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Thursday, March 15, 2012

City releases emails detailing who knows what during an emergency, and who determines what is fit for public consumption

NASHUA – Joe Citizen isn’t the only one hungry for information from PSNH when the lights go out.

Emails requested by The Telegraph show Justin Kates, the city’s emergency management director, sent and received more than 30 emails with PSNH officials during Snowtober seeking information about restoration times and sending them information about critical sectors of Nashua that needed power most.

“It’s a two-way street,” Kates said of the communication between the city and the state’s largest power utility. “They really rely on the customers to provide information about those outages.”

But the emails reveal that Kates doesn’t get much more information from the company than the media does. Most of the emails from PSNH employees to Kates were the “situation reports” the company issued multiple times a day.

Specifically, Kates exchanged dozens of emails with PSNH account executives Philip Boivin and Gordon Tuttle in the days after the Oct. 29 storm, which dumped more than a foot of snow, brought down thousands of limbs and wires, and left hundreds of thousands of people without power for more than a week.

The emails included mostly updates from Kates about what streets were still without power, were blocked by trees or had recently been cleared. He also wrote about specific facilities that in particular needed power restored because they housed a high number of elderly or special needs residents, like Greenbriar Terrace and the Hunt Community assisted living home. Later, he wrote about individual streets that were a priority for the city in order to reopen schools.

Other emails included large businesses and intersections without power.

Kates also had a lot of email exchanges with Angelo Marino, chief of the city’s GIS department, about GIS maps the city was producing to layout exactly where limbs and wires were down. Those maps were then forwarded to PSNH to aid the company’s restoration efforts, Kates said.

The Telegraph requested Kates’ emails to ascertain what city officials are doing in the midst of an emergency, especially when the public demands answers to questions like “When is the tree across my street going to be removed?” or “How many more days will it be before my power is restored?”

Despite the release of the emails, requests to follow Kates and have a Telegraph reporter inside the city’s operations center during an emergency were denied by Kates after discussing it with Mayor Donnalee Lozeau.

Kates said it’s easier to release information after a disaster because during the event, he is concerned with “information overload.”

“There’s no secret in what we do,” he said. “It’s so easy to just blow up all kinds of information to the public. But is that really useful for the people that are out there?”

Kates said emergency planners have learned that too much detailed information can lead to people making their own decisions about what is safe and can lead to panic.

Instead, emergency planners prefer to issue careful statements during emergencies.

For instance, the city would rather announce whether schools are open or closed, as opposed to releasing a list of street closures and having parents make their own determinations.

“The lessons that have been learned over the last 30-40 years is that you want to provide as little but very important information,” Kates said. “The amount of information that went out during the last storm is about as far as we can see it going. It’s important to only provide certain information at the certain time that’s pertinent to the society at the particular time.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).