What A Disaster

Nature may have disrupted our lives, but the communication disaster surrounding Tropical Storm Irene was purely man made. By 12 noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, it became clear LIPA, the media and local government all failed the public.

Of course, LIPA gets the lion’s share of the blame, and rightly so. When the utility dusted off a decades old, decentralized restoration plan, it failed to realize what a monumental communication strategy it would need. Not only would LIPA need the manpower and the connectivity to simultaneously monitor decentralized operations across the Island, it would need to create channels for feeding its own news — successes, works in progress, and problems — back to headquarters.

Instead, the new guy at the helm, came forth and announced he had nothing to say, and no way to find out in a timely manner. That’s the moment when media and government should have seized control.

To be fair to Michael Hervey, he’s new at this. And he got clobbered by one seriously angry woman. But let him be a case study for all CEOs on this Island: If communicating is not among your major priorities, if the need for publicly providing leadership and reassurance escapes your attention, then step down. Or, be smart enough to surround yourself with people who get it, before your own personal version of Irene takes hold and takes over.

A media savvy CEO would’ve made the world of a difference in this instance.

Say what you will about former LIPA head Richard Kessel, but the man is a master communicator. And, as all CEOs set the internal culture of a company, LIPA’s former senior management took communication duties with serious intent and obligation. Jumping out of the shower to take a reporter’s call — as opposed to finishing up, drying off and calling back, and possibly missing a deadline — was commonplace.

If Kessel (pictured right) had been there, it would have been a weekend of Kessel on over drive. Always on the radio. Pictured in the newspapers and online sources, giving interviews from sites of devastation — and providing plenty of photo ops, probably in that horizontal-striped polo shirt, bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to working crews, and donning a helmet and going up in a cherry picker, just to convey the image of no detail too small for the person in charge of cleaning up such a mess. Behind him, communication staff would be issuing new statements and, in today’s realm of technological wonders, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking news on a 24/7 basis. Would the power have been restored faster? Hard to say. But communication would have been fast and furious.

Instead, today’s LIPA took to fielding angry calls and, in return, offered sympathy. That’s no strategy. Occasional tweets and Facebook messages illustrated how out of touch the utility — like many local companies here — is with our rapidly changing local news landscape and its impact.

The truth of the matter is, with Newsday weakened by serious cutbacks and so few local reporters left to comb the Island, Hervey had a golden opportunity to feed the media whatever story he wanted. Lord knows there’s not enough experienced reporters around who would have verified the facts during a natural disaster. Thirty years ago, when radio and print reporters roamed our streets and could bear witness to events, companies wouldn’t be able to get away with what I am suggesting. Today, it’s a different ballgame.
Which brings us to the media, which was clearly so reliant on LIPA spoon feeding them information that, in the hours after the storm, we heard plenty of songs on the radio, but little news. In those fleeting moments when some news became available, all news sources — print and radio — referred the public to check web sites. Problem was, most of us were in the dark, with no connectivity to go to websites. Without power, television news is a mute point. WALK and JVC hooked up, which was progress, but they could’ve capitalized on their combined ability to continually deliver news and information to a desperate public. Barnstable streaming News12 — something I had advocated for long ago — offered news to people who were unable to access it any other way.

Long Island has always lacked enough news gatherers, but what’s happened now is that they are using technology they haven’t quite come to grips with. The lack of education of those running newsrooms never shone more brightly than this past week, when they tried to drive an unconnected public to online news sites for necessary information.

While the media should’ve hunted and haunted LIPA into finding ways to get information out faster, it’s puzzling why local government — with their own emergency management formulas — didn’t step in to help. Prior to the storm, politicians were laudably proactive in protecting the public interest. Perhaps after the storm, they realized their emergency communication plans were not as effective as they thought? Like those reverse311 plans, which call the public to alert them of special situations, such as blocked roads and downed trees. Problem? Many are tied to calling only landlines, and less than one in four U.S. households currently has a land line.

What is abundantly clear is this: All of the so-called emergency communication plans on this Island need to be revamped. Why LIPA let a year-old, notification-via-text plan fall by the wayside is unconscionable. But again, not everyone texts nor has a cell phone, so one method of communication is hardly the answer. Recent history, however, underscores the need for the outlying areas of the United States — places such as New Orleans, Hawaii and now, Long Island — to be required to have superior emergency management plans in place, to protect the public.

This is an issue that all of Long Island has a vested in, and it’s paramount to ensuring the success of what Long Island is to become in the future. If you’re interested in change for the better, count me in.