Hurricane center cautiously tests social media waters

Change is in the air at the National Hurricane Center. The 2011 hurricane season blew in June 1 with the usual flurry of notifications to the public. But this year, the center has added Facebook and Twitter to the mix for the first time.

The center’s Facebook page answers general questions, offers quizzes and directs users to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official forecasts. The center’s Atlantic Ocean Twitter feed is a more modest undertaking, simply publishing links to the latest official forecasts.

The social outreach is off to a good start: As of June 24, the center’s Facebook page had 22,000 fans and its Atlantic Ocean Twitter feed had nearly 8,600 followers.

Still, don't look for any dramatic changes in how the center does business.

“Social media is another tool in the toolbox,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the center. “It will not replace anything else we do.”

Of course, the real test will occur when a hurricane approaches. Recent surveys suggest that agencies will face many challenges in meeting the public’s expectations for the use of social media and mobile devices before, during and after a crisis.

In August 2010, the American Red Cross published a survey of 1,058 people ages 18 and older, which showed social media increasingly is seen as a important source of information. The survey found:

  • 18 percent of respondents said they would turn to social media if calls to 911 were unsuccessful.
  • 69 percent said emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their Web sites and social media outlets so they can respond promptly to requests for help posted there.
  • 74 percent said they would expect help to arrive within an hour of posting a request on a social media site.
  • 52 percent said they would send a text message to an agency on behalf of someone they knew who needed help.

A Sachs/Mason-Dixon poll in June found that 72 percent of Americans belong to Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, and 45 percent would use those sites to communicate with friends and loved ones in the event of a disaster.

So what would happen if someone posted a message on the hurricane center’s Facebook Wall that he or she was stranded in a flooded home after a severe hurricane and needed immediate rescue? Feltgen said those requests should be directed to local fire, police and emergency medical agencies.

“It comes down to common sense,” he said. “If you are on a rooftop, you call 911.”

For the same reason, the center’s Atlantic Ocean Twitter feed is not designed to respond to messages from the public, he added.

Feltgen acknowledged that the hurricane center could be facing some “what if” situations in its first year of using social media. “We are on new turf here,” he said.

An evolving tool

Many emergency response agencies are already confronting those issues. Response to a severe hurricane, as we saw with Katrina and Rita, would likely involve many state and local agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and possibly the military, Coast Guard and others. FEMA and many state and local agencies are using social media and mobile devices to communicate with the public to some degree.

And we have seen social media and mobile devices play a vital role in emergency management — for instance, after last year’s massive earthquake in Haiti, when people tweeted or texted information about individuals trapped in the rubble, and some survivors sent messages about their location to facilitate their own rescue.

In addition to the National Hurricane Center’s efforts, a number of Facebook and Twitter accounts transmit official forecasts on earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and tsunamis. But some might be more effective than others. CrisisCommons, a group that seeks to advance the role of social media in responding to disasters, recently warned in its blog that Twitter has limitations as a tool for sharing tornado warnings, for reasons that include the speed and unpredictability of tornadoes and the challenge of tweeting “take shelter” alerts with precise information on the areas affected.

“Emergency services is an area where information is evolving,” Gwynne Kostin, director of mobile at the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, told me. “We are in the very early stages.”

So for the 2011 hurricane season, be prepared to see some surprises in social media’s role — with perhaps more to come in years ahead.

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