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Shedding light: How Western Massachusetts city and town officials succeeded -- and failed -- in keeping residents informed following historic October snowstorm

Saturday, November 05, 2011

By Greg Saulmon, The Republican

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Many area residents relied on smartphones and other mobile devices to find information about recovery efforts in their communities.

In the wake of an unprecedented October snowstorm that plunged the region into darkness last weekend, Western Massachusetts residents turned to their municipal officials to shed light on recovery efforts.

Results varied.

Communities that were most successful in relaying information took advantage of two important trends in technology: the popularity of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers, and the high degree of interactivity offered by social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Mobile devices allowed residents who’d lost both power and cable or phone-line based Internet connections to access information during the outage. Citizens charged the devices in their cars, or at “charging stations” many cities and towns established during the week.

Social networks created a two-way flow of information between residents and municipal officials. Mayors and public utilities could issue statements, but residents could also ask questions and help to direct the emergency response.

Westfield Gas & Electric’s
Facebook page blossomed from a following of around 500 “likes” on the morning after the storm to over 3,000 by Thursday night as droves of residents chose to follow the utility’s updates.

Over the course of the week, the utility posted real-time power restoration information to Facebook. Its
full website, meanwhile, carried summaries of where crews had been and where they’d be.

Those postings on behalf of the utility often struck a conversational tone, offering a human dimension to the massive infrastructure effort. “Shaker Village should have lights!” read one Thursday update.

Information about power restoration to specific streets turned out to be critical for residents who’d left town and were trying to decide whether to spend another night in a shelter or pay for an extra day in a hotel.

Mayor Daniel Knapik relayed the utility’s updates on
his own Facebook page, where he also offered information about school closings, plans for the removal of storm debris and more. He also used the medium to relay messages from residents to the utility.

“Mayor, Crown Street is incorrectly marked as in full when the dead end side of Crown is still without power,” one resident wrote in response to a power restoration report which Knapik posted Thursday.

Within minutes, the mayor replied: “I have put an inquiry in for you.”

In Chicopee,
Mayor Michael Bissonnette stressed the importance of interactivity in delivering information to – and receiving information from – the residents of his city.

Using social networking is nothing new for Bissonnette; he began relying on Facebook during a snowstorm that hit the region two years ago.

“I realized just how helpful it can be because you’re getting information in real time. It was incredibly useful this past week,” Bissonnette said on Thursday.

In the aftermath of this week’s storm, residents used the social network to report trees down and power lines obstructing roadways, which, in turn, allowed the city to be more responsive in its cleanup efforts.

Chicopee Electric Light superintendent Jeff Cady stayed in near-constant contact with the mayor via text message, which gave Bissonnette the means to easily update his Facebook community on power restoration efforts.

Bissonnette also took an “any means necessary” – or, rather, “any device necessary” – approach in posting his Facebook updates. He used either a laptop or tablet computer, a smartphone and the desktop computer in his office, depending on where he was at any given moment.

In an emergency situation, even those on the other side of the digital divide can benefit from how a city or town uses technology to spread information. It’s a short leap from a social network to word-of-mouth.

Early Monday morning, Agawam resident Cecilia Calabrese awoke to find the thermostat in her home reading 52 degrees. Realizing that sleep wouldn’t return, she used her smartphone to post to
Mayor Richard Cohen’s Facebook wall.

“Can you post updates via your Facebook page? Many without power also are without phones but may be able to access updates using smart phones,” she wrote.

In a telephone interview on Friday, Calabrese -- a former city councilor who is campaigning to return to the council -- said she made the request after seeing how the Chicopee and Westfield mayors were offering updates to their citizenry.

While Agawam had been issuing automated “robo-calls“ to residents, Calabrese said, the calls were missing residents whose telephone land lines were out and who hadn’t signed up for the Connect-CTY service prior to the storm. Moreover, Calabrese said, she heard from a friend who is hearing-impaired: while the calls were coming through, the woman couldn’t understand them.

More than 24 hours after her first message to the mayor, Calabrese wrote again: “I’ll post updates here as I get them.” For the remainder of the week, Calabrese posted observations about work crew sightings and power restoration based on her drives around town and contact with neighbors.

“Even if it’s bad news, people would rather hear bad news than no news,“ Calabrese said.

Cohen told a reporter from The Republican mid-week that the storm had knocked out servers that allow updates to his city’s website, and that with power back on, information would be added to both the municipal website and to Facebook.

The Facebook updates never came, and the initial information posted to
Agawam’s website on Wednesday included only links to the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. outage map and to the website of the Agawam Office of Emergency Management.

Even by Friday morning, though, the Agawam emergency management website carried no information about the storm. A visitor seeking to offer feedback by clicking on a link labeled “Comments” received only a page bearing an error message: “THIS SERVICE IS CURRENTLY NOT AVAILABLE DUE TO A SPAM ISSUE.”

The website of Southwick’s Emergency Management Agency languished for much of the week as well.

The home page of Southwick’s municipal website carried a
link to information about a warming center at Town Hall, an offer of bottled water to residents who rely on wells, and eventually a list of streets where power had been restored. But, those updates were lost on anyone who attempted to find information through the emergency management agency’s website, where a red banner proclaimed “Click here for Updated Emergency Management Information.” Until late Thursday afternoon – a full five days after the snow began to fall – the link brought users to a warning about Hurricane Irene; it was updated Thursday night.

Back in Westfield, resident Rob Porter said he’d already seen the June tornado savage his neighborhood in the city’s Shaker Heights neighborhood. Then, the October snow knocked out power to his home for five days. His lights flickered back on at around 4 p.m. on Thursday.

Later that night, he went online and posted a simple assessment to Mayor Knapik’s Facebook page: “I think social media has been great for this city.”