On Feb. 3, just before 9 p.m., a train carrying a variety of toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. Though it was too dark for railway and local officials to fully assess the situation, they knew enough to call for the evacuation of everyone in one mile radius of the accident.
As far as disasters go, this derailment should have been relatively straightforward. It was dramatic, to be sure, but it is exactly the type of emergency that government officials, led by emergency managers, plan for daily. In fact, the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, last updated in 2019, features hazardous materials incidents, including those involving train derailments. The plan noted 18 rail incidents from 2010 to 2019 that released hazardous materials in the county, and the agency deemed the risk of another such event as “medium.” As the next morning revealed the true extent of the crash, however, expectations of anything straightforward in East Palestine and Columbiana County faded away.
To be clear, questions about the derailment itself start with the rail operator, Norfolk Southern. Efforts to hold those at fault accountable — via congressional hearings, class-action lawsuits and so on — are essential and changes to national policy are needed. But what has unfolded over the last 10 days is, unfortunately, also a case study in how government’s inability to communicate risk to the public, reactionary law enforcement agencies and unchecked corporate power can create an unnecessarily chaotic response.
In any crisis, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or an economic crash, there are a few hard and fast rules emergency managers live by: communication, coordination, leadership and trust. If you don’t have these, your response won’t be effective.
Take the evacuation, for example. A mandatory evacuation of the area was absolutely necessary. Ten of the cars that derailed were carrying hazardous materials, with the most concerning being the five cars transporting vinyl chloride. Despite local officials calling for a mandatory evacuation, over the course of the first 72 hours it became apparent that many residents were not leaving. One news report estimated there were as many as 500 residents who did not initially evacuate.
In response, the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office announced on Facebook that anyone who did not evacuate would be arrested for “misconduct in an emergency.” That crisis communication approach is wholly out of step with decades of research on human behavior in disasters.
In any disaster, the first question an emergency manager should ask is: Why aren’t they leaving? Disaster researchers have spent years trying to better understand why some people don’t evacuate when told to. The answer is usually a combination of factors, including either not receiving or understanding the evacuation notice, a physical barrier like a disability, or a lack of access to needed resources such as a car or a place to stay. Emergency managers spend a lot of time working on warning and evacuation plans specifically to meet the needs of their community. So, what went wrong here?
If local officials had simply looked through the comments on their own agencies’ Facebook posts, they would have seen this research reflected. Some residents had legitimate concerns that local government should have the resources to address: not having the money to evacuate or not being able to return for their livestock after leaving them. Others were unclear about what resources were available, for whom, and for how long. Some thought the shelters weren’t open 24 hours. Some heard that Norfolk Southern was paying for hotel rooms.
And the messaging that officials relayed to the public was often contradictory. On the one hand, the sheriff’s office was threatening to arrest people who didn’t evacuate, suggesting an immediate and severe threat to human life. But other local agencies were sharing information that said there was no threat to the air and water. For some commenters, it seemed these two different messages conflicted each other, leaving them to question if there really was a safety concern worthy of calling for an evacuation.
While other residents did leave comments noting that shelters were open and trying to connect individuals with resources, local officials didn’t seem to be monitoring these comments. That allowed rumors and misinformation to spread unchecked. It also was a missed opportunity to answer legitimate and pressing questions from the public.
Throughout the following week, the public clamored for additional information and criticized the lack of national media coverage. On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern began releasing and burning the chemicals in the train cars, sending a plume of black smoke into the air and heightening concerns about the threat to public health and safety. (As is often the case in a disaster, people need to see it to believe it.)
Frustrations grew still further two days later when a news conference on the response was delayed 2 hours with no explanation. Then videos surfaced online showing officers arresting NewsNation journalist Evan Lambert right as the news conference began.
The culmination of a week of shoddy public communication, threats to arrest victims, and the detention of a journalist undermined the public’s trust in what officials told them. Moreover, it has allowed Norfolk Southern to publicly dominate the response. Anyone who has had to manage the response to a disaster involving a private company can attest to the complications they can cause. A fundamental tension in these situations is that private businesses have conflicting interests with government and the affected community. At the same time, you often need these companies to be involved because they typically hold the technical expertise to address the crisis, and they’re the ones who may be financially responsible. This means government — and especially local emergency management — can quickly become dependent on them for information. Practically, local officials often must work with them to save life and property but must be careful not to defer to them and allow them to steamroll the local community.
Less than two weeks after the derailment, the mixed signals to the public continue. While local officials assure residents it is safe to return home, residents are still experiencing the impact — seeing soot in their homes, smelling chemicals in the air, and hearing widespread reports of dead animals turning up throughout the affected area. Instead of building an environment of trust, local officials have created a hostile relationship that is making the public suspicious of their claims.
This has been further compounded by the lack of visible attention from the federal government. While the EPA has shared daily updates, President Joe Biden has not addressed the derailment, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg only broke his silence Monday. This lack of visible leadership can contribute to beliefs that government is not taking the situation seriously, or worse, that they are trying to cover it up.
In a crisis, clear, complete and truthful communication with the public is key because the public is a stakeholder in the response. Not only is it their community, lives and livelihood on the line but officials also need the public to believe what you say and follow the instructions you give them for the response to be successful.
From the start of the accident in Ohio, the lack of effective communication opened the door for legitimate questions regarding the safety of people in the area but also widespread misinformation and even conspiracy theories. What should have been a relatively “normal” disaster response instead has become an example of how to make a terrible situation worse.