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Next time, we need better information

It was in an editorial writing class at Southern Oregon College some 50 years ago that I learned from the instructor the pièce de résistance of sound advice when navigating in and around the opinion pages of the Fourth Estate.

His advice: When writing an editorial that is somehow bringing criticism down upon someone or some thing, be sure to offer solutions, too. Nobody wants to listen only to mindless whining.

I get it. I have spent a career writing this kind of nonsense, and I’ve always tried to be mindful of his sage advice. That is, until this submission. You see, I don’t know necessarily what the solutions are to my whining, so I am opting instead to share some experiences from my past that might be marginally relevant.

While I graduated a half century ago, I have only recently returned to the Rogue Valley — Jacksonville, in particular. My circuitous route included a decade in South Carolina, home of two mythological creatures — Lindsey Graham and The Lizard Man. South Carolina and much of the eastern seaboard are also noted for many other things, including hurricanes. Hurricanes with names, no less. From A to Z, every year, it seems.

Satellites watch carefully as the beasts poke along and look for places to make landfall. Barnstorming NOAA aircraft buzz in and out of the rotating mass looking for the legendary quiet of the eye. And where would we be without the nut cases from the television stations who stand in the 120 mph wind gusts on the beaches yelling incomprehensible things into a microphone as the blowing sand exfoliates their epidermis and pieces of beach houses fly by like scud missiles.

And that’s when something miraculous happens. The government, because they have had so much practice and so much planning all year, kicks into gear — from the governor and National Guard on down to the local police, volunteer organizations, churches and relief agencies, and even the crossing guards at the local schools.

My point here is to note that quite often there is sufficient information and thus time to grab a few things and get the heck out of Dodge. Evacuate, as it were.

On the East Coast, it is a symphony of sorts; everybody plays a part. First responders know their missions. Communities pull together and reach out for their most vulnerable and at-risk citizens. Moms and dads round up their “go” bags, not to mention their children, and, if necessary, hit the road in advance of the severe meteorological onslaught.

Meanwhile, the state has reversed the easterly lanes of major highways and byways, and everyone heads west in relative calm. Communities and people along the way reach out and welcome the evacuees.

Amazing stuff. But what’s even more amazing is the system for communicating what is important for citizens to know so they can make informed decisions.

The governor appears on radio, television, telephones and every other type of mass communication device several times a day, accompanied by heads of every department in the state. People use every imaginable electronic device to learn useful information about the hurricane, where it’s headed, where they should seek shelter, and everything else that can be reported to minimize the loss of life and property.

It works. At least as well as anything can work.

Then I came to Oregon and recently faced something even more terrifying than the destructive hurricanes.

Fire. Wild fire.

I witnessed as first responders turned out in force and fought a war that should earn each and every one of them a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Meanwhile, everyone turned to mass media for news. They didn’t seem to be reporting what we should be doing. Do we evacuate? If so, where do we go? Where do we get information? Where is the fire? Rumors in the community were rampant. Every one of our neighbors had a different story to tell.

Some were leaving. Some were headed east and some were headed west. Others dismissed the threat.

Surely there can be a way for our state and local governments to keep us informed during these kinds of crises. A method that in no way hampers the efforts of those who so selflessly give their all to fight the beasts.

No, I don’t know what the answers are specifically, other than we as a community need to have a dialogue and come up with methods to help us all make informed decisions.

Thomas M. Withenbury lives in Jacksonville.

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