For Hurricane Irma Information, Officials Post on Social Media

By Douglas MacMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

The first responders and government officials working to help Florida residents survive Hurricane Irma are relying on social media to communicate and coordinate their efforts, a sign of tech's growing importance in emergencies.

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Florida's tourism office, a public-private partnership that is partly funded by the state, sent targeted messages to 281,000 people on Facebook believed to be visiting the state, advising them to take precautions. Florida Gov. Rick Scott worked with Alphabet Inc.'s Google to ensure that road closures in the state were quickly reflected on Google Maps.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency within the U.S. Commerce Department, posted frequent forecast updates on Twitter as the potential risks of the storm shifted over the past few days, said Doug Hilderbrand, a meteorologist in NOAA's office of communications.

"It is essential that people have multiple ways to get information" on important weather updates, Mr. Hilderbrand said. NOAA and its affiliates posted dozens of updates to Twitter over the weekend to warn residents of the shifting trajectory of one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes on record. In the past, NOAA relied more on delivering advisories and forecasts to media organizations. The agency still maintains its 24 hour NOAA Weather Radio, a service it launched nationwide in the 1970s.

Users of social media have for years turned to the platforms for real-time discussion around natural disasters. During Hurricane Harvey in Texas last month, for instance, users posted calls for help on social media and in some cases shared their addresses. First responders urged victims to call phone lines for disaster response, rather than use social media. Floridians have swarmed to GasBuddy, an app that crowdsources prices at the pump, to figure out where fuel was still available.

Now, government agencies are embracing Twitter and other services, because of their broad appeal and ability to disseminate information much faster than the emergency-response protocols they have relied upon for decades.

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Social media can in some cases be more reliable than traditional communication channels like phone lines, said Dr. Seungwon Yang, an assistant professor in Louisiana State University's School of Library and Information Science, who has researched the use of social media by emergency responders.

"Most people use 911 or call a police department," Dr. Yang said. "But there will be cases when this infrastructure is destroyed, so the only way to contact the outside world within a flooded house is social media."

Some local officials in Florida turned to new tech tools to help them get different messages to various groups of residents who might be affected. Seminole County, just north of Orlando, worked with the neighborhood social-media site Nextdoor to create a map of every residence inside one of its seven towns and every residence in a broader "unincorporated" area.

This digital map allowed Seminole County officials to send a notice only to residents in the unincorporated area, who could be affected by delayed trash services in the days following the storm.

"The maps we load into Nextdoor allow us to lessen confusion, specifically when a message is only applicable to part of the County," said Ashley Moore, community relations officer for Seminole County.

Florida became the latest place Facebook activated its safety-check tool, which allows users in emergencies to mark themselves as safe on their profiles and share other information. The service has been used for more than 600 events over the past two years, the company said in June.

Airbnb Inc. encouraged hosts in Northern Florida and Georgia to make rooms on its site available for free to hurricane evacuees. Uber Technologies Inc. provided Floridians free rides to shelters.

A few smaller sites are hoping to become closer partners to state and federal officials in the future. CrowdSource Rescue is an online platform that connects people who need rescuing and those with resources like boats who are able to help. It was created last month by Matthew Marchetti, a Houston-based data engineer who used his data skills to put together a map initially meant for family and friends affected by Hurricane Harvey. When someone is rescued, a ticket is generated so that volunteers knew to move on to the next house.

CrowdSource Rescue helped facilitate over 7,000 rescues in Houston and, as Irma made landfall on the Florida mainland on Sunday evening, was already beginning to help out Florida residents in need, Mr. Marchetti said.

Volunteers on the site include hundreds of certified firefighters, police and EMT specialists from all over the country, who could potentially help out the strained resources of local emergency responders. But Mr. Marchetti said authorities in Texas and Florida have declined his attempts to work together in an official capacity.

"We don't want to take away from the 911 operations, we just want to supplement them," Mr. Marchetti said.

Zello, a walkie-talkie app for smartphones that was used by an army of volunteers to coordinate relief efforts in Houston, also wants to team up with the authorities. Police officers already use the smartphone app because it is secure and works in places with faint cell coverage, said Bill Moore, the chief executive of Austin, Tex.-based Zello Inc.

But it could be a more useful service if its discussions were moderated by more trained emergency responders, Mr. Moore said. "This doesn't carry the force of law," he said.

Shibani Mahtani contributed to this article.

Write to Douglas MacMillan at douglas.macmillan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 11, 2017 13:22 ET (17:22 GMT)