Q&A: US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag

When an earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, one of the first US agencies to respond was the US Coast Guard's Seventh District which has jurisdiction over the Caribbean, Florida, and surrounding regions.

When an earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, one of the first US agencies to respond was the US Coast Guard's Seventh District which has jurisdiction over the Caribbean, Florida, and surrounding regions. As the Coast Guard dispatched its aircraft, boats, and personnel to survey the damage and ferry supplies, the Seventh District's public affairs team in Miami ballooned from three people to 30 as part of a joint inter-government agency information center (JIC) to coordinate communications efforts.

Public affairs officer Lieutenant Commander Matt Moorlag, a 15-year veteran of the Coast Guard, talks to Rose Gordon about his team's goals and challenges during the humanitarian crisis. From translating press releases into Spanish to using social media to both receive and push information, he notes that reacting quickly was essential for success.

PRWeek: The Seventh District was there when the earthquake hit, what did that mean for your team?

Lt. Cmdr. Matt Moorlag: On January 12, I was in Washington, DC. I got a page on my cell phone, and all the alerts started going off, and… the Seventh Coast Guard District has responsibility for South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and all of the Caribbean, so Haiti is one of the countries we work with on a regular basis. We knew when the earthquake hit that there was a pretty significant potential that there was going to be a lot of damage.

When that earthquake happened, our district commander dispatched cutters that were patrolling in the area, so we were able to get there fairly quickly.

PRWeek: How did your communications team react?

Moorlag: We used the ICS (Incident Command System), that's essentially a framework that many agencies, both government and civilian, use to respond to a whole host of different emergencies. The Coast Guard in Miami set up an incident management team, and a joint information center is what we used to communicate externally to the media and to the American public.

When it hit, we had three people in the office, and they were extremely busy right off the bat. It was very much overwhelming, but the initial actions they took were absolutely critical for public affairs efforts. They established that joint information center; they put in a request for additional forces to arrive; they also put out an initial release of information just to let people know that the Coast Guard is on its way.

At the first opportunity, they were able to get some of our public affairs professionals – professional photographers and videographers – out into the area. Some of the very first imagery of the devastation in Haiti came from the Coast Guard.

PRWeek: And what happened to that content?

Moorlag: It was multipurpose. We used it to get a general sense of what the devastation looked like but we did also… release that to the media.

I flew back to Miami when the earthquake hit, and when I got back to the public affairs office, we just sat down for about five minutes to talk about what we wanted the American people to think about and understand about their Coast Guard's effort in Haiti. And we came up with three very quick traits that talk about the Coast Guard's heritage and what our tradition is and what we were doing in Haiti already. The first thing was that we're responsive, that we were first on scene, and that we're an agile organization. We didn't beat anyone over the head with it. We showed them that through imagery and through allowing traditional media to come aboard our vessels and talk to the personnel.

We also wanted them to know how resourceful the Coast Guard is. We do a lot of different missions. And the last thing was that we were being helpful, that we were helping Haitians but also American citizens. We evacuated more than 1100 Americans out of Haiti. We treated hundreds of Haitians in the first few days.

Those are what we used as our baseline and we built upon that as we went.

PRWeek: Were you ever on the ground?

Moorlag: I was on the ground for six days. I got there on the 21st of January, and my main role there was during the transition period as our joint information center in Miami went from being the primary source of information about Coast Guard activities to playing a support role to the overall US government effort in Haiti.

I took 50 Haitian media out to the US Naval ship Comfort, which is the large hospital ship. The US Joint Information Center was about all the different agencies that were involved – FEMA, Dept. of State, USAID, Coast Guard, Dept. of Homeland Security, and members of the Department of Defense.

PRWeek: It's been a month since the earthquake hit. How involved is your public affairs team at this point?

Moorlag: We're still involved, but we've scaled the joint information center from about 30 people at its largest to about three people full time, and we also have some members in Haiti supporting the US government JIC there. But we're mostly now talking about our port reconstitution efforts. The Coast Guard has a significant role at the port, and we're assisting the US Navy and others in trying to get it up and running quickly.

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