When Superstorm Sandy knocked out power, Internet and phone to thousands in the Smithtown area, elected officials at all levels scrambled to communicate crucial info the public, often posting dozens of social media updates to inform residents left in the dark.
But in stark contrast to neighboring New York officials, county representatives and even the governor of New York, Smithtown’s state delegation of Sen. John Flanagan and Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick steered clear of social media and told Patch this week that it took days after the storm’s initial destruction for them to find a way to communicate with their constituents.
Flanagan, R-Smithtown, said due to the power outages he did not have access to his Smithtown Main street offices until Nov.2, five days after the storm hit. At that point, 32,674 in the area were still without power and outcry over Long Island Power Authority communication had begun to build.
“We primarily do email blasts. I’m not worried about people’s ability to get in contact with us. We had a lot of direct contact via phone,” Flanagan said.
The state senator sent out one email before Hurricane Sandy struck, and four emails between Oct. 30 through Thanksgiving Day to his list of about 24,000 constituents in his district, which includes the entire Town of Smithtown and Three Village area and portions of Northport.
Fitzpatrick, R-St. James, said his offices were without power for six days after the storm, and that he had no generator or secondary location to work from.
“When the power came on Saturday the answering machine was full. While I was here, the phone was ringing. I didn’t leave till 6 p.m. Saturday night,” Fitzpatrick said.
The assemblyman said he helped facilitate emergency help for residents post-Sandy, including a St. James family needing power restored immediately for their two children on ventilators.
A Swarm to Social
While Flanagan remains the only state senator on Long Island to not have a public Facebook account, neighboring Sens. Ken LaValle and Lee Zeldin used their accounts throughout the recovery, often to deliver info from LIPA on restoration efforts that the utility shared on daily conference calls with elected officials.
LaValle spokesman Drew Biondo said Facebook enabled them to have two-way conversation with constituents. With many locals without power and phone, scores were using their smartphones to check news sources, email and social media for info.
Biondo said LaValle’s office also shied away from email blasts, but did use email to communicate with those not using social media.
"There are people who are never going to be on Facebook, so it's important to have other lines of communication,” Biondo said.
Twitter was also a major driver of information during the storm, and elected officials including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone and most notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo posted updates almost hourly.
“It was critical to be open, accessible and a conduit for information to constituents and important parties like LIPA and power restoration crews,” said Suffolk Legis. John Kennedy Jr., another local official who leaned heavily on social media to communicate.
Kennedy, R-Nesconset, said he spent days after Sandy living out of his Hauppauge office in the North County Complex on Route 347. He gathered his staff, interns and family members to begin posting emergency information and LIPA updates by Oct. 31.
“We were putting up stuff on Facebook as it was a way for people to see that we were open and we offered ourselves for charging and warming purposes,” Kennedy said.
Once the legislator’s office phone lines were up and working on Nov. 1, Kennedy’s wife Leslie said the staff answered 616 calls between 5:15 a.m. and 1 a.m. Phone calls also poured into Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio’s office and its Public Safety department, both which were open and accepting calls post-Hurricane Sandy due to back-up generators.
Putting Town First
Fitzpatrick this week defended his performance following the storm, and said the most crucial info for residents to follow came from the town.
“The best way to get information is to go through the Town of Smithtown’s website rather than every public official looking to be the saviour,” he said. “I would tell you that one central agency should be disseminating information, so you avoid misinformation.”
It is a sentiment Smithtown Town Supervisor Pat Vecchio backed. He said the town’s Public Safety Department was accepting phone calls and were in the best position to respond due to equipment and resources – two things higher elected officials were without.
When it comes social media, Fitzpatrick said he has his concerns about using social media to reach residents, fearing adding his voice to a stream of potential misinformation and rumors.
The politician, who along with Flanagan handily won re-election in November, added that if post-Sandy analysis shows social media proved a good communication tool for officials he would consider changing his opinion.
Flanagan simply said he does not think his constituents have trouble reaching him.
State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, declined to comment on his colleagues’ social media use.
According to a study on social media and political engagement published in October by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 20 percent of social media user follow elected officials or political candidates. Among them, the number is higher for Republicans, the party of Flanagan and Fitzpatrick, with 32 percent of conservative Republicans using social media to follow officials.
As for Kennedy, the Suffolk legislator said there is no excuse for poor communication.
“We get elected to represent our constituents and they need us to be available all the time, especially in a crisis like that. I don’t know how anyone could not. For me, that would be an irresponsibility,” he said.