Portsmouth's Sandy communication and response

Have gotten a couple of e-mails questioning my pointed observations about the Town's "debris pickup" reversal, and wanted to be very clear: this is in no way meant to be a reflection on the work Dave Kehew or the Department of Public Works (DPW). Clearly, this was an issue with a Town Council policy, and I'm very glad that was worked out. I apologize to Mr. Kehew and DPW for any unintended offense.

For the record, I want to commend DPW, the Police, Fire, and Town staff who worked through the weekend and the last couple of days to keep us all safe. You first responders are heroes.

In particular, I would like to thank the EMA volunteers who staffed the Emergency Operations Center and both monitored and posted to Facebook and Twitter. This was, I think, an innovative, successful effort, and all the citizens of Portsmouth should thank them for being willing to step up at this critical time.

But I stand by my previous concerns about our Town Council's focus. As late as Saturday, Council President Joe Robicheau said in an e-mail, "As far as the storm goes there is nothing to communicate to residents." If the Council had been at least considering their storm response, the flip-flop on debris pickup could have been avoided.

And I'm absolutely not going to back down as far as deleting posts. When the government communicates information to citizens, it is *never* acceptable to simply remove it. You can modify the post, you can change the heading to "UPDATED" and note that the information is superseded, but to simply press the delete key is, in my opinion, tampering with a public record. Hey Larry, can I get an "Amen?"

Localblogging, 02871, flooding, Sandy

Portsmouth reverses course on debris pickup, deletes EMA post

Screen Shot 2012-10-30 at 3.55.16 PM.png
Forgot to remove it from Facebook, guys.

In a sudden reversal, just hours after Portsmouth EMA posted a note saying that the Department of Public Works (DPW) would not pick up yard debris from Sandy, they posted an e-mail from DPW director Dave Kehew saying that residents could place branches curbside by Nov 7.

Good job by DPW being responsive, but a bad job by Portsmouth EMA for trying to cover their tracks by deleting the original post. That's not transparency.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Portsmouth "working on" helping with Sandy yard debris

According to a post on the Portsmouth EMA blog, just as it was in the initial aftermath of Irene, the Town of Portsmouth will not be helping residents with yard debris, although they're "working on" it.

Disposal of Storm Yard Debris
Posted on October 30, 2012
Due to a current Town ordinance, the Town DPW cannot assist in the dosposal of private storm yard debris.  We are working on a potential waiver of the ordinance for the Town to help with Sandy yard debris

They had a whole year to figure this out.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Portsmouth Council President Joe Robicheau responds to Sandy info concerns

Portsmouth Town Council President Joe Robicheau has responded to the questions I sent Thursday, after he sent me the same "Somali piracy" letter to the editor already posted on Patch. Since my guess was that the more pressing issue on most residents's minds was the approach of Sandy, I asked the following questions:

  1. Why are you sending non-time-sensitive political letters today, instead of communicating to residents of Portsmouth about the impending storm?
  2. What steps have you, as Town Council President, taken to address the problems in communication and organization that happened in the run up to Irene last year?
  3. Middletown is posting storm updates on their home page and Facebook (compare Middletown's home page to Portsmouth's -- attached) -- why is Portsmouth not doing this?
  4. What would you say to reassure Island Park residents?

Town Council President Joe Robicheau's unedited responses follow.

Hello John,

1. I disagree that tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge is a non-time-sensitive issue. The threatened toll is the absolute largest issue facing people in Newport and Bristol counties and the window of opportunity to overturn the initiative is very narrow. We must pursue the Governor and General Assembly with all haste.

As far as the storm goes there is nothing to communicate to residents. It is merely considered a Weather Event. It could certainly develop into something more ominous. Until then it would be unwise to de-sensitize residents with premature warnings.

2. There was most definitely confusion in the Island Park neighborhood relative to evacuation during Irene. Since then, the administration has taken steps to improve public outreach with the able assistance of dedicated civic volunteers Gary Gump, Rich Talipsky and Doug Smith. I understand their efforts are coordinated by Portsmouth Emergency Management coordinator John King. Additionally, the Council has budgeted for, and the Town has installed a reverse “911” system, Code Red, with which to communicate information to residents. This system is supplemental to Police, Fire, and DPW assets.

3. Portsmouth spends more resources on Schools than Middletown. Middletown has an IT staff of 3, and a Town Engineer. Portsmouth is pursuing use of social media and will integrate it as time and resources permit.

4. Island Park is the most vulnerable residential area on Aquidneck Island. Portsmouth Police and Fire Departments are well aware of our most fragile residents and will assist them, specifically, if required. All other residents in the neighborhood should keep informed via radio and television outlets as to the track and timing of the storm. The Town will use all means at its disposal to communicate an evacuation notice should it be required. Information specific to Portsmouth will be posted on the Town’s website. Portsmouth Emergency Management is tracking the storm, Sandy, and the latest information can be obtained at http://portsmouthemergency.com/. Additionally, residents can monitor AM radio stations WADK 1540 and WSAR 1480, Portsmouth Emergency Facebook page, and follow developments on Twitter @PortsmouthEmerg.

I am not the mayor of Portsmouth. I am an elected legislator. As President of the Council, however, I am responsible for declaring a state of emergency and storm driven evacuations. Accordingly, I am updated routinely by the RIEMA, Portsmouth EMA and the Town Administrator. If necessary I will be in radio contact with Town staff should events require my attention.

I hope this information is helpful.

Joe Robicheau

Let's see. 1. Scary messages on tolls are not desensitizing but storm information is? Everyone from the Governor to the Portsmouth Library has posted storm info, but for the Town to offer specifics would be desensitizing. Okay. 2. The first Council vote on the reverse 911 system actually failed. 3. Robicheau blames the school budget for the lack of resources to inform citizens. Well played, sir. 4. Not sure what the Town has done since last year when "all means at its disposal to communicate an evacuation notice" amounted to hearing about it online and nobody home at Town Hall. We'll see what the APRA request turns up.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy, Joe Robicheau

Portsmouth posts Hurricane Sandy info

Late this afternoon, the Town of Portsmouth posted storm preparation info on the Town web site, the Portsmouth Emergency Management site, and the EMA Facebook page. According to the posting:

"Portsmouth Town Administrator John Klimm held a late Friday afternoon meeting with Town department leaders and emergency management personnel to insure that the Town is prepared for anything that Hurricane Sandy might deliver to Portsmouth."

Thanks to Mr. Klimm for making this happen.

And Portsmouth EMA has a Twitter feed as well, and has suggested the hash tag #Sandy02871. If you're on Twitter, we can all use that hash tag to share situation reports and communicate directly with EMA during the storm.

I would urge everyone in Portsmouth, especially my neighbors here in Island Park, to bookmark these sites. And to all the folks at Town Hall, thanks.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Is Portsmouth prepared for Sandy? How do we know?

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.

Screen Shot 2012-10-25 at 2.35.49 PM.png
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.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy, Joe Robicheau

Portsmouth Escape Bridge re-opened to traffic [updated]


As of 9am this morning, the Escape Bridge connecting the Hummocks to Island Park in Portsmouth was once again open to all traffic, after three years of weight restrictions and a 10-month, $2M rebuild by the RI Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT). When this reporter drove by at just after 9, there were two workers from Cardi finishing up some work on the northern walkway, but cars and pedestrians were already taking advantage of the span.

This is the place in the story where I would normally thank RIDOT for making this happen -- and I would have, had it not been for this line in yesterday's RIDOT press release:

Through a $2 million contract with Cardi Corporation, RIDOT replaced the superstructure of the 51-year-old bridge, one of two access points that serve as evacuation routes for the Island Park area.

One of two evacuation routes?

Would RIDOT be considering Park Avenue and Boyd's Lane (which is the only other egress from the Park) an evacuation route? Have they seen this video from Irene? It's as if they couldn't issue one final press release without continuing to advance the notion (inherent in their persistence in calling this the "Cove" bridge) that this was somehow not the only way out of Island Park.

I did ask RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin about that other evacuation route, but he had not responded to my e-mail by press time. I'll update when he replies.

Update: Charles E. St. Martin III, RIDOT Chief of Information and Public Relations confirms that Boyd's lane is the evacuation route described in their press release:

"Park Ave to Boyd's Lane is an evacuation route. You should inquire with the local police and/or RIEMA about when an evacuation order might be given prior to a hurricane and any tidal surge and flooding that would come with it."

Okay, fine. Whatever you say. Here's a look at Park Ave during Irene.

I stand by my contention that there's only ONE way out of the Park.

Localblogging, 02871, flooding, Escape Bridge

Portsmouth's Escape Bridge to reopen tomorrow

Portsmouth's Escape Bridge will finally reopen at 9am tomorrow after a 10-month rehab, according to a press release from the RI Dept. of Transportation. Here's the blurb:

Through a $2 million contract with Cardi Corporation, RIDOT replaced the superstructure of the 51-year-old bridge, one of two access points that serve as evacuation routes for the Island Park area. Built in 1961, the bridge primarily serves local traffic and has an average daily traffic count of 2,100 vehicles per day.

The recently completed work allows RIDOT to lift all weight restrictions on the bridge. The structure's weight limit was lowered to four tons in 2009 because of its deteriorating condition.

Editorial note: Written from a press release.

Localblogging, 02871, flooding, Escape Bridge

RIDOT: Portsmouth Escape Bridge opening slips again

The Escape Bridge opening date has slipped again, this time to "mid-September" according to the latest "Community Update" from the RI Dept. of Transportation (RIDOT).

Community Update W-E  9-16-2012.jpg

I've begun to understand why they didn't want to put the completion date on these press releases.

Full disclosure: I live in the evacuation area that needs this bridge.

Localblogging, 02871, flooding, Escape Bridge

Rep. Edwards promises followup with RIDOT on Escape Bridge

Rep. Jay Edwards (D-70), whose district includes the area of Island Park affected by the closure of the Escape Bridge, has reached out to RI Dept. of Transportation (RI DOT) Director Michael Lewis for clarification on the status of this critical evacuation route, he told harddeadlines this afternoon.

In an e-mail, Edwards said that the statement published here from RIDOT's public information officer contradicted assurances he had been given by Lewis.

"That is not what Director Lewis told me on July 24. In fact, he was quite clear about it, that all they had to do was remove the Jersey barriers," Edwards said.

Edwards said he will be speaking to Lewis within the next day. "This bridge has been one of my top concerns since I was first elected," he said.

Full disclosure: I am a supporter of Jay Edwards.

Localblogging, 02871, RI, flooding, Escape Bridge