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Tweeting up a storm: Officials use social media to keep residents informed

City of Yonkers staff and representatives from city

City of Yonkers staff and representatives from city agencies work inside the Office of Emergency Management after superstorm Sandy. The Yonkers social media team posted this and many other photos on their official Facebook page to keep residents -- many of whom were without power -- informed. (Oct. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Provided by the City of Yonkers

As superstorm Sandy ravaged the Hudson Valley, leaving nearly half a million residents without power, officials, utility companies and local agencies used social media to keep residents in the know.

When a loss of electricity made tuning into television news broadcasts impossible, many turned to smaller screens -- smartphones, tablets and laptops -- for real-time updates, and these updates weren't just coming from the media. Many local governments and officials turned to Twitter and Facebook to provide updates and feedback to residents looking for information on power outages, transportation and school closings.

Local utility companies Con Edison, Orange & Rockland, Central Hudson Gas & Electric and NYSEG took to Twitter to keep residents updated on outages and repairs, with many making an effort to reply directly to customers tweeting them with questions.

Among the state, county and city officials who turned to Twitter: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. All three regularly share their own intel as well as retweet pertinent information from local agencies such as the MTA and the Red Cross, which also provided consistent Sandy updates.

In addition to a steady stream of information, Astorino and Westchester County have made it a point to share photos, videos and stories on their Facebook and Twitter pages to keep residents connected to recovery efforts.

"Before the storm even hit, we huddled up and planned to use heavy social media on updates as they happened," said Diana Costello, who oversees Westchester County's official social media accounts.

On Friday, the Westchester account began tweeting out tips to prepare in case Sandy affected the Hudson Valley. As the storm neared, the account consistently updated residents on what to expect and how to stay safe.

Costello said the county is making a point to provide timely and accurate updates, and answer questions asked by residents.

"We share any information we're getting from the field and put it out immediately," Costello said. "We make sure to follow up directly to the folks who asked the question to make sure they saw the response."

The effort has paid off for the county. "Our engagement has tremendously increased. We have hundreds of new followers and likes," Costello said.

Many city and town governments also remained beacons of information on social media. The villages of Elmsford, Irvington and Nyack, as well as the cities of Poughkeepsie and Yonkers have all kept residents in the loop with active Twitter presences.

"Over 21,000 Yonkers residents lost power. A lot of these people are using smartphones to communicate with friends, families and municipalities through social media," said Christina Gilmartin, who helps run social media for Yonkers.

Since the storm began, Gilmartin has been working from the Office of Emergency Management with about 20 other people, including city officials and representatives from Con Ed and city agencies. She said the updates put out on social media have consisted of real-time information she and a colleague learned about firsthand from the group by being holed up in a centralized location.

Gilmartin called social media an organic way to communicate with residents. "We've been using social media on a consistent basis to update residents since the mayor came to office. We had experience with the water main break in August. Social media was a great way to update people in real time," she said.

Like the Westchester County account, Yonkers also got a boost from its use of social media during the storm.

"It's been incredibly effective. We've grown over 300 Facebook likes in the last 48 hours. Many followers don't have power and are saying this is the best way to access information in real time," Gilmartin said.

The benefit of keeping up an active Twitter account during and after the storm is that residents know they can rely on their local government, Gilmartin said. "It's all hands on deck. The city is there for them."

Several of Newsday Westchester's Twitter followers also sung the praises of the New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service (NYC-ARECS) for helpful storm tweets. Did we miss any other city or agency accounts that did a good job tweeting through the storm? Let us know in the comments section.

Follow Newsday Westchester on Twitter: @NewsdayNY

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