Article in today's Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel:
Social media expected to play role during hurricane season
By Ken Kaye, Sun Sentinel
5:37 PM EDT, May 23, 2010
Social media are no longer just for gossiping.
When an earthquake left Haiti in ruins in January, relief organizations turned to Twitter to raise millions of dollars in donations. When an overflowing river flooded Nashville in early May, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter allowed survivors to appeal for help from rescuers.
In regard to the Gulf oil spill, Facebook and Twitter allowed environmentalists to vent, ecologists to find oil-soaked animals and residents to follow the progression of the spill.
With hurricane season starting June 1, everyone from emergency managers to hurricane forecasters to traditional media plan to take advantage of Twitter, Facebook and the like to increase their reach.
Twitter, a service that allows users to send and receive brief messages, has more than 100 million followers worldwide. Facebook, which allows people to post photos, videos and profiles, has almost 500 million followers.
"We know how important it is to communicate with our customers during a storm situation," said Sarah Marmion, spokeswoman for Florida Power and Light Co., which is on Twitter and Facebook.
Before a storm hits, the Internet-driven sites will allow people to monitor a tropical system's progress, receive evacuation orders and learn which shelters are open. Unlike television or an Internet homepage, however, the messages are short and usually direct viewers to a link for more information.
After a storm, the social media will be used to alert the public about open stores and gas stations, warn which roads are clogged and estimate how long power might be out. This will be done by official agencies and the users themselves.
Most people will continue to rely on traditional news sources, including television, newspapers, radio and Internet weather sites to monitor storms. But those sources won't necessarily reach those on the go — or younger people who use only social media sites.
"Social media is a very important tool for getting our message to customers who might not otherwise look for our information," said Christopher Juckins, a meteorologist and technology programmer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County.
The center plans to create a Facebook page by the end of June and, for those who sign up, e-mail advisories. But it is steering clear of Twitter because the 140-character limit is not enough space to provide enough information.
Broward County emergency management plans to increasingly use Twitter — in addition to television/radio/Internet and print media — to provide storm progress reports, notify residents when shelters are opening and what areas need to evacuate.
It would be available on cell phones even if power shuts down and would allow the hearing impaired to receive information, said Judy Sarver, the county's spokeswoman.
"We need to take advantage of every tool we have to reach the public with these safety messages," she said. "We have so much information that we need to get out when a storm is coming."
Mary Blakeney, operations manager for Palm Beach County emergency management, said while the county has a Twitter site, it will rely more on other media to relay important information.
The Twitter site has less than 300 followers, but when a storm threatens, the county needs to reach tens of thousands of coastal residents, said Blakeney.
"It's really a new arena that a lot of people are starting to utilize," she said.
The region's major newspapers, including the Sun Sentinel, The Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post, all send text messages to subscribers, providing updates on cell phones whenever storms threaten.
The Sun Sentinel plans to also use social media to extend its coverage of damage and other developments, said Christopher Tiedje, the newspaper's social media coordinator.
"Basically, we'll be asking our social media audience for updates from their areas," he said. "Do they have photos of damage, is there ice at the corner store, do you still have power, can you get phone service? That kind of thing."
Who uses Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites? Just about everyone, although most are younger than age 35.
"Basically it's normal, everyday people," said Alex de Carvalho, an adjunct professor with the University of Miami School of Communications.
He said social media have helped people find friends and relatives after several high-profile disasters, such as the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He also said they have provided an enormous reservoir for relief organizations.
"What happens, after a disaster, people all over the nation, even the world, gather online to help those in need," he said. "The same thing would happen if we ever get hit by a hurricane; people across the nation and the world would start to help us here."
Bryan Norcross, former WFOR-Ch. 4 meteorologist, said while all forms of communication are good during an emergency, he thinks television, radio, newspapers and other forums allow more in-depth explanations.
"People need more information before they pack up and leave home," he said. "They want to know why it's necessary to evacuate and where they can go."
Norcross, president of America's Emergency Network, an emergency communications firm in Miami, said that people also want to hear from "authority figures they trust."
"Human-to-human communication will always be critical in any kind of emergency or disaster situation," he said.
Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of digital media at Columbia University in New York, said social media eventually will become a major tool for alerting people during emergencies.
"I tell people this is where radio was in 1912, television was in 1950 and where the Internet was in 1996," he said. "That means we have a long way to go in terms of learning potential pitfalls and problems."
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Ken Kaye can be reached at kkaye@SunSentinel.com or 954-572-2085.
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