Today is Halloween, but it’s not the holiday that has turned me into a witch. What has me riled up is how poorly Wilton seems to have weathered .
I write this column at a point on Sunday afternoon that 78 percent of the town’s residents are still without power.
And yet it took until 2 p.m. Sunday for any information to be posted on the town’s website, or for communication to reach residents desperate to know what the town was doing to help. It wasn’t until 24 hours after the start of the storm for town officials to start to let Wiltonites know what the plan was.
Were warming shelters open to house residents without heat or power? Were roads closed due to downed wires and trees? Had coordination with Connecticut Light & Power begun? Were there restoration estimates?
I understand that emergency resources during an unexpected October storm are devoted to immediate emergency needs—what roads need to be kept plowed and cleared? Are there medical emergencies and public safety situations requiring direct fire and police attention? How do town services get coordinated to keep Wilton residents safe?
However, one of the key things town officials heard from residents in the days following Irene was this: During emergency situations we need better communication from the town.
It’s a crucial part of what residents need to see happening in order to feel that the town is meeting their disaster preparedness needs. They expressed this at a community forum that town officials held post-Irene but it seems we haven’t caught up to what other towns are doing. Citizens continue to express it on Patch forums and anecdotally elsewhere, through word of mouth and on Facebook—some friends remarked how they received no calls from the town even though they were signed up for alerts; one posted his frustration at hearing “nothing but crickets from Town Hall.”
For 24 hours our town website displayed nothing but a pre-storm warning from CT Gov. Dannel Malloy. It linked to a page that said the following: “In the event of an emergency, this page will contain up to the minute information.” As of midday Sunday that only included a winter storm watch in effect for Saturday with projections for snowfall. Already 24 hours beyond the start of the storm, that info had become useless by then—and it certainly wasn’t up-to-the-minute.
In an age of social media and immediate communication, look at what other towns around us have made standard procedure: New Canaan and Weston have Facebook pages with rapid-fire updates and information. Ridgefield’s First Selectman made robo calls and sent emails during Saturday’s storm height, and information was more readily available to the local media in that town.
Two other things I was impressed to learn about New Canaan: One was that they ran robo calls from their Emergency Management team similar to Wilton’s Code Red system; but theirs is interactive—residents could hit a button on their phone during the call that would tell emergency responders if they needed assistance or shelter.
The other was that they had a Google map of New Canaan showing real-time updates of downed wires and fallen trees. This page was up and active Sunday morning.
What would it take to start a Wilton town Facebook page, when a large portion of town residents utilize the social media outlet as a prime means to find information these days? What will it take to upgrade the ability to communicate—or simply utilize our existing communication tools earlier—in an age of communication?
Using social media properly actually involves making the residents an active part of building the network of people involved in disaster response. An interactive page, like on Facebook, would allow residents to communicate with each other about “unplugged” senior citizens in need of assistance or where there were downed wires or blown transformers. This might increase the ability of emergency responders and unite the community in helping one another.
It would let the residents be part of the solution, and help Wilton take that next necessary step forward.
Even with less “modern” modes of communication, Wilton dropped the ball: On Sunday, I called town hall and got an answering machine. There wasn’t even a special message on that answering machine directing people what to do in the aftermath of the storm.
This communication issue is more than just one of ‘inconvenience.’ It’s a safety issue as well when you look at sheltering those without power, or for residents trying to navigate roads blocked by trees and wires. For residents looking for real-time information on outages or disaster response, there are reasonable communication measures that could be adopted.
We knew this storm was coming. There was time between Irene and now to prepare better than this.
By late afternoon Sunday, information was much more complete on town websites, and robo calls from First Selectman Bill Brennan had much more thorough data about what residents could do and what we could expect in the coming days for power restoration and CL&P crews on the ground.
I sense I'm not alone in wishing that we'd had that response happen earlier.
Knowing that we’re in for a long, cold winter, is a simple Wilton Facebook page a great next step?