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At hearing, residents critique Suffolk storm response

Members of the Suffolk County Legislature met to

Members of the Suffolk County Legislature met to listen to post superstorm Sandy responses from Suffolk County citizens in an idea gathering session at the Caracappa Auditorium in Smithtown. (Dec. 6, 2012) Credit: Steven Sunshine

With no power and no way to bypass the large trees lying across her Commack street, Debra Ettenberg spent days after superstorm Sandy all but cut off from the outside world.

In a time like that, the Commack resident told Suffolk lawmakers at a meeting in Hauppauge, local government needs to better ensure its emergency updates reach those who need them most.

"Often times you were told to go to the Internet. We didn't have Internet, we didn't have any electricity, we couldn't get around," Ettenberg said. "It became like telephone: 'Did you hear what this person said, or this agency said?' It was not reliable."

She was joined by about a dozen other Suffolk speakers at a meeting of the legislature's Public Safety and Economic Development & Energy committees. Other residents said communication and coordination are crucial the next time extreme weather shuts down large chunks of Suffolk.

More than 400 homes across the county were destroyed in the Oct. 29 storm, and tens of thousands of properties were without electricity for nearly two weeks. South Shore communities like Lindenhurst and Mastic Beach were hardest hit, while parts of Fire Island were completely breached.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has requested nearly $1.8 billion in federal aid for residents, businesses and municipalities within Suffolk to rebuild.

Lawmakers said they will refer to Thursday night's testimony when they question department leaders at upcoming hearings. Some speakers said the county should reach down to local civic groups to distribute information in a crisis; others said emergency management leaders could have prevented the fuel crisis by having generators to distribute to service stations that couldn't access their gasoline supplies.

Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) agreed with an industry representative who said Suffolk needs to include gas stations in its next disaster plan. "We clearly left our retail service stations out of the mix," he said.

While several speakers used the forum to address deficiencies with the Long Island Power Authority's communications, which the county has almost no authority over, others said that all agencies could have communicated better.

Allison Sarmiento, of Mastic Beach, suggested that the county use social media and other tools to alert residents where disaster recovery centers would be before a storm hits, not after, when chaos reigns.

"Instead of 'Get your flashlights and get your water supplies,' " she said, "how about, 'If you're impacted, here are the locations to go to.' "

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