For Town of Smithtown residents left in the dark by Hurricane Irene, news of how their local government would help them was hard to find.
Long Island Power Authority reported more than 30,000 Smithtown residents are without power after the storm. Supervisor Patrick Vecchio was one of them, and he blamed widespread power outages for the gap in communication between town officials and the public.
Multiple phone calls to the supervisor’s office and the Department of Public Safety made over weekend were not returned until Monday afternoon. Vecchio said Smithtown Town Hall and many town offices lost power during Hurricane Irene, resulting in a loss of phone lines and public communication.
Despite the silence, Vecchio said Town of Smithtown workers were on top of the storm as Highway department crews were dispersed across Smithtown to begin assessing the damage and removing fallen trees from roadways at 1 a.m. Sunday.
"The overall damage [to Smithtown] is that we are removing at least 500 trees and still counting at this point. LIPA estimated 50,000 customers in Smithtown lost power, and electricity has been restored to roughly half," Vecchio said.
Despite taking heavy damages, Smithtown was the only Suffolk County township not to declare a state of emergency – even though the Village of Nissequogue evacuated residents on Long Beach Road east of the marina.
What seemed like a lack of concern by the town was heavily criticized by Smithtown residents.
Patch reader Diana Marshall commented, "Don't you think it's better to be proactive rather than reactive Smithtown. Wake up!"
Meanwhile, reader Mark Marino raised concerns of his own.
"I would not be surprised if the failure to 'declare an emergency' impacts on the Town's ability to obtain disaster funds from [New York State] and the Feds," he said.
However, the supervisor said there was "no need" for him to announce state of emergency after New York State and Suffolk County declared one. But Mark Smith, spokesman for County Executive Steve Levy, said, "we cannot make a town declare a state of emergency, its up to them individually."
Vecchio told Patch Monday that "a supervisor has no power to declare state of emergency, they are superseded by county and governor." Though he conceded that New York State Executive Law Article 2-B allowed him to do so.
According to state executive law, an emergency declaration allows town leaders to declare such measures for their respective municipalities such as a curfew, evacuation zones, emergency shelters and opening and closing of roads to the public, among others.
"We don’t have a fire department or a police department. Our Parks Department and Highway Department were already standing by, any other department is standing by for emergency services," Vecchio said.
A state-affiliated source said Vecchio was correct, Suffolk County's town supervisors didn't need to declare a state of emergency.
"Once Suffolk County is in state of emergency, the town is superseded. It's true. If county does, town doesn’t have to," said the source.
Our source confirmed that the Town of Smithtown will be eligible to file for and receive both federal and state aid for Hurricane Irene when Suffolk County does.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy declared a state of emergency 8 a.m. on Aug. 25. Gov. Andrew Cuomo followed, declaring a state-wide emergency on Friday.
In fact, nine out of 10 towns in Suffolk County declared emergencies.
Both Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko declared a state of emergency before the hurricane, then surveyed the damage afterwards. Both Township’s websites were changed during the storm to a single page providing relevant emergency phone numbers and alerts to emergency evacuations and shelters.
By comparison, the Smithtown’s website provided links to the Suffolk County site and the National Weather service. There was no information posted on the Long Beach Road evacuation.
Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated Suffolk County did not declare a state of emergency. Joseph Williams, Suffolk County's Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services commissioner, said County Executive Steve Levy declared it 8 a.m. on Aug. 25.