|Left: Middletown home page, Right: Portsmouth.
With all eyes along the East Coast watching the approach of Hurricane Sandy, what has the Town of Portsmouth done to demonstrate to residents that there were lessons learned from the communication failures of Irene? As of today, not much, which has led me to remove my name from the list of communications volunteers and file an Access to Public Records Act request for the after-action report on last year's storm.
|OMG, did the people who posted this complete FEMA ICS-100 and ICS 700.a training?
Yesterday, the Town of Middletown posted three updates to Facebook. Newport posted a preparedness checklist. Portsmouth Patch did stories. Even the Portsmouth Public Library posted to their Facebook wall about preparing for the storm.
From the town of Portsmouth and their Emergency Management team? Crickets.
This, despite a Portsmouth EDC survey that found 60% of respondents felt the Town's communication before Irene was inadequate or poor.
Town Council President Joe Robicheau sent me an e-mail yesterday. Not, as one might hope, with an update about the storm, but the same letter he posted on Patch, accusing the general assembly of Somali-style piracy over Sakonnet Bridge tolls.
Where was President Robicheau during Irene? I replied to his e-mail asking what he had to say to reassure residents of Island Park (who, last year, were subject to an incoherently communicated and haphazardly enforced evacuation order). He has not yet replied.
But this is not just about political differences with Mr. Robicheau, which I freely admit I have. Or vice-president Judi Staven, who, according to remarks posted on Patch, suggested what might be charitably described as an extremely limited role for Town government in communicating public safety information. "If we have a hurricane, turn your TV on. That's how I found out about Hurricane Irene." (See entry at 8:23 pm.)
The problem, I fear, is systemic. I have tried to be part of the solution. After the debacle of Irene, I volunteered with Portsmouth Emergency Management (EMA) to help with communication. Several dedicated volunteers jumped through hoops -- including online courses to obtain FEMA certification. In order to update Facebook.
But despite what appears to be a adequate planning effort, there has been no improvement in communication with the public.
There has been a policy of only using social media to communicate in the most dire conditions. In fact, I was told by the Portsmouth Emergency Manager, John King, that he had even received pushback over my posting about the tabletop exercise the Town conducted back in August. I was asked not to report on the content of EMA volunteer meetings, at which point I threatened to leave.
As a side note, you won't believe what was required to convince our Town's IT consultant that it was even possible to use Facebook. Pointing out that neighboring towns were using it quite happily — that hundreds of state and local governments were using it — could not sway them from some unspecified concerns about security.
At least, finally, Portsmouth EMA has both a blog and a Facebook page but even as of this afternoon, all they are doing is reposting weather reports.
The purpose of advance communication is to reassure the public. Portsmouth is failing. Again.
Full disclosure: I live in Island Park, 14 feet above mean high tide, and we followed the Town's mandatory evacuation order last year. While I'm very glad that the Escape Bridge now provides us a second method of egress from Island Park, I remain deeply concerned about the Town's response.