. Until we had solid information on where things were going, there wasn’t a need to put anything out, in my opinion.”
When asked if he felt the manner in which the city communicates with the media and the public during an emergency should somehow change, he said, “We were talking about this a little bit. We have a generation now that has not known life without mobile devices. I think people expect instant information now, and that’s just not possible in some cases. Make sure your family is safe, get your updates where you can, and you get by. People need to understand it’s not always possible to give real-time information.”
When pressed for an answer, specifically asking if he felt there were any “gaps in communication with the media during a time of emergency,” Wiza replied, “I don’t know, I didn’t see anything. Did you hear something?”
The reporter replied, “I’m just asking if you feel like any gaps were identified.”
“We don’t really have immediate media sources, right? So, we have a daily newspaper that gets printed and delivered. I don’t know what their subscription base is anymore, but that is the only daily, delivered paper,” Wiza said. “In a situation like this, your power’s out, you don’t have internet, either. So using online resources…I’ve heard many people say, ‘I don’t have access to anything, my internet is down, I can’t go online to see what’s happening.’ I did notice that some of the radio stations weren’t on our media list, so we’re going to get those added. So in that respect, yes, people, hopefully, at least my generation, I guess, would tune to a radio—hopefully, a battery-powered radio. But, yeah…online is not a reliable source because if you don’t have power, you don’t have internet. Is there room for improvement? There’s always room for improvement.”
The full audio of the Metro Wire interview on communication following the storm with Wiza can be heard here: