Hours after a gunman killed 49 clubgoers and injured more than 50 others in his city, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told his community —- and the world —- how to respond to the worst mass shooting in the nation's history.
"We need to support each other. We need to love each other. And we will not be defined by a hateful shooter. We will be defined by how we support and love each other," Dyer said after the attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando, on June 12.
Dyer, 57, was elected as mayor of his hometown in 2003. Prior to that, the soft-spoken Democrat —- a lawyer, who also has a degree in civil engineering —- spent a decade in the state Senate, where he served for three years as minority leader.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Orlando Mayor John "Buddy" Dyer:
As mayor, what's been your biggest challenge in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in the history of the U.S.?
Every day is a challenge. It's been a continuum from the active shooter event, to the clearing of the crime scene, to the identifying of the victims, to the notifying the families, and now we're in the families' and victims' assistance (phase). So it's been a continuum of issues. But my priority has been communication, and making sure that the public is well-informed on everything that we're doing.
(Your office launched a website where you're posting all of the public records related to the event. Why did you do that?)
We're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. The FBI, who are used to not releasing anything, are leaning on us on that side, and then the press is leaning from the other side. It's actually to our benefit to have everything released so that people aren't speculating on what happened that night, because we know that the OPD (Orlando Police Department) did an unbelievable job and saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives that night. Some people are filling in the blanks with stuff that's not true, so getting more information out is good for us. Now, taking all the time to respond to all of those public-records requests is somewhat taxing.
You addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Sunday, giving advice about how to prepare for situations like the attack on the Pulse nightclub. What did you tell your colleagues?
The first thing I told them was that this type of tragedy could happen in any of our cities, and that we all need to be prepared for that possibility. It is better to be prepared for that possibility than to simply believe that it couldn't happen in your city. I wanted to emphasize that. That's something that the Red Cross had asked me to do, specifically. I wanted to do that, and then I gave them a little bit of a timeline and a perspective on what I saw, going through it, and then some lessons learned or perspectives that I had. The perspectives, number one, had to do with communication, and being concise in giving out the facts and making sure that the public knows that you have it under control, and that the community is safe. I also emphasized that, out of the box, the public needs to see them. They need to see their mayor, and not an FBI agent that they've never seen in their life. That was one thing.
Two, is creating the relationships that you can't create on the fly in a crisis. The everyday job of a mayor is reaching out into various communities. Everybody's in my cell phone now —- I do have the advantage of having done this for 14 years, plus 10 in the Senate. I talked about having various police officers and first responders paired in technology, and especially training, and emphasized the fact that one of the things we did, we took some heat in purchasing the BearCat (armored vehicle) that we used to breach the building. When we bought it, there was a little bit of a backlash a couple of years ago, just the buying of military-style equipment for police. But the bad guys are as heavily armed as professional armies, so we have to be as well. I talked to them about financial readiness, in terms of contingency funds. One thing I told them they'd never think of, we happened to have a non-profit that we maintain ... When the faucet turned on, people were wanting to give us money, we had a place to accept it, and not a lot of cities do, and would have probably been fumbling around trying to figure out how to actually take contributions.
The last thing I emphasized was the importance of having good people in your organization that will go above and beyond when called upon. Because we have so many city employees, not just first responders, but especially the people doing victims' assistance that were traveling so far out of their lanes that they probably couldn't see the center line of the road.
I've been watching you very closely since your first television appearance just hours after the Pulse attack. I can't imagine the toll it's taken on you and your staff. How has this affected you personally, and what are you doing to cope right now?
I am looking straight ahead with blinders on, and taking on the things that are in front of us. We made a policy, day one, that if there was a decision that did not have to be made immediately, we would not make that decision and we would defer. So we are dealing with things that have to be dealt with immediately. I'll give you an example of that. Everybody's already clamoring about the memorial. We know we're going to do some type of permanent memorial, but we do not have to stress about that right now while we're still trying to help families and victims. On a more personal level, we've had some counseling. I did some counseling with OPD —- they call it debriefing, but it was counseling —- and OFD (Orlando Fire Department). I listened to what they were doing, and I brought it in for my own staff, who were just as traumatized, because they had been servicing victims and talking to people who had been shot, or whose family members had been shot. We had 1,100 people at the victims' assistance center, over 300 families. I almost immediately, on Wednesday —- I work out at 6 a.m. —- I went back to working out. I went back to eating regularly. I went back to drinking all the water I should be drinking, and trying my best to get into bed by 10 o'clock or so, and getting enough rest. But I will concede, by the end of the day, if I'm not physically spent, I'm definitely emotionally spent.
If there's one thing people could learn from this tragedy, what would you want it to be?
An event like this can rip a community apart. Or it can bring people together and unify them. In our case, I am so proud of our residents, how they've pulled together and have not let the hate-filled act of a deranged killer define us. We've been defined by our response, and that's with love, with compassion, with unity. What I've seen is a lot of people open their hearts that were maybe not as accepting towards people that live different lifestyles or disagreed with them. There is more of an openness. And one of the ministers said, and I've taken this to heart, that Orlando has been anointed to show the world how to combat hatred and evil and how to promote equality and embrace diversity. I think our citizens have been charged with that, and we're going to have to show the world on a continuous basis, and not just over these two weeks, how to do that. We're going to be one of the cities that continue to embrace diversity the most, anywhere there is. I'm going to mention one other thing. This is the weirdest sort of thing. Everybody knows Orlando for our theme parks. And the world has seen the rest of Orlando in the last couple of weeks.
(You have been focused on a message of love and compassion. What do you think you can do to ensure that a message like that takes hold, given how divided our country is?)
I would hope that the significance of the Pulse event, Pulse tragedy, is exactly that. That 10 years from now, people say that was a catalyst to change our country to be more loving, compassionate and unified. That that was the point in our history when that occurred. Because our country has come together, right, behind us, with us. There were 250 mayors at the conference. Every one of them came up to me to show them a picture of their vigil, their city hall lit up in rainbow colors, their main bridge lit up, or whatever. Every one of them had something to show me.
There has been an outpouring of support from around the world. The OneOrlando Fund, combined with contributions from Equality Florida, has topped $17 million. What's the best way for people to contribute if they want to help, other than monetarily?
You know what's really lifted us up? Seeing all the vigils and prayers. When you see Orlando United signs at little diners in small towns in Iowa or you see the London Bridge lit up, or buildings all over the world, that's very uplifting to us. One of the clerks in the city clerk's office was on a trip to Kentucky last week. She said that even the small diners they stopped in while they were driving on the road, almost every business had something about standing with Orlando. So that's pretty cool.