The Promise and Perils of Modern Disaster Communications

During and after Sandy, transportation workers had the responsibility of informing riders of changing conditions and schedules. Ray Rivera compares the different communication approaches of New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road.
December 19, 2012, 6am PST | Jessica Hsu
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The Long Island Rail Road updated its Facebook page regularly from pre-storm preparations to coverage of the high winds and surge waters during the storm to helpful updates like where to seek federal assistance afterwards. It used photographs and videos to "convey a narrative of shared pain, of workers fighting back against unprecedented damage that was beyond their control," says Rivera. "Passengers frequently and vociferously critical of the railroad suddenly sympathized and even praised communication efforts that, if not perfect, were viewed as improved." The LIRR also consistently answered passengers' questions, posted updates on the cleanup effort, and sent out e-mail alerts to riders who signed up for them.

"New Jersey Transit's communications, on the other hand, became for many commuters yet another source of misery," notes Rivera. New Jersey Transit also continually updated its Facebook page, but the agency answered questions intermittently and did not post photographs until after Sandy hit. "I have asked nicely several times about what's going on with the 317 bus," fumed rider Mary Scandell on the Facebook page. Other complaints from customers included unreliable updates and inaccurate schedules. However, NJT has to deal with not only rail, but also bus, customers. "I thought N.J.T. did the best that they could, given the circumstances," said Ian Meagher, a former NJT bus driver.

Both the LIRR and NJT received negative feedback from riders, but most complaints of LIRR were related to overcrowding once service began, whereas NJT was criticized for poor communication with passengers. "If there is one lesson transit officials have learned from Hurricane Sandy, it is that in the Internet era, keeping riders up to date is just as important as tracks and rolling stock," says Rivera. "Blow it, and they will let you know."

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Published on Friday, December 14, 2012 in The New York Times
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