In a 24-hour blackout, like the one the whole village of Margaretville had last weekend, my house is a party. I’ve got solar lanterns and a woodstove with a cooktop; I’ll be fine for a week. While my neighbors were huddling and freezing and eating cereal with the milk they were keeping cold on the back porch, we were making pancakes and playing nerdy board games and warming up the neighborhood kid gang.
We would’ve been fine, if my wife weren’t a politician.
For a lot of local residents, the power outage lasted three days, which is a long time to go without heat or a well pump. As the weekend wore on with hundreds of Town of Middletown households still in the dark, Julia began to worry about her constituents. On Saturday, she swung into full action mode; she spent most of the day on the phone with NYSEG, the state, the county, the local fire departments. By Sunday, she had organized a warming center at the Margaretville firehouse, and was spreading the word through Facebook and word of mouth that the town had dry ice and bottled water for whoever wanted it.
With no official town channels at her disposal, and no way to alert the masses other than to spray and pray, just getting the word out about what was happening was an uphill battle. I thought: There’s got to be a better way.
Well, there is. And our next door neighbors are on it.
With 120 square miles of territory, Shandaken is one of the largest towns in Ulster County by area. It’s also one of the most sparsely populated. Fewer than a third of its 3,085 citizens live in the comparatively civilized hamlets of Pine Hill and Phoenicia; the rest are scattered across the hills and cloves. Long, wending rural roads, like Oliverea and Woodland Valley, are vulnerable to being cut off from the outside world, either electronically or physically.
It’s not a place you’d expect see on the cutting edge of digital technology. But somehow Shandaken has made it into the 21st century.
In 2016, the town signed up with SwiftReach, a New Jersey company that handles emergency communications for municipalities, schools, large businesses and other unwieldy organizational amoebas. In the event of a disaster, officials can use the company’s Swift911 system to alert residents to road and power outages, dangerous weather, boil-water alerts and other fast-moving disaster news. They can also use the system to muster volunteers in an emergency.
The system sends text alerts to cell phones, but for dinosaurs that don’t do cell or internet — a species that still makes up about a quarter of Shandaken’s population — the alerts also go out by voice to landlines. Officials can call alerts in over the phone, and the system will convert them to text. A single alert can be sent automatically to text, phone, email, and the town’s social media accounts, and citizens who sign up for the service can choose what methods they’d like to get alerts in.
If Shandaken’s computer system is knocked out by flooding — a prospect that, we have learned the hard way, is not too far out of the realm of possibility — the emergency alert network and all of the town’s information will still be up and running on SwiftReach’s Mahwah servers.
Shandaken’s newfound digital fluency is largely thanks to Joyce Grant, the town’s indefatigable clerk. She was the one who found SwiftReach with a Google search, and she handles most of the message posting. The town supervisor, the highway superintendent and the chief of police also have access to post to the system.
Grant loves it.
“It really is an awesome system. We reach about 800 people in 20 seconds,” she says. “In this area, you need something like this.”
The company’s Swift911 service costs the town about $1000 a year, Grant says. Shandaken’s electronic revolution is basically paying for itself: The town now saves about $700 year in postage by sending most residents digital bills instead of paper ones.
Shandaken’s willingness to try new things might have something to do with how hard their communications systems got owned by the Irene floods in 2011. Power and phone lines were down across much of town. Oliverea Road sprouted a 50-foot canyon that could be crossed only by ATV. At one point during the disaster, officials were driving through the streets of Phoenicia making public safety announcements with a loudspeaker. Compared to the Herculean physical efforts Shandaken officials made just to stay in touch with residents during Irene, sending a few text alerts is a cakewalk.
This may be the brave new world, but it’s still the Catskills. The town expects a certain fortitude from its citizens.
“We only send the alert for snow if it’s over six inches. Because if you live here, and you can’t drive in under six inches, don’t stay,” she says, laughing. “You can quote me on that.”
So far, most of our rural Catskills towns are sticking to the old ways. We have our own systems, official and otherwise, for making sure our neighbors are okay. Popular forms of official disaster response include “driving over to check on that old guy down the road,” “not having town email addresses,” and “it’ll be fine, people are tough around here.”
I hold out hope that we might be getting a little more organized. When I called the Shandaken town hall to talk to Grant about the system, not long after NYSEG got most of the region’s power working again, she had company in the office: Olive’s town clerk, who was there to learn more about it and see if it might work out for Olive too.
If you ask me, it’s a great idea, and long overdue around here. I may have to have a word with my local elected official about it.