Friday 20 September 2019

Evelyn the expert, Leo's spin, and a dash of panic

Leo Varadkar's controversial new 'spin unit' swung into action for the first tangible time during Storm Ophelia Picture: Frank McGrath
Leo Varadkar's controversial new 'spin unit' swung into action for the first tangible time during Storm Ophelia Picture: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Across the country, families were hunkered down waiting to see what Ophelia would bring. Schools were marked off-limits and shops pulled down their shutters.

For many, it was the most unusual of 'down days' at home with the children, or the latest Netflix series. But in a small room in Dublin city centre, Ireland's 'Emergency Brains Trust' was gathered.

It was Thursday when a message first came from Met Éireann to the Department of Housing, warning that a major storm was brewing on the Atlantic horizon.

Such warnings are uncommon but rarely create panic among officials in the section of Minister Eoghan Murphy's department that focuses on Fire and Emergency Management.

"This was different though. At that stage, Met Éireann weren't entirely sure what was coming but they knew it was trouble," a source said.

By Friday, Mr Murphy had summoned the National Emergency Co-ordination Group (NECG) which brings together Government departments, emergency responders, the OPW, Defence Forces, ESB, Irish Water and other agencies that might have something to offer.

They met several times on Saturday in what was Ireland's version of Trump's 'situation room' - an unglamorous, overcrowded boardroom nerve centre located a short distance from Leinster House.

The key players, flanked by advisors, sat at a rectangular table built around two flatscreen TVs.

Met Éireann's Evelyn Cusack was in the spotlight. Her audience were not weather experts so she repeatedly walked them through "modelling and mapping" until everybody was clear on the threat level.

Based on her advice, a selection of counties were put on 'Red Alert' - but by lunchtime on Sunday "things were getting even more serious".

A sub-base was set up in Cork to co-ordinate the plan for the city, county and Kerry. Officials phoned in from there during the Sunday afternoon meeting.

Read More: Varadkar wades in to see 'with own eyes' the damage

"There was a sense that we were heading for something unprecedented. Watching the images of the eye heading for the south coast was like something out of the movies," said one insider.

At 1pm, a decision was taken to "go red". Eoghan Murphy began phoning Opposition parties to brief them on the news and the media were told that "all unnecessary travel should be avoided on Monday".

Social media sneered at the idea of workers hiding under their duvets for the day.

As a result, Leo Varadkar's controversial new 'spin unit' swung into action for the first tangible time. John Concannon, the head of the Strategic Communications Unit, began calling newspaper editors.

He flagged a national emergency and asked them to take the situation seriously. It was largely unnoticed in the Dáil yesterday but Mr Varadkar made a point of thanking the media for their assistance in "getting messages out".

"The front-page headlines on the newspapers on Monday morning were also very helpful. I do not think anyone who saw the front pages of the major newspapers on Monday morning could be in any doubt as to how serious the storm was," he said.

The Taoiseach, along with Mr Murphy and ministers Paul Kehoe, Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Damien English, was at the NECG meeting on Monday morning as real-time reports rolled in from the south coast. In meteorological language, Ophelia had been downgraded from a hurricane, but when a 191kmh gust was recorded at Fastnet Rock nobody was worried about the technicalities.

'We were sitting there saying, 'S***, this is even worse than we thought'," said one key player.

Particular concern was expressed that the Tetra mobile radio network which is used by emergency services and county councils could be knocked out.

A press conference was called for 10.40am in which Mr Varadkar urged people who had already travelled to work to "stay where they are".

There were some complaints afterwards that the briefing didn't have anybody to relay the message in sign language. An interpreter was drafted in for subsequent briefings.

Very few members of the group left the building throughout the day. The Defence Forces delivered food from Cathal Brugha Barracks, a choice of chicken curry or sweet and sour beef.

As the storm moved north, a 20-minute debate took place on whether to close schools for a second day because of the storm.

Ultimately, it was the decision of the Department of Education, which was represented by Secretary General Seán Ó Foghlú, but NECG chair Sean Hogan went around the table seeking opinions.

There was no real dissent. The logic was that if they were still telling people to stay indoors, they couldn't feasibly ask principals to check on schools just as darkness was coming in.

When the NECG gathered yesterday, sympathy was expressed to the families of Clare O'Neill, Michael Pyke and Fintan Goss.

But there was also relief that Ophelia hadn't stolen more lives.

With calm restored, Mr Hogan "deplored" people who put the lives of rescue workers at risk by ignoring all the warnings.

And the Government is to better define what action people should take in the event of another red alert. All sides hope it won't be any time soon.

Irish Independent

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