Hurricane emergency message wrongly airs evacuation order in New York

Federal officials in New York are investigating an emergency alert system after a mistakenly truncated message about storm system Hermine wrongly advised TV watchers on Long Island of an ordered evacuation, authorities said Sunday.

The Saturday night confusion started after Suffolk County emergency officials used an aspect of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's alert system for the first time since gaining access to it after Superstorm Sandy. They had hoped to advise viewers that a voluntary evacuation had been ordered for Fire Island, a thin strip of land off of Long Island's southern shore and a popular summertime destination.

Instead, somehow only the first part of the message — that an evacuation order had been issued — was broadcast to viewers. That the order was voluntary and only applied to those on Fire Island didn't make it onto TV screens.

"It caused obvious and expected questioning," said Gregory Miniutti, chief of communication for Suffolk County's Department of Fire Rescue.

Lauren Lefebvre, a spokeswoman for the FEMA region that covers New York, said officials are investigating what caused the message to be shortened.

It wasn't immediately clear how many TV viewers saw the wrong alert. Nearly 3 million people live on Long Island, with 1.5 million people in Suffolk County and another roughly 1.3 in Nassau County, census records show.

After county officials realized the misleading alert had been sent to the public around 7:30 p.m. Saturday from FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, a clarifying alert was subsequently issued, Miniutti said.

Emergency officials gained access to the FEMA broadcast system after 2012, when Superstorm Sandy caused major devastation, flooding and even deaths across Long Island and throughout New York and New Jersey.

Suffolk County normally uses another system that sends out emergency messages and mass notifications through text messages or reverse 911 calls to landlines, Miniutti said. But on Saturday evening officials decided to use the FEMA broadcast system because most of the people on Fire Island are tourists and visitors who don't have landlines or sign up for emergency alerts on their phones, he said.