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Communications with the Public during Hurricane Sandy

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The Borough of Mountain Lakes is a small town in Morris County. An historic community a few miles north of Morristown, Mountain Lakes encompasses approximately 3.1 square miles and a population of 4160 people. There are a little over 1300 occupied housing units in town. Mountain Lakes has 5 lakes, 30 linear miles of winding roads, and stately 100-year old houses set back from street. There are many, many old trees and a large number came down in the storm.

Although Mountain Lakes didn’t sustain the damage that many of the shore communities did, it was hit hard by the storm. Only a few homes were damaged but most streets were blocked with fallen trees and downed wires. Power went out almost immediately to virtually the entire town and telephone and cable went out shortly thereafter. So almost all dwellings that did not have a 3G communicating device lost Internet access early in the storm. The Library lost power and Internet too so it could not be used to take up the slack. The High School did have back-up power and Internet access and was used as a shelter. Borough Hall had back-up power but lost telephone & Internet access.

Power and Internet service did not come back for about 10 days.

Mountain Lakes’ public communications during the storm utilized four methods: website, broadcast e-mail, text messaging, and a town-wide physical meeting.

Email

The town has been using a broadcast e-mail system to communicate with town residents since 2009, Mountain Lakes Broadcast News. It is used to send messages periodically by e-mail from Borough Hall that under normal conditions contain Borough government news. The system is opt-in: messages are sent only to people who subscribe to the system. Subscriptions have grown over time and it now has 1251 subscribers. So, in a town of 1300 dwellings, it covers the majority of town households notwithstanding some people subscribe using multiple e-mail addresses.

The Borough uses a vendor, LSoft Technology, Inc, to host the system. It is implemented using their LISTSERV mailing list service that can automatically broadcast messages to everyone on a list. Lsoft handles all the overhead and housekeeping chores such as security, privacy, and list administration.

Borough Hall lost communications capability at the beginning of the storm and could not send e- mail until Nov 3. However, the Borough staff figured out alternative access after the first day. From then on, the Borough sent a total of 19 Broadcast News mailings over the 9 day period. Each message contained safety, shelter, and recovery status information.

Website

The town’s website has had an on-line bulletin board we call the Notice Board since 2005. It is used to announce Borough news, community events & news, and new website features and is one of the most popular features on the website. Although the webmaster had lost Internet access like everyone else during the storm, he was able to place all notices contained in Broadcast News on the website using his iPhone. Luckily, our ISP, GTI of Morristown did not lose its servers and the website stayed alive throughout. During the 10 days of the storm, a total of 50 notices were added to the Notice Board updating information about safety, shelters, services, and restoration efforts.

Text Messaging

Since most people in town lost Internet access, text messaging was perhaps the most important of our communication vehicles. Mountain Lakes has been using text messaging since mid- 2011. Like Broadcast News, it is opt-in only. It is implemented using Twitter. As you may know, there are two ways of following in Twitter, one by subscribing to Twitter, the other is so- called “fast follow” where you simply send a text message to 40404 asking to follow, whether or not you are a Twitter subscriber. We know there are 134 Twitter subscribers who follow us but Twitter does not provide a count of fast followers so we don’t know the total number of people who get our text messages, only that it’s more than 134.

We do know the subscriber list contains people of all ages, not just young people as we had expected.

Normally, the system is used to send out copies of the Notice Board notices and there have been 333 messages sent since the system was initiated 11⁄2 years ago. During the 10 days of the storm, 64 messages were sent out covering safety, shelter, services and recovery status items.

Physical Meeting

The town held one resident’s meeting at the high school shelter toward the end of the storm. It featured the Mayor, Borough Manager and Schools Superintendent discussing status, restoration efforts, and post-storm plans. It was announced by website, Broadcast News and text message and was attended by several hundred people.

Lessons

There were several lessons from the storm:

  1. The physical meeting was very important because it gave people a way to ask questions and interact with Borough leadership. In planning for future emergencies, such meetings should be planned ahead and scheduled more often.
  2. A better way to make our systems interactive is needed. Although people could of course respond to e-mail and text messages, their questions and comments weren’t visible to others. The Borough web committee should consider adding a comments section to the Notice Board.