Who is Reaching Out to You Before Disaster Strikes?

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record. It produced 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes. How would today's personal-use technology have helped back then?

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record. It produced 28 named storms and 15 hurricanes. How would today’s personal technology have helped back then?

The Tampa Tribune published an article Sunday – the first day of Atlantic hurricane season – highlighting how federal and local response and recovery agencies have taken to social media in the last few years to communicate hazards to the public.

The article’s author, Keith Morelli, notes:

“Social media has quietly taken over as the main information dissemination system used by the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and local emergency management offices in the event of catastrophes.

Morelli goes on to cite Kelli Burns, a social media expert and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Mass Communications saying when it comes to preparing for hurricanes and other disasters,

“People should definitely look at apps … they should go ahead and download the apps from FEMA and the National Weather Service so that they have one-click access to that information.”

An advantage to localized apps? You can connect with the specific entities that will give you the best info for your region.

An advantage to localized apps? You can connect with the specific entities that will give you the best info for your region.

Social media is a tested way to receive and transmit information in an emergency. In the preparedness realm, however, apps such as FEMA’s are indispensable – and are catching up to social media as powerful transmitters before, during and after disasters. Since all crises are local, though, how are the states doing in the disaster app game?

Since it’s now hurricane season, I looked toward state (and some county and city) offices of emergency management to research how they’re using apps or alert registries. I looked at those states which typically brace for hurricane season every summer – those along the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico shorelines. After all, governors declare states of emergency to get resources moving, and localities are responsible for citizen safety – makes sense that they be in the disaster app game.

I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia (they’re so fancy!), and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management is in league with a handful of other state agencies that utilize a great social media presence, paired with well-designed preparedness apps. I didn’t necessarily grade all the states I looked at but, along with Virginia, here’s who is going the extra mile (north to south, then around to the Gulf):

The rest:

Louisiana points citizens to two preparedness apps, but they don’t make the “going the extra mile” list because these apps are not free, like all those on the list above. Disappointing, coming from a state that’s faced as much disaster as anyone in the last decade, with Hurricane Katrina in ’05 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in ’10.

Florida also isn’t on the list (another surprise), because I couldn’t find an emergency app from the state. A few counties have them, such as the Lee County evacuation app and the Highlands County Emergency and Informational Application.

Who’s left? A handful of states in hurricane-impact-prone areas offer citizens voluntary programs that will give them text or SMS alerts to their mobile devices: Massachusetts, New Jersey gets points for a special needs registry for alerts, Delaware and Pennsylvania (eh, not coastal – but they can feel the impacts because of the Delaware Bay). Rhode Island also has a special needs registry, which first responders will use when disaster strikes – but I couldn’t find any apps or alert registries for the state. The only thing I could find for South Carolina was a list of recommendations for apps. Do they have text/SMS alerts? Couldn’t find a sign-up site. New Orleans also has a mobile device alert registry.

Most states along the eastern and southern coastline do point citizens to FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, which can be an alternative to local- or state-specific apps and alert registries. This service is not available everywhere, however.

The preparedness and resiliency apps offered by the “going the extra mile” states (and cities) provide an example of how to do something simple to save lives — conduct outreach to citizens ahead of time to prompt them to act (i.e., be ready to endure). What’s missing from this list? Unless they’re well-hidden, I’m surprised that Maine, Boston, the state of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida and Puerto Rico are so behind the curve. New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana, could do a lot more, considering their recent past.

In addition to region-specific apps, I also point you to a list of apps I made recently, which cover many hazards and types of disasters to a high degree of detail, and give users tools to respond and remain resilient. If you’re still gearing up for hurricane season (and are a professional communicator), check out these tips.

Update 01 July 2014: I neglected to include the American Red Cross hurricane preparedness app in the original posting of this piece. Their app offers location-based services and can aid people in preparing for and weathering a storm, as well as letting friends and family know they’re safe or finding local shelters, if the need arises.

Image by the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center. Public domain. Original image at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/2005atlan.shtml The image has not been altered from the original.

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