A session of the spring 2012 computer course at Phoenicia Elementary School. (photo by Violet Snow)

An elderly Shandaken resident drove up to the town hall a few days after Hurricane Sandy and told town clerk Joyce Grant that the food in his refrigerator had spoiled due to the power outage. “I said, ‘We’ve been giving out dry ice for two days!’” exclaimed Grant, “and he said, ‘No one told me.’ I find that sad.”

Since she took office in January of this year, Grant has been trying to bring the town’s public information systems into the 21st century, installing wireless Internet — free to the public — at the town hall and disseminating official news through Facebook as well as on the town website. Now she’s determined to find the most effective way to connect to residents during and after the increasing number of natural disasters that have been wreaking havoc with local power utilities.

Ironically, the Shandaken gentleman had a functioning phone and could have called the town hall or asked his daughter in Kingston to check the town website, which reported when dry ice would be available at the fire houses.

“We made it our goal here in the town clerk’s office to make sure every resident knows the protocol for dealing with extended power outages and how to get information in town,” states Grant, “even when the electric goes out, or their Time Warner phone doesn’t work, or they don’t have Internet access. There’s no local newspaper, and many people don’t have cell service.”

Some residents have their home phone service through Time-Warner Cable, which won’t function when power or cable service are down. Verizon service, which is slightly more expensive, enables subscribers to use their plug-in phones even without electricity, as long as the phone lines remain functional, as they did in both Sandy and Irene.

A flyer will go out with the forthcoming tax bills, listing details on where to get information and assistance during a power outage. The town hall has a generator and is available to the public for internet access, through its wireless network or on a computer set up for public use during outages. The wireless network works both in the building and in the parking lot.

Verizon cell phone service is available via the town hall’s Verizon network extender. AT&T cell phones (including TracFones and other companies that lease from AT&T) work along the Route 28 corridor, starting a few miles west of Phoenicia and continuing westward.

The town hall also offers outlets for charging cell phones and computers, and people without cell phones can use one of their landlines.

During emergencies, notices and updates will be posted at all town post offices and firehouses. After Hurricane Sandy, for instance, flyers at those locations indicated when dry ice and drinking water would be delivered to specific firehouses for pickup by residents still without power.

In January, a survey will go out to all town residents, asking what communication resources they’re using, whether they’re high-risk, and if they’d like to volunteer to check on neighbors during emergencies. “We want to set up buddy systems in the hollows,” says Grant.

One third not online

There’s a problem with making information easily available over the Internet — one-third of Shandaken’s population is not online. The town began to address that issue this spring by offering, in collaboration with the Phoenicia Rotary and the Onteora Central School District, a free series of 12 weekly computer classes that brought out 60 students, including many senior citizens who had never touched a mouse before. A free brush-up workshop is scheduled for 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Thursday, November 15 at the Phoenicia Elementary School, and 73-year-old Marge Lloyd is hoping to attend.

“I used a computer at work, where you just plug in, and you’re there,” says Lloyd, a Pine Hill resident who came to the spring classes. “It’s different when you’re at home, and the whole world is out there. I had to find out how to get into the system, what to enter. There are so many things within the Town of Shandaken that I didn’t know was on there.”

Students of many different ages, from youth to elders with walkers, gathered at the Phoenicia School library, which has 25 computers. Some participants brought laptops. Instructors demonstrated procedures on a large touchscreen that projected screenshots in the front of the room.

“We set up email addresses for them,” notes Grant. “Seniors can email with a grandchild. We brought in a digital camera and showed them how to download pictures and find the files. Someone from a bank came and showed them how to do banking online. By the end of the course, they were making spreadsheets.”

“We had excellent teachers,” enthuses 89-year-old Phoenicia resident Doris Gilbert. “I learned how to print things, how to set up a program of your expenses for the month — just everything. I really enjoyed it.”

Lloyd says she realizes now that “where you get your information is the computer.”

This month’s class is not for beginners, Grant cautions, but for intermediate users who want to tweak their skills. Another course for novices is planned for next spring.++

Computer users who already have basic skills may pre-register to attend the free computer workshop at Phoenicia Elementary School on Thursday, November 15, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., sponsored by the Town of Shandaken, Phoenicia Rotary, and the Onteora Central School District. Sign up by calling town clerk Joyce Grant at 845-688-5004. Beginners may request to be notified of future classes, scheduled for spring of 2013.