Officials leading the response to the blizzard that has buried some residents and businesses in the San Bernardino Mountains under several feet of snow are increasing the flow of information they are publicly releasing after several days of what they say is misguided criticism and insufficient publicity about their efforts to help the community.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said in an interview Wednesday, March 8, that there is a misperception that his agency and others have been slow to help residents who are stuck in their homes by piles of snow or who are running low on food and medicine.
But Dicus also acknowledged that the agencies could have done a better job of informing the public about their efforts, leaving social media posts criticizing the government and highlighting the heroics of volunteers to create a narrative that many have accepted as gospel.
“When we’re out there trying to do things, the last thing we are doing is taking pictures of us doing our job,” Dicus said. “In terms of doing what’s important — protecting human life — the response has been immediate.”
The media isn’t covering that aspect of the story enough, Dicus said, but added, “It isn’t about the credit.”
Officials this week began posting more messages with photos on Twitter showing firefighters and sheriff’s deputies digging out residents’ cars and homes and delivering meals. The county is also posting daily video briefings on Twitter on what workers have accomplished and what they plan to do.
There was “a long meeting” Tuesday night about the county’s messaging, said Eric Sherwin, a spokesman for the storm response.
“The question is, ‘Why isn’t the media highlighting all the good things we are doing?’ ” Sherwin said.
Officials are bringing in more public information officers, primarily to provide information to the affected residents, Sherwin said. Officials plan to place message boards where food is being distributed that will include maps and QR codes that link to real-time plowing maps.
The county is also working on setting up centers where residents can get information on insurance and other services.
Dicus addressed what he said were misperceptions about the response.
When a reporter visited Crestline on Friday, many of the plowed roads were narrowed by the snow berms on either side, and parking lots were full of snow, leaving little room for residential and emergency vehicles.
“So when you are talking about 700 firefighters, utility companies, 60 of my law enforcement personnel vehicles, there is only so much help you can stage in that area. It becomes ineffective,” Dicus said.
The sheriff said a volunteer Los Angeles County search and rescue member told mountain residents how to request help. That created a perception, Dicus said, that he was not seeking outside assistance. And when a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter flew over one of the communities shortly after the storm, that created a perception that help would be coming sooner than was possible, he said.
The county implemented a reverse-911 system that called residential landlines. Only one person who received such a call requested assistance, Dicus said, which he interpreted as a sign that most people in need of help are receiving it, either through the government or volunteers.
Dicus said there were 11 or 12 deaths in the area since the storm, but only one, a traffic collision, was related to the storm. There was no discovery of multiple bodies in Valley of Enchantment as rumored, he said.
Emergency workers will continue to focus on Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Running Springs and Arrowbear in the next couple of days, Dicus said. The county is working with contractors to get private roads cleared. Caltrans is still working on opening a seven-mile stretch of Highway 18 between Snow Valley Resort and the Big Bear Dam.
Dicus said he will know that those communities have been stabilized when the call volume returns to normal.
He said he believes most regular mountain residents were prepared for the record-setting storm, but that visitors to rentals were not prepared with enough food or equipment such as snow shovels. The county plans to work with the companies that rent out homes to make sure that doesn’t happen again, Dicus said.